Earth Day

22 04 2009

Happy Earth Day!

If you google Earth Day you’ll find an eponymous collection of historical and propaganda-esque pages — both positive and negative.  It’s almost annoying how a non-state holiday commemorating an idea instead of an event can cause controversy .  Well, I have a couple of thoughts on this myself, of course…

To begin, I’ve met Senator Nelson, celebrated founder of Earth Day.  At least the one celebrated here in America.  He was warm and well-educated.  I got to ask him what he felt was the most pressing issue facing global ecology today, and his answer was very insightful.

I met him at Governor’s School in 1989 when he came as an invited speaker.  He talked for over an hour with no slides or video, just him and a podium.  Fascinating talk about the history of Earth Day and his purpose for presenting the bill to Congress.  The environment was as big of an issue then as it is now, but focused more on clean air than temperatures.  Here’s how the conversation went:  (if this seems really stiff and rehearsed, it’s because it was!  heh.)

Me:  What can I do as just some teenager to help the global crisis?

Nelson:  Try to keep your neighborhood clean and be wary of pollution from local industries.

[right, you see the blow-off generic response he did there?]

Me:  What I mean is, there’s a lot of talk about the destruction of tropical rain forests.  I want to help fight this problem.  Is there some way I can take part?

Nelson:  There’s a lot of press on what’s happening in Brazil, yet no one seems to notice that we’re wiping out the old-growth forests up in Washington State.  If the citizens there would start paying attention to what’s happening around them, that destruction might be deterred.  What sort of stuff is happening around here that should be stopped?  Do you know?  Why would you, as a teenager, ever care more about Brazil than your own backyard?

At that time I felt he was avoiding the question.  I wanted an answer to the question I asked, but what I got was a re-direction and an accusation. Because I felt jilted, I remembered his words and dwelled on them for a long time.

What I remember most about Senator Nelson was his domineering size.  He was somewhat tall and moderately built, but his hands were huge!  When I shook his hand I could swear that he could have wrapped it around mine three times!  Guess that makes him a born politician.

Now that I’m older and have become a realist (instead of a youthful dreamer), I understand that what he said has a lot of merit, if not an absolute truth.  I’m still not sure what to do about the global condition, but I *do* try to pick up bits of paper and other trash when I see it wherever I go.  As long as we can leave this world a little better than we found it, then we’ve done our part.

So I’m really glad I got a chance to meet him, and I do look forward to Earth Day every year.  If each one of us just did a little bit toward helping our environment then we wouldn’t have the major problems that require us to spend countless millions of dollars to fix.  The definition of “little bit” may be different to a preschooler from a corporate director, but the decisions we make each day do make us who we are.  And those decisions aren’t just for you — they’re for all of us.

Chandra’s Hand of God

18 04 2009

There’s a new picture released by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory team.  Though it’s just a mixture of gas and dust near a spinning pulsar, the view invokes more than just feelings of scientific curiosity.


Making pictures out of nature’s randomness is just silly, but I can’t help it!  That’s just too cool!

Okay, so on to the more amazing part:  The Science!

This image is taken in the X-Ray range and then converted to visible colors so we can see what’s going on.  Blue represents the highest energy photons and red the lowest.  The hand-like nebula is in the foreground, but it appears as though the cocoon-like nebula in the background is being energized by the same star.

The glowing gas is illuminated by pulsar PSR B1509-58 (or B1509 for short), which is a tightly compacted neutron star only 12 miles in diameter spinning at a rate of 7 times per second!  The spinning creates — or at least influences — a magnetic field upwards of 15 t-t-trillion times stronger than Earth’s.  You can see a bright bubble surrounding the star where its winds are quickly decelerated by the expanding nebula.  This is very similar to the Crab Nebula, but there are some differences.


Click for a 2-frame animated .gif of the expansion of the Crab over the last 30 years.

The supernova event that created the Crab was witnessed in 1054.  Today it is 10 light-years (ly) across.  Since we can measure the absolute speed of the expanding gas, and we know its angular size, we can determine quite accurately its distance from us  — 7000 ly away.

On the other hand (heh, I made a funny),  the B1509 nebula is 150 ly across and is only 1700 years old.  Not even twice as old and 15 times bigger?  The gas flies out of spinning pulsars at incredible speeds (half the speed of light for the pulsar in the Crab) and then slows down as it gets farther away.  For this nebula to have grown as large as it is in such a short amount of time would suggest to me that the star must be flinging material at nearly the speed of light!  Which might be possible, considering that it has one of the most powerful magnetic fields in the galaxy.  It is these very fast moving particles slamming into the slower moving gas cloud that creates the energetic X-Rays that emminate from the nebula.


This is the pulsar in the center of the Crab Nebula. It spins at a rate of 30 times each second.

We haven’t been able to image B1509 in as fine of detail as the Crab because it’s 2.5 times farther away, but I’m pretty sure it resembles the pulsars we’ve imaged that are much closer.

So yeah, now I’m tempted to make some innane comment about how this proves God is left-handed just like me, but since when did I need photographic proof of that?  You know we’re made from left-handed molecules, right?  And for the record, just who came up with all those right-hand rules in physics?  It’s unnatural I tell you!

Spacey stuff, near and far

2 04 2009

A couple of space-type articles have caught my eye recently and I’d like to share.  It’s been a while since I’ve written a post about space or astronomy, and it feels odd to have gone so long without one.  So, here are a couple of things quite unoriginal yet very neat and I’ll get out an original astro-related post soon.

First up, Mars.  Spirit and Opportunity were two probes designed to give us some really good science for 3 months back in 2004.  Now, five years later, they’re still making their way around the red planet sending data back to Earth.  Neither is in the best shape, but the fact that they’re still going shows the engineers who built them did a real bang-up job.

Of the tons of pictures they’ve sent back, this one’s my favorite: [click to embiggen]


Almost makes you imagine some John Williams playing in the background, doesn’t it?

The other awesome thing I’ve found is this picture from APOD.

This is the best multi-wave image of Tycho’s Supernova yet.  If you go here you’ll find all sorts of science-y details that’ll make it all the more cooler.  But this is one image that looks unbelievable even without understanding what it is you’re looking at.  Go ahead and click on the pic and just look around it for a moment.  Ahhhhhh….


Okay, so that image is in false color and is only representative of the spectrum outside the normal range of human vision.  But imagine, 400 years ago people across the  northern hemisphere saw this star grow from imperceptible to as bright as Jupiter overnight.  And then it got even brighter.  Over the next two weeks it was visible even in daylight.  The event so impressed Tycho Brahe that he devoted the rest of his life to studying astronomy.

This was a Type Ia supernova.  That means there were actually two stars very close together, one drawing material from the other.  When the cannibal star had absorbed too much material, it was unable to keep its mass from collapsing, and the star self-destructed. The blast was so strong that in just the last 400 years the shell has expanded to 24 light-years across!


Though the original stellar explosion was incredibly bright, the resulting nebula is so dim it wasn’t observed by even the largest telescopes until the 1960s.   And the stellar remnant is still unidentified.  Though at least one research group now believes that the very faint star in the center may be the star from which the supernova drew it’s material.

I would recommend reading the first couple of paragraphs of Nasa’s view of this event.  It’s a pretty good read.

Hope you enjoyed these two items that caught my eye.  I promise to get you lots more stuff soon.