Planetariums in Politics

20 09 2008

So if you’ve kept up with this blog, you know I’ve so far avoided much political posturing.  In fact, this is the only post I’ve ever used a “politics” category or tag.  That’s because I’ve seen too many popular blogs use politics as a means to attract readers.  This post is not to rile a bunch of “hooray for my side” sentiments, it’s simply to point to a political uh-oh that I care about.

Last week McCain was defending Palin’s pet projects and spending record. Then he criticized Obama for seeking large earmarks himself — almost $900 million, according to McCain’s sources.  “That’s nearly a million every day, every working day he’s been in Congress,” McCain said.  To me, this is just political noise like the rest of them, and I’m barely paying attention.

But then he says, “And when you look at some of the planetariums and other foolishness that he asked for, he shouldn’t be saying anything about Governor Palin.”

Now he has my attention.

It doesn’t take much digging to find out what McCain was alluring to. It’s right here in the official record, first item.  I’ve already heard from the folks at the Adler.  The request was valid.  And after visiting Adler this past summer with professionals from all over the Earth, I can assure you that real education is going on there and the American public should be proud we have it.  The Sky Theater of focus here could certainly use some updating, especially when you consider how much we’ve learned since it’s construction.

But McCain didn’t give the Adler as a specific example.  He said “planetariums”, as in all of them.  At what point did it seem like a good idea to call our nation’s most vast and ancient of educational institutions “foolishness”?  This comment, mostly ignored by the rest of the news media, has driven home a point about the Republican party of the last eight years that I can see being echoed in the one led by McCain — that education and science aren’t nearly as important as making sure the world knows we like fightin’!  I would even go so far as to call the addition of Palin to the ticket a sign of anti-science policy.  I’ve had it with firing scientific advisors who won’t forge documents, allowing oil companies to determine their own environmental impacts, and pushing for schools to compare students in a strictly numerical sense instead of allowing for qualitative assessments.  (I have a whole blog post in my mind about that last one, but I’ll hold off for now!)

I have no love for any candidate.  I’m not supporting any individual or party.  But I am ready for whoever is willing to let teachers run their classrooms again, give approving nods to real scientists and experts, and stop this blasted war.  Is that too much to ask?

Oh, and could they sound just a little smarter than Bush?  That’d be nice.


The space between

15 09 2008

“And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I
don’t mind. Why should I be frightened of dying?
There’s no reason for it, you’ve gotta go sometime.”

These words were used on the songThe Great Gig In The Sky by Pink Floyd.  Richard Wright, the composer/pianist on that peice died today from cancer.

He had this method of writing music that defined the band for me.  He called it “the spaces between the notes.”  If you listen closely, your mind will fill in those spaces and you can hear music that was never played between the beautiful notes he laid down on tape.  It’s an amazing relationship between the artist and the listener.  To be able to hear something that no one else can.  Because you want it to be there.

When someone dies, what do you think fills the space?  Whatever it is, it can sometimes be louder than all that was said.

So to my Uncle Bill, who passed away last week, I’d like to say that there’s another silence far removed from the limelight of Time magazine and CNN.  His silence.

I shouldn’t write about death.  It’s happens all too often as it is.  Just some random thoughts of mine as the beautiful post-hurricane weather settles in and the world appears a little greener.

What is a planetary alignment?

11 09 2008

So I got to thinking… planetary alignments seem to be misunderstood by a vast majority of the population.  It’s been a while since I wrote an actual original post about astronomy, so here’s some truth.

It is a common misconception that a planetary alignment is when three or more planets line up perfectly, either in line with the sun or not.  There are a few factors involved in calculating the extreme rarity of such an event, but the main one is the fact that planetary orbits around the sun aren’t exactly planar.  Here’s a diagram:

What you’re looking at is the view of the orbits edge-on.  You might not can tell from this image, but the only one truly edge-on is the Earth’s, because I set the view for that.  Everything else is in its proper place relative to an edge-on view of our path around the sun.  Kind of a mess, huh?  Let’s look a little closer…

Click on the image and get a better look.

Notice how the orbits of Jupiter and Venus aren’t even capable of lining up here.  You can also make out the orbits of the other visible planets and see the separations between them.  These orbits *do* line up in specific places, but those places are distinct points and it’s incredibly rare for those planets to actually line up three at a time.  In fact, right now I couldn’t tell you if that has ever happened since Man has walked the Earth.

To make this post current, here’s the way the sky looked in the west around sundown in October…

Seriously, click on the image and get a better look.

You’ll notice I had Starry Night put in some nice mountains in the foreground.  That’s to block the sun that is right behind the large peak.  :o)

Without any orbital references, these three planets look like they’re very close to converging.  They occupy a very small section of the sky and would, in fact, be considered in conjunction by the broad astronomical definition.  But if you look more closely at the paths they are following you see the truth:

This is the exact same graphic as the previous one with only the relevant stuff shown.  Notice that the orbits do cross each other and the possibility that two of them will line up from our perspective is actually just a matter of time, but all three do not line up at the same place from this vantage point.  Having alignments of more than two planets and the Earth is just not going to happen — it is statistically nil.  But there is a little more to this tale.

Scientists define ‘alignments’ and ‘conjunctions’ a little differently than everyday language.  We consider an alignment to be any time two or more planets get within 15 degrees of each other.  That’s a little more than the width of your fist at arm’s length.  This means that astronomers can talk about conjunctions all the time.  And that means they’re nothing special.  Now, if you can get 3 or more planets within that 15-degree space, it can look quite pretty.  And that’s pretty special.  Getting all five naked-eye planets within that region is really awesome.  And fairly rare.  It happened just a few years ago, but it won’t be happening again for many, many years.  (I quickly ran my planetarium software out for the next 50 years and didn’t see one happening.  I found a close one in 2060, but it looks like a real one might not be until 2080.  I’ll try to get an exact date and update this when I can.)

So what does this mean to you?  Hopefully it gives you pause before thinking there is something cosmically special about a couple of solar system bodies moving about their daily motions.  Though they are beautiful to witness, they have no influence over anything.  Your life can only be affected emotionally.  So that’s why I ridicule silly books like this.  They are feeding you lies and using fear to line their pockets.  Amazing what a little skepticism and independent thought can score for you.

To find out about the next planetary conjunction, I would recommend Astronomy magazine’s monthly feature, The Sky Show, written by my good friend, Martin Radcliffe.  You’ll have to buy the magazine or else a subscription to the website, but the information therein can’t be beat!

[Hmmmmm, maybe I need to do another astronomy post on how to identify a planet if you don’t know what you’re looking at.  Might be interesting, anyway.]

Layin’ The Smack Down!

10 09 2008
This cat knows how to get respect!

LHC Video Goodness

10 09 2008

Good news, everyone!  Switzerland’s evil plan to construct a gigantic world-blower-upper (cleverly named the innocuous Large Hadron Collider) has failed!  And according to the folks at National Geographic we should all be very thankful to be alive!  Morons.

This video, created by CERN employee Chris Mann, is absolutely jaw-dropping.  Well, it was to me anyway.  It’s just an animation of the role of the proton in the big picture of the overall experiment, but the information given is really well done.  There’s a definite ‘wow’ factor that everyone who watches will feel about 2/3 of the way through.  Enjoy!

Art vs. Boredom

10 09 2008

This is an image of a piece of ‘art’ created by Michel de Broin for an exhibit in Montreal.

I am not impressed.

Since I know nothing of art I cannot comment on what this is supposed to mean.  It really doesn’t ‘speak’ to me, like some folks who know art can identify with.

Since I know nothing of art I cannot see how this relates to anything other than a monument to someone’s boredom.  Ahhhh, now boredom — that’s something of which I know about!

This is what you can do with a fair bit of boredom:

This is a creation constructed by several two physics students a couple of years ago while I was out to lunch.

Difficulty factor?  Not having pre-ordered, perfectly matching, factory-direct, single-style chairs.  That’s right, try this with a room full of student-used, bent-legged, top-busted, school desks and then add to that some teacher-engineered, student-mutilated, multi-styled, various-sized, lab stools and get them to stay put long enough for an entire class of physics students to play bounce-and-catch with a sack full of golf balls through the mess for over an hour!!!  Now that’s boredom!

Or maybe art.  I dunno.

[A special thanks to Trey French for providing this photo and the memories.]

Asteroids Revenge!

6 09 2008

So my boys found this game online at, but it was created by the folks at My kids have no idea what the original Asteroids was, so they didn’t make the connection that this was Asteroids Revenge. Actually, this is Asteroids Revenge 3, which means I’m certainly very late to the punch on this one.  The jist is you play the asteroids! Before I realized this I turned to Miles and said, “You better shoot or you’re going to get smashed.”

He said, “I can’t shoot.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, rocks don’t get lasers.”

That’s when it hit me.  I found this concept so cool that I ran straight to the living room to tell my wife.  “Yeah, I noticed he was playing Asteroids.  Why?”  “Because he gets to be the asteroids!”  She found this almost as cool as I did.  heh.

Anyway, he now has one of the top posted scores on their website.  Enjoy!