Through Thick and Thin
January 16th, sheesh, another year shot already. Where does the time go? On the plus side, no complaints about the weather here in Berkeley. Sunny and warm with no rain in sight. Of course no rain means our drought is continuing into its third year, not a good thing. Too bad all the snow in the Midwest isn’t falling in the Sierra’s, who designed this planet anyhow?
Moving right along, the big science news of the week is the possibility of life on Mars. There’s always been that possibility of course, and the odds went up a few years ago when methane was detected in the Martian atmosphere. Scientists have refined their observations and determined that the methane only originates in a few places on Mars…and methane output varies with the seasons. This pretty much rules out volcanism as the origin of the methane, so we are left with a few odd geochemical processes or the definite possibility that the methane is being produced by microbes. With any luck this issue will be solved in a few years when the Mars Science Laboratory lands on Mars and does its thing. Assuming it makes it to Mars and lands safely, always a big assumption.
In other heartening science news, it’s been discovered that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 50% bigger and faster than was thought. Yes, we no longer need to feel inferior to the Andromeda Galaxy, previously thought to be larger than ours. The Andromeda Galaxy is the only other galaxy that can be seen with the naked eye, every other visible star in the sky is a star in the Milky Way. Unfortunately Andromeda can only be seen from the southern hemisphere, they had to have something to compensate for all the weird animals I suppose.
On the down side, since our galaxy is heavier, its gravity is going to make a collision with other nearby galaxies more likely. Granted stars are so far apart it’s like a cloud of fog hitting a cloud of fog, it’s not like stars will be smashing into each other. It’s possible though that our sun could be captured by the Andromeda Galaxy in the event of a collision. Fortunately any galactic collisions are billions of years away, thus making it unlikely that I will still be blogging about it, so the gentle reader is on their own to keep up with this story.
In more local “death from above” news, the search for asteroids that might strike Earth is intensifying. Last year for the first time ever a rock was spotted in time to predict exactly where and when it would strike Earth. It was only a 2m wide rock, and it exploded harmlessly over Sudan, but it’s a start. The goal is to detect as many potentially dangerous asteroids as possible so that we can predict impacts decades in the future. With a 30 year lead time humans have the technology to nudge even a large asteroid into a safe orbit. Since a large asteroid could cause global devastation on an undreamed of scale, these are science dollars well spent.
And since this has turned into a space and astronomy post, a four hundred year old error has been corrected. It turns out that Galileo was not the first person to draw a map of the Moon using a telescope. A British amateur astronomer named Thomas Harriot beat him by about six months. How did this happen? Well, Galileo was really into self-promotion, while Harriot was simply in it for the science. This is actually pretty common, a book could be written about scientists who got too much credit in the history books because they were shameless self-promoters.
So remember, when promoting yourself, shame is bad. Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is a low resolution copy of the original. Credit and copyright: Aigar Truhin. These are light pillars in Latvia, basically falling ice crystals are reflecting the lights below them. Why the pillars expand at the top is currently unknown, so it’s not only a pretty picture, it’s a genuine scientific mystery. See the full size image and further discussion here.)