Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Sound of Silence

While I enjoy a little silence now and then, like when I stand still in a snow covered field on a winter's night, I also enjoy the sound of snowshoes as they crunch crunch crunch their way around a frozen field.

I enjoy the silence as I stare through the eyepiece of a telescope and I enjoy the noise of barred owls calling and coyotes howling as I peer at the stars.

While I enjoy the soundtrack, silence can be thought of as the true sound of space. In the vacuum of space, sound waves cannot travel so silence rules the day.

That's why I was happy when the firefly class ship Serenity silently glided past Reaver ships in the movie Serenity. I'm a science geek at heart and I like my space scenes quiet.

All is not lost though for those who like sounds. We live in a universe of vibrations. More and more, little bits of information come across my desk that have to do with sounds in space. One of the reasons space can seem so cold and boring is that much of it is cold and boring. Sounds excite us.

So, in an effort to make space a little more exciting here are some sounds from space. This is a new field so the offerings are a little meager but keep in mind the first recordings on earth weren't real exciting either.

The first sounds from space I ever heard were pulsars. A pattern will become clear soon that all of these sounds are a bit of a tease. You can't really "hear" a pulsar. These are radio waves emitted by spinning stars. A computer turns them into sound for us. I heard sounds like these on TV shows about space as a child and thousands of people heard them in the movie Contact when Jody Foster's character thinks one might be an alien signal early on in the film. In fact, the one linked above sounds a bit like the one in the movie. She says it is J1741+2748 which isn't a real pulsar.

It was years until I heard another sound from space. It was the cassini spacecraft traveling through Saturn's rings. The accompanying animation gives some nice perspective. Millions of tiny particles hit the high gain antenna creating puffs of superheated plasma that the Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument recorded.

The Cassini spacecraft collected these bizarre radio waves near Jupiter. They sounds like birds. This is an example of a chorus sound caused by radiation belt electrons in a planet's upper atmosphere.

Cassini also recorded the sound of auroras at Saturn.

Check out these weird radio emissions the Galileo spacecraft gathered from Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede.

This Sound from the Dynamics Explorer Spacecraft that sounds a lot like a transmission from Reavers in the movie Serenity. (Keep in mind this is essentially a sound that the earth makes. Perhaps fitting.)

Here's the sound of the Voyageur 1 spacecraft hitting Jupiter's bowshock. I like the sound of this one. If you want an explaination look here. Keep in mind this is an audio representation of data. This one is cool though because the waves are technically in the audible range so this is closer to actual "sound."

Last two sounds. How about the Big Bang? Or did it sound like this? Technicaly this is the sound of the universe cooling just after the big bang.

The other day I stumbled upon the Planetary Society website and saw that they are attempting to send an actual audio recorder to mars. Now we're talking. Real sound! Unfortunately, they put the recorder on the polar lander which crashed. Now that would have been a sound to record!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Seasons Spinnig 'Round Again

I actually wrote this up last year but the beautiful thing about the Earth is that it keep on spinning. As Harry Chapin used to sing:

All my life's a circle;
Sunrise and sundown;
Moon rolls thru the nighttime;
Till the daybreak comes around.

All my life's a circle;
But I can't tell you why;
Season's spinning round again;
The years keep rollin' by.

Last year someone asked me an interesting question. "Does the amount of darkness at the solstice change from year to year at a given latitude?" As far as I can tell, it doesn't. At least not in a scientifically significant way.

What is interesting though is that I came upon an another phenomenon. In our hemisphere, we all know that on or around December 21st the winter solstice arrives and we have the smallest amount of daylight in the year. The sun appears to stand still thus, "sol-stice." On this date the sun ceases to creep around the horizon and begins moving the other way.

Most people assume this means this is the day of the latest sunrise and earliest sunset. Here's the catch though, the earliest sunset is not on the solstice and neither is the latest sunrise! The date of the earliest sunset is actually December 9th (at least at my latitude) while the date of the latest sunrise is something like January 5th. The solstice falls in between and it is neither the day with the latest sunrise nor the earliest sun set.

It is, however, the day with the least total amount of light and the most darkness. These "days of darkness" between earliest sunset and latest sunrise change based on latitude. Here in Minnesota that means that we officially entered the days of darkness Wednesday, December 8th at sunset. The were then 12 days of darkness until the solstice which was day 13.

So, the good news is that the sun is now setting later and later starting today giving us more evening light. (Though technically we're talking a matter of seconds here so don't expect any visible change!) The bad news is that the sun will keep on rising later, giving us more morning darkness, until around January 4th!

You can dissect the nuts and bolts of why this phenomenon by reading this article by the astronomical applications department of the US naval observatory.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I like Science

I like science. I always have. I dug Don Herbert a.k.a. Mr. Wizard. While my brother's childhood birthday gifts consisted of books on greek mythology I was always delighted to receive books such as, How things Work, Why Clocks Run Clockwise, and Mr. Wizard's Supermarket Science.

These two realms, mythology and science are both ontological and epistemological in nature. They seek to discover or reveal both the nature of existence and the nature of how we know what we know. Humans are fascinated with these questions.

Both science and religion/mythology seek to help us understand. Some people chose to have both science and religion in their lives, while other people, like me, find them incompatible. If people want to believe in something fundamentally unverifiable, they have every right to do so. This is what faith is all about.

What frightens me is that religion, specifically Christianity in America, is having a crisis of faith. The consequence of this crisis of faith is lashing out at science. When science brings forth good evidence that contradicts what a religion has taught, the religious should, in my humble opinion, take one of two courses of action.

1. They can adapt their beliefs to fit in with the new understanding. or
2. They can rely on faith and remain unchanged in their beliefs.

When it became clear that the Earth went around the Sun (not the other way around,) religious people realized that they needed to change their view. This really didn't hurt their core religious beliefs since there is no chapter in the Bible that says, "I am your Lord God, I made the Earth go around the Sun." In fact, the realization that the Earth goes around the Sun strengthened many people religious convictions since, as it didn't require epicycles it made more sense and is, in many ways more "perfect" than the Sun going around the Earth.

Option 2: Relying on Faith comes into play when we examine stories such as Jesus walking on water. This flies in the face of science but most Christians would simply say they believe the story as a matter of faith. Enough said. They don't need science to prove how he did it.

The problem is that there is an increasing number of religious people, and not just fundies and zealots anymore, who want a third option. When science challenges them they do not want to change their beliefs or simply rely on their faith, they want to change science. There have always been those who want this option but it is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of science in the first place. Just ask Giordano Bruno.

A strange email came my way though that gave me pause for several reasons. It referenced an article titled, "No NASA Millions for Irate Russian Astrologer."

Astrology, that kookie cousin to the real science Astronomy is a religion. Here is a case of a religion trying to stop science because of a conflict in belief. The astrologer claimed that NASA's Deep Impact mission, crashing a probe into a comet, was upsetting the balance of the universe. Okay, okay so it's probably just a case of a scam artist trying to make money but follow me here.

I find this reprehensible. The idea that a faith based belief system could even try to hold sway over science makes my skin crawl. Then again, science does not occur in a vacuum. Yes, it does in space but let's regress. Science is done by humans for the benefit of humans. As such, the values of humans must come into play. Science can allow us to do many things that we as humans find undesirable. I have argued against the destruction of the environment or the use of bioengeneering but are those just personal values getting in the way of the progress of science?


Values can be informed in two ways. One is belief and the other is science.

It is easy for people to assume that the environmental movement is based on the belief that things are better a certain way but this is not the case. Environmental education and environmental action are based on science.

I can, and should, use beliefs informed by science to question both the assumed knowledge of science and the practical application thereof. Religion, strictly speaking a belief system, will always be of use to question the application of science in a society dominated by people with religious beliefs. However, religion should not be used to challenge the basis of science.

The Russian astrologer is challenging the application of science not the basis of science and for that I'm relieved.

She's still a nut.

The funny thing is, there are Christians who look at her and think she's crazy for believing things we can can see and measure affect our lives but they think nothing of citing the will of an invisible god when some madman enters a church and kills people.

I'll end this huge post with a quote from Stephen F. Roberts.

"I contend we are both Atheists - I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours."


Friday, December 09, 2005

Great Ball of Fire

I fell in to a burning ball of fire . . .

Check out this video of a huge fireball over Western Australia. Sorry it is a .ram file. You'll need the Real Player to view it.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Jack's Promiscuous Sister

Jack Frost has a promiscuous sister. Hoar Frost. Okay, terrible joke but that time of year has arrived. Hoar frost appeared overnight and it was beautiful. It wasn't a total cover but pretty good. At work it was only the tree tops so no pretty pictures to post. Hoar means hairy, thus we end up with plants called Hoary Puccoon. Hoar frost is a hairy like covering that appears on trees, grasses, fences, and phone lines overnight. Think of it as the winter version of dew. Okay, I admit, the winter version of dew is rime ice but gimme a break.

Supersaturated air, i.e. more than 100% saturated with water, sublimates directly onto cold surfaces making beautiful crystaline structures. Later in the day the wind can blow hoar frost off the trees and make it look like it is snowing. The "snowflakes" in the photo above are actually "hoarflakes" I caught as they fell from the tops of the trees. The featherlike structure was amazing. The photo really doesn't do it justice since the camera is terrible at macro shots.


Monday, December 05, 2005

Remembering Autumn

I took this photo at work back in October. How I miss those fall colors. Winter grips the land and I either need to stop complaining or gear up and get out into it to enjoy the marvels of winter. Autumn is my favorite though.