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Space Science

Ask The Bad Astronomer 412

Posted by timothy
from the but-nothing-dirty-this-time dept.
Astronomer, author, columnist, and successful populizer of science Phil Plait, perhaps best known as The Bad Astronomer, is a regular sight on Slashdot for his unusual ability to find lucid explanations of esoteric scientific claims and controversies. Phil has graciously agreed to answer Slashdot readers' questions, so ask him below about space, science, debunking conspiracy claims, and anything else that makes sense. Asking more than one question is fine (and encouraged!), but please separate unrelated questions into separate posts, lest your questions be moderated down.
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Ask The Bad Astronomer

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  • by 0racle (667029) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:19PM (#37821236)
    You've been doing The Bad Astronomer thing for a while. How come you haven't become a better astronomer by now?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:21PM (#37821258)

    Why does matter exist? Why does energy exist?

    Wouldn't it make more sense for the universe to be empty?

  • Misinformation. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    What do you see as contributing to a seemingly large wealth of misinformation about the sciences?

    Also, do you agree or disagree with Slashdot's one question per post requirements?

  • by earls (1367951) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:26PM (#37821316)

    What is the best way to combat pushers of psudeo-science like the Electric Universe?

  • When do we get more?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Have you seen this series? What do you think about its conclusions?

    • by hexghost (444585)

      lol he'll love that one...

      and by the way, why is that show on so often? I swear, every other week they play it..

      • by tlambert (566799)

        and by the way, why is that show on so often? I swear, every other week they play it..

        Because it's a series. It has 27 episodes so far. And no, I don't watch it.

        Higglety, piggelty,
        Erich Von Daniken
        Tells of green men
        who come from afar;
        next he'll be telling us
        Extraterrestrials
        landed in Dallas
        to murder J.R.

        -- Terry

    • by jd (1658) <imipak@yaCOLAhoo.com minus caffeine> on Monday October 24, 2011 @03:02PM (#37821880) Homepage Journal

      Dunno about the Bad Astronomer, but *my* conclusion is that everyone would be better served if "ancient alien" and "ghost-hunting" programs were shifted off channels like History and Discovery and onto something dedicated to "off-beat" theories. I disagree with censorship, but I also disagree with mixing educational documentaries and conspiracy theorists on the same channel. You either dilute the value of the educational stuff or you give false credibility to the nutcases.

      This isn't to say that I believe the channels shouldn't air unorthodox views - they should, provided it is good science. Nor am I saying that the channels should show all documentaries that fit the orthodoxy - if it's pseudoscience, it's pseudoscience no matter who it agrees with. In fact, I'd be more worried about bad science that attempts to "prove" something that is true, since that is more likely to pervert the casual viewer's ability to critically reason.

      These "science" channels are a big reason why we're becoming an Idiocracy.

      • by DG (989) on Monday October 24, 2011 @03:17PM (#37822106) Homepage Journal

        Those shows should ABSOLUTELY exist - and they should be dedicated to debunking them as completely and unassailably as possible.

        Spend the first third of the show explaining the myth; spend the next 2 thirds ripping it to pieces.

        DG

      • by Patch86 (1465427)

        In the UK, most of the ghost-hunter programmes are funnelled off onto essentially a channel of their own, ironically called "Living". Pleasingly, most of the UFO and conspiracy "documentaries" are shown on the Sci-Fi Channel (er, SyFy these days I guess).

      • Dunno about the Bad Astronomer, but *my* conclusion is that everyone would be better served if "Fair and balanced" news reporting and "Right WIng Nutjob witch hunt" programs were shifted off channels like Fox and and onto some vacant UHF channel licensed in Waco, Texas. I disagree with censorship, but I also disagree with mixing regular news and wacked out conspiracy theorists on the same channel.

        Then Fox can work on resurrecting Firefly and we will all be saner.

        There, that's better.....

  • The universe (Score:4, Interesting)

    by arehm (794243) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:29PM (#37821356)
    What is the universe expanding into?
    • Good question. Even though I sort of know the answer, I'd like a better explanation. Even a scientist like John Dobson, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dobson_(amateur_astronomer) [wikipedia.org], questions the standard answers.
    • by dargaud (518470)
      Into itself. It's a geometry problem, fully described by equations without the need to involve an 'out of this universe' space. Think "what is behind the north pole" ? When you ask a stupid question you get a stupid answer (like '42' or 'god').
    • People have already correctly answered this question in the responses -- it's not expanding into anything -- but it's worth talking about that answer a little.

      It's our nature, when confronted with something we don't comprehend, to try and understand it in terms of something else we know about. So when we try to imagine a physical entity of finite extent expanding, we're drawn to things like that in our lives: a balloon blowing up, or a cake rising as it bakes, etc. Indeed, many of the analogies we're gi

  • by jellomizer (103300) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:30PM (#37821364)

    Which do you find more annoying.
    Star Trek which can spend a good portion of the show trying to explain how and why they break the laws of physics.
    or
    Star Wars which breaks the laws of physics but doesn't care to explain themselves.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      ST:TOS didn't do that. Which is why it's awesome.

      SW 1-3 had to invent Midichlorians. Which is why it sucks.

  • How can I make astrology buffs see the error of their ways? Barring that, what is the best way short of setting them on fire, to prevent them from entering an astronomy conversation?
  • Does the universe stop moving when I go to sleep? Can you prove it?

    I know events can be perceived to "happen" whilst I sleep- but can we be sure these are not just figments caused by the universe rebooting?

    Will the universe cease to exist when I die? Again- can you prove it?

    • by mark-t (151149)
      I'm pretty sure that anyone could prove that it continues to exist after you do... just not to you.
  • Light pollution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Frenzied Apathy (2473340) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:32PM (#37821388)
    There are a large number of light pollution [skyandtelescope.com] articles to be found on the Sky and Telescope [skyandtelescope.com] website. We amateur astronomers are keenly aware that light pollution isn't just about being able to see more stars from our backyard. Yet, when I mention the subject to friends, family, co-workers, etc, I often get a blank stare. "What's 'light pollution'?" What do you think can/should be done to improve widespread public awareness of light pollution and its effects?
  • Pie in the Sky (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:33PM (#37821406)

    If you could give Apollo-level funding to a single NASA program, what would it be? Would you direct that money internally or involve private space companies?

    Finally, what do you think of lunar-based observatories from a cost vs. performance standpoint?

  • by Average_Joe_Sixpack (534373) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:33PM (#37821414)

    What date and time will Eta Carinae go hyper-nova?

  • by UberOogie (464002) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:36PM (#37821468)
    Given your unique position, I'd like to know your answer to this question:

    What do you think is the currently a bigger threat to legitimate science:
    - The growing wave of anti-intellectualism and anti-science that seemingly rejects science outright on certain issues
    - Or the growing wave of pseudo-science that undercuts science by adopting the trappings of science but none of its procedures?

    Thank you for your time.
    • by sconeu (64226)

      What makes you think the two are unrelated?

      • by vlm (69642)

        What makes you think the two are unrelated?

        Different mindset. eccentric vs incompetent.

        Standard /. car analogy #1 : I reject the concept of fuel injectors on religious grounds, therefore my roadster has an ancient 70s era carburetor, and I lose all the races because I'm slow, but I know god loves me.

        Standard /. car analogy #2 : I R an expurt car mekanic and I will now tune up yer (fuel injected) car using dis hear can o carb cleaner spray. Umm wheres da choke linkage? Well anyway, tune in next time when I install philips head screws using my hamm

    • I would think that the anti-intellectuals would be a bigger threat than the pseudo-intellectuals.

      It basically comes down to what group is more likely to accept proof that they are wrong. Pseudo-intellectuals at least show that they value a scientific explanation(even if it's nonsense) and therefore are more likely to accept a different (better) scientific explanation. Anti-intellectuals, on the other hand, put 0 value in a scientific explanation and are essentially imune to any type of proof or reason.

      Obvio

  • by shic (309152) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:37PM (#37821470)

    A question that's bugged me for years.

    Whenever I've been shown a picture of any galaxy, I've noted a swirly thing as flat as a pancake.

    My question: Why are galaxies "flat as a pancake"? If the universe arose from random gas clouds, I'd not expect stable swirling galaxies - at least not on every occasion... I'd have expected to see a cluster of bodies tumbling chaotically. What gives?

      • by shic (309152)

        :) I understand how the angular momentum is conserved. What I want to know is where it came from in the first place.

        • Recently, if I'm not mistaken, they proved (or at least suggested) the Big Bang Singularity was spinning, and thus ... had angular momentum to start. And that explains the "left handedness" of the spin in the universe.

        • by xiox (66483)

          The dark matter in the universe started with a random fluctuation field - see the pictures of the cosmic background radiation. The random distribution gives a tidal torque on matter, giving it angular momentum. As the dark matter collapses into smaller and smaller regions, the angular momentum is conserved. When smaller sub-units of matter collide together the momentum will also build up. See Peebles 1969 [harvard.edu] for one of the first papers.

        • by mark-t (151149) <markt@@@lynx...bc...ca> on Monday October 24, 2011 @03:04PM (#37821908) Journal
          Initially, a galaxy would be just an enormous cloud of hydrogen, swirling around its gravitational center in essentially random directions. However, owing to the fact that it is not ever perfectly symmetrical, the angular momentum of the matter will not perfectly cancel out and there will always be some net angular momentum in one direction (which itself may have precession). Matter will thus have a tendency to be drawn into a plane perpendicular to the axis of the galaxy's net angular momentum through the pull of gravity... and the more matter that gets pulled into the plane, the faster it pulls other matter into the plane. Within a relatively short time (in cosmological terms), you end up with a distinct accretion disk forming around the gravitational center of the hydrogen cloud. This accretion disk eventually forms individual stars (although it's possible that stars could form outside of the disk, it is unlikely because it would not generally be close enough to enough other matter to get large enough for fusion to begin). Each star, in turn, may develop its own accretion disk that becomes the planets that circle it through the exact same process.
  • What's the best way to introduce astronomy to kids in developing countries? Or, to put it in a different way, how would you get kids interested in astronomy without help of latest technology (other than a decent pair of binoculars)? A related questions would be - what would make the best first impact on them? (The idea is to make that one big impression in the beginning so that they are interested in it from the go).

    • by mcmonkey (96054)

      Another question is how to introduce astronomy to kids in developed counties, in areas where light pollution prevents them from seeing stars when they look up to the night's sky.

      • by vlm (69642)

        I've lived in both urban and rural, and light pollution is nasty, but a bigger problem I have had is its either above 80 or below 50 or raining or snowing or ten thirsty mosquitos per cubic inch or foggy ... But for about two weeks in spring and fall I have a blast stargazing.

    • What's the best way to introduce astronomy to kids in developing countries? Or, to put it in a different way, how would you get kids interested in astronomy without help of latest technology (other than a decent pair of binoculars)? A related questions would be - what would make the best first impact on them? (The idea is to make that one big impression in the beginning so that they are interested in it from the go).

      Get to a dark sky and point out constellations. Have kids draw the bright objects in the sky. Wait a couple hours and have them draw the sky again. Wait a week and then do drawings at the same time of night. Repeat for a month.

      Talk about the various motions you've observed together. You'll see the Earth's rotation, the Moon's orbit and lack of rotation relative to Earth, the Moon's orientation changing with respect to the Sun (phases), the Moon falling behind the stars as each week passes, planets chan

  • I've noticed a disturbing trend that as funding levels drop, agencies are receding more to their core areas of study and leaving interdisciplinary scientists high and dry. Furthermore, it seems that there's an inverse relationship between the fund-ability of a project and its efficiency: if a (say) particle physics project is so inefficient it requires 1000 scientists 10 years to get 1 bit of data (like the Top quark discovery) then they're guaranteed to have well-coordinated funding and lobbying effort, whereas projects that deliver results on only a shoestring budget might not have enough people working on them to get any funding at all.

    I'm working at the interface between neuroscience and algorithm theory, and I've already made some very interesting discoveries using borrowed time/funding, but I have trouble shopping my ideas to either pure neuroscience/medical funding agencies (who don't understand the math) or to computer science funding agencies (who don't appreciate the biology). Both sides seem generally excited and encouraging, but neither is willing to fund my future research, since (despite a promising track record) I'm out of the expertise of anyone out there.

    My question is, are we doomed to a future dominated by big science projects working in entrenched specialties on the least-efficient, longest-term, too-big-to-fail science investigations out there? If not, how do we promote efficient, small-scale, interdisciplinary project funding?

    • That's easy.

      If you can come up with a non preposterous mechanism for your work to cure Cancer / HIV / Tuberculosis or Rush Limbaugh you've got a chance. Otherwise, not so much. Bonus points for being able to patent something. Extra bonus points if Facebook can use it.

  • by TheDawgLives (546565) <http://www...suckitdown...org> on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:42PM (#37821554) Homepage Journal
    How do you pronounce the name of the seventh planet from the Sun? I'm in favor of Futurama's solution: rename it to Urrectum.
    • by dkleinsc (563838)

      I support the Greek pronunciation to solve that problem: U (well, upsilon, really) is always 'ooh' as in 'food', and A (again, alpha really) is 'ah' as in 'ramen'. So you get something like 'ooh-rah-noose'.

    • Use the same emphasis and timing you'd use to say Maximus or Tacitus and say the words "urine us."

  • by Natales (182136) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:45PM (#37821602)
    With all the resurgence of hysteria due to 2012 as well as recent major earthquakes, pseudo-scientific explanations to otherwise natural phenomena are becoming the norm of the day.

    One of the ones I've seen more lately are two:

    1) The Schumman Resonance [wikimedia.org], commonly distorted to explain the upcoming "elevation of frequency" or the Earth entering into an "electromagnetic null zone" whatever that means.

    2) The HAARP [wikimedia.org] as a weapon to produce and trigger earthquakes.

    If you could give us a set of precise and concise good shot answers that could help debunk those myths for the layman, it would greatly help to try to make people think more critically for a change... Thanks!
  • by vlm (69642) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:45PM (#37821604)

    Do you see long term trends in various misconceptions?

    It seems subjectively to me that the "vernal equinox egg" deal was WAY more popular in the 80s. Its a random variable on the timescale of a couple years.

    Other misconceptions, like "the far side of the moon is always dark" or "the moon always rises at sunset and sets at sunrise" has a relatively constant rate of mis-belief over time.

    Another type of misconception is the flash in the pan like the "face on mars" which gets intense media attention for awhile and then fades (permanently?) into obscurity.

    Do you see any general trends in the distribution of the three types of misconceptions over time, like one getting more or less popular or ... maybe due to social media or something?

  • Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw recently tried to answer questions on the big bang and other curios of modern cosmology in The Guardian newspaper. It's hard to tell if they were dumbing down the science for the readers, but the general consensus was that their explanations were neither helpful nor informative. This isn't an indictment of their abilities, as there have been countless celebrity scientists in the media who have made a pig's ear of explaining things. Now, science SHOULD be explained, but clearly the

  • by Bonker (243350) on Monday October 24, 2011 @02:47PM (#37821630)

    Phil,

    I was recently reading through some of the '2012 hysteria' on your site and your affiliates... mostly responses to uneducated or superstitious people who've bought into the 'The End is Nigh' madness.

    Since I grew up in a similar environment, I've also been watching the apocalyptic religious fervor surrounding people like Harold Camping with some horror.

    My understanding is that this kind of thing tends to peak near century markers... 'End of the Century == End of the World', so theoretically, the silliness should be tapering off. Right?

    What is your experience on this? Are we seeing a slowdown to the 'End of World' craziness, or is it going to get worse?

  • So everyone knows how post WWII era fictional spaceships sound like P-51 engines, 80s era fictional spaceships all sound like F-16s, and I was curious if there are any recent trends in "fictional spacecraft sounds" that I'm missing that you know about. Do you think that Star Trek 15 or whatever will have the Enterprise sound like the iphone unlock sound? I was thinking with the popularity of military UAVs we might be in for an era of model airplane sounds and flexing radio control servos. Donno. What do

  • In your opinion, what is more important during the next 50 years and why: sending humans or sending robots on 'exploration' type missions?
    • The real myth is that there *is* a flat earth society. Anyone can put up a website. What you are seeing is the results of a debating society, the "members" don't have to really believe that crap. It's the same way you can hire a lawyer to defend you no matter how guilty you are.
  • If our moon weren't tidally locked, would early cultures have entertained sooner the idea the Earth is round?

  • When you were a child there were undoubtedly some science fictions that you believed to be facts (e.g., sound in space, dinosaurs and men, cats and dogs living together). Are there any examples of how realizing the truth was a particularly cathartic act? How did these revelations shape your decision to become a scientist?

  • Meteor collision, alien invasion, dying Sol, or heat death of universe?

  • 1. Astronomers view light that was created in the past. Is the past is viewable in all directions or just one? (If my laymans' view of the "view of the past via light" is way off, please tell me how that works.) If the past is viewable in all directions, the stuff you are looking at is on the rim of the expansion which seems backwards to what I would have guessed. 2. Here on earth, things speed up or accelerate either due to a force from the initial event or an external force (like gravity, energy addition
    • by vlm (69642)

      1. Astronomers view light that was created in the past. Is the past is viewable in all directions or just one?

      I'm predicting you're about to get hit with the classic "inflating balloon" analogy. That is boring, because its the only analogy I've heard for the past 30 years. Does anyone have an analogy other than ye olde inflating balloon? I'm not interested in extremely close analogies (like the effect on tattoos of silicone enlargement of sorta spherical parts, or how the stamped manufacturers info changes when inflating a kickball).

  • Space junk (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dcsmith (137996) on Monday October 24, 2011 @03:01PM (#37821852) Homepage
    How serious is the amount of 'space junk' orbiting Earth? Will it have a substantial impact on the future of space flight, manned or otherwise? What are some of the best (or at least most innovative) ideas you've heard about for deorbiting big junk or cleaning up smaller bits of debris?
    • by Culture20 (968837)

      How serious is the amount of 'space junk' orbiting Earth? Will it have a substantial impact on the future of space flight, manned or otherwise? What are some of the best (or at least most innovative) ideas you've heard about for deorbiting big junk or cleaning up smaller bits of debris?

      And more importantly, can you Predict When Space Junk Will Come Home To Earth? [slashdot.org]

  • by gr8_phk (621180) on Monday October 24, 2011 @03:06PM (#37821934)
    How long do we have to put up with the notion of "Dark Matter"? Whenever I research this, I come back to the "galactic rotation problem" as the most solid evidence. This discrepancy between prediction and observation is clearly rooted in the prediction being wrong. Keplers Laws do not apply to stars in galaxies. Hand waving and incorrect use of Gauss's Law have been going on for decades and we need it to stop. Why do people keep looking for "new physics" when they don't fully understand the physics we have?
    • Keplers Laws do not apply to stars in galaxies.

      Why not?

    • this^^

      I have also wondered about dark matter and dark energy. It really feels like a band-aid theory, similar to the aether theories.

    • I see this anti-dark matter / dark energy stuff a lot on Slashdot. It would be nice if Phil Plait could give a good explanation of the evidence.
    • by pavon (30274) on Monday October 24, 2011 @04:15PM (#37823130)

      Whenever I research this, I come back to the "galactic rotation problem" as the most solid evidence.

      That isn't the most solid evidence. It was just the first evidence, and if it was the only evidence then Dark Matter would not be preferred over the idea of a modified gravitational theory. Since then there have been two major additional forms of evidence for dark matter. The first is gravitational lensing.

      According to General Relativity, mass bends bends light that passes by it. We have measured this effect before with objects of known mass, and the predictions of GR are dead on. Astronomers have looked at how strongly light is bent when passing by large galaxies, and used this to compute the mass of the galaxy. The numbers they get are much greater than the mass of the visible material, and more importantly match up very closely with the estimates of dark matter mass obtained by looking at rotational curves.

      The most outstanding evidence of this is from the Bullet Cluster. Here two galaxies had passed through each other, and you can see how the different types of matter were slowed down by different amounts depending on how likely they were to collide. The gas clouds were slowed the most, and the large structures (stars, etc) slowed down less. But if you look at the gravitational lensing, you see that there is a big chunk of non-visible mass that was not slowed down by the collision at all. This is exactly what you would expect to see if the galaxies contained non-baryonic dark matter, and can't be explained by modified gravity at all.

      The second major evidence is the cosmic microwave background radiation. I don't pretend to understand this, and thus won't try to expound, except to note that the ratio of baryonic matter to non-baryonic matter found using the CMBR also agrees with the dark matter estimates found using galaxy rotation curves and gravitational lensing.

      So we have three drastically different ways of indirectly measuring the same thing, and they all come up with the same result. That is pretty strong evidence in my book.

      How long do we have to put up with the notion of "Dark Matter"?

      My guess is quite a long time, because it is almost certainly correct. Hopefully though, we will have direct evidence of dark matter with the next few decades, which should make it less annoying :)

  • I read that it is impossible to travel or even send information faster than light. But the explanations are bad. If you are in a car traveling at 50% of light speed (0.5c) and you turn on the headlights, for you the light will move away from you at lightspeed because your time is slowed. To stationary (relatively speaking) observers, you will be traveling at 0.5c and the light from your headlights will look like it is traveling at c from their point of view, instead of 1.5c, because time is moving faster

  • Here's a good one:

    Make us some predictions about bad astronomy in the future.

    I'm guessing the 2012 crowd will be pretty disappointed in 2013 and looking for something new. What do you think will be the new hotness in flakiness? Do you think its even possible to predict?

    My theory is flakiness reflects societal concerns. So the rednecks were "worried" about gay people getting civil rights, next thing you know we're deluged with UFO's doing probing of bubbas rearward areas. Following that line of thinking,

  • For those who are not reading/watching it, a huge aspect of that world is that seasons are quite irregular and unpredictable, with winters or summer having sometimes three years, other times lasting up to six or seven years. Apparently, sometimes there are even longer winters, but those are quite rare.

    So, my question is: is it possible for a planet to have Game of Thrones-esque seasons? My guess is that it would require some really weird orbit around a binary start system, but I'd guess such orbits can't po

    • by vlm (69642)

      Single star long period semi-random "chaotic" variable? Perfectly gravitationally stable.

      Check out my pals at the AAVSO American association of variable star observers (not a rickroll, I promise)
      http://www.aavso.org/ [aavso.org]

      It would be hilarious if your author used a real light curve for his books and it was all an inside joke (perhaps the stars name is somehow related to a characters name, or the authors name, or the authors mom's name, etc)

  • I enjoy gazing at the heavens sometimes but by no means would call myself an astronomer. Short of purchasing a telescope and driving out of the city, do you have any suggestions for 'naked eye' astronomy in an area of moderate light pollution?
  • by BeardedChimp (1416531) on Monday October 24, 2011 @03:28PM (#37822272)

    In science a simple misconception can lead to thousands and millions of people being skeptical and disbelieving. For example the large number of people who think that humans evolved from chimpanzees rather than sharing a common ancestor.

    In astronomy what misconception would you class as most dangerous to the general publics understanding?

  • by afabbro (33948) on Monday October 24, 2011 @03:29PM (#37822292) Homepage

    Ever since I read Gary Taubes' "Bad Science," I've been unshakably convinced that cold fusion is an example of pathological science, and Pons/Fleischman's "room temperature fusion" was utter nonsense.

    However, CF believers seems to soldier on year after year. As recently as 2009 [wikipedia.org], the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center reported finding neutron bursts when using heavy water electrolysis, though their claims were not accepted by the mainstream scientific community.

    Has anything emerged since the debunking of Pons/Fleischmann that gives any credence to cold fusion?

    And if you have the time...is there any future for muon-catalyzed fusion (which I understand is legitimate but falls far short of break even for energy production)?

  • Next June, I plan to travel from Boston to Hawaii (probably Kauai) to view the transit of Venus. I can take a small (90mm mak cas) telescope and a solar filter, but trying to cope with airline carry-on luggage restrictions and get a 4" diameter, 10" long aluminum cylinder through airport security is going to be a pain. Can viewing the transit be done using a camera obscura technique like one might use for viewing a partial solar eclipse?
    • by vlm (69642)

      Next June, I plan to travel from Boston to Hawaii (probably Kauai) to view the transit of Venus. I can take a small (90mm mak cas) telescope and a solar filter, but trying to cope with airline carry-on luggage restrictions and get a 4" diameter, 10" long aluminum cylinder through airport security is going to be a pain. Can viewing the transit be done using a camera obscura technique like one might use for viewing a partial solar eclipse?

      Can you ship it via registered insured mail to the prez of the local telescope club about a month in advance? That way if they lose or destroy it you might have enough time to collect insurance, and buy another... Someone may already be making arrangements for this. Also the locals always know the best places to observe, so you may as well contact them anyway.

  • In movies when starships go really fast, shouldn't the light inside the ship red and blue shift visibly as well?
    I mean, at 0.5c the light in front of the spectator ought to have its wavelength halved, at .75c halved again etc.
    At .75c these nice bright halogen lamps on the ships ought to provide a nice mix of hard UV radiation on the front, and burning hot IR from behind...

  • Is Bill Nye a worse astronomer than you?
  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Monday October 24, 2011 @03:58PM (#37822830) Homepage
    What do you think is the answer to Fermi's question? That is, why do you think we see no signs of intelligent life other than humans?
  • by Tablizer (95088) on Monday October 24, 2011 @04:18PM (#37823184) Homepage Journal

    If one views UFO's as a mystery instead of as "aliens", do you think there's a legitimate case for further study, even if it may only produce psychology lessons?

    Reliable pilot and passenger witnesses have seen "flying disks" in broad daylight up close, for example. I'd like to know what triggered that perception if it's not "real".

  • by syousef (465911) on Monday October 24, 2011 @04:28PM (#37823382) Journal

    Everywhere I look it seems that large astronomical instruments are being shut down. Here in Australia I've learnt that the Parkes Radio Telescope is in imminent danger, and one scientific institution gave away a 1m telescope to an amateur so that it would no longer need to be funded. Clearly science funding in general and astronomy funding in particular is in crisis with such instruments, that took decades to realize, being dumped unceremoniously. The usual excuse is the economy but the truth is that there have been darker days. While amateur equipment has gotten remarkably capable and affordable it's not going to replace world class instruments any time soon. What do you think can be done about funding, so that the next couple of generations can continue to make discoveries?

  • by wisebabo (638845) on Monday October 24, 2011 @04:41PM (#37823604) Journal

    Do you support finishing the JWST which is now substantially behind schedule and over budget? (I realize that many of the problems were caused by Congress but unfortunately that's where we are today). What about if a substantial amount of the money needed to complete it is taken out of other astronomy related programs? :(

  • by wisebabo (638845) on Monday October 24, 2011 @04:47PM (#37823712) Journal

    If you had to choose a major (Discovery?) class probe to look for life beyond earth which celestial body would you send it to?

    Mars (methane outgassing?)
    Europa (subsurface ocean?)
    Enceladus (water "fountains"?)
    Titan (liquid water, ammonium, hydrocarbon ocean?)

    Are you familiar with Peter Ward's book "Life but not as we know it" in which he makes a strong case for Titan? Do you agree?

  • by Restil (31903) on Monday October 24, 2011 @06:12PM (#37824934) Homepage

    Any chance of ever bringing back your Mad Scientist section, where you do a Q&A sort of like the Straight Dope, only with generally more Astronomy related topics? That's the particular feature that caused me to discover your site in the first place.

    -Restil

  • by roc97007 (608802) on Monday October 24, 2011 @06:38PM (#37825244) Journal

    I mean, really.

  • by EdZ (755139) on Monday October 24, 2011 @06:58PM (#37825460)
    You've made you're position fairly clear on whether the current recent warming trend in global temperature is anthropogenic. My question is: do you think a mere reduction in (or cessation of) anthropic CO2 emissions will significantly reduce this trend, and whether larger scale geoengineering is an inevitable requirement to maintain the abnormally long stable warm period that humanity has thrived in for the last few millennia?
  • by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968&gmail,com> on Monday October 24, 2011 @07:21PM (#37825728) Journal

    And i'm strictly a layman sky gazer so apologies if I don't use the right terminology. 1.-What would you say our risk level for NEOs is? I know we make fun of the Naburu or whatever that crazy rogue planet thing is called but last I heard we had only mapped about 2% of the sky and with all that space it does make me wonder if we would actually see a NEO that was a danger before it was too late to do anything, and as a follow up 2.- If we were to spot a NEO that was a danger do you believe we could divert it with our current technology, if so how so? Gravity tractor, using nukes as shockwaves to divert, maybe solar sails? How far away would the NEO have to be detected at for these to work?

    Again I apologize if I didn't use the exact terminology, just an average Joe who like looking at the stars and Jupiter through a friend's 6 foot telescope and these things I have been wondering. Thanks for your time and keep up with the debunking!

  • by Bifurcati (699683) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:22AM (#37828414) Homepage
    A genie appears and offers you one true yes/no answer to any question you ask (subject, perhaps, to xkcd rules [xkcd.com]). What would you ask?
  • by Bifurcati (699683) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @02:25AM (#37828434) Homepage
    If I held a laser blaster to your head and demanded a forecast, what do you think civilisation will look in 5,000 years?

    E.g., will we have colonies on other planets? Other star systems? Will we have robots/AI/cyborgs? Will we have a high tech world? Low tech? Nox [wikia.com] tech?

  • by modi123 (750470) on Tuesday October 25, 2011 @10:19AM (#37831082) Homepage Journal

    Way back when I was a freshman in college I was considering a carrier in astronomy and physics, but I opted for the more flashy and showy job of application development. Is there room for hobby astronomers to contribute in a meaningful way to the global community, or should I stick with the crowd-sourcing projects on https://www.zooniverse.org/ [zooniverse.org] ?

  • by north.coaster (136450) on Wednesday October 26, 2011 @02:31PM (#37846986) Homepage
    We're always hearing about threats to our planet from outer space. Asteroid impacts Gamma Ray bursts. Invaders from Mars. The list goes on. What do you think is our biggest threat from space, and why?
  • by fuego451 (958976) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @12:16PM (#37857140) Journal

    Phil,

    In January of '09, The BBC ran a story [bbc.co.uk] on research done by scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Using the VLBA they found what they felt was very good evidence that our galaxy is about the same size as Andromeda (150k ly). However, very few of their fellow astronomers, including you, are touting this new size. Why? Was the study flawed?

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.

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