astro nerge

Messier 15Recently I went to look at M15 again. It’s been a while, but I have seen it probably a couple of dozen times at the Chabot Space & Science Center. I realized I’ve look at it so many times that I actually forgot many things about it.

For example, it’s 12 billion years old. The entire universe is estimated to be 13.8 billion years old, so M15 is *hella* old. I mean, come on, it’s impossible to even visualize so much time. It’s got about 500,000 stars in it. It’s 34,000 light years away. That means that when I look at it, I am actually looking back in time 34,000 years.

It’s the last fact that struck me. The telescope had become a time machine. Then I thought: how is it I can look back in time 34 THOUSAND YEARS, but I can’t look forward in time for even 1 second? I mean, that just seems crazy.

I brought this up with J. and apparently he’s been pondering this for decades. He also had quite a lot of information about the topic, such as the idea the on the sub-atomic level, there is no time. That is, on our level of scale, if you film something and play the film backwards, you can see that it is backwards. However, on the sub-atomic scale, if you film the motion of particles and reverse it, it looks the same. He said that based on what he understands, the main reason we sense time is because of entropy. A tree doesn’t become an acorn. Ashes don’t become burning wood. He also said that we perceive time as motion, but it’s really a dimension like space.

I pondered the last idea for a while. I guess it’s not possible for me to really grasp that time doesn’t have any motion to it. I thought of how if I try to see it like space, I get caught up in the idea that how could you possibly see all the points? For instance, now I am sitting and typing this, but in a moment I’m going to walk to the kitchen and get some water. How could a being perceive all the almost infinite individual points of time involved in my standing up and walking to the kitchen?

Then I realized that we don’t perceive space that way. When I look at the floor, there are billions of atoms. I don’t see them. I don’t see the molecules. I don’t even see the individual planks of wood unless I focus on it. I just see “wood floor”. I see where the floor meets the wall, where it is under the rug.

From this I can imagine that if I were a being who could perceive time as I perceive space, that is, not a thing of motion, I wouldn’t have to see every millisecond or even second. I would just see certain forms or shapes of time, certain delimiters of time. It’s still not possible for me to picture it, but it gives me an idea of how it could be. However, the kind of being would live in a place where time was another static dimension would be so different from how we are. They would evolve differently, exist differently, perceive differently. It’s hard for me to conceive of this place, but it’d be just as hard for them to perceive of time having a trajectory and motion.

You can read more about spacetime here, with more science and less nerging.

Author: Stephanie Nolan

Jerrie CobbI know women’s history fairly well, so I was stunned to find out there was a huge chunk of history that I was completely ignorant about — and concerning female astronauts. As readers of this blog know, I have a huge fantasy about being an astronaut. Many thanks to Stephanie Nolan for writing this book.

According to this well-researched story, there was a time when the U.S. government thought about sending women into space instead of men, since they were smaller and required less resources. The initial rockets weren’t very powerful, so it was important to keep the payload light. Also, they knew that the U.S.S.R. was planning to put a woman in space, and the wanted to beat them to the punch.

This was all before NASA even existed, but a certain Dr. Randolph Lovelace II of ARDC took it upon himself to further research the possibilities. Many women were recruited, but in the end sheer machismo and sexism (including internalized sexism by one women) snuffed out any plans to have women astronauts for decades to come.

As Nolan writes:

“The story I first heard wasn’t quite true, but the real events are every bit as dramactic: a bitter clash of personalities between powerful women; masterful public performances by American heroes with an agenda of their own; a hush-hush experiment by a pioneering scientiest who trammeled social conventions to satisfy a curious mind; and a vicious emotional outburst at the highest level of government.”

The book covers the history of women in space — well, mostly in the troposphere. It seems that almost every single female aviator of the early part of the 20th century gets at least a passing reference. There’s an amazing personality benchmark that all these women seem to share. That is, the first time they took a ride in a plane — usually as a child — they had a determination to be pilots that could not be shaken. We all know a bit about Amelia Earhart, but what many of us don’t know is how many other women were like here in spirit and adventurousness.

From these women, two biographies emerge in this book. One is of Jackie Cochran, who was the most well-known female aviators of her time, and managed to garner many friends in high places, and therefore felt if any women were to go into space it should be her. Another is Jerrie Cobb, who sincerely felt in her heart that she was the women best suited for this position. Promised the Moon does an excellent job of describing these women’s lives in detail and their personalities.

Dr. Lovelace spent considerable time and energy running various physical and psychological tests on all women who could potential be astronauts. They were all aviators with some serious flying time under their belt. Jerrie Cobb managed to get much further in the testing process. The tests described sound horribly brutal; she and all the women admit it was only through sheer force of will that they could even bear the torment. But of course, that is the point of the tests — to weed out who can’t take it. For in space, if something went wrong, the astronaut had to be calm and level-headed no matter what the circumstances. Jackie Cochran never went through the tests, as she was too old (over 40) to qualify to be an astronaut. This irked her considerably, and she was determined that if she couldn’t go into space, no woman could.

Already picked for the first space missions were the Mercury 7, a group of male pilots who also had experience specifically flying jet fighters. At the time, women were specifically forbidden to fly them. These men had also gone through all the grueling tests, and consistently the women did better.

In the end, the women’s performance, fearlessness and dedication meant nothing to NASA. Space was to be a man’s world; it was to be demonstrated that only the truest and bravest could be astronauts, and in a sexist society that clearly precludes women.

If you think that if the women acted tougher it would help, you’d be dead wrong. In the chapter “Normal Women”, Nolan explains how there was such raging homophobia in the early to mid 20th century, that female pilots had to go extra lengths to appear as femme as possible. Women often flew races in dresses and pearls; if they didn’t, they made sure to change into them before they landed. And if anyone thought you were a lesbian, your career was over. So here’s one catch-22; the women had to appear like gentile hostesses, and then it was held against them that they didn’t appear tough even though they were tough. Nolan also comments in the book about the off-handed racism that existed, in a brief note of Jackie Cochran rejecting a women from her team of pilots simply because she was black.

In the chapter “Our Rightful Place” we learn of a more damaging conundrum. Jerrie Cobb was so determined to fly, they she called a congressional hearing to examine of the sexism of not allowing women to be astronauts. Kennedy had started putting some legal rulings in place to help women have equal opportunity in the workplace, which is why such a hearing could even happen.

Kennedy also was a game-changer in the goals of the Space Race. He decided that they only thing that mattered was the U.S. getting to the moon first. Unfortunately, this was another blow to Cobb’s trying to get into space — the U.S. no longer cared if the U.S.S.R. put a women in space first.

Of course, the hearing — run by men — found no sexism or bias. They simply said that no women had experience flying jet fighters, so they weren’t qualified. John Glenn, a childhood hero of mine, particularly comes of as a raving, condescening sexist. And there’s the other catch-22 : women weren’t allowed to fly jets, so they couldn’t get the experience required, so they didn’t qualify. Jackie Cochran herself testified against women becoming astronauts; she absolutely detested Cobb, whom she knew was the best candidate to go. Cochran’s testimony was pretty much the end of any hope for Cobb and all American women for years to come.

A few months later, the first woman went into space from the U.S.S.R.. American women had to wait until 1983, when Sally Ride went into space, for that hope to become a reality.

In case your curious, as of this post, there’s been 56 women astronauts thus far out of 557 total astronauts. We still have a long way to go.

ISS! Yeah,baby!This coming weeks could be one of the last times it will be so easy to see the ISS. So for folks living in Oakland, below are the times it will be passing overhead. Study the photo carefully, as what you will see will look *nothing* like that. It’ll look more like a star that decided to go for a walk in an arc across the sky.


Date Mag Starts Max. altitude Ends
Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az.
29 Apr -0.1 22:44:59 10 NW 22:45:19 12 NW 22:45:19 12 NW
30 Apr -1.3 21:34:40 10 NNW 21:36:42 17 NNE 21:37:08 17 NE
1 May -2.1 21:58:18 10 NW 22:00:20 34 N 22:00:20 34 N
2 May -1.4 20:47:44 10 NNW 20:49:48 17 NNE 20:51:51 10 ENE
2 May -1.0 22:22:21 10 WNW 22:23:27 20 WNW 22:23:27 20 WNW
3 May -3.0 21:11:09 10 NW 21:13:57 45 NE 21:15:04 28 E
4 May -2.9 21:34:58 10 WNW 21:37:45 43 SW 21:38:05 41 SSW
5 May -3.1 20:23:32 10 NW 20:26:21 46 NE 20:29:09 10 ESE
5 May -0.8 21:59:59 10 WSW 22:01:02 12 SW 22:01:02 12 SW
6 May -2.7 20:47:08 10 WNW 20:49:55 42 SW 20:52:32 11 SSE
7 May -0.7 21:11:56 10 WSW 21:13:07 12 SW 21:14:18 10 SSW

If that’s not enough nerd fun for you, how about the first earth-space duet?

The best part about this is that Cady Coleman brought her flute into space. Awesome.

Mary Roach's Packing for MarsIn one of my very first posts on The Nerge, I ranted about how NASA Hates Me, which was about my attempting to fill out an astronaut application. More recently, I wrote that reading My Dream of Stars by Anousheh Ansari made me realize that my affinity for puking probably completely disqualified from ever making it into space. Most recently I read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, which unequivocally confirmed that I am woefully physically deficient in what it takes to be an astronaut, especially when it comes to puking and fidgeting.

I have to admit I did not read the book in its entirety. This is because Roach just adores all things repugnant. She loves to linger in details about corpses, shit, and puke. I guess this is no secret to anyone who has glanced at her book Stiff. But I was woefully unprepared for how much she writes about gore and ick and I have a pretty low tolerance for The Gross. This is despite the fact that I worked in animal surgery for a time and had to deal with many things gruesome, horrible or just yucky; somehow in that context I could handle it. (Except dog shit, which is the most disgusting substance on the planet. How thousands of owners spend their days picking it up is really beyond me. But anyway…)

Maybe it’s that I can handle it, or I can tolerate it when it has to due with animals who are not humans, but I really cannot read pages and pages about vomit, or gore, or dead bodies. I cannot. And as I read Roach’s book, I realized that if she even hinted at these topics, if therewas even a whiff of gross out, than a major turd bomb was imminent. And I learned to skip ahead. Thus, I read as much of the book as I could.

If I had left any hope of being an astronaut, this book snuffed them out. Although I am calm in emergencies and tense situations, I think at this point I’ve read enough about space being The Great Nauseator to convince me that space would be one long nausea roller-coaster for me. Also there’s the irrational animosity, something which astronauts and other normal folk experience from being in close quarters with a small group of people, but I experience just working in an office. I realized the bile I experience when my coworkers open their mouths and spew trite, boring words is completely irrational, and that they are nice people trying to have a conversation, but the hostility is tenacious. So I imagine that on the ISS I would experience murderous thoughts with abandon, especially since I couldn’t go hike in the Contact incessantly and pretending that I’m Dr. Ellie Arroway, minus the crush on Matthew McConaughey.

NOTE: In the following clip, you probably want to skip ahead to 1:30.

What does it all mean? This is a question that burbles up from K. & my subconscious minds during our weekly hikes. I’m sure there is also a sprinkling of anxiety in the question as in, “Aagh! I’m going to die someday!” It seems there is something about walking through breathtaking beauty here in the East Bay* that lends itself to thoughts of eternalness and how eternal we are not. Like every other human, K & I have no answers, just lots of theories that are really just ideas and mythology. But we come up with some good questions and discussions.

To whit: Recently the question “Why do I exist?” lead to “Why does anything exist?” which we then rephrased to “Why is there something instead of nothing?” We talked about this and felt that although we don’t believe in God, the everything is so incredibly well-structured, from the universes down through sub-atomic particles, that it is hard not to believe in a consciousness behind it all. It seems that our minds lends itself naturally to this conclusion, that we are somehow preprogrammed to see it in this way. But just because we an inclination toward a belief, it doesn’t mean that it is true. For example, humans are naturally afraid of spiders and snakes, but that doesn’t mean they are the most dangerous encounters we experience. In fact, I (an arachnophobe) have a brain that perceives fare more danger at the sight of a large spider than I do when speeding down the freeway, which statistically is thousands of times more dangerous to me. So, similarly, a propensity to imagine a creator does not mean that is how the universe came to be. Our brains have a propensity for a lot of nonsense, which alternatively is the wonderful world of imagination. (For more on this, see my post on The Science of Superstition).

So, K & I next decided to do a short survey of two people in our lives who also read a lot of non-fiction nerdy stuff and spend some of their idle time pondering these things: H. and K2. I spoke to H. and K spoke with K2. When K & I reconvened, we discovered that H. & K2 had posited similar responses. The basic premise is that since time is an illusion and is actually infinite, it’s a mathematical probability that eventually an ordered universe will emerge. H. also observed that space is infinite as well, so there is plenty of room and well as time for orderliness to evolve. Some of this is explored in Alexander Vilenkin’s book Many Worlds in One (hmm, I guess I never wrote a review on this). Now all that is fine and well, but we still haven’t answered the why-something-instead-of-nothing question. Here K2 & H both venture into Big Bang territory. But why was there a Bang? Theories talk about the Higgs boson, and theorists can talk all they want about a particle emerging from nothingness to cause the bang, but no one can really, really explain how even a particle emerged from nothing. In fact, the only answer is that there NEVER WAS NOTHING. How can this be?

If you’ve done your homework and read any of Stephen Hawkin’s books or Vilenkin’s (mentioned above) or any astrophysicist’s diatribe, the theory is that there is really no time. Or if there is, it is non-linear. When K and I think “non-linear” we immediately think “circle.” K describes it like this: you can put you point on any point of a circle and never conclusively say it is the beginning or the end, for it there is no beginning or end.

To explore this further, we have to go beyond geometry. Time isn’t necessarily a line, or circle, or even a sphere. Perhaps it’s either a total illusion or it has a configuration that we are incapable of imagining because we are only capable of perceiving a linear construct. If there is no beginning or end, then there was never nothing because there never was “never”. K and I contemplated this for a long time, and even though we can say the words and talk about the ideas, we can’t really imagine it. It’s just too damn big and too far from our experiences.

Still, we came to these conclusions:
time is either non-existent or beyond comprehension,
therefore there was always something and will always be something,
therefore something did not come out of nothing.

And as for us, this means that on some level, we will not have a distinct beginning or ending. However, whether we will ever exist on a plane in which we can be experientially conscious of this is another question with no answer.

However, Lewis Black has his own theory.**
Lewis Black – The End of the Universe
Lewis Black Videos Lewis Black Jokes Stark Raving Black Videos

*This links to the East Bay Regional Parks district, the first and largest regional parks system in the country and home to many insanely beautiful hikes.

** Yeah, I know I posted this before, but it’s worth watching again.

fomalhautLast night I had the good fortune to fill my nerdy brain with information about exoplanets, courtesy of Alex Filippenko. Here, in a dumbed-down a probably slightly inaccurate form, is what I learned.

Dr. Fillippenko’s a pretty happy guy, and in his brief pre-history of the current state of exoplanets research, he brought up another smiley guy my favorite Greek philosopher, Democritus. I only learned about Democritus recently while reading You Are Here. He thought of the idea of atomic structure, but what I learned last evening is that back in around 400 BCE, he also proposed the existence of other solar systems. According to Wikipedia, “Plato is said to have disliked him so much that he wished all his books burned.” Hmm, Plato… jealous? As I said in my previous post, it’s hard to understand why we study Plato, who obviously had his head up his ass when compared with scientific theories of his peer. In addition, Democritus, like Filippenko, is always pictured smiling whereas Plato always looks fairly grim.

As of this writing, there’s been about 15 years of research. Before that, there was virtually no evidence of any planets outside our solar system. In that short time, about about 500 exoplanets have been discovered. That in itself is pretty amazing. You can see them all for documented for your self in the The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia. At first all they found was huge, huge planets orbiting very close to the stars. They didn’t even believe they were planets at first because it seemed so weird — several times the size of Jupiter? 4 days orbits? But eventually they realized, no, these really exist. These type of planets were called Hot Jupiters. There’s easy to find because they’re huge and they move quickly, which means you don’t have to monitor for long before you can identify the orbit.

Filippenko discussed five methods for identifying planets, which I will briefly and poorly summarize below. Each method that was subsequently developed helped to find smaller and smaller planets. These detection methods are more accurately explained in Wikipedia.

As more methods have been created, exoplanets discovery has gone from planets about 100 times the size off earth to about 5 times. There have been about 3 super-earths discovered, meaning a planet 10 times the size of earth or less.

Now, all this planet discovery has led to another discovery which is that most solar systems identified are not at all like ours. There are hot jupiters, and also planets with elliptical (so-called eccentric) orbits. There are tidal planets, meaning they face only one way (like the moon), and do not rotate. Granted, life may flourish anywhere, but from what we know thus far (not much, really) it’s most likely to evolve when conditions are similar to earth. Thus the quest for a earth-like planet.

kepler_fov_hires.jpgTo this end, there is currently the Kepler Mission, which is a space observatory staring very diligently at a quadrant of space, a quadrant that for various reasons was chosen as the best area to observe for possible earths. Hmm… strange… isn’t that Vega in the diagram? That reminds me of a movie…

“Seti, man, that’s fringe… that must really chap his ass.”

I wonder if Sagan new about the potential for the Kepler Mission when he wrote Contact?

Cosmic Pinwheel

Read all about it!

Did you know that outer space has a smell? As I look at the NASA photos of spacewalkers, also known as folks on EVAs (Extra-vehicular activity), I wondered what they experience out there in the void. Here are some things I found.

On space smell:

Some people call it kind of ozone-like. I wasn’t sure what ozone was supposed to smell like, but it’s kind of smoky and a little harsh, bitter-smelling… Korzun said it’s kind of like a smell from a gun, right after you fire the shot. I think it kind of has almost a bitter kind of smell in addition to being smoky and burned. — Peggy Whitson, ISS

“When we come in from a space walk, this smell of space is what we’re calling it up here,” she says, “and we’ve tried to decide what that really smells like and its kind of a mild, to me at least, a mild form of when your car is overheating, that kind of smell. It’s not unpleasant but its definitely there, and that totally surprised me.” — Nicole Stott, ISS

What is feels like to spacewalk:

Flying in space here is phenomenal. It’s amazing just to feel your body adapt to floating around in zero (gravity). But it was really, truly amazing to me to do a spacewalk, especially at the end of the (station’s robotic arm) as Valery was swinging me around. — Peggy Whitson, ISS

Gosh, I’m not sure how to describe it. I was there for the birth of all three of my children. I did the first F-18 intercept of a Bear bomber off the coast of Canada. I represented Canada in a bunch of different levels, including as a fighter pilot. I was a test pilot doing all sorts of very fascinating, challenging, brand new work. I went to Mir, I went to the ISS. But nothing compares to going outside for a spacewalk. Nothing compares to being alone in the Universe; to that moment of opening the hatch and pulling yourself outside into the Universe.

Sometimes you’re driving on a mountain road, it’s slippery and you’re doing a bunch of curves and you don’t really see anything because you have a cliff falling away on one side and another cliff up on the other. But suddenly you come around a corner and you say, “Oh wow!” And there you’ve got the whole valley in front of you, or they make one of those nice pullovers where you can stop and look out, and you do, and you stop and you get out of your car and walk over to the edge and you see where you are, where all those little myopic turns have taken you.

A spacewalk is very much like that in that the opening of the hatch is probably step 750 of the day. And steps 1 through 749 were all boring and minuscule and each one was on a checklist and you had to do every one right, so you were very painstaking. But suddenly you do this one step, and suddenly you are in a place that you hadn’t conceived how beautiful this could be. How stupefying this could be. And by stupefying I mean, it stops your thought.

You’ve probably heard me say this before, but I knew I couldn’t keep notes up there and I would forget stuff so I sorta resolved to myself that I would verbalize and attempt to, as eloquently as I could, express what I was feeling and what I was seeing so that later I could listen to the recordings of it and remember, and not have missed such an amazing experience. And yet when I listen to the transcripts of what I said, most of it was just, “Wow!” It was so pathetic! But the experience was just overwhelming! — Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, STS-100 mission in 2001

Um, I kind of think this guy was cued to on some of his lines…

“I felt superb,” answered Zhai Zhigang, who carried out about 25 minutes of extra-vehicular activity (EVA) about 343 km above the earth after floating out of the Shenzhou-7 cabin on Saturday afternoon.

“The process of taking on the Feitian spacesuit went smooth,” said Zhai, looking confident and radiant on the screen at the BACC. “In the vast space, I felt proud of our motherland.” — Zhai Zhigang, Shenzhou-7

What’s a space suit like:

The space suit, I think it weighs about 300 pounds. We have a white space suit and the reason for keeping it white is so that most of the heat is reflected off of us. What happens is, when we are facing the sun the temperature is about 150 degrees on the front side of our space suit and it is about – 150 degrees on the backside of our space suit. We basically have an ethylene glycol, very much like what flows in the radiator of your car, going through our underwear. In fact we have very fancy underwear that keeps us not too hot and not too cold. We can actually control the temperature of our suit with a little knob that is on the front of our suit and keep it exactly the way we want to have it. If you’re working hard you often turn that temperature down and if you’re waiting for your buddy to finish something and you’re just floating in space waiting, you will actually turn the temperature up because you’ll get a little bit too cold. When the sun goes down as you orbit onto the dark side of the earth, it can get very cold and we often at that time will turn on heaters on inside our gloves so that our fingers don’t get cold because we don’t actually have any fluid flowing around our hands it stops at our wrists basically. So, we have electrical heaters to keep our hands warm and that is very important because the dexterity of our hands is what allows us to do our job on our EVA, Extra Vehicular Activity. — Steve MacLean, Space Shuttle Columbia

And finally:

Next Page →