In October 2017, astrobiologist Karen J. Meech got the call every astronomer waits for: NASA had spotted the very first visitor from another star system. The interstellar comet — a half-mile-long object eventually named `Oumuamua, from the Hawaiian for “scout” or “messenger” — raised intriguing questions: Was it a chunk of rocky debris from a new star system, shredded material from a supernova explosion, evidence of alien technology or something else altogether? In this riveting talk, Meech tells the story of how her team raced against the clock to find answers about this unexpected gift from afar.
A talk on how the process would work presented a couple years ago. Interesting how closely the actual image matches the reconstruction before they did it.
At the heart of the Milky Way, there’s a supermassive black hole that feeds off a spinning disk of hot gas, sucking up anything that ventures too close — even light. We can’t see it, but its event horizon casts a shadow, and an image of that shadow could help answer some important questions about the universe. Scientists used to think that making such an image would require a telescope the size of Earth — until Katie Bouman and a team of astronomers came up with a clever alternative. Bouman explains how we can take a picture of the ultimate dark using the Event Horizon Telescope.
I ran across this image of the interstellar asteroid. It struck me that I recognize an artist’s impression as the actual representation of the object. Because we do not have an actual photo, an artist made something. And yet, to me, it IS the asteroid enough that when I see the impression photo, I think it is.
It started to bother me that my brain has become so tricked, but I think I am about to get over it. We do this all the time. When I think of a very generic term like cat, my current cat comes to mind. Even if I go for an animal I have never seen before in person, then I think of an image of one or something similar. Being visual creatures, images are how we think, so we need something like an impression to recognize it.
Fermi wondered why we have not met aliens. He recreates an equation which we are still just figuring out some of the constants. Part of it wonders how many civilizations wipe out themselves. This Great Filter makes people concerned any time life on our planet is threatened.
During the Cold War, the concern was a nuclear war would wipe out human civilization or even all life. Olivia Butler’s Xenogenesis series is a little dated as it concerns this period. I heard about the Fermi Paradox back then. A distant second was an asteroid impact. Lately a popular concern is global warming being the Great Filter. Artificial Intelligence seems a close second.
Whatever is our current social concern for how we are going to kill off ourselves seems to be what we think killed off other intelligent species. We wonder how they could have survived it or why they died off in failing to.
At least these Great Filter concerns get us discussing how humanity can survive. Though, I wish we are further along in space travel as we need to spread out in the universe to survive.
Over the years, I have thought about owning a house a Mexico Beach, FL. However, I knew that hurricanes are inevitable. So, there is no way I would own one on the beach because it would likely get destroyed by a hurricane. However, I felt better about a house well back from the beach, like a fifth of a mile. Michael’s storm surge leveled even half of the houses that far back.
Over a decade ago, I had a conversation with a coworker about this question. I think where I landed was a buffer zone. I would love the Florida coast to be a series of state parks. Towns can start a tenth of a mile back. The state parks could build sea walls and encourage the development of sand dunes over them. Hopefully, such a plan would better protect them from a storm surge.
The trick though is Mexico Beach is built on a barrier island. The town has not expanded much inland because bay behind the island has mostly filled in to create wetlands. Building there probably means more flooding from rain. So people would go from flooding from storm surges during the occasional hurricane to flooding nearly yearly. So, they would have to still build higher much like New Orleans.
Also, as the sea levels rise, places like Mexico Beach will need to move inland as well.
Hurricane Michael leveled much of Mexico Beach, which is a place I know pretty well. Spread out over my lifetime, but a rough impression is, I think, I have spent about half a year at this particular town. That would rank it third longest of places where I have lived.
Several people have expressed surprise about this hurricane was as strong as it was. I wonder if part of the problem is communication. This hurricane quickly intensified. A meteorologist I follow from UGA wrote Tuesday morning when it had increased to a Cat 2:
He was communicating this storm was quickly intensifying and to expect something far stronger than the usual storms that strike this area. People I love live in Valdosta, which was being named dropped over and over as a likely target for the storm after it made landfall. Everyone I know chose to hunker down and ride it out even as the likely winds to hit Valdosta increased through tropical storm to Cat 1 and Cat 2. People with large trees that could cave in the roof of their homes. My wife’s extended family in the Panama City area also chose to stay.
Why? I called my mother to encourage her to come to stay with us because Valdosta was in the path. She didn’t want to leave. My mother described that Hermine was pretty bad, but it wasn’t that bad for them. A tree damaged just a corner of the roof. Hermine was also a Category 1 with 80 mph winds where it came ashore and probably down to tropical storm strength where Mom lives. Thankfully Michael came ashore well west of Hermine and tracked away from Valdosta family, so they were spared the worst part. We still have not heard from most of my wife’s Panama City family.
4 am Monday CDT (October 8): … there is a real possibility that Michael will strengthen to a major hurricane before landfall.
He also said:
Yes, the rapid intensification was shocking but there was plenty of information hinting or explicitly stating that a major hurricane (even category 4) was possible.
I guess my point is hints are not enough. The reason why stores have prices ending in 99 cents is that one extra cent difference lowers sales because people tend to have the impression it is more expensive. Saying “3 or higher” pins people to think 3, not 4 or 5. This effect, called Framing, is pretty well studied in how people make poor decisions because of it. Even marketers study how to use it to influence shoppers. Maybe if some behavioral economics experiments are done to see show Framing affects the way people interpret meteorological messaging, scientists looking not to overstate what they are seeing may learn they are inadvertently giving people a different impression than intended. It is a struggle to be sure, to find the correct way to communicate this stuff.
What’s six miles wide and can end civilization in an instant? An asteroid — and there are lots of them out there. With humor and great visuals, Phil Plait shows us all the ways asteroids can kill us (yipes), and what we must do to avoid them.
Cosmology, origin of life, and astronomy are topics about which I read quite a bit. Any NASA and JPL discovery makes me stop whatever to read more about it. This is not something new as one of my school science fair projects was on O-Rings and Challenger. Before that I even attended Space Camp. (This was all so I could post this cute photo.)
Carl Sagan discusses the presence of hydrocarbons other than Earth in The Varieties of Scientific Experience. Materials vary in the distance from the Sun at which they condense. Water condenses at the distance of Earth. Methane condenses out at the distance of Saturn. This makes perfect sense for Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, who has lakes of methane. How hydrocarbons formed on Earth if they are not readily available is the problem.
Then I made the mistake of seeing this, Life Could Have Hitched a Ride to the Moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which discusses the idea that lithopanspermia, microbes catching a ride on meteoroids, could have helped life on Earth or Mars reach the outer planets or their moons. Perhaps it worked the other way around? I have heard similar ideas that comets or panspermia from Mars or planets outside the solar system could be the origin of life on Earth. The latter is an extraterrestrial.
If one finds Earth-style cellular life forms on Europa, then how does one determine whether it came from Earth to Europa or from Europa to Earth? Successful colonization on Earth usually means the colonies having larger populations than the parent. Look at how many people in the world speak English as their primary language compared to the population of England. Or French vs France. That analogy suggests Earth could be the colony of somewhere else in the solar system. I hope we do find life near the outer planets as the amount of speculation and journal articles will be very entertaining.
P.S. The Varieties of Scientific Experience was originally Glasgow University Gifford Lectures for the theme The Search for Who We Are in 1985.
The Alpha Centauri system — composed of three stars orbiting one another — is only 4.4 light-years away, a cosmic stone’s throw from us. Though the newly discovered planet has about the same mass as our own, its orbit is 25 times smaller, so a year on this planet passes in just 3.2 days. This means the planet is sitting up against its star, roasting at perhaps 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit with a surface likely composed of molten lava.
Last year I read the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. In Foundation and Earth, Asimov describes a water covered planet with a small island with refugees of Earth on a planet named Alpha orbiting Alpha Centauri. This gem is nowhere close to the fictional Alpha. But, still, a planet so close is exciting!
We have a long way to go before we could travel there as well. Probably not in my life time. Nor in the next few generations.