January 25, 2018

The Canals of Mars – Eye of the Beholder – Extra Sci Fi – #10

Filed under: Books, History, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Extra Credits
Published on 23 Jan 2018

The Canals of Mars ignited so many imaginations, especially in science fiction stories, but they never really existed. What made us believe in them? And why did so many writers keep dreaming about them even after the theory had been disproved?

August 8, 2017

QotD: The next “Carrington Event”

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The last one happened in 1859. The Earth was hit by a cloud of magnetized plasma from a “coronal mass ejection” — something that our Sun often does. Most fly off in other directions; the last that barely missed us was in July, 2012. (You can tell it missed from the fact that the Internet still exists.) The last bullseye on our beloved planet was named after the brilliant English amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington (1826–75), who, in the course of figuring out what happened, demonstrated the existence of “solar flares.”

He was trying to explain why telegraph operators all over the world, on the 1st of September, 1859, were suddenly getting electric shocks; and then, prior to the whole cable system going down, why some had been able to send and receive messages even after disconnecting their power. Too, why auroras had lit up the night sky at temperate latitudes so bright people could read newspapers by it; or why those at higher elevations near the equator could enjoy the aurora borealis and the aurora australis — simultaneously.

Now, the world a sesquicentury ago was not so dependent upon electricity as it is today. And the system of telegraphy was so ridiculously simple, that it was soon repaired. I daresay Morse Code is worth learning in preparation for the next Carrington Event — which, when it comes, we will be able to predict, at best, a few hours in advance. (Other cosmic events might impinge on our lifestyles meanwhile, but I like to consider my apocalypses one at a time.)

Gentle reader may do a mental inventory of the gizmos in his environment that are connected directly or indirectly to the power grid. Then add in anything that contains a computer chip, whether it happened to be “on” or “off” when the Earth’s magnetic field was impacted. For I assume it will all turn “on” of its own, for a brief but memorable interval.

The “beauty” (as they say in Cape Breton) is that we have no back-up system, and moreover, there can be no back-up, except what we can rig from horse, or paddle. For we have made ourselves totally dependent upon sparks.

On the plus side, the environmentalists may exult, because the quick reduction of the world’s population to post-Plague mediaeval levels could prove a lucky break for the other endangered species.

It will, even more happily, improve national security for the survivors in USA. For the same magnetic storm that makes the cities (and towns) of America uninhabitable will also have disabled the military capacities of Russia, China, and Iran. If they want to come at us they will have to do so in sailing ships. Moreover, the depopulation of Mexico will probably reduce the invasion threat from there, whether or not Donald Trump is President.

David Warren, “The highest tech”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-08-22.

July 25, 2017

The Greatest Scientist of the 20th Century You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Filed under: History, Religion, Science, Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 13 Jul 2017

There’s a perception that religion and science go together about as well as mayonnaise and marshmallows. In some instances, this is, perhaps, true. But on a typically warm Southern California January in 1933 at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California (the same place and same time that Jack Parsons of rocket science fame was doing his experiments — history intersecting!), religion and science proved that these two ideals didn’t have to be enemies.

Want the text version?: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/02/georges-lemaitre-greatest-scientist-youve-never-heard/

April 30, 2016

QotD: “SETI is a religion”

Filed under: Quotations, Religion, Science, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Cast your minds back to 1960. John F. Kennedy is president, commercial jet airplanes are just appearing, the biggest university mainframes have 12K of memory. And in Green Bank, West Virginia at the new National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a young astrophysicist named Frank Drake runs a two-week project called Ozma, to search for extraterrestrial signals. A signal is received, to great excitement. It turns out to be false, but the excitement remains. In 1960, Drake organizes the first SETI conference, and came up with the now-famous Drake equation:

N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL

[where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet’s life during which the communicating civilizations live.]

This serious-looking equation gave SETI a serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses — just so we’re clear — are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the universe in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief. SETI is a religion.

Michael Crichton, “Aliens Cause Global Warming”: the Caltech Michelin Lecture, 2003-01-17.

November 16, 2015

QotD: The Great Filter

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Science, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The Great Filter, remember, is the horror-genre-adaptation of Fermi’s Paradox. All of our calculations say that, in the infinite vastness of time and space, intelligent aliens should be very common. But we don’t see any of them. We haven’t seen their colossal astro-engineering projects in the night sky. We haven’t heard their messages through SETI. And most important, we haven’t been visited or colonized by them.

This is very strange. Consider that if humankind makes it another thousand years, we’ll probably have started to colonize other star systems. Those star systems will colonize other star systems and so on until we start expanding at nearly the speed of light, colonizing literally everything in sight. After a hundred thousand years or so we’ll have settled a big chunk of the galaxy, assuming we haven’t killed ourselves first or encountered someone else already living there.

But there should be alien civilizations that are a billion years old. Anything that could conceivably be colonized, they should have gotten to back when trilobytes still seemed like superadvanced mutants. But here we are, perfectly nice solar system, lots of any type of resources you could desire, and they’ve never visited. Why not?

Well, the Great Filter. No knows specifically what the Great Filter is, but generally it’s “that thing that blocks planets from growing spacefaring civilizations”. The planet goes some of the way towards a spacefaring civilization, and then stops. The most important thing to remember about the Great Filter is that it is very good at what it does. If even one planet in a billion light-year radius had passed through the Great Filter, we would expect to see its inhabitants everywhere. Since we don’t, we know that whatever it is it’s very thorough.

Scott Alexander, “Don’t Fear The Filter”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-05-28.

June 28, 2015

The Fermi Paradox — Where Are All The Aliens?

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 6 May 2015

The universe is unbelievably big – trillions of stars and even more planets. Soo… there just has to be life out there, right? But where is it? Why don’t we see any aliens? Where are they? And more importantly, what does this tell us about our own fate in this gigantic and scary universe?

Videos, explaining things. Like evolution, time, space, global energy or our existence in this strange universe.
We are a team of designers, journalists and musicians who want to make science look beautiful. Because it is beautiful.

November 14, 2013

Scientific facts and theories

Filed under: Environment, Science, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:32

Christopher Taylor wants to help you avoid mis-using the word “fact” when you’re talking about “theories”:

These days, criticizing or questioning statements on science can get you called an idiot or even a heretic; science has become a matter of religious faith for some. If a scientist said it, they believe it, and that’s that. Yet the very nature about science is not to be an authoritative voice, but a method of inquiry; science is about asking questions and wondering if something is valid and factual, not a system of producing absolute statements of unquestioned truth.

It is true that people need that source of truth and it is true that we’re all inescapably religious creatures, so that will find an outlet somewhere. Science just isn’t the proper outlet for it.


The problem is that there’s no way to test or confirm this theory [plate tectonics]. You can make a model and see it work, you can check out types of rock and examine fault lines, and you can make measurements, but that’s only going to tell you small portions of information in very limited time frames. Because the earth is so huge, and because there are so very many different pressures and influences on everything on a planet, you can’t be sure without observation over time.

And since the theory posits that it would take millions of years to really demonstrate this to be true, humanity cannot test it enough to be certain. So all we’re left with is a scientific theory: a functional method of interpreting data. In other words, it cannot be properly or accurately describe as fact.

This is true about other areas. The word “fact” is thrown around so casually with science and is defended angrily by people who really ought to know better. Cosmology does this a lot. Its a fact that the universe is expanding from an unknown central explosive point (although there is a fair amount of data that’s throwing this into question). We can’t know because we can’t have enough data and there hasn’t been long enough to really test this.

Michael Crichton’s criticism of global warming was along these lines. He didn’t deny anything, he just said its too big and complex a system that we understand far too little about to even attempt to make any absolute or authoritative statements about it. Science has gotten us far beyond our ability to properly measure or interpret the data at hand, but some still keep trying to make absolute statements anyway.


And that’s the heart of a scientific theory. It isn’t like a geometric theorem (a statement or formula that can be deduced from the axioms of a formal system by means of its rules of inference), or a theory that Sherlock Holmes might develop (a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural). A scientific theory is a system of interpreting data (a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena). It’s a step beyond a hypothesis, which is simply speculation or a guess, but is not proven fact.

Confusing theory with fact is really not excusable for an educated person, but some theories are so wedded to worldviews and hopes that they become a matter of argument and even rage. Questioning that theory means you’re an idiot, uneducated, worthless. If you doubt this theory, you’re clearly someone who is wrong about everything and should be totally ignored in life, even showered with contempt.

For all its rich vocabulary, English fails to correctly differentiate among the various uses of the word “theory”, which allows propagandists and outright frauds to confuse the issues and obscure the difference between what science can say about an issue and what believers desperately want to be true.

December 25, 2011

The top 100 images from ESA/Hubble

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:06

Click for full-size image

Some breathtaking images from everyone’s favourite vantage point in space.

H/T to Lois McMaster Bujold for the link.

January 12, 2011

Fancy a bit of online skywatching?

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: — Nicholas @ 09:08

Here’s the home page of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

January 5, 2010

The real universe is like an original Star Trek set

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:26

The moon may not be made of cheese, but how about a planet made of styrofoam?

A giant planet with the density of Styrofoam is one of a clutch of new exoplanets discovered by NASA’s Kepler telescope. The planets are too hot to support life as we know it, but the discoveries, made during the telescope’s first few weeks of operation, suggest Kepler is on the right track to find Earth’s twins, researchers say.

More than 400 planets have now been found orbiting other stars, but Earth-sized planets — which may be the best habitats for life – have remained elusive.

NASA’s orbiting Kepler telescope is designed to find them. It has been scrutinising 100,000 stars since April 2009, searching for telltale dips in starlight created when planets pass in front of their host stars.

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