Some cool science-related stuff I’ve come across the past few days:

  • Let’s be frank, the climatologists were absolutely dead wrong in their prediction of a warmer-than-average winter in the eastern US for 2010/2011. Their forecast was based on the fact that historically, La Nina winters are warmer in the eastern US. We are definitely in a La Nina winter, so what the hell has been going on? The fact is, the global climate is VERY complex, and our computer models for both short-term and long-term forecasting are still struggling to get a grasp on what’s really going to happen. The main culprit for our cold winter this year is the Arctic Oscillation. This is another large-scale weather pattern that is fairly unpredictable over the long-term, and has so far overpowered any effects the La Nina pattern has had on the southeast US. The Nashville office of the National Weather Service has been posting fairly frequent updates about this situation, so I recommend reading the latest one to get the detailed explanation you may or may not be desiring. It would appear that winter will be re-establishing its grip on TN for a few more weeks at least.
  • In the past year all the major mobile phone service providers have been touting their new 4G networks. But honestly none them have speeds even close to what was traditionally defined as “4G.” The International Telecommunication Union has a set of standards for what speeds can be considered 2G, 3G, 4G, and so on. 4G used to be defined as download speeds of 100 Mbps to 1Gbps. Those kinds of speeds won’t be attained for 4 to 5 years, by most estimates. In December of 2009, the ITU changed the rules on what can be called 4G, which allowed all mobile phone service providers to instantly start labeling their slightly improved wireless broadband speeds as such. Most of these speeds are probably better described as “3.5G” or “3G+” but I honestly don’t care. I just don’t want people to think that the speeds they’ll experience on their mobile browsers is somehow leaps & bounds faster. This information came from an article on Wired that I recommend if you want more detailed info.
  • I came across this amazing video clip on Universe Today on Monday, but am just now getting around to posting. The sense of scale when talking in astronomical terms is very difficult for a human mind to comprehend, so when things like this come along that really help illustrate that sense of scale, I’m fascinated. This video clip shows what several different planets, including another earth, would look like in the night sky if they were as close to us as the moon. Just wait until Jupiter shows up. (According to the comment from the creator below the video, this is actually what it would look like through a weak pair of binoculars… so what you’re seeing isn’t meant to depict the entire night sky, only about 62 degrees of it.) Be sure to click on the HD button and make it full screen.

Warning: I’m about to rant.

If I hear one more person say “look at this winter and all this snow… global warming… yeah right” I’m going to punch them in the fucking face. If you believe for one second that this winter’s excessive snow and cold weather in the southeastern US proves global warming is a myth, then you are simply solidifying your incredible ignorance and utter stupidity. There is a big difference between the terms “weather” and “climate.” Weather refers to the day-to-day changes in precipitation, temperature, barometric pressure, wind, etc… Climate refers to long-term, general trends in weather. We’re talking decades and centuries. That’s why global warming is referred to as “climate change,” not “weather change.” We will still have variations in seasons, even as global warming continues. Some winters will be colder and snowier than others, and some summer will hotter and drier than others. Some springs will be stormier, and some falls will have more hurricanes. These small-scale variations can be affected by long-term climate change, but there are many MANY other factors that come into play with small-scale weather events. One thing you may not realize about this winter (if you’re from anywhere east of the Mississippi) is that while we’ve had a cold, snowy winter in the east, most areas in the American west have had a very warm, dry winter. This is why there have been so many problems with Olympics. The mountains around Vancouver have not had as much natural snow as usual, and it’s also been warmer than usual. The direct reason for this winter’s weather is best described as a perfect combination of El Nino and the Arctic Oscillation. The AO is in a more negative phase this year than it has been in decades, which means the cold air at the northern latitudes is dropping farther southward into the US. This, combined with the very active and moist southern jet stream (which resides mostly over Mexico, Texas, and into the Gulf states), has resulted in a snowy winter for the southeastern US. This does NOT mean global warming is false! The average GLOBAL temperature is still warmer than normal. All this is explained in a much-less rant-y fashion at the Weather Underground blog. More details about the negative AO can be found in this AccuWeather article. Hey, Sen. James Inhofe, you just proved your massive ignorance and incompetence with your little igloo stunt next to the Capitol.

Rant over. Now for some much more pleasant science goodies…

The latest shuttle mission to the ISS, still in progress, delivered the new Tranquility node with a huge 7-panel window called Cupola, which was officially opened on Wed. Check this article on Universe Today for more details and to see pics of it. Look for many spectacular photos from this window to be released soon.

What would normally be a fairly unimpressive, routine rocket launch turned into a spectacular event last Thursday. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite launched on top of an Atlas V rocket. What makes this so special is the amazing coincidence of the rocket’s sonic boom (created as it surpasses the speed of sound) with its passage through the cirrus cloud layer. The weird looking ripples you see at about 1:50 into the video below are REAL. It looks like some kind of computer effect, but it’s NOT. There are still shots of them as well. What’s even more amazing is that another atmospheric phenomenon called a sun dog was happening at the time as well, and it appears that the sonic boom disrupted the ice crystals in the cloud, destroying the sun dog. All this via Bad Astronomy.

Well, they played in Nashville at the Basement for their fan club, so why shouldn’t Metallica play another small show at Stubbs BBQ during SXSW? Rumor has it they will. I can’t imagine how painfully crowded that place will be. I’ve never been there, but it holds about 1500. So far my plans to go with Seth this year are holding up. We’ll probably never have a chance of getting into the Metallica show though, if it even happens.

The NY Times is reporting that dirt may actually be good for babies and children. I’ve been saying this for a long time now. Obsessive mothers who keep their babies and everything around them spotless and ultra-sanitized are actually making the child’s immune system weaker, and making him/her more prone to allergies. It’s a little hard to swallow the part about worms being healthy, but I totally believe it. As with everything, common sense rules here. If your toddler boy has been playing with dog turds… yes, I’d say wash his hands before he eats! But if he was just making mudpies, who cares? Via kottke.org.

This is scary to think about, but global warming may be irreversible. According to this Universe Today article, scientists have found that while methane, nitrous oxide, and other pollutants may go away in a few decades, the extra CO2 we’ve expelled into the atmosphere may stick around for a thousand years or more. Unfortunately CO2 is the biggest contributor to the greenhouse effect. I think this simply means that we have to find a way to make gigantic CO2 scrubbers that can actually remove some of the CO2 from the atmosphere. They already have them on the space station and space shuttles. I know- the costs of expanding that technology to a scale that would even make a dent in the overall CO2 levels of the atmosphere are probably unimaginable, but I say it’s worth it. The alternative could be mass famine and major world wars. Another possibility it just planting a shit-ton more trees, and greatly decrease logging to the point that we’re generating more forest than we’re destroying. Trees are the cheapest CO2 scrubbers around. Good luck with that idea though….

So for all you snow lovers out there, this coming monday/tuesday might be Nashville’s best chance at getting a significant snowfall. As always, it’s too early to say anything for sure, but the models are showing a low pressure system forming over LA/MS and tracking east-northeastward across GA, and then up the east coast, turning into a nor’easter. At the same time this low forms, an arctic airmass will be sliding southeastward from Canada. If the low tracks just right, strengthens and becomes “cutoff,” and if the arctic air slides down at the exact same time the moisture is being pulled around the northwest sector of the low, we’ll get a pretty significant snowfall. If the low tracks further north, then the warm gulf air will win-out and we’ll have mostly rain, and a little snow at the tail-end of the system, much like what happened yesterday. If the low stays further south, the moisture will stay south along with it, and we won’t get much precip at all. Stay tuned, this will be an interesting one to watch as the models get more accurate. Below is a graphic of the GFS model run showing precipitation, pressure (where the lows and highs are), and 850 Mb level temps. (That means temps at a few thousand feet up.) Temps are shown in Celsius here, and the key is that blue line that says “0,” meaning freezing line.

And now for a time-lapse video of a baby playing with his toys over 4 hours, condensed down to 2 minutes.