Today I turn 31. Somehow I’ve managed to go this long without knowing that I shared a birthday with the famous astronomer Edwin Hubble (after whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named). This is cool! Even though I also share my birthday with Joe Biden, Mike D (of the Beastie Boys), and Robert F. Kennedy, by far the coolest is Edwin Hubble. If this is not proof of the immensity of my nerdiness, I don’t know what is.

Hubble was a pioneer in the field of extragalactic astronomy. His work, along with that of his colleagues and observations from other astronomers, led to the realization that the universe is continuously expanding. This is know as the metric expansion of space, and is a key component of the Big Bang Theory. Yeah, pretty serious stuff. I feel pretty cool to share a birthday with Mr. Hubble. Were he still alive, he would be 123 years old.


Michael Eades mentioned this yesterday, but I didn’t get a chance to check it out fully until today. The makers of Google Chrome are doing some very cool experiments with their browser, pushing the limits of what’s possible. This scalable, true-to-scale visualization of our home galaxy, centered on our own Sun, is simply phenomenal. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen on the internet in quite some time. Bravo, Chrome-people. Bravo. Do yourself a favor and check it out now.

The bad news (for you at least): No more posts this week because this afternoon I’m embarking on my yearly SXSW jaunt. I’m back in the world of the badgeless this year, and currently have no obligations or assignments from the Scene, so this year should be interesting. Also, my band Scale M0del is playing the Red Gorilla Festival on Friday at 3pm at the Dizzy Rooster on 6th St. So if you’re down there, try to stop by! It’s totally free and doesn’t require a badge or wristband of any kind. Actually that may not be bad news for you at all, because it’s probably of little significance to you whether I post the rest of the week.

But, I do have good news! Wormhole travel is slightly less inconceivable now thanks to some research by a team of physicists from Germany and Greece! In short- those convenient things called wormholes that made intergalactic travel possible in science fiction such as Stargate, Contact, etc… are actually pretty tricky business, and were once thought to require unfathomable amounts of negative energy to keep stable enough for a person to travel through. All the while, the very existence of negative energy isn’t even a sure thing. BUT, this new research pulls from elements of string theory, quantum theory, and other far-out theories to get around that massive negative energy requirement. This New Scientist article explains it all, so head over and check it out. It’s a long one, but well worth the read. Unfortunately the idea of traveling through a wormhole is still pretty inconceivable, because according to these new calculations, the wormhole would have to be tens to hundreds of light years across in order for a human to travel through it without getting ripped apart by tidal forces. I actually LOL’d at the line “…our galaxy’s stars are crowded together within a few light years of each other. While this doesn’t prevent the existence of a wormhole with a mouth tens of light years across, it makes it hard to position it so that star systems don’t accidentally fall in. Fallen stars would surely disrupt the timetable and so users might avoid our galaxy altogether.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is one of those articles which requires you to create an account through New Scientist, but it’s free, and all you’ll have to endure is a few email newsletters full of fascinating discoveries and other tidbits from the science world. Not bad if you ask me.

I shall see you back here sometime next week, whenever my brain and liver have fully recovered from SXSW. Till then, cheers!

Image via Wikipedia

Our old friend Gliese 581 just keeps getting more and more interesting. Astronomers have discovered yet another VERY interesting planet orbiting this star. The star itself is a red dwarf- much smaller and cooler than our own sun, which mean it’s habitable zone is much closer than that of our sun. This new planet is only about 3 times the mass of earth, and it is within the star’s habitable zone!

Clearly this is exciting, but it’s still not a true “earth-twin” because we have no way to determine if the planet even has an atmosphere. It was discovered the same way all 5 other planets in this system have been discovered- the radial velocity, or “wobble” method in which astronomers measure the planet’s tug on the star as it orbits. I’m assuming the planet does not line on the plane of our line of sight to the star, otherwise we’d have transit observations to go along with these RV observations. Also, because it is so close (it orbits in only about 37 days) it’s probably tidally locked. This means the planet rotates at the same rate it orbits the star, resulting the same face of the planet always facing the star, exactly how or own moon always faces us with same side. Thus, one side of the planet would be much hotter than the other, and this is big mitigating factor in the likelihood of the planet harboring life.

The big deal here is simply that there is a somewhat earth-like planet orbiting a star right at our galactic doorstep. The Gliese 581 system is only about 20 light years away. Statistically, if earth-like planets were rare in our galaxy, the chances of one being so close to us would be VERY VERY low. So having one at our doorstep means that earth-like planets must be pretty common in our galaxy, VERY common, in fact. I have a strong feeling that as more data from the Kepler mission comes in, they’re going to start popping up everywhere, and that’s exciting.

I could go on and on, but what I’ve presented thus far is a condensed version of the Bad Astronomy post that just went up, so head over there to get the full details. As always Phil does a great job presenting the facts in laymen’s terms.

Eating lunch with the Darlins in the Bronx.

So I’m back! It was a blast and I’d do it all again in heartbeat. I don’t have time to give a full rundown, but quite possibly the most memorable moment was realizing that a tornado was hitting Brooklyn while Those Darlins were soundchecking in Bowery Ballroom. Here’s the official weather report from the NWS. Needless to say, tornadoes are pretty rare in NYC. Thankfully we were in Manhattan while all this was happening. Those Darlins have some great new songs on their new record, and their setlist for this tour is mostly those new songs, peppered with the favs from their debut, and the free single “Nightjogger” which you can download at the Nashville Cream. Basically they’ve taken on a bit more of a pure rock & roll character, and drummer “Sheriff” Linwood Regansburg has taken on a much more prominent role in the songwriting, and even sings on one of the new songs, though they’re not yet playing that song live. Stay tuned for more on them and more on the results of my photo documentary project.

Meanwhile, here are some awesome things I came across while catching up on all my RSS feeds:

Vaccines absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, do NOT cause autism. A new study explored every possible way that thimerosal containing vaccines (TCVs) could be linked to autism and there was none. Absolutely no connection whatsoever; the same findings as the many other studies that have been done to investigate the claims of the anti-vax crowd. In fact, the result hinted that the administration of TCVs between birth and 7 months may actually reduce the risk of autism. It’s very simple, get your kids vaccinated! If you don’t, you are a threat to public health. Vaccines are one of mankind’s greatest scientific breakthroughs and have saved countless lives. There will always be a miniscule (and utterly negligible) risk of a bizarre allergic reaction or other complication, as there is with any medication or vaccine, but that risk is far, far, FAR outweighed by the benefits. And those risks have now been proven once and for all NOT to include autism.

A pair of astronomers have made an official prediction that the discovery of the first truly earth-like exoplanet will happen in less than a year– May of 2011. They used a well-known methodology called Scientometrics to make this prediction. I’d venture to say that to me, nothing in the field of astronomy, or even science in general, is more exciting than the very likely possibility of life on other planets. The discovery of the first true earth twin is a major step in that path. I really hope this prediction comes true.

Five awesome facts about NASA’s next robotic mission to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory (a.k.a. Curiosity) which will launch in late 2011.

23 amazing photographs from the 1940s and 50s of nuclear bomb tests conducted by the US Military. This New York Times photos series is utterly fascinating, mainly because of images 5 through 7. Most of us have seen plenty of images of the mushroom clouds created by nuclear blasts, but those 3 images are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. They were taken with a super high-speed camera and literally captured the blast at the very instant the explosion began. If I saw this image out of context I would probably think it was a microscope image of some sort of virus. The amazing irony here is that both a virus and an atomic bomb are incredibly destructive, yet in such completely different ways.

The actual scale of the observable universe, from the smallest possible thing the largest possible thing, is utterly impossible for the human mind to comprehend. Mathematicians came up with the concept of “orders of magnitude” to help with this, but I say it’s still impossible for any human to really grasp. But this fun little interactive Flash animation is pretty cool way of displaying the concept. (Via Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter)

Screenshot from Sasselov's talk

So there’s been a bit of a media buzz lately about the possibility that the Kepler space observatory may have discovered 100’s of earth-like planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy. Recently at a TED talk, one of the chief investigating scientists on the Kepler team, Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, mentioned that the team had found “candidates” for “earth-like” worlds, “that is, having a radius smaller than twice Earth’s radius.” Many mainstream media outlets have twisted this into reports saying that we’ve found 100’s of earth-twins (having an atmosphere, liquid water, etc…) orbiting other stars.

First of all, we HAVE NOT confirmed ANY of these as exoplanets yet. It will take considerable follow-up observations by other telescopes to confirm these as exoplanets, and not glitches or other phenomena that look like a transiting exoplanet. Also, the phrase “earth-like” as he used it simply means that it’s similar in size to earth. Just because an exoplanet is similar in size and composition to earth does not mean it is habitable. In fact, most of the exoplanet candidates have fast orbits and are very close to their parent star (which is why they were detected so quickly). This would make them much more akin to Mercury or Venus- both of which are far too hot to sustain life. The true earth-like exoplanets (that are in the habitable zone, have a similar radius, and could potentially harbor life) will take at least another year to discover, simply because they have longer orbital periods- closer to 1 year. Most of this information was culled from Dr. Sasselov’s NASA blog post in which he clarifies what he was saying in his talk. For even more info, check out Universe Today.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly excited about this mission, but I’m not going to pop the champagne cork until those scientists issue an official press release saying something like, “YES, we have definitely PROVEN that planet earth is not unique, and our galaxy is filled with small, rocky planets orbiting within the habitable zone of their parent stars.” That is a day I’ve dreamed of ever since I was a little boy fascinated by astronomy programs on the Discovery channel and the X-Files. There has been tons of speculation on this matter, but until now there was no solid, observational evidence to PROVE it.

January is often a time for lots of updates from the world of astronomy, because it’s when the American Astronomical Society has their yearly conference/meeting. This year’s is a big one, with lots of news regarding exoplanets. Unofortunately, no Earth-twins have been found yet but there are some other interesting stories from Kepler and many other sources. Some highlights so far:

The Kepler mission has found its first batch of exoplanets, all of which are gas giants similar to Jupiter (though one is reportedly more like Neptune) orbiting very close to/quickly around their parent stars. It’ll be a few years before it finds anything else, because anything else takes a lot longer to orbit. Since Kepler is specifically looking for transiting planets (the planet passing directly between its parent star and us) it has to have 3-4 transits to be absolutely sure of its findings. Since planets like ours take a year or more to orbit… well, you do the math. It even found one gas giant that has the same approximate density as sytrofoam. (Via NASA and NewScientist)

Another interesting tidbit to come out this year is a much clearer picture of just how common solar systems like our own are in the universe/galaxy. According to astronomers from Ohio State University, who were heading up a larger collaborative effort called MicroFUN (micro-lensing follow-up network), about 1015 percent of all stars have planet systems like ours (meaning a few gas giants orbiting far out, with probably a few small, rocky planets in closer). 10-15 percent may seem like a small number, but when you consider the overall vast number of stars just in our own galaxy alone, you’ll realize that even 10 percent equals hundreds of millions of solar systems. It should be quite obvious now that there are other worlds out there very similar to our own, we just haven’t found solid evidence of them yet, so we can’t be 100% sure. But I am confident the Kepler, the CoRoT mission, or maybe even a ground-based telescope, will find one within the next decade. (Via EurekAlert! and

Here’s a little bit of everyday science for you:

We’ve all been annoyed when we get out of our cars or walk across a carpeted room in the winter time and shock the #&*$@! out of ourselves on the door/other metallic object. So why the hell does it always happen so much more in the winter? It has to do with the humidity. Especially in the eastern US, the winter months are much MUCH drier than the summer ones. (Remember that Relative Humidity is NOT a direct measurement of how much moisture is actually in the atmosphere, go by the dewpoint- the lower the dewpoint, the less moisture is in the air.) Colder air has less moisture capacity than does warmer air, thus the winter months are very dry. Well all know that static electricity is the buildup of an electric charge in our bodies and/or clothes due to simple friction. During the summer months when the air is more humid, the moisture in the air allows those charges to constantly dissipate because we all know water is a good conductor of electricity. The static electric charge never has a chance to build up because it’s constantly “seeping” away into the moist air. In the winter, the dry air does not conduct and “seep” away the static electric charge, allowing it to build up until we reach for something metallic such as a doorknob and POW! the electricity instantly discharges in one big spark and we get shocked.