We’ve been at this for nine years now! The first post on Seattle Astronomy happened January 11, 2011. It’s been a fun ride! On our birthday we’re looking back on our favorite stories of the last 12 months.
Moon landing anniversary
The big story of 2019 was the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first human landing on the Moon. We had quite a lot of activity around the anniversary. The best had to be the Destination Moon exhibit at the Museum of Flight, which included the command module Columbia that carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon and back. We wrote about the Seattle exhibit, and were fortunate enough to have seen it in St. Louis during the summer of 2018.
Every four years the American Astronomical Society meets in Seattle, and 2019 was one of those years. Our favorite session of the meeting was a talk by Yale astronomy professor Gregory Laughlin about ‘Oumuamua, the strange interstellar visitor that whizzed through our solar system in late 2018. Our article also included information from Ka’iu Kimura, executive director of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo, Hawaii, about how objects discovered by instruments on the islands are being given Hawaiian names.
We’d love to cover more such events even when they’re not held in Seattle. Your support with a subscription through Patreon can help bring that about. Please consider contributing; even a dollar a month will bring us closer to being able to support travel to events of interest to the astronomy community.
Meeting David Levy
The year started off well with a chance to chat with David Levy, author and comet discoverer who was the keynote speaker at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society last January. Levy gave an engaging talk about his life and his love of astronomy and writing.
The next total lunar eclipse possibly visible from Seattle will be in May of 2021.
The semi-successful observation was a try at a rare transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun on November 11, 2019. In our story we describe waiting out a possible look at the transit through insistently cloudy skies that morning. Finally there was a Sun break, just minutes before the transit was to end. I thought I caught a fleeting glimpse of Mercury just before it cleared the Sun’s disk, but then, Mercury being speedy of foot, was gone. I and a group of interested folks to gathered at Seacrest Park had fun anyway. We successfully viewed a Mercury transit from there in 2016. The next visible from Seattle won’t happen until 2049.
That’s our recap of the year. We look forward to our tenth anniversary celebration 12 months hence!
I was sorely tempted to headline this post “Alien megastructures discovered in Ballard,” but that would have meant sinking low into the sort of clickbait science that concerns Dr. James Davenport. Davenport, a research scientist at the University of Washington, gave a talk about the topic at the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.
Davenport described himself as a big fan of science, and noted that to be such one needs to be OK with failure.
“Being wrong is just nature telling you, no, try again. Come up with a better idea, a better explanation for how the universe is working,” Davenport said. “If you love science, you have to love the struggle and you have to love truth.”
Davenport believes that it’s important to communicate about science, but often that leads to misconceptions or outright lies. Sometimes the misinformation is silly stuff, like trying to pump up the hype about a lunar eclipse by calling it the super blood wolf coyote Moon. Sometimes it’s just wrong. An example is what now seems like the annual return of social media posts announcing that Mars is going to appear as large as a full Moon in the night sky. This particular hoax may date back to 2003, when Mars actually was closer to Earth than it had been in some 60 thousand years. The falsehood was based on a nugget of truth, and Mars was an especially good target for astronomers that summer, but if you looked up it was still just a bright red dot in the sky. When someone doesn’t see that giant Mars they might conclude that science is stupid.
“Little by little we chip away at your interest, your excitement, your enthusiasm, your belief, and your trust in science as an institution,” Davenport lamented.
You’ve probably read many stories for which you found that the headline had little to do with the actual content. The purpose of the headline is to make you look. Davenport noted this phenomenon related to media coverage of Boyajian’s star, which brightens and dims in odd and unexpected ways. Scientists kicked around a lot of possible explanations for this observation. Maybe it’s a weird dust cloud or passing comets or debris from an asteroid collision. Someone even suggested a Dyson sphere or some other sort of “alien megastructure.” This grabbed the attention of the headline writers, and articles in Scientific American, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Discover magazine, and others featured headlines about the possible discovery of alien megastructures, though the articles essentially said, “probably not.”
“There’s real science here but oh, golly, we need to be careful about reporting it,” Davenport said. “We have an obligation as scientists to be really careful and I worry that we’re not.” The truth about Boyajian’s star has yet to be figured out.
Where’s the rigor?
Another challenge for science communication is that there are some sites out there that are not exactly rigorous. For example, Davenport shared the following tweet from a site called Physics and Astronomy Zone.
You probably know that Pluto has not been reinstated. The tweet links to an old article—from April Fool’s Day. Also attached to that article are a slew of links to “stories” about the gifts men really want, amazing rebates for seniors, alien DNA in marijuana, and lots of other nonsense. It’s pure clickbait.
“This is a machine to get you to click on things, to get your eyeballs on things, to get you to engage with things so they make a few pennies,” Davenport said. “They do that a million times a day.”
There’s a lot of churn there. @zonephysics has more than 900 thousand Twitter followers.
“This is a huge impact for nonsense,” Davenport said. “Where is the celebration of truth?”
Davenport figures there are three things we can do to battle against the spread of pseudo-science and downright rubbish:
Communicate about science; don’t leave it to pseudoscientists spread misinformation
Share and intervene. Point out bunk when you see it.
Get the help of technology and tech companies to figure out how to weed out bad sources and find a way to remove the incentive for clickbait.
“We need other solutions besides just eyeball time equals dollars equals the only thing that matters on the Internet,” Davenport said. “We need tools that help us optimize for things beside just eyeball time. We need tools that help us figure out what’s the most efficient way to get knowledge across. What’s the most efficient way to help us identify bad actors who are spreading misinformation and intervening when people are trying to share that content.”
There’s some heavy lifting ahead.
“We need to do science outreach. We need help from everyone to spread truth and identify falsehoods. And we need the help of technology,” Davenport concluded. See below to watch his entire talk!
Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington. They’re taking a break in December and their next event will be held January 22, 2020.
There have been a slew of books published about the Moon in the last year or so as we observed the 50th anniversary of the first human steps on the lunar surface. Among the more interestingly conceived and handsomely presented of those is Moon: An Illustrated History (Sterling, 2019) by astrobiologist and science communicator Dr. David Warmflash.
Moon: An Illustrated History is more than just the story of lunar exploration. It is essentially a collection of one hundred one-page essays about key moments in the history of the Moon, each accompanied by a marvelous illustration. The book lives up to its subtitle of From Ancient Myths to the Colonies of Tomorrow. It goes back 4.5 billion years to the Moon’s formation, and along the way takes many a look at how the Moon inspired science and scholarship and culture over the years.
Knowledge is power
Knowing a lot about the Moon can be important. It would have helped a group of Chinese court astronomers back in the 22nd century BCE, who were executed by emperor Chung K’ang because they didn’t predict the occurrence of a solar eclipse. Emperors needed to know these things; the mythology of the times gave great predictive power to unusual celestial events.
Warmflash explores a number of advancements in the development of lunar calendars, the first of which appeared some ten thousand years ago during the Mesolithic era. Later the Sumerians developed some incredibly complex calendars while trying to sync up the Moon and the Sun into a year.
It’s fascinating to read about the role the Moon has played in the building of knowledge over the centuries. Warmflash takes us back in history to the time the Greeks figured out why the Moon has phases and why there are eclipses. Other chapters explain how the Moon was key to calculating the size of the solar system and how it helped astronomers make an early confirmation of general relativity.
Some of Moon: An Illustrated History’s more interesting illustrations look at some of the great thinkers of the past. These include folks we in the west might not have heard about, such as the Arab mathematician Ibn al-Haytham and Indian astronomer Aryabhata. Others depict more familiar names, such as one imagining a chit-chat between Halley and Newton and another depicting a confab between Kepler and Emperor Rudolf II.
The last forty of the book’s chapters cover the space age, beginning with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Many of these later chapters come along with some of the most iconic imagery of the space age, including the “Earthrise” photo shot by astronaut Bill Anders from Apollo 8 and Neil Armstrong’s portrait of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon that shows the photographer and the lunar module reflected in the subject’s mask. The articles are loaded with little tidbits about lunar exploration that you probably didn’t know.
The final few chapters turn an eye to the future of exploration and possible settlement of the Moon.
Each of the chapters of Moon: An Illustrated History is cross-referenced to others that take on similar topics, so the reader can easily follow a particular thread. It’s a well-done volume that would make a fine gift for any Moon-o-philes on your list. Warmflash says that the book is available in Seattle at Elliott Bay Book Company, the Queen Anne Book Company, Island Books on Mercer Island, Barnes and Noble, and possibly others. If you buy through Amazon by clicking the book cover above or the link in the first paragraph of this article, Seattle Astronomy receives a small fee that helps support our site. We appreciate that!
Finally, Warmflash notes that he, along with Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt and others, is featured in a documentary called Oregon’s Moon Country that will air December 16 on Oregon Public Broadcasting. You can stream online as well; details in the link above.
All good streaks must come to an end, like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Cal Ripken, Jr.’s consecutive games-played record of 2,632. This morning Seattle Astronomy‘s personal mark of successful astronomical observations of Sun-related events was snapped at a modest four when we failed to spot Mercury during its transit across the face of the Sun.
Hope of spotting Mercury remained alive until the bitter end. I arrived at Seattle’s Seacrest Park just before sunrise when the transit had already been under way and below our horizon for a couple of hours. We got a few glimpses of the Sun during the morning, most not enough to register even a glimmer of light through properly filtered optics. Then came proof that Mother Nature can be cruel and sadistic, especially to those who would practice astronomy in Seattle. With the transit slated to end at about 10:04 a.m. PST, the clouds parted a bit at about 10:02, setting off a mad scramble to point, focus, and look. I thought I caught the barest edge of Mercury leaving the disk of the Sun, but I couldn’t be sure. There were lots of clouds in the view. The Sun was there but Mercury, true to his fleet-of-foot reputation, was gone. I count it as a nice try.
Not everyone who came to our viewing event was skunked. Seattle-based Associated Press photographer Elaine Thompson caught this shot during a brief clearing:
It pays to be prepared! The day was not a total loss. Many folks enjoyed a look at the Mercury-free Sun after the transit, a nice woman named Liz brought some Top Pot donuts to share, and hanging around at the beach waiting to spot Mercury with some new friends was not a bad way to spend a Monday morning.
The weather forecast is decidedly iffy for folks in Western Washington to view the transit of Mercury across the Sun on Monday morning, November 11. But a number of groups, including Seattle Astronomy, are planning to be out and waiting for breaks in the clouds in order to catch a glimpse of this relatively rare astronomical event.
Typically there are 13 Mercury transits visible in any given century, and there will be 14 of them during the 21st Century. We last had one visible from Seattle just over three years ago, in May of 2016. Tomorrow’s will be the last until 2032, but that one and the next won’t be visible from North America. Our next chance to see a Mercury Transit from Seattle will be in May of 2049.
Thus we’ll be down at Seacrest Park in West Seattle near the Water Taxi dock in hopes that we won’t have to wait 30 years or travel halfway around the globe to see Mercury in transit. We’re aware of a handful of other viewing opportunities tomorrow in the Northwest:
Watch our calendar page for others; we’ll add them if we hear about them for the rest of the day.
There are a couple of things to consider when viewing the transit. First, the requisite warning not to look at the Sun without eclipse glasses or a properly filtered telescope. Second, you’ll not likely see Mercury without some magnification; it’s pretty small. Third, don’t try to use eclipse glasses with a telescope or binoculars; the equipment itself must be properly filtered or severe eye damage will result.
Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one periodically on Seattle Astronomy.
Today’s Astro Biz is 7 Moons Red Blend wine from the 7 Moons Wine Company of Oakville, California. The red blend is a mixture of wine from seven different grape varietals: Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Malbec , and Grenache. The company also makes a “dark side” red blend, though its website does not point out how it differs from the standard, and sticklers will quibble with the use of dark side, as the far side of the Moon is often illuminated.
There’s a bit of fun involved as the company uses seven different corks, each depicting one of the Moon’s phases. They urge imbibers to collect all seven, though there’s no indication of any sort of prize for successfully doing so.
The most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle promised to take us inside the way science is really done, and delivered with tales of unexpected successes and a colossal fail that left a team of cosmologists with cosmic egg on their faces.
Leah Fulmer, a second year graduate student in astronomy at the University of Washington, gave a talk titled “Falling with Style: How Astronomy’s Most Intriguing Discoveries Happen by Accident.” Fulmer noted that astronomers have lots of choices when it comes to their research. They can select which part of the sky to examine, what to look at, how long to look, how often to look, and in which wavelengths of light to look, just to name a few. There’s lots of potential there.
“Every time we look at the universe in a new way we discover new phenomena that we never even expected to see,” she said. Fulmer shared three historical examples of such scientific serendipity.
The first was the detection of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) back in the 1960s. At the time it was theorized that 400,000 years after the Big Bang the CMB would have left its energy throughout the universe as a result of the event. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson had access to a big radio telescope and were working on doing some radio astronomy. The problem was that they couldn’t tweak out some pervasive and persistent noise from their observations. Meanwhile down the road some theorists at Princeton were trying to figure out how to detect evidence of the CMB. Penzias and Wilson had already done it!
“By accident they took this telescope that NASA had built for satellite communicaiton, they stuck it out there, and they found literally the origins of the universe,” Fulmer said. “This changed our understanding of astronomy and physics as we know it and it was a really, really big deal, just by looking at something in a new wavelength.”
More recently the operators of the Hubble Space Telescope decided to pick out an empty, black part of the sky and have the scope stare at it for 100 hours. Many scientists thought this was a bit daft.
“They found what’s now known as the Hubble Deep Field,” Fulmer said. “They found an incredible plethora of galaxies that they never expected to see.” It revolutionized our understanding of the number of galaxies in the universe and added greatly to the types, shapes, and sizes of galaxies that we know about.
The Kepler Space Telescope found thousands of exoplanets, and collected data on so many things that scientists couldn’t possibly look at all of them. They enlisted citizen scientists through Zooniverse to help examine objects. Participants looked at the data and among their findings is an oddly behaving star for which its light curves defy explanation. We now know of it as “Tabby’s Star,” after astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, who wrote the paper about the discovery.
“To this day we don’t actually know what this star is,” Fulmer said. There have been lots of ideas about the odd light curves, from a random pack of asteroids that might be irregularly blocking light, some sort of cosmic catastrophe that kicked up debris, and even giant space structures built by an unknown civilization.
“It’s very precarious for an astronomer to suggest that this might be aliens,” Fulmer laughed, noting that the media would have a field day with that sort of thing.
The potential for discovering strange new things in the universe is about to increase. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is scheduled to go online in a few years, and when it does it will collect petabytes of data, doing a complete sweep of the sky every few nights for a decade.
Fulmer said a big part of her job in the project will be to help “develop an algorithm that is going to be able to systematically identify the things that we’ve never seen before.” That’s a tall order, combing all of that data for things we know about, things that have been theorized, and those that come out of the blue.
“We don’t what surprises we might find,” Fulmer said, “but that’s what makes it so exciting.”
Samantha Gilbert, a first-year graduate student in astronomy at the UW, told a story about a colossal and embarrassing failure. Her talk was titled, “Leaving the Competition in the Dust: A CMB Case Study.”
“The story I want to tell you tonight has everything: It has science. It has drama. It has egos. It has really esoteric vector math,” Gilbert said to laughter. “It encapsulates some of the things that are really wrong with how some people do science today.”
The story also involves the cosmic microwave background. Cosmologists are trying to figure out what happened between the Big Bang and the formation of the CMB 400,000 years later. A leading theory is that there was a period of inflation in the moments after the Big Bang during which the universe expanded rapidly. If that happened, it would have created gravitational waves, and those waves would have left behind a pattern in the CMB that we could recognize, called “B-mode polarization.”
“B-mode polarization is an extraordinarily difficult thing to detect,” Gilbert said, “but proving it exists, proving that inflation really happened by detecting the traces of inflationary gravitational waves” would be Nobel Prize-worthy.
That’s where the intrigue starts. One group striving for this discovery had an experiment called BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), which was followed by BICEP2, which had more sensitive detectors than the first version and more of them. They found what they were looking for. In fact, the signal of B-mode polarization was even stronger than anticipated. The team declared the discovery during a 2014 news conference at Harvard, issued a video, broke out the bubbly, and in general whipped up lots of hoopla about the discovery.
In the following months some 250 papers were published in response to BICEP2. One of them was from BICEP’s main competitor, the Planck Experiment, and their point was that BICEP’s discovery was bunk and that what they detected was not B-mode polarization, but cosmic dust.
“The fact that BICEP2 had so confidently announced a result that was so quickly disproven had a rippling effect throughout the community,” Gilbert said. “Scientists were horrified because they thought, ‘now the public is going to discredit us, they’re not going to trust us.’ Journalists were also horrified because they felt they had a role in spreading disinformation.”
They were also seeing an ugly side of the scientific community.
The need for speed
How did this happen? BICEP principal investigator Brian Keating wrote a book about their process, titled Losing the Nobel Prize (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018). Gilbert summarized their decision-making.
She said BICEP2 only looked at one wavelength of light so they could get the results as quickly as possible. They knew about the possibility of cosmic dust, but didn’t have the tools to distinguish between dust and B-mode polarization. The Planck folks were thought to have the data, and BICEP asked them to share. They declined.
This led BICEP to jump to the conclusion that Planck also had evidence of B-mode polarization and were aiming to scoop them on the discovery and dash their dreams of a Nobel Prize. So they hurried to make the announcement. This might have worked out OK, if they’d been right, but the BICEP group made one other glaring error.
“They actually hadn’t put their paper through peer review,” Gilbert noted, generating groans among the science-savvy audience at Astronomy on Tap.
“That is a no-no,” she understated. “That is a bad thing to do because peer review is what makes science credible in the first place. It’s a really important check against the dissemination of junk science. You really need other scientists to independently assess your results.”
Gilbert said the bad decisions were all motivated by fear.
“Overly competitive environments are part and parcel of an individualistic conception of science and an individualistic conception of science says that the most important thing is to get a result before your competition,” she said. “When that’s the environment that you’re working in you tend to make decisions based on fear.”
“I would argue that the reason that BICEP2 made these decisions based on fear is that they were operating in such a toxically competitive environment that it became dysfunctional,” Gilbert said. “Whether you think competition is really good for science, really bad, or somewhere in between, I think that this case study shows us that it’s really worth thinking about the ways that we systemically and interpersonally encourage competition, and how that might jeopardize our ways of knowing.”
Gilbert said there’s hope for the future. The hunt for B-mode polarization continues, and BICEP and Planck are teaming up going forward, combining their resources and know-how in the work.
“Competition might be the most efficient way to A result, but collaboration is probably the most efficient way to a RELIABLE result,” she said.
Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington.