Happy Halloween

Tomorrow is Samhair, pronounced Sah’-win and better known in our modern world as Halloween. Samhair is one of the quarter points, the days that mark the middle of our seasons of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. The days halfway between a solstice and an equinox.

Samhair is the quarter point for the Fall season just as Imbolc, we call it Ground Hog’s day, is the Winter quarter point. There is also the Spring quarter point of Beltane, May Day, and the Summer quarter point of Lughnasa which somehow never got a more modern name.

From what historians and anthropologists can tell, people have celebrated the quarter points just as long as the better know first days of the seasons. The same ancient astronomers who watched the movements of the planets against the background of fixed stars, who saw how the place where the Sun rose in the East every day changed during the course of a year gave us not only the four seasons but the four quarter points as well.

In pre-Christian Europe, the ancient Celtic world (by the way it’s Kel-tic, not Sel-tic) Samhair was the new year, the harvest time and a time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the spirits was lifted. This was true of all the quarter points, for iron age people they were a time of both fear and promise. Because of the mystical, magical nature of the quarter points the Christian church tried for centuries to wipe out the ancient celebrations related to them. It is a historic fact that one of the heresies that Joan of Arc was accused of was dancing around a May Pole.

In the wider Universe of course, Samhair and Beltane as well as the Solstices’ and equinoxes are special times unique to our planet Earth having no significance on Jupiter or Pluto let alone another star system. It’s only because we are so tied to our home planet and it’s orbit around our Sun that the very idea of a certain day of the year having any significance makes sense. On other worlds Christmas, or your birthday or the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo have no meaning of any kind.

Nevertheless, as human beings we like to celebrate, to party and the recognition of certain days being special, being a good reason to party gives us pleasure and a chance to connect both with the living and those who celebrated before us. So get out an enjoy your Halloween, have some candy of roast some marshmallows over an open fire and remember how the rhythms of our world are the rhythms of our lives and have been since the beginnings of life on Earth.

Does Dark Energy really Exist?

For the past twenty years the greatest mystery in all of Science has been the Nature of Dark Energy, a unknown force that is accelerating the expansion of the Universe and whose energy makes up more than three quarters of everything there is. Now a new study by Cosmologists J.T.Nielsen, A. Guffanti and S. Sarkar has called into question the very existence of Dark Energy.

To understand what is going on we have to go back to 1929 when astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that the galaxies he was studying were all receding from our milky way and that the further a galaxy was the faster it was receding. This is Hubble’s law for the expansion of the Universe and the rate of expansion is called Hubble’s constant.

Almost immediately after Hubble’s announcement physicists and astronomers began to theorize what could have caused this expansion and so they developed the Big Bang Theory which was finally confirmed by A. Penzias and R. Wilson in 1965. But if the Big Bang Theory was true then the gravitational attraction of the galaxies should be slowing the rate of expansion, Hubble’s constant should not be truly constant. Cosmologists also theorized that there could be two basic solutions. One, the gravitational attraction was strong enough that eventually the expansion would come to a stop and the entire Universe would enter a Big Crunch phase. The other solution was that the expansion was so great that the Universe had achieved escape velocity and would expand forever.

It was to discover which of these two alternative Universes was true that two teams of astronomers, one led by S. Perlmutter and the other by A. Riess and B. Schmidt used Type Ia supernova to try to measure the deceleration of Hubble’s constant. In 1998 these two teams independently announced their findings that the expansion of the Universe was in fact accelerating, a discovery that shocked the world of science and led to Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt being awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The search was now on for the cause of this acceleration, an unknown force that was quickly named Dark Energy although cosmologists prefer to call it Dark Pressure. Literally hundreds of theoretical papers have been written over the past two decades speculating on the nature of Dark Energy but little more observational detail was provided by astronomers.

Now a new study, using data from more than ten times as many Type Ia supernovas as was available to Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt has called into question the very existence of Dark Energy, asserting that the discovery was if fact only a statistical fluctuation. This new study by astronomers J.T. Nielsen, A. Guffanti and S. Sarkar uses data from 740 Type Ia supernovas and concludes that “we find, rather surprisingly, that the data are still quite consistent with a constant rate of expansion.”

This result is something of a shocker, have cosmologists spent the last 18 years chasing a phantom? Personally I’ll wait and see. There is other indirect evidence for Dark Energy in the Cosmic Microwave Background so Dark Energy isn’t gone just yet. In fact the new study found that the evidence for Dark Energy is at the three sigma level but scientists prefer five sigma so we are talking statistical weights of evidence.

Still this is yet another example of just how difficult it is to get real, precise details on the nature of our Universe. We have learned a great deal but that knowledge has required great effort, and just as often great patience. I’ll keep you informed.

I’m going to try a little experiment of my own and try to insert the actual article by Nielsen et al into this post. Enjoy.



Good week in Space

Last night I got to watch the occultation of Aldebaran where the Moon slides in front of the 1st order magnitude star. It took place at 1:41 AM, so I’m kinda sleepy right now. I’ve always wanted to see an occultation. These events have been very important in the history of astronomy with such discoveries as the first measurement of a star’s radius and the first identification of a Quasar taking place during an occultation.

But last night’s occultation was just one of a number of important space events that have occurred in the last several days. On Monday there were two events. First, there was the launch of two Chinese astronauts to their country’s new space station, they have since docked and entered the Tiangong II space module.

Also on Monday there was the launch of the Orbital ATK unmanned Antares resupply capsule to the ISS. I got to watch a minute or so of the launch from a distance of three hundred kilometers away in Philadelphia. It was my second launch but I still want to see one close up.

We’re not done either. Just this morning there was the launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft toward the ISS with three astronauts. So right now we have the six astronauts already on the ISS, the two Chinese astronauts and three astronauts on the Soyuz. A total of eleven humans in space at the same time! I wonder if that’s the record.

Last but not least, there’s Europe’s Exo-Mars orbiter and lander are due to go into orbit and land respectively this morning. The Exo-Mars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) should be firing it rocket at this very moment to insert itself in Mars orbit. The Schiaparelli lander is scheduled to touch down on the Martial surface in just an hour. Let’s hope both spacecraft are successful.

So it’s been a interesting couple of days in space, and that’s just space. There are also hundreds of discoveries being made everyday in other fields of Science and engineering from Archeology to chemistry to electronics to physics, and I could go on and on. That we have difficulty getting young people interested in STEM careers is something I just cannot understand.

P.S. The eleven humans in space at this moment is not the record. In March of 1995 there were three astronauts on the Russian Mir station, another three on a Soyuz on it’s way to Mir and seven on the space shuttle on a separate mission.

Update: Although the Exo-Mars orbiter has successfully entered orbit around Mars the European space agency lost contact with the lander when it was approximately one kilometer above the surface and nothing further has been heard from it.

Here we go again. The Universe just got ten times bigger!

A team of astronomers led by Christopher Conselice at the University of Nottingham in the UK have been studying the deep field images coming from the Hubble Space Telescope and concluded that the Universe contains ten times as many galaxies as was previously thought.

The previous census performed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, SDSS (link below) concluded that the observable Universe contained between 100-200 Billion galaxies.


This new census realized that the density of galaxies in the early Universe was far greater than it is now and that many of these early galaxies were too faint to be seen in the data used by the SDSS. On the basis of their data from the Hubble they have realized that the Universe contains on the order of one Trillion galaxies.

As exciting as this discovery is it’s really nothing new. Every time we study the Universe with new, more powerful, more precise instruments the Universe grows ever larger. Sometimes the expansion is linear as with this census by Dr. Conselice and his team, sometimes it is exponential as when Carl Hubble himself discovered that the smudgy nebula he studied were actual galaxies separate from our Milky Way. By the way, the Greek word galaxy just means Milky Way. From Galileo to Dr. Conselice we have learned that the Universe is more than we can ever imagine.

I have seen this phenomenon of expansion happen three or four times now in my life and I expect to see it happen at least one more time.The James Webb space telescope is expected to be launched sometime in 2018 and with this new window to infinity I have no doubt that the Universe will grow once again.

To read further about the new census follow in link below.



Science and Technology in the 2016 Election

We are now exactly one month from the Presidential election here in the USA and I’ve decided to make my one (hopefully) comment on this horrible, divisive and just plain ugly campaign season.

I want to talk about the issues of science and technology in this election but it seems that pretty much every issue has been obscured in this scandal filled race to the gutter. Nevertheless I will try to describe what little I have seen from the two candidates on the issues of science and technology. (Yes I know there are two other aspirants to the White House but let’s be honest, it’s either going to be Hillary or Donald)


Both Hillary and Donald have made a few statements to the effect that the US must lead the world in space but neither has given any detail to my knowledge.


Hillary has on a number of occasions spoken about the need for our country to develop the high-tech jobs of the future, usually in the field of alternative energy. She does commit herself to increasing federal funding in that area and the area of infrastructure repair which will hopefully support development of high-tech, high paying jobs.

Donald has also spoken about infrastructure repair but he really seems much more committed to bringing back the manufacturing jobs of the 50s and 60s than trying to support development of the jobs that don’t exist anywhere yet. He really doesn’t seem to understand that, even if he forced Carrier Air Conditioners to return their plant to the US it would be a fully automated plant with few jobs for people with high school or less education. The problem in the next few decades isn’t going to be Mexico or China it’s going to be ROBOT! (see my post of September 2nd)

Climate Change:

This is the big one. The two candidates have strongly held and completely opposite stands on this issue.

Hillary accepts the evidence and science of climate change and accepts mankind’s responsibility in causing it as well as doing something about it. As I mentioned above Hillary’s interest in high-tech jobs centers around alternative energy as a means to combat climate change.

Donald, on the other hand regards the enormous amount of gathered data as just a hoax, maybe started by the Chinese. He plans on totally ignoring the danger posed by greenhouse gasses. Indeed he fully intends to increase emissions of CO2 in order to save the coal industry, returning America to the energy technology of the 50s or even earlier.

This is pretty much it when it comes to the candidates stands on issues of science, as least as far as I’ve seen and I’ve been paying a lot of attention this election. I suppose anyone reading what I’ve said above can guess at how I’ll be voting but I hope I haven’t been too partisan. I only hope I won’t have too write another post about politics for another four years.


2016 Nobel Prizes in Physics Announced

Today the Royal Swedish Academy of Science has announced their choice for this years recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Winners are David Thouless of the University of Washington, Duncan Haldane of Princeton University and Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University.

The research for which these scientists were honored dealt with the behavior of matter in strange and unusual shapes. The shapes studied range from simple, such as atoms in a row forming a line or spread out to form a plane, to more complex shapes like a doughnut or even a pretzel.

The properties of matter studied dealt largely with the related phenomenon of Superconductivity and Superfluidity. Doctor Thouless in particular was able to describe the phase transition between the Superconductive and Normal state by using Topology, the study of shapes.

We should all congratulate Doctors Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz for their work in revealing some of the mysteries of nature. Anyone who would like to learn more can use the link below to read the Press release from the Swedish Academy of Science itself.



Yes there is a Thirteenth Zodiacal Sign, always has been.

For the past two weeks there have been a number of stories in the news about how NASA is Trying to change Astrology. I’ve been thinking about whether or not to post a blog on this subject and originally decided against it since astrology just isn’t worth talking about! However the story won’t go away so I’ve changed my mind in the hope that maybe this time people will recognize that astrologers don’t even know astrology let alone anything about reality.

For what it’s worth, about 3,000 years ago in Babylon the priests who watched the sky for messages from above (that is how Astronomy got started) decided that the position of the Sun against the background of fixed stars at the moment a person was born must have an effect on that person’s destiny. If the concept of astrological sign means anything that is what it is, the constellation of stars that the sun was in the moment of your birth. Now, I’ll admit that’s an interesting hypothesis, 3,000 years ago it was worth testing. It happens to be wrong but it was worth testing.

Now the ancient Chaldeans, the people of Babylon, recognized that during the course of a year the Sun went through thirteen constellations, that’s right thirteen, the twelve zodiacal signs we’re familiar with plus the constellation Ophiuchus. By the way, this is why a very easy to spot constellation like Orion or the Big Dipper is not a zodiacal sign while a very difficult to find constellation like Capricorn is.

The trouble started immediately. The Chaldeans didn’t like the number thirteen, it was considered unlucky even back then. So they just threw out the constellation of Ophiuchus, reality after all has to match our irrational prejudices. There was also the problem that some of the constellations of the zodiac are bigger that the others so the Sun spent more time in some than in others. The Babylonians solved this problem by just each making each sign the same length of time whether it should be or not. This then gave us the signs of the zodiac we’re all familiar with, Aquarius 20Jan-18Feb, Pisces Feb20-Mar19 etc.

But there was another problem the Babylonians didn’t know about, the precession of the equinox, the precession of the Earth’s axis in a huge circle every 26,000 years. The fact that it takes so long is the reason the Babylonians didn’t know about it. However it does mean that about every 2200 years the entire zodiac gets shifted by one entire sign to the left. It’s the dawning of the age of Aquarius remember, well that’s because for the past two millennia the equinox has occurred while the Sun was in Pisces but soon it will occur in Aquarius because the entire zodiac has shifted by almost one entire sign.

Now astrologers have either ignored of been ignorant of this plain fact for, well since the beginning of astrology. Because of this ignorance of their own “science” they have basically given almost everyone the wrong sign. For example, I was born on the 4th of September, which makes me a Virgo. Except that the Sun happened to be in Leo the moment I was born so, if astrology means anything at all I should be a Leo.

None of this is news. Astronomers have made headlines by pointing out the truth four or five times in my Life and the fact that reality is so quickly forgotten again is, disappointing at the very least. NASA has even had to publically say they aren’t trying to change people’s sign, actually they have issued a statement that astrology isn’t science anyway so it doesn’t matter.

As I said, we have gone through this several times in my life so at the very least it would be nice it would be nice if astrologers would take a little time to learn astrology. I’m not holding my breath.