Monday, October 8th, 2012

There’s an IQ test to get into the Hayden Planetarium but they don’t tell you about that when you buy your tickets.

The planetarium itself looks like a huge sphere on stilts inside a glass box that is the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Wow. I would give up a kidney to work in a place called the Rose Center for Earth and Space. I wouldn’t even necessarily have to do anything all that earthy or spacey, I just want to work in a place with a name as cool as that. Even if I were the janitor, I’d have business cards made up with my name followed by ROSE CENTER FOR EARTH AND SPACE because how awesome would that be? But My Darling B isn’t going to move to New York City because she loves her garden and I love that she has a garden so I’m probably never going to clean toilets at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. *sigh* Guess I’ll have to be content with cleaning toilets here at Our Humble O’Bode.

When we got to the Rose Center for Earth and Space (not going to shorten the name; deal with it), we found ourselves on a mezzanine that ran all the way around the bottom third of the planetarium sphere. To get into the planetarium, which is in the top half of the sphere, we had to ride an elevator from the exhibit floor beneath the sphere to a balcony on the floor above us. The only way to get to the elevator appeared to be by way of a corkscrewing ramp that coiled around the base of the sphere, and to get to that, it appeared that we had to enter a small movie theater in the bottom of the sphere where we would have to watch a four-minute video about the big bang. The IQ test is: Can that really be the only way to get to the planetarium? Because if it is, it seems a little convoluted. (Answer at the bottom of this post. Don’t skip ahead to cheat.)

Not that I didn’t want to watch a video about the big bang, but we bought tickets for the twelve-thirty showing of “Journey To The Stars,” the featured show at the planetarium, and we arrived shortly after noon. Our timing was a little tight. Also, the corkscrewing ramp was an exhibit about the big bang that I wanted to see. Seemed a little pointless to watch the video if we wouldn’t have enough time to walk through the exhibit, but we searched for, but couldn’t find, a stairway down to the bottom floor, so we gave up, ducked into the little movie theater, watched the video about the big bang, then rushed down the ramp without looking at any of the exhibits, figuring that we could come back later to look them over.

The planetarium show was all about stars and how they’re the source of practically all the elements in the universe, and the sun is the source of all power for all living things on earth. Great show, outstandingly illustrated, excellently narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, although I have one teensy-tiny little niggle, the smallest of bones to pick with the writing, which missed a huge opportunity, it seemed to me, to explain what’s going on when new elements are formed in stars. It bugs me that shows like this one dumb the science down so far that it sounds as if the formation of elements in stars is almost entirely accidental.

Here’s what I mean: When I asked B later to tell me how fusion took place in the sun and why, she said, “Well, they made it sound like all those atoms just floated around until they bumped into one another.” She’s not far off at all: That’s exactly how they explained it, if you can call that an explanation. Why they bumped into each other in the interior of the sun, instead of doing it somewhere else, was not explained. A simpler and, if I may say so, a better explanation would be that fusion takes place in the sun because a star is a place where there is so much hydrogen piled up in one place that it gets crushed under its own weight. When you crush atoms against one another, they fuse together. It’s as easy to explain as that, and yet most science films make it sound like an atomic dance party where hydrogen atoms gather for no other reason than to bump into each other.

After the show, we stepped out of the planetarium to find ourselves right back on the same mezzanine we started from when we came in. We still hadn’t worked out the secret of how to get to the bottom (hint: there’s a stairwell at the far end of the Rose Center for Earth and Space that we overlooked until we were about to leave) and we wanted to go back and see the big bang exhibit and several others on the floor below the planetarium, but we really didn’t want to watch the introductory film again. My Darling B took the lead on this one: As we entered the movie theater, she lead me toward the back and parked herself in front of the exit door. Then, while the attendant wasn’t looking, she opened the door a crack and slipped through. I followed here and we stood giggling at the top of the ramp like a couple of school kids who’d skipped out of study hall to smoke cigarettes in the parking lot.

Our truancy did not go unnoticed, however. We thought we got away with ducking the movie, but somebody must’ve ratted us out because the attendant popped out the back door while we were looking over the exhibits. “You’ve got to see the show,” he told us, looking genuinely hurt that we didn’t stay.

“Actually, we’ve seen it,” I told him, figuring that honesty would serve us best here. “We came through once before but we didn’t get to see the exhibit, so we’re doing that now.”

“But you’ve got to see the video first,” he said again. So much for honesty.

“Yes, and we’ve done that,” B said. “We came through earlier and watched the show, but we didn’t have time to see the exhibit, so we’re doing that now.”

“But you have to see the show or it won’t make sense.”

“We saw the show,” I said. “Before. We watched it, and then we came back to see the exhibit.”

“Well, okay then,” he said. “Have a nice day.” And he ducked back inside, but he didn’t seem to be convinced that we’d seen the show. Maybe he was just sick and tired of arguing with us. We’re always messing up somebody’s day.

Hayden Planetarium | 6:29 pm CST
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Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

image of Twitter feed

Catching up on my Twitter feed this morning. Ran across a Tweet from science writer Pamela Gay describing the exploration of the asteroid Vesta by the Dawn probe. “Vesta melted, formed iron core, may have an Ovaltine crust.” Wait, what?

Oh. Olivine, not Ovaltine. Okay, then.

Ovaltine | 6:03 am CST
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Forgot to take my book to work with me yesterday. Fetched it from my bed stand and put it on the kitchen table next to my backpack, just before I started packing my lunch, so I wouldn’t leave it behind and what did I do? Left it behind. Of course. Which didn’t bother me until about noon when I happily unpacked my lunch, setting each little container on the desk, then reached for the book and it wasn’t there. Massive bummer.

The upside: I read a couple of articles on NPR’s web site instead and ran across a video of Richard Feynman explaining how trees come from the sky, not the ground. They’re made out of air. Specifically, they’re made of carbon. Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the air, use photosynthesis to break the oxygen atom off the carbon atom, then use the carbon to build themselves. Even the water that fills their cells comes from the sky. What a terrific idea.

In the same video, Feynman used a neat little trick to explain how atoms join to make molecules, even though they tend to repel each other. From a distance, they do. “It’s exactly like rolling a ball up a hill that has a hole at the top,” he says. “It’s rolling along but it doesn’t go down the hole because, if it starts to climb the hill, it rolls away again. But, if you make it go fast enough, it’ll fall into the hole.”

This is what Feynman does best: Explain physics using words and visualizations that anybody can understand. Atoms don’t become energized; they jiggle. They don’t form bonds; they snap together. I love that the hole at the top of the hill had to be a deep hole. The visualization wouldn’t work the way he wanted it to unless he specified the snap that you’d get from that deep hole.

Finding this video almost made me feel a lot less stupid about leaving the book behind on the kitchen table.

I see molecules | 5:51 am CST
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Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson gets all worked up about why the study of quantum mechanics matters:

In the 1920s, quantum physics was discovered. That is the science of the small: the science of electrons, protons, neutrons, particles, nuclei. At the time, you’d say, This is just physicists burning tax money. Who cares about the atom? I got a horse to feed, I got kids, I got – you know, you got issues in society, yet it’s quantum mechanics that is the entire foundation of our entire technological revolution. There would be no computers. There would be no – none of what you take for granted – your iPod, your iPhone, cell phones, the space program – without our understanding of the laws of physics at that atomic and molecular and nuclear level. The chemist has no understanding of the periodic table of elements without quantum mechanics. To them, it’s just a list of elements. Quantum mechanics tells you why this column is there, and that’s there, and why this mates with that, and why that makes a molecule with that – that’s quantum mechanics, and it’s unheralded. You ask me, Is there any discovery that has changed how we live? It is quantum mechanics. And I make this point because there are people who say, Why are we spending money up there when we got problems on earth? People don’t connect the time-delay between the frontier of scientific research and how that’s going to transform your life later down the line. All they want is a quarterly report that shows the product that comes out of it. That is so short-sighted that that’s the beginning of the end of your culture.

quantum | 5:45 pm CST
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Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson recently appeared on the “Ask Me Anything” page of Reddit and blew the minds of Redditors during an hour-long Q & A. Here are some of my favorite questions and the answers Tyson gave:

Q. If you could impress one thing on young people today, what would it be?

N.d.T. That adults are not all they’re cracked up to be. And most of them are wrong most of the time. This can be quite revelatory for a kid – often launching them on a personal quest of exploration, rather than of Q&A sessions with their parents.

Q. If you could add one course to a student’s curriculum, what would it be?

N.d.T. Course title every university should offer: “How to tell when someone else is full of shit”

Q. Can we inspire more kids to pursue space-related science and research? If so, how?

N.d.T. Kids are never the problem. They are born scientists. The problem is always the adults. The beat the curiosity out of the kids. They out-number kids. They vote. They wield resources. That’s why my public focus is primarily adults.

Q. What one improvement would you make to the way our society as a whole approaches science if it were within your power?

N.d.T. Society needs to see science not as a luxury of funding but as a fundamental activity that drives enlightenment, economics, and security. Science agencies should never have to go hat in hand to congress.

One idea would be for the USA (or any other country for that matter) to earmark 10% of its budget to R&D. Like a good startup company might do. That way everyone knows what to expect annually. And long term research projects will have some hope of funding stability.

Q. What is the simplest thing in your life that makes you happy?

N.d.T. Watching a person learn something new – not simply a new fact (those are cheap and easy) – but achieve a new understanding for how the world works. That’s the only reward a (true) educator ever seeks.

Q. What is your opinion about science/math education in high school? It seems to me like we emphasize far to much on facts that most people will never need, rather than encouraging people to think creatively and logically.

N.d.T. Agree 100%. Any time we are answer-driven rather than idea driven, we have lost the true meaning of education.

Q. What is your favorite fact about the Universe?

N.d.T. That it will never end. That it’s on a one way trip of expansion. Something that many find to be philosophically unsettling. My view is that if your philosophy is not unsettled daily then you are blind to all the universe has to offer.

My two very favorite exchanges I saved for last. I loved that Tyson answered this flip question with a very considered answer:

Q. If a taco and a burrito are traveling near the speed of light and collide, will the result be delicious?

N.d.T. The result would be an explosion large enough to destroy a small village. High speed collisions do that, whether or not they are made of Mexican food.

And the answer to this question is still blowing my mind:

Q. Since time slows relative to the speed of light, does this mean that photons are essentially not moving through time at all?

N.d.T. Yes. Precisely. Which means — are you seated?

Photons have no ticking time at all, which means, as far as they are concerned, they are absorbed the instant they are emitted, even if the distance traveled is across the universe itself.

This Q & A spawned a long discussion between dozens of Redditors, one of which attempted to explain the answer this way:

You can’t ascribe macroscopic analogies to quantum scale events. It doesn’t work because nature on that scale is so different than our everyday experiences.

To sum up the central point – photons don’t travel. They don’t really exist in flight. You can’t sidle up next to light passing from here to alpha centauri and watch it mid-flight. As soon as you do, it’s not in flight anymore.

What actually happens in reality is that an electron (or charged particle) over there will move in a particular way, and that makes an electron over here move in a particular way. Nothing else.

We can use a model based on waves to determine, probabilistically, where that effect is likely going to take place. We can also use a model based on particles (photons) to describe the nature of how that effect will act.

But it’s just a model. One must be extremely careful that we don’t ascribe other properties inherent in the model, such as existence, to the phenomenon being described.

The discussion ended (as much as a discussion such as this can end) with this poetic observation:

I love how existence can be a property that some things are capable of not having.

Tyson | 5:07 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, daily drivel | Tags:
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Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

I’m a huge geek for space flight. I’m not sure why it’s called “manned” when there are women doing it now, and I’m as puzzled about calling it “flight” when it can and often is done without wings, but even so, I geek out in a major way whenever I run across a book or photo or web site that has anything to do with manned space flight. Geeking out isn’t about trying to make sense of it. It’s a Pavlovian response. Or is it? Maybe it’s not conditioned; maybe I was wired that way at birth.

Whatever. If I’d had the brains to do it, I would’ve gotten a couple PhD’s just for the privilege of working for a manned space flight program no matter how frivolous or questionable the motives for pursuing it are. I know the whole point of landing a man on the moon was to win a political argument. So what? It was still pretty cool. And our nation devotes a lot of time, energy and money to other political arguments – immigration, war, those kinds of things – that aren’t nearly as awesome as flying in space, supposedly because they’re important and space flight is pointless. “What are you going to do in space?” goes the argument. Well, you could live there. Takes a while and a lot of hard work to figure out how, but it could be done.

And if the argument against manned space flight is even more basic, if all that the argument against it boils down to is, “Why?” I’d answer, Because somebody is going to do it. In the whole of history, we’ve climbed into ships and gone as far as we could, and now that we’ve figured out that we can go to space, the move to working and then living in space is inevitable. It has to happen, because that’s what we do.

Actually, it’s happening. Right now. There are people living on a space station in orbit above us. They’ve been living in it for years, and will go on living in it for years, and they’re doing it mostly to figure out how to go on living in space for generations to come. If you think that’s not freaking awesome, then what is?

I got all wound up about this after astronomer Pamela Gay, appearing on a panel at the annual TAM science meeting, got shut down by astrophysicist Neal de Grasse Tyson after she made the comment that manned space flight was “kind of awesome … but there isn’t the budget in the world right now to do it right.” You cannot say that kind of thing around Neal (he lets me call him Neal) without expecting a broadside in return:

I’ve got to rebut that: To say there’s no budget in the world – the federal budget is three point something trillion dollars … It’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s that we have chosen to not afford it. … The U.S. bailout of the banks exceeded the 50-year budget of Nasa. If you want to do something with three and a half trillion dollars, you can do whatever you want, whatever you judge to be important to the profile of the nation. The Nasa budget is four-tenths of one percent of a tax dollar. If I cut into a tax dollar four-tenths of one percent, it doesn’t even get into the ink! So I will not accept the statement that we cannot afford it.

Yeah. What he said.

ink | 11:04 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, current events, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery | Tags:
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Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, considering the inevitability of life:

If you had asked your chemistry teacher fifty years ago, once you looked at that mysterious chart of boxes that sat in front of your class, the periodic table of elements, Where did those elements come from? The chemistry teacher would not have had an answer for you. He would have said, Well, you dig them from out of the earth. That’s not where they come from. It took modern astrophysics to determine the origin of the chemical elements.

We observe stars. They explode, laying bare their contents. And what we have discovered is that the elements of the periodic table derive from the actions of stars that have manufactured the elements, exploded, and scattered their enriched guts across the galaxy, contaminating – or enriching – gas clouds that then form a next generation of stars populated by planets, and possibly life.

When you look at the ingredients of the universe, the number one ingredient is hydrogen. Next is helium, next is oxygen, carbon, nitrogen. Those are the top ingredients in the universe. Then you look at earth, because we like to think of ourselves as special … We say, We’re special! Well, what are we made of? What’s the number one molecule in our bodies? Water! What’s water made of? H-two-O. Hydrogen and oxygen.


If you rank the elements in the human body, with the exception of helium, which is chemically inert, useless to you for any reason other than just to inhale it so you sound like Micky Mouse … number one is hydrogen. Matches the universe. Number two: oxygen. Matches the universe. Number three? Carbon! Matches the universe. Number four, nitrogen – matches the universe!

We learned in the last fifty years that, not only do we exist in this universe, it is the universe itself that exists within us. Had we been made of some rare isotope of bismuth, you would have an argument to say, We are something special! There are people who are upset by that fact, saying, Well, does that mean we are not special? Well, I think it’s special in another kind of way. When you look up at the night sky it’s no longer, we’re here, and that’s there. It’s, We are part of that! That association, for me, is quite enlightening and ennobling and enriching. In fact, it’s almost spiritual, looking up at the night sky and finding a sense of belonging.

So, now we have ourselves – are we alone in the universe? We’re made of the most common ingredients there are! Our chemistry is based on carbon! Carbon is the most chemically active ingredient in the periodic table! If you were to find a chemistry on which to base something really complex, called life, you would base it on carbon! Carbon is, like, the fourth most abundant ingredient in the universe! We’re not rare! You can make more molecules out of carbon than you can out of all the other ingredients in the periodic table combined. If we were to ask ourselves, Are we alone in the universe? It would be inexcusably egocentric to suggest that we are alone in the cosmos. The chemistry is too rich to declare that! The universe, too vast! There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. There are more stars in the universe than there are all sounds and words ever uttered by all the humans who have ever lived. To say we’re alone in the universe!

No, we haven’t found life outside of earth yet. We’re looking. Haven’t looked very far yet. Galaxy’s this big – we’ve looked about that far, but we’re looking. And how about life on earth? Is it hard to form? Just because we don’t know how to do it in the lab doesn’t mean nature had problems. So it may be, given that information, that, given the right ingredients, which are everywhere, life may be inevitable – an inevitable consequence of complex chemistry.

inevitable | 3:13 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, daily drivel, story time | Tags: ,
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Sunday, April 11th, 2010

book, scienceWhen we stop at the thrift store each weekend we never have a solid idea what we would like to take home. Instead, we take a look at what they have to offer and, if something is truly attention-grabbing, and it’s dirt cheap, it goes in the basket.

Such was the case with this week’s purchase of Science: A Story of Discovery and Progress. It grabbed my attention because looked a lot like the text books that were foisted upon me while I attended elementary school, except that it was in near-mint condition, while the books we got were pretty beat-up.

This book was filled with scads of helpful illustrations designed to mold the mind of aspiring scientists, but what sold this book to me was the frontspiece:

science, atomic bomb, mushroom cloud

Damn, that says it all, doesn’t it! Science! Discovery! Progress! And how we use it to blow everything to hell!

SCIENCE! | 4:04 pm CST
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