The Little Ice Age & Global Warming

In some quarters of the media, global warming is presented as a natural rebound from an epoch known as the Little Ice Age. Is it possible the rise in global temperatures represents a natural recovery from a prior colder era? The best way to answer that is to understand what the Little Ice Age was and determine if natural forcings alone can explain the recent rise in global temperatures.

The Little Ice Age refers to the period from 1300-1850 when very cold winters and damp, rainy summers were frequent across the Northern Europe and North America. That era was preceded by the Medieval Warm Period from 950-1250 featuring generally warmer temperatures across Europe. Before we get into the temperature data, lets take a look at the physical and cultural evidence for the Little Ice Age.

Retreat of the Formi Glacier from A-1890, B-1941, C-1997, and D-2007. Source:

You can see the retreat of the glaciers in the Alps at the end of the Little Ice Age to the current day. In the Chamonix Valley of the French Alps, advancing glaciers during the Little Ice Age destroyed several villages. In 1645, the Bishop of Geneva performed an exorcism at the base of the glacier to prevent its relentless advance. It didn’t work. Only the end of the Little Ice Age halted the glacier’s advance in the 19th century.

The River Thames Frost Fairs

The River Thames in London froze over 23 times during the Little Ice Age and five times, the ice was thick enough for fairs to be held on the river. When the ice stopped shipping on the river, the fairs were held to supplement incomes for people who relied on river shipping for a living. These events happened in 1684, 1716, 1740, 1789, and 1814. Since then, the river has not frozen solid enough in the city to have such an activity occur. An image of the final frost fair is below:

The Fair on the Thames, February 4th 1814, by Luke Clenell. Credit: Wiki Commons

The Year Without a Summer

The already cold climate of the era was exacerbated by the eruption of Mt. Tambora on April 10, 1815. If volcanic dust reaches the stratosphere, it can remain there for a period of 2-3 years, cooling global temperatures. The eruption of Mt. Tambora was the most powerful in 500,000 years. Its impact was felt across Europe and North America during the summer of 1816. From June 6-8 of that year, snow fell across New England and as far south as the Catskill Mountains. Accumulations reached 12-18 inches in Vermont. In Switzerland, a group of writers, stuck inside during the cold summer at Lake Geneva, decided to have a contest on who could write the most frightening story. One of the authors was Mary Shelley and her effort that summer is below:

First Edition cover for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Credit: Wiki Commons

Let’s take a look at what the hard data says about the Little Ice Age. Below is a composite of several temperature reconstructions from the past 1,000 years in the Northern Hemisphere:

Credit: IPCC, 2007.

The range of uncertainty is wider as we go back in time as we are using proxies such as tree rings and ice cores rather than direct temperature measurements. However, even with the wider range of uncertainty it can be seen that temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere were about 0.50 C cooler than the baseline 1961-90 period. Was the Little Ice Age global in nature or was it restricted to the Northern Hemisphere?

Recent research indicates that the hemispheres are not historically in sync when it comes to temperature trends.  One key difference is that the Southern Hemisphere is more dominated by oceans than the Northern Hemisphere.  The Southern Hemisphere did not experience warming during the northern Medieval Warm Period.  The Southern Hemisphere did experience overall cooling between 1571 and 1722.  More dramatically, the Southern Hemisphere is in sync with the Northern Hemisphere since the warming trend began in 1850.  This indicates the recent global warming trend is fundamentally different than prior climate changes.

The Census of Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Painted in 1566, inspired by the harsh winter of 1565. Credit: Wiki Commons.

Keep in mind that we are dealing with global averages.  Like a baseball team that hits .270, but may have players hitting anywhere between .230 and .330, certain areas of the globe will be hotter or cooler than the overall average.  During the 1600’s, Europe was colder than North America, and the reverse was the case during the 1800’s.  At it’s worst, the regional drops in temperature during the Little Ice Age were on the order of 1 – 2 C (1.8 to 3.6 F).  At first glance, that might not seem like much.  We tend to think in terms of day-to-day weather and there is not much difference between 0 and 2 C (32 and 35 F).  But yearly averages are different than daily temperatures.

We’ll take New York City as an example.  The hottest year on record is 2012 at 57.3 F.  The average annual temperature is 55.1 F.  If temperatures were to climb by 3 F, the average year in New York City would become hotter than the hottest year on record.  Again, using the baseball example, a player’s game average fluctuates more so than a career batting average.  You can think of daily weather like a game box score, and climate as a career average.  It’s much more difficult to raise a career batting average.  In the case of climate, it takes a pretty good run of hotter than normal years to raise the average 2-3 F.

Although the Northern Hemisphere was emerging from the Little Ice Age in the late 1800’s, cold winters were still frequent. This train was stuck in the snow in 1881, the same winter that served as the inspiration for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, part of her Little House on the Prairie series. Credit: Minnesota Historical Society.

Lets go back to the climate history.  Global temperatures dipped about 0.5 C over a period of several centuries during the Little Ice Age.  Since 1800, global temperatures have risen 1.0 C.  This sharp increase gives the temperature graph the hockey stick look.   The latest warming trend is more than just a return to norm from the Little Ice Age.  There are two other factors to consider as well.  One is the increasing acidity of the oceans, the other is the cooling of the upper atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid.  Since 1800, the acidity of the oceans have increased by 30%.  A rise in global temperatures alone does not explain this, but an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide delivered to the oceans via the carbon cycle does.  As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, it traps more heat near the surface.  This allows less heat to escape into the upper atmosphere.  The result is the lower atmosphere gets warmer and the upper atmosphere gets cooler.  The stratosphere has cooled 1 C since 1800.  A natural rebound in global temperatures would warm both the lower and upper atmosphere, observations do not match this.  However, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does explain this.

The Little Ice Age looms large historically in that the colder climate played a role in many events leading to modern day Europe and America.  What caused the Little Ice Age?  That is still a matter of debate.  The Maunder Minimum, a sustained period of low solar activity from 1645 to 1715, is often cited as the culprit.  However, solar output does not vary enough with solar activity to cause the entire dip in global temperatures during the Little Ice Age.  As the old saying goes, correlation is not causation.  That’s were the science gets tough.  You need to build a model based on the laws of physics explaining causation.  While the cause of the Little Ice Age is still undetermined, the origin of modern global warming is not.  To deny that trend is caused by human carbon emissions, you have to explain not only the warming of the lower atmosphere, but the cooling of the upper atmosphere and increase in ocean acidity.

To date, no one has accomplished that.

*Image atop post is Hendrick Avercamp’s 1608 painting, Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters.  Credit:  Wiki Commons.

Evidence for the Big Bang

The evolution of the world can be compared to a display of fireworks that has just ended, some few red wisps, ashes, and smoke. Standing on a cooled cinder, we see the slow fading of the suns, and we try to recall the vanished brilliance of the origin of the worlds.” – Fr. Georges Lemaitre

Since the ancient astronomers, humans have wondered about the origins of the universe.  For most of history, mythology filled the void in our knowledge.  Then with Issac Newton, scientists began to assume the universe was infinite in both time and space.  The concept of a universe that had a discrete origin was considered religious and not scientific.  During the 20th century, dramatic advancements in both theory and observation provided a definitive explanation how the universe originated and evolved.  Most people I talk to, especially in America, are under the impression the Big Bang is just a theory without any evidence.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, every time you drink a glass of water, you are drinking the remnants of the Big Bang.

In 1916, Einstein published his general theory of relativity.  Rather than viewing gravity as an attractive force between bodies of mass, relativity describes gravity as mass bending the fabric of space-time.  Think of a flat trampoline with nothing on it.  If you roll a marble across the trampoline, it moves in a straight path.  Now put a bowling ball on the trampoline, the marble’s path is deflected by the bend in the trampoline.  This is analogous to the Sun bending space-time deflecting the paths of planets.  Once Einstein finished up on relativity, he endeavored to build models of the universe with his new theory.  These models produced one puzzling feature.

The equations describing the universe with relativity produced the term dr/dt.  The radius of the universe could expand or contract as time progresses.  If you introduced matter into the model, gravity would cause space-time and the universe itself to contract.  That didn’t seem to reflect reality, and Einstein was still operating with the Newtonian notion of an infinite, unchanging universe.  To check the contraction of the universe, Einstein included a cosmological constant to relativity to offset the force of gravity precisely.  By doing this, Einstein missed out on one of the great predictions made by his theory.

Balancing forces are not unheard of in nature.  In a star like the Sun, the inward force of gravity is offset by the outward force of gas as it moves from high pressure in the core to lower pressure regions towards the surface.  This is referred to as hydrostatic equilibrium and prevents the Sun from collapsing upon itself via gravity to form a black hole.  Einstein’s cosmological constant served the same purpose by preventing the universe as a whole from collapsing into a black hole via gravity.  However, during the 1920’s, a Catholic priest who was also a mathematician and astrophysicist, would provide a radical new model to approach this problem.

Georges Lemaitre had a knack for being where the action was.  As a Belgian artillery officer, Lemaitre witnessed the first German gas attack at Ypres in 1916.  Lemaitre was spared as the wind swept the gas towards the French sector.  After the war, Lemaitre would both enter the priesthood and receive PhD’s in mathematics and astronomy.  The math background provided Lemaitre with the ability to study and work on relativity theory.  The astronomy background put Lemaitre in contact with Arthur Eddington and Harlow Shapley, two of the most prominent astronomers of the time.  This would give Lemaitre a key edge in understanding both current theory and observational evidence.

It’s hard to imagine, but less than 100 years ago it was thought the Milky Way was the whole of the universe.  A new telescope, the 100-inch at Mt. Wilson, would provide the resolution power required to discern stars in other galaxies previously thought to be spiral clouds within the Milky Way.  One type of star, Cepheid variables, whose period of brightness correlates with its luminosity, provided a standard candle to measure galactic distances.  It was Edwin Hubble at Mt. Wilson who made this discovery.  Besides greatly expanding the size of the known universe, Hubble’s work unveiled another key aspect of space.

Edwin Hubble, Albert Einstein, & Fr. Georges Lemaitre. Credit: American Institute of Physics.

When stars and galaxies recede from Earth, their wavelengths of light are stretched out and move towards the red end of the spectrum.  This is akin to the sound of a car moving away from you.  Sound waves are stretched longer resulting in a lower pitch.  What Hubble’s work revealed was galaxies were moving away from each other.  Hubble was cautious in providing a rational for this.  However, Fr. Lemaitre had the answer.  It wasn’t so much galaxies were moving away as space was expanding between the galaxies as allowed by relativity theory.  Lemaitre also analyzed Hubble’s data to determine that the more distant a galaxy was, the greater its velocity moving away from us.  Lemaitre published this result in an obscure Belgian journal.  Hubble would independently publish the same result a few years later and received credit for what is now known as Hubble’s law.  This law equates recessional velocity to a constant (also named after Hubble) times distance.

As space is expanding between each object and in each direction, the recession velocity is greater the more distant an object is. Credit: OpenStax Astronomy/CC 4.0.

It would require more resolving power to determine the final value of the Hubble constant.  In fact, it took Hubble’s namesake, the Hubble Space Telescope to pin down the value which also provides the age of the universe.

Hubble’s original plot of recession velocity vs distance. The more distant a galaxy, the faster it is moving away from us. This is indicative of an expanding universe. Credit: doi: 10.1073/pnas.15.3.168 PNAS March 15, 1929 vol. 15 no. 3 168-173

In the meantime, the debate on the origin of the universe still needed to be settled.  Lemaitre favored a discrete beginning to the universe that evolved throughout its history.  Specifically, Lemaitre felt vacuum energy would cause the expansion of the universe to accelerate in time and thus, kept Einstein’s cosmological constant, albeit with a different value to speed up the expansion.  Einstein disagreed and thought the cosmological constant was no longer required.  By 1931, Einstein conceded the universe was expanding, but not accelerating as Lemaitre thought.  A decade later, the most serious challenge to the Big Bang theory emerged.

The label Big Bang was pinned on Lemaitre’s theory derisively by Fred Hoyle of Cambridge, who devised the Steady State theory.  This theory postulated an expanding universe, but the expansion was generated by the creation of new hydrogen.  Hoyle scored points with the discovery that stellar nucleosynthesis created the elements from carbon to iron via fusion processes.  Although Hoyle proved the Big Bang was not required to form these heavy elements, he still could not provide an answer to how hydrogen was created.  It would take some modifications to the Big Bang model to challenge Hoyle’s Steady State model.

Fred Hoyle and Fr. Georges Lemaitre. Credit: St. Edmond’s College/University of Cambridge.

During the 1940’s, George Gamow proposed a hot Big Bang as opposed to the cold Big Bang of Georges Lemaitre.  In Gamow’s model, the temperature of the universe reaches 1032 K during the first second of existence.  Gamow was utilizing advancements in quantum mechanics made after Lemaitre proposed his original Big Bang model.  Gamow’s model had the advantage over Hoyle’s Steady State model as it could explain the creation of hydrogen and most of the helium in the universe.  The hot Big Bang model had one additional advantage, it predicted the existence of a background microwave radiation emanating from all points in the sky and with a blackbody spectrum.

A blackbody is a theoretical construct.  It is an opaque object that absorbs all radiation (hence, it is black) and remits it as thermal radiation.  The key here is to emit blackbody radiation, an object has to be dense and hot.  A steady state universe would not emit blackbody radiation whereas a big bang universe would in its early stages.  During the first 380,000 years of its existence, a big bang universe would be a small, hot, and opaque.  By the time this radiation reached Earth some 13 billion years later, the expansion of the universe would stretch out these radiation wavelengths into the microwave range.  This stretching would correlate to a cooling of the blackbody radiation somewhere between 0 and 5 K or just 5 degrees above absolute zero.  Detection of this radiation, called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) would resolve the Big Bang vs. Steady State debate.

In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were using the 20-foot horn antenna at Bell Labs to detect extra-galactic radio sources.  Regardless of where the antenna was pointed, they received noise correlating to a temperature of 2.7 K.  Cosmology was still a small, somewhat insular field separate from the rest of astronomy.  Penzias and Wilson did not know how to interpret this noise and made several attempts to rid themselves of it, including two weeks cleaning out pigeon droppings from the horn antenna.  Finally, they placed a call to Princeton University where they reached Robert Dicke, who had been building his own horn antenna to detect the CMB.  When the call ended, Dicke turned to his team and said:

“Boys, we’ve been scooped”

Actually, the first time the CMB was detected was in 1941 by Andrew McKeller but the theory to explain what caused it was not in place and the finding went forgotten.  Penzias and Wilson published their discovery simultaneously with Robert Dicke providing the theory explaining this was proof that the young universe was in a hot, dense, state after its origin.  Georges Lemaitre was told of the confirmation of the Big Bang a week before he passed away.  Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel in 1978.  Back at Cambridge, Fred Hoyle refused to concede the Steady State theory was falsified until his death in 2001.  Some believe this refusal, among other things, cost Hoyle the Nobel in 1983 when it was awarded for the discovery of nucleosynthesis.  Hoyle was passed in favor of his junior investigator, Willy Fowler.

It would take 25 more years before another mystery of the CMB was solved.  The noise received by Penzias and Wilson was uniform in all directions.  For the stars and galaxies to form, some regions of the CMB had to be cooler than others.  This was not a failure on Penzias and Wilson’s part, but better equipment with higher resolution capabilities were required to detect the minute temperature differences.  In 1989, the COBE probe, headed by George Smoot, set out to map these differences in the CMB.  The mission produced the image below.  The blue regions are 0.00003 K cooler than the red regions, just cold enough for the first stars and galaxies to form.  This map is a representation of the universe when it was 380,000 years old.

The oval represents a 3-D spherical map of the universe projected into 2-D by cutting from one pole to the other. Credit: NASA

Could we peer even farther into the universe’s past?  Unfortunately, no.  The universe did not become transparent until it was 380,000 years old, when it cooled down sufficiently for light photons to pass unabated without colliding into densely packed particles.  It’s similar to seeing the surface of a cloud and not beyond.

The first nine minutes of the COBE probe produced a spectrum of the CMB.  The data was plotted against the predicted results of a blackbody spectrum.  The results are below:

Credit: Mather et al. Astrophys. J. Lett. , 354:L37ÐL40, May 1990

The data points are a perfect match for the prediction.  In fact, the CMB represents the most perfect blackbody spectrum observed.  The universe was in a hot, dense state after its creation.

The late 1990’s would add another twist to the expansion of the universe.  Two teams, one based in Berkeley and the other at Harvard, set out to measure the rate of expansion throughout the history of the universe.  It was expected that over time, the inward pull of gravity would slow the rate of expansion.  And this is what relativity would predict once the cosmological constant was pulled out, or technically speaking, equal to zero.  The two teams set about their task by measuring Type Ia supernovae.

Like Cepheid variables, Type Ia supernovae are standard candles.  They result when a white dwarf siphons off enough mass from a neighboring star to reach the size of 1.4 Suns.  Once this happens, a supernova occurs and as these transpire at the same mass point, their luminosity can be used to calibrate distance and in turn, the history of the universe.  A galaxy 1 billion light years away takes 1 billion years for its light to reach Earth.  A galaxy 8 billion light years away takes 8 billion years for its light to reach Earth.  Peering farther into the universe allows us to peer farther back in time as well.

What the two teams found sent shock waves throughout the world of astronomy.

The first 10 billion years of universe went as expected, gravity slowed the expansion.  After that, the expansion accelerated.  The unknown force pushing out the universe was dubbed dark energy.  This puts the cosmological constant back into play.  The key difference instead of operating from an incorrect assumption of a static universe, data can be used to find a correct value that would model an increasingly expanding universe.  Georges Lemaitre’s intuition on the cosmological constant had been correct.  While the exact nature of dark energy needs to be worked out, it does appear to be a property of space itself.  That is, the larger the universe is, the more dark energy exists to push it out at a faster rate.

Besides detecting the CMB, cosmologists spent the better part of the last century calculating the Hubble constant.  The value of this constant determines the rate of expansion and provides us with the age of the universe.  The original value derived by Hubble in the 1920’s gave an age for the universe that was younger than the age of the Earth.  Obviously, this did not make sense and was one reason scientists were slow to accept the Big Bang theory.  However, it was clear the universe was expanding and what was needed was better technology affording more precise observations.  By the time I was an undergrad in the 1980’s, the age of the universe was estimated between 10-20 billion years.

When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, a set of key projects were earmarked for priority during the early years of the mission.  Appropriately enough, pinning down the Hubble constant was one of these projects.  With its high resolution able to measure the red shift of distant quasars and Cepheid variables, the Hubble was able to pin down the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years.  This result has been confirmed by the subsequent WMAP and Planck missions.

The story of the Big Bang is not complete.  There is the lithium problem. The Big Bang model predicts three times the amount of lithium as is observed in the universe.  And there is inflation.  In the first moments of the universe’s existence, the universe was small enough for quantum fluctuations to expand it greatly.  Multiple models exist explaining how this inflation occurred and this needs to be resolved.  This would determine how the universe is observed to be flat rather than curved and why one side of the universe is the same temperature as the other when they are too far apart to have been in contact.  An exponential expansion of the universe during its first moments of existence would solve that.

NASA’s WMAP mission measured the average angular distance between CMB fluctuations. One degree is flat, 0.5 degrees open, 1.5 degrees closed. The measurement came in flat at 1 degree consistent with inflation theory. Credit: NASA/WMAP

Then there is the theory of everything.  In his 1966 PhD thesis, Stephen Hawking demonstrated that if you reverse time in the Big Bang model, akin to running a movie projector in reverse, the universe is reduced to a singularity at the beginning.  A singularity has a radius of zero, an infinite gravity well and infinite density.  Once the universe has a radius less than 1.6 x 1035 meter, a quantum theory of gravity is required to describe the universe at this state as relativity does not work on this scale.

When discussing these problems with Big Bang skeptics, the tendency is to reply with a gotcha moment.  However, this is just scientists being honest about their models.  And if you think you have an alternative to the Big Bang, you’ll need to explain the CMB blackbody spectrum, which can only be produced by a universe in a hot dense state.  And you’ll need to explain the observed expansion of the universe.  It’s not enough to point out the issues with a model, you’ll need to replicate what it gets right.  While there are some kinks to work out, the Big Bang appears to be here to stay.

You don’t need access to an observatory or a NASA mission to experience the remnants of the Big Bang.  Every glass of water you drink includes hydrogen created during the Big Bang.  And if you tune your television to an empty channel, part of the static you see is noise from the CMB.  The Big Bang theory and the observational evidence that backs it up is one of the landmark scientific achievements of the 20th century, and should be acknowledged as such.

*Image atop post is a timeline of the evolution of the universe.  Credit:  NASA/WMAP Science Team.

The March of Time

Time is a mystery to physicists.  The Newtonian notion of absolute time, that is, all clocks run at the same rate, was demolished by Einstein’s relativity theory.  Despite the fact that we know clocks in different reference frames can run at different rates, we don’t know what exactly time is.  Does time run continuously or in discrete packets?  Can one travel backwards in time?  Why don’t the laws of physics tell us what time is?  An intriguing book, Now by Richard Muller, gives us some paths to seek these answers.

During the Victorian age, time was considered a constant for everyone.  A conductor’s watch on the way to London would run at the same rate as the station master’s clock.  Perhaps this is why Big Ben is the perfect symbol for that era.  Einstein proved this notion wrong.  The conductor’s pocket watch will run slower than the motionless station master’s clock.  Given the speeds we travel, the difference is too small to discern.  Einstein’s genius was to follow a theory to its natural conclusion and not allowing false intuition to lead him astray.  Clocks run slower the faster you go.  Gravity also slows the rate of time.  Once you hit the speed of light, or enter the infinitely deep gravity well of a black hole, time stands still.

The question remained, why does time always flow forward?  The most common response to that has been quoting the 2nd law of thermodynamics.  This is the only law in physics that suggests a flow of time.  It states that entropy of the universe always increases with time.  More specifically, a closed system, one which energy cannot enter or leave, must become more disordered over time.  An open system, like the Earth which receives a constant stream of energy from the Sun, can experience a decrease in entropy and an increase in ordered states.  The universe, as far as we know, is a closed system.  This argument was first advanced by Arthur Eddington, but Richard Muller proceeds to poke some holes in it.

Eddington was one of the most accomplished astronomers of the early 20th Century.  One of the first to grasp Einstein’s relativity theory, Eddington led an expedition to the island of Príncipe off the west coast of Africa to observe the solar eclipse of 1919.  Eddington was able to measure the bending of starlight by the Sun as predicted by Einstein.  Once this result was reported by the media, Einstein became the most famous scientist in the world.  Eddington was also what we would call today a populizer of science.  His hypothesis that entropy mandates the flow of time was published in his book The Nature of the Physical World, written in a manner for the general public to enjoy.

However, as Muller notes, clocks do not run slower in local regimes where entropy is decreasing.  A recent experiment verified that, at least on a quantum level, heat can run from a cold to warmer object.  This is a violation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics where energy runs from hot to cold objects.  Some of the news articles on this experiment also claim this has reversed the arrow of time.  Muller considers entropy and time to be two separate concepts.  Rather than rely on entropy, Muller’s hypothesis on time is tied into one of the most asked questions I receive from my students.

When going over the Big Bang, I am often asked what existed before then?  The answer is…nothing.  Space did not exist before the Big Bang.  And neither did time.  Muller speculates that just as space is being created with the expansion of the universe, so is time.  And it is this expansion that gives us the flow of time and a sense of now.  Unlike Eddington’s entropy argument, Muller provides a means of falsifying his theory.

The idea of falsifying a theory might seem odd as we are taught in grade school that experiments prove a theory right.  That’s not quite correct.  As Richard Feynman would say, we don’t prove a theory correct, only that it is not wrong.  Newton’s law of gravity was not wrong for a couple of centuries.  It predicts the motion of most celestial objects quite well.  By the late 1800’s, observations came in that Newton’s laws could not predict, specifically the precession of Mercury’s orbit.  Einstein’s relativity theory provided accurate predictions in two areas Newton could not, when an object is near a large gravity well like the Sun and when an object moves at velocities near the speed of light.

When Einstein realized his theory predicted Mercury’s orbit correctly, he was so excited he suffered from heart palpitations.  For a hundred years, Einstein’s theory has been proven not wrong.  It may take a unification of quantum mechanics and relativity to change that.

Muller speculates that as dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe, it must also accelerate time.  That is, time runs faster now than in the past.  To detect this, we must look at galaxies at least 8 billion light years away and make highly precise measurements of their red shifts.  Any excess in the red shift not predicted by space expansion would be caused by time expansion.  At this time, we do not have instruments to make this precise a measurement.  It’s not unusual for theory to race ahead of experimental ability.  After all, it took one hundred years to prove gravitational waves predicted by Einstein actually exist.

Is there any way to falsify relativity or quantum mechanics? To date, both have held up to rigorous testing.  One possibility is the simultaneous collapse of the quantum probability curve upon observation.  With the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, atomic particles exist in all possible states along a probability curve.  Once observed, the probability curve collapses instantaneously to its exact state.  As Muller notes, this is in direct odds with relativity where nothing, not even information, can exceed the speed of light.  Perhaps, this can provide a crack in the theory that can lead to a unification of the physics of atoms and of large-scale objects.

Muller’s exploration of time delves into other topics, often Star Trek related. In the case of the transporter, Muller questions if the person assembled at the other end is the same person or a duplicate with the original destroyed.  I thought this was interesting as it follows the plot of James Blish’s one off Star Trek novel Spock Must Die.  Published in 1970, the opening chapter involves a rec room conversation between Scotty and Dr. McCoy, where McCoy frets over the possibility he is no longer his original self.  That is, the transporter destroyed the original McCoy the first time he used it and constructed a replicate each time afterward.  Scotty is nonplussed – “a difference that makes no difference is no difference.”

Would it make a difference?

As Muller notes, our bodies are mostly made of different atoms and cells than it was years ago, yet we maintain our sense of self.  The only thing that does change is the sense of now.  So, when I bought Spock Must Die in the mid-70’s, the body of atoms that searched through department and stationery store bookshelves, is markedly different than the body of atoms that purchased Now online.  In that sense, I am a replicate of my childhood self.  Yet, throughout that whole time, my mind has maintained a continuous state of consciousness.

That brings me back to an argument made in a college philosophy class.  If you take a boat, and replace each plank of wood over time, is it still the original boat?  Boats do not experience the sensation of time, it takes a mind to do that.  The brain, in some regions, does replace neurons throughout life and this may lead to memory loss.  For other regions, it appears not to replicate.  This may explain our continuity of consciousness, but as many a journal article has ended, more research is required in this area.

In the same philosophy class, our professor discussed how we lack access to each other’s state of consciousness.  Unless we could perform a mind meld a la Mr. Spock, our life experience and sense of time is locked up within each individual.  So, is time a matter that can be solved by physics alone?  Or does in require an interdisciplinary approach?  My instinct is that time is a problem for physics to solve.  We require eyes to see light and the mind to interpret it, but the electromagnetic waves that create light was solved by physics.  Until some evidence based results come in, we’ll have to keep an open mind. Many a time instincts have led a scientist astray.  How will this story end?

I honestly don’t know.  Only time will tell.

*Image atop post is a Munich clock store.  Credit:  Gregory Pijanowski

The State of SETI

In 1960, astronomers at West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope launched the first effort to discover extraterrestrials.  Led by Frank Drake, Project Ozma used a radio telescope to detect transmissions at a single frequency of 1420 MHz.  This is the frequency emitted by hydrogen clouds and the most common radio emission in the universe.  Drake was attempting to receive pulses of transmissions from intelligent life located in star systems Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani.  More than 50 years later, Frank Drake is still searching for life beyond Earth.  Today’s efforts are seeking to increase the coverage and bandwidth of frequencies to find life in the universe.

The first detection of life beyond Earth may not be intelligent life but microbial life in our own Solar System.  Where there is water, there may be life.  And beyond Earth, there is plenty of water to be found in the Solar System.  Mars once had oceans of water on the surface.  While the surface is now dry, the subsurface contains significant amounts of water, especially in the high latitudes.  The Jovian moons of Europa and Ganymede, along with Saturn’s moon Titan, each have subsurface oceans with more water volume than all of the Earth’s oceans.  Missions planned for the next decade may provide evidence for life in these locations.

Map of Martian subsurface water made by the Mars Odyssey Gamma Ray Spectrometer. Highest concentrations are the blue regions by the poles. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA is developing robotic moles to dig over 600 feet under the Martian surface.  These moles will be attached to a tube to send samples to the surface for examination.  The Europa Clipper will make repeated flybys of Europa to measure the properties of the subsurface ocean such as salinity.  Eventually, plans are to land on Europa and sample the ocean directly.  This mission may be 10-20 years off in the future.  A key factor in this is planetary protection.  If life exists in these locations, missions to detect it have to be sterilized to prevent contamination from Earth’s microbes.  To this end, NASA has an office dedicated to this purpose.

Although Europa is much smaller than Earth, its subsurface ocean is much deeper. Thus, Europa has more water than Earth as can be seen in this comparison. Credit: Kevin Hand (JPL/Caltech), Jack Cook (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Howard Perlman (USGS)

Another possibility for life is the Saturn moon Enceladus. This moon ejects water vapor from its subsurface ocean into space.  NASA is currently devising instrumentation to study these water samples for a future mission.  This would allow for the detection of possible microbial life without the need to burrow into the subsurface saving time and money.  Enceladus is pretty young, some estimates are 100 million years old.  However, that may be enough time for life to have evolved there.

Water plumes near the South Pole of Enceladus. These plumes eject water hundreds of miles into space allowing for remote sampling. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The environments in the Solar System beyond Earth are too harsh for plant life, but we can use what we know about Earth to detect plant life on exoplanets.  Earth’s early atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide.  About 2.7 billion years ago plant life, specifically cyanobacteria, began to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen via photosynthesis.  About 2.5 billion years ago, that oxygen began to take hold in the atmosphere.  Oxygen is very reactive, that’s why its so combustible, it would not appear naturally in an atmosphere without photosynthesis to produce it as it likes to combine with other elements.  If we were able to detect oxygen in sizable quantities in an exoplanet atmosphere, that could be a tell-tell sign plant life exists.  This is what is known as a biomarker.

Other biomarkers include methane which is a by-product of living organisms.  Both oxygen and methane could be present in an atmosphere naturally.  However, if they both appear together, it would most likely be a sign of life.  The color of an exoplanet can also serve as a biomarker.  Astronomers at Cornell have cataloged 137 microorganisms and the color their pigmentation would reflect if detected on Earth.  It is hoped the next generation of 30-40 meter ground telescopes to go online in the next decade, along with the James Webb Space Telescope, will be powerful enough to detect biomarkers.

Of course, most people want to discover more than plant and microbial life, we want to know if there are alien civilizations out there.  We typically associate those efforts with the movie Contact and that’s accurate in the sense we listen for radio transmissions from other civilizations.  Keep in mind, that will help us discover civilizations just as advanced, or more so, than ours.  If an alien race had their radio receivers pointed to Earth from 800-1800 AD, they would not have heard a pique as radio had not been invented yet.  Over the past decade, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), has received a bump in funding and resources.

In 2001, Paul Allen began to fund the Allen Telescope Array.  Rather than scarfing for time on radio telescopes used for other research projects, this array of 42 radio dishes is dedicated solely to SETI.  Ultimately the goal is to build 350 dishes and collaborate with similar arrays across the globe.  Breakthrough Listen is funded by Yuri Milner.  This program will use the Green Bank Radio Telescope, the 64-meter Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia, and the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory.  Rather than focus on a single target and frequency, both projects endeavor to survey a million stars across a wide band of frequencies.  Besides radio, Breakthrough Listen will also search for optical laser transmissions.

The Green Bank Radio Telescope had its funding pulled by the NSF in the aftermath of the financial crash of 2008. Private funding for SETI has helped ensure its future over the next decade. Credit: NRAO/AUI

During a recent lecture at Cornell, Frank Drake noted that it had been previously thought lasers could not be transmitted across interstellar distances.  New developments in laser technology have changed that.  High powered lasers created for controlled fusion research have the capability to reach other stars.  The thinking is advanced civilizations might use high powered lasers as a beacon to attempt to communicate across space.  The Automated Planet Finder will search for laser signals in this new frontier of SETI research.

When thinking of habitable planets, the Goldilocks Zone is what usually comes to mind.  This is the region around a star where water can exist – neither too hot nor too cold.  However, other factors come into play in determining a planet’s suitability for life.  A magnetic field is required to shield the surface from cosmic rays.  An ozone layer is needed to absorb ultraviolet and x-ray radiation that would break apart organic compounds on the surface.  A planet’s axis must be moderately tilted and orbit not too elliptical to avoid extreme seasons.  Also, the host star should be relatively quiet and not emit flares with excessive radiation.   While recent research indicates exoplanets in the Goldilocks Zone are common, they may not necessarily be able to support life.

Looking into the future, the Starshot initiative plans to send probes to our nearest interstellar neighbors to find life.  When we think of interstellar voyages, we tend to think big as in Star Trek‘s USS Enterprise which was 947 feet long and held a crew of over 400.  Starshot takes the opposite approach.  Thinking small, the project aims to design a fleet of nano sized spacecraft.  The thinking here is the smaller the mass, the easier to accelerate to velocities required to reach the stars.  Also, a fleet of these probes can withstand damage to a few along the way and still complete the mission.  New technology needs to be invented to make this a go, but $100 million in funding has started the ball rolling.

In 1961, Frank Drake devised an equation to determine how many intelligent civilizations may exist in the Milky Way.  The final term of the equation estimates how long these civilizations last after emitting their first radio signals.  We won’t know the answer to this until we start making contact with alien civilizations.  Do advanced civilizations destroy themselves? Do natural events such as supervolcanoes disrupt intelligent life?  Finding the answers to these questions may help us survive on Earth.  May be a bit of a long shot, but most certainly worth making the effort.

*Image atop post is the Allen Telescope Array.  Credit:  Seth Shostak, SETI Institute.

Sunspots, Roswell, & Wright Field

On April 7, 1947, the largest sunspot in recorded history was observed.  Forty times the diameter of Earth, this solar activity would be connected with some odd happenings later that year in Roswell, NM.  That’s a testament, as we’ll see, to humans’ ability to connect dots that really are not there.  Nonetheless, this event does offer the opportunity to explore solar physics along with history.

Sunspots were first observed by ancient Chinese astronomers around 800 BC.  The invention of the telescope accelerated the study of sunspots and Galileo spent several years observing them.  Sometimes it takes a few centuries of observations to discern a pattern and that was the case with sunspots.  In 1843, Samuel Schwabe discovered sunspots appear in roughly 11-year cycles.  One major exception to this was the Maunder Minimum from 1645 to 1715 when very few sunspots appeared at all.  It would not be until the early 20th Century and the work of George Ellery Hale that the physics of sunspots would be understood.

Animation of Galileo’s sunspot drawings from June 2 to July 8 in 1613. The Sun rotates once every 25 days. Credit: Rice University Galileo Project.

From 1897 to 1993, the world’s largest telescope was one built by Hale.  These telescopes discovered galaxies existed beyond the Milky Way, the expansion of the universe, and quasars, the most distant objects known.  Somewhat overshadowed by all this was Hale’s work in solar physics.  In 1908, Hale discovered sunspots were regions of intense magnetic activity.  The magnetic field acts as a bottleneck for convection to the solar surface.  As a result, sunspots are a few thousand degrees cooler than the surrounding region and consequently appear dark.  Hale would also discover the polarity of sunspot magnetic field flips after each 11-year cycle as part of an overall 22-year cycle.  It was the 150-foot solar tower at Mt. Wilson that imaged the great sunspot of 1947.

Great sunspot of 1947. Earth and Jupiter added to image for scale. Credit: Mt. Wilson Observatory

Despite the darkness of the sunspots, this type of solar activity does not significantly change visible light radiation received on Earth.  However, high energy ultraviolet and x-ray radiation increases during times of intense solar activity.  This radiation is harmful to life but thankfully, an upper layer of the atmosphere called the thermosphere absorbs it.  This layer, 500 to 1,500 km above the surface, is where the International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope, and many other satellites reside.  We think of this region as outer space as the atmosphere is so rarefied here, but rarefied as it is, an increase in solar activity can expand and increase the density of the thermosphere enough to drag orbiting objects to a lower altitude, or in the case of Skylab in 1979, back down to Earth.

Skylab was America’s first space station. This image was taken on February 8, 1974 as Skylab’s final crew departed. Credit: NASA

Some have claimed the massive solar activity of 1947 is responsible for an extraterrestrial space vehicle crash near Roswell, NM that year.  What crashed in New Mexico was earthly in origin, but solar activity would not bring down this type of craft at any rate.  Skylab was an abandoned space vehicle and it took several years for the energized thermosphere to drag it down to Earth.  An advanced space vehicle with propulsion would simply compensate for any decay in its orbit with a minor burn.  Orbiting satellites perform this maneuver routinely.  So what happened in the New Mexico desert in 1947?

In mid June, rancher W. W. Brazel found a crash site filled with debris he thought may have been part of a flying saucer.  By early July, Brazel notified a nearby Army Air Force base and three men were sent to investigate.  Here’s where things got complicated.  The debris field contained items described as foil, balsa wood beams, and other parts held together with scotch tape.  There was also a black box which looked like some sort of radio transmitter.  Now, this obviously is not something built to withstand the rigors of interstellar travel.  However, the United States was in the mist of the great flying saucer wave of 1947 and a Roswell paper famously reported the military captured the remains of a crashed saucer.

The term flying saucer had just been coined in late June of that year when pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine saucer type objects near Mt. Rainier.  A wave of sightings was followed over the summer.  The military quickly backtracked on that initial news release and stated it was a weather balloon that had crashed.  Brazel knew that wasn’t quite right as he had seen weather balloons before and what he discovered this time did not look like his previous finds.  Annoyed by the publicity, even the Russians chimed in, joking that the flying saucers reports were the result of too much scotch whiskey, he kept quiet and the story of Roswell died down until the late 70’s when new claims of a government coverup emerged.

Brazel was right, it was not a weather balloon, and there was a coverup by the government, just not the one usually promoted by those who make a living off this event.  I can recall a 1989 episode of Unsolved Mysteries sensationalizing the Roswell incident.  I happened to like Unsolved Mysteries quite a bit back in the day.  However, television is a business and sensationalism sells.  In between the 4-5 legitimate mysteries presented each week the show would delve once into the paranormal.  Even then, you had to discern what was real and what was fake.  Roswell was a legit mystery that would be resolved in the mid-90’s.  In retrospect, looking at the 994-page Air Force Roswell Report, it was well beyond the scope of Unsolved Mysteries or ufologists to untangle Roswell.

Unlike most ufoligists accounts of Roswell, the Air Force investigation interviews first hand sources.  Three key interviewees are Sheridan Cavitt, who recovered the original remains at Roswell with Jesse Marcel, Irving Newton, who inspected the debris in Fort Worth, and Albert Trakowski, who was director of Project Mogul.  Jesse Marcel died in 1986.  It was Marcel from the military side who was a key force in reviving the Roswell story in the late ’70’s.  Cavitt described Marcel as a good man but was prone to exaggeration.  Cavitt confirms the original debris field was consistent with a balloon crash.  Newton confirms the same and in fact, broke out laughing at the thought the debris might come from an alien craft when he saw it in 1947.  It was Marcel again who pushed that idea in Fort Worth, noting what he thought was alien writing on the balsa wood beams.  The Roswell story lied dormant until 1978, when Marcel appeared in a National Enquirer article claiming he recovered a flying saucer at Roswell in 1947.

From there, the Roswell myth picked up steam until it became a cottage industry onto itself.  The report interview with Trakowski is key.  This interview provided information on a project that was classified in 1947 and when unclassified in 1994, solved the Roswell mystery.

In the dawn of the Atomic Age, the United States was researching methods to detect atomic bomb tests in the Soviet Union.  One such effort was Project Mogul.  This program designed high altitude balloons to detect sound waves from atomic explosions.  The balloons were unusual in design, consisting of balloon trains up to 600 feet long.  The balloons were made of polyethylene material and the train included radar reflectors.  The original find by Brazel indicated the lack of an impact crater.  And the alien hieroglyphics?  Those were flower/geometric shaped figures on tape used to seal the balloon’s radar targets.  This tape was procured from a toy manufacturer when the targets were built during World War II.  The material shortage during the war forced the use of a toy manufacturer’s tape and was often the source of jokes within the Project Mogul staff.

Schematic or 600-foot project Mogul balloon train. Credit: USAF.

The materials discovered fit the description of the Mogul balloons.  Brazel’s intuition was correct, it wasn’t a weather balloon, but given the then classified nature of Project Mogul, the military could not disclose its true nature in 1947.

The debris was to be shipped to Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson) in Ohio with a stop in Fort Worth where it was photographed.  The purpose of sending the debris to Wright was to properly identify it.  However, the debris never made it to Wright as it was identified as some sort of balloon rather than a flying saucer in Fort Worth.  In fact, the entire contents was described as being able to fit in a car trunk.   Another aspect of the Roswell myth was a second crash where alien bodies were discovered and shipped to Wright.  No first hand accounts of a second crash exist and those who make this claim can’t even agree on its location.  Fact is, it never happened.  While the people at Wright Field were not examining alien bodies, they were at work making aviation history.

After World War II, Chuck Yeager was assigned to Wright Field where the Army Air Force maintained its test flight center.  The Bell X-1 was built in Bell Aerospace’s plant in Niagara Falls, but many of the design features came from the engineers at Wright.  It was at Wright where the decision was made to model the Bell X-1 after a .50 caliber machine gun bullet.  When the push came to move the X-1 past the sound barrier, operations were transferred to Muroc Air Base in the Mojave Desert and Yeagar went supersonic on October 14th.  There were a lot of interesting going-ons at Wright Field in 1947, just none of it involving extraterrestrials.

Bell X-1 during a test flight. Credit: NASA Langley Research Center

So why does the myth of Roswell endure, more than two decades after it was debunked?  As the poster from the X-Files says, “I want to believe.”  People naturally want to be in on the discovery of something momentous as alien life.  Problem is, science requires evidence and all that evidence points towards Project Mogul as the source of the Roswell crash.  That, and the Roswell UFO story is a livelihood for authors.  As I said before, sensationalism sells, and as much as people don’t want to give up on myths, they are more stubborn giving up a cash cow.

It’s unfortunate that the remains of the Project Mogul balloon crash was disposed of.  Wright-Patterson is now the home of the National Museum of the USAF.  A fabulous collection of aviation history from the Wright brothers to the Space Age, an exhibit of the crash remains from Roswell would have been a great addition.  Besides an interesting historical artifact from the nascent atomic age, one could laugh just as Warrant Officer Irving Newton did in Fort Worth back in 1947, when told this debris was the flying saucer found in Roswell.

Sharpstown High, 1978-79

I recently discovered the high school I spent my sophomore year is slated to be demolished early 2018 when a new building is completed.  Sharpstown was an odd amalgam of Texas conservatism and 1970’s permissiveness.  Built in the late 1960’s, the building featured outdoor terraces and a courtyard allowing students to taste the outdoors between classes.  Sharpstown served as a bridge during the 1978-79 school year before my third and final high school.  That, along with Houston’s late 70’s oil boom, gave an ephemeral feel to my year there.

Although I teach at the college level, there are always a handful of students from local high schools in class.  It never hurts to take a look back and recall what it was like during those years.  I spent my freshman year at a small Catholic school of less than 400 students.  The teachers and administrative staff knew all the students.  Sharpstown had close to 2,000 students and only included grades 10-12.  The influx of new residents severely taxed Houston’s infrastructure, and the schools were no exception.  I never had any interaction with the principals, and I got the impression they were flying by the seat of their pants to put all the pieces together.  The burgeoning enrollment necessitated the use of temporary wooden classrooms built on blocks outside the main building,  The shacks as I used to call it.  The surrounding neighborhood was also different in ways I was not accustomed to.

I came from an older, denser, urban neighborhood in Buffalo built before the advent of the automobile.  Within a 10-15 minute walk were many shops, bars, supermarkets, bowling alleys, churches, and schools.  In fact, there were both three Catholic and public grade schools within walking distance.  If I wanted to go downtown, I could hop on a bus less than a five-minute walk away.  I had a great deal of independence that vanished in Houston.  If you didn’t have a car, you were skunked.  And at age 15, I didn’t have a car.  Turns out I would not have a bus ride to school either, for reasons known only to the school staff, a bus was not run out to my neighborhood.  So, like many a middle age guy, I can say I walked one and half miles to school.  Not uphill both ways though.  Seated upon the Gulf Coastal Plain, Houston is flat as flat can be.

That walk was uneventful, and once the temperatures cooled down in late October, not bad at all.  For the most part, the scenery was a nondescript mix of apartment complexes, fast food joints, and strip malls.  Two notable exceptions was the maze of baseball diamonds at Bayland Park used to film one of the Bad News Bears movies, the other was the corner of Bissonnet and Fondren.  The business on that corner, whose nature I’ve long forgotten, stunk to high heaven all day and night.  If nothing else, that smell served as a marker the school day was about to commence.

After homeroom, I was introduced to the Texas concept of gym class every day.  In New York, gym had always been a once a week deal.  In my experience, there is very little instruction in gym class.  If someone is struggling in basketball, why not instruct how to shoot rather than throwing them to the wolves?  A thought experiment that could be used would be to visualize oneself traveling with the basketball on the way to the hoop.  Imagine two scenarios, one shot with a high arc and the other with a lower arc.  Which will see more area inside the rim to enter?  That’s the high arc shot and a technique Robert Parish, then with Golden State and later with the Celtics, used with great effectiveness.  That lesson could be coordinated with a geometry section on conics to provide a link between concrete knowledge and abstract concepts for students.

It was in gym where I had my first run in with the school staff.  Having run cross-country and track the prior year, I approached a coach, described my times and goals along with a desire to try out.  He waved me off, said I wasn’t the type of person he wanted on the team.  An odd statement as it was my first day there.  Being fifteen and hugely annoyed, I unplugged myself from the extracurricular aspects of Sharpstown, to the extent where I have no memory of the sports teams there of any sort.  In my teaching, I make it a point to welcome every student in my class.  I work on the assumption each student has something to contribute to the class.

Something else to consider when dealing with high school students, and it’s a recent discovery, the brain continues to develop until age 25.  Teenagers tend to process their decisions in the part of the brain known as the amygdala as opposed to adults who use the prefrontal cortex.  Decisions made from the amygdala are emotional whereas the prefrontal cortex processes information rationally.  When discussing a controversial topic in class, I endeavor to keep the emotional temperature cool.  Passion is fine, but in class, you want to discuss these things with clear thinking.  We also have to be cognizant of the differences between now and then and how a teenager’s lack of impulse control can lead to consequences we didn’t have to contend with.  During high school, I was part of an aspiring punk rock bank.  Let’s just say I am happy not to have that effort for the world to see on YouTube.

Class sizes were large at Sharpstown, some teachers struggled with it, whereas my 2nd period biology teacher did not.  Ms. Buch ran a tight ship, treated you fairly, and pushed the curriculum to challenge you.  Resources were scarce, we only had one lab per semester rather than the weekly session I had been accustomed to.  Still, it’s hard to imagine a teacher doing a better job under the circumstances.  A’s had to be earned and my main competitor made it a challenge.  I had to match her score to get an A, but it was competition in a productive way, bringing out my best as a student.  In later years, when I heard the stereotype that women do not excel in science, I would remember this class and think it’s such bulls..t.  And it is.

Third period, out in the shacks, was something else all together.

My English teacher was eccentric.  He would pop pills in front of the class.  I don’t know what those pills were except they weren’t Tic Tacs.  Being 1979, we just laughed it off.  During the year we read The Catcher in the Rye.  Sitting in a windowless classroom, my only connection to the outside world being the hum of an air conditioner siphoning out the Texas heat, I just wasn’t feeling it.  Set in the 1950’s, the same decade my father left high school to work in a coal yard, I couldn’t identify with the endless complaints on prep school life by Holden Caulfield.  I thought Caulfield required a couple of weeks working at a Jack-in-the-Box to set him straight.

I was a bit too rough on Caulfield.  While prep schools offer outstanding academic preparation, on the East Coast they are usually the launching pad into the Ivy League, some can be very insular.  Phonies and incompetent people are not endemic to prep school, but can thrive anywhere when the social structure has ossified to a point where they are not held accountable.  I’ve seen it in public schools and the private sector.  The key is to build your own social network where such people cannot impart their incompetence upon you.  Caulfield needed a more diverse life experience, which he attempts to pursue in the novel.

After English, it was back into the main building for French.  I have long forgotten most of the French learned in that class.  I do recall gaining an appreciation for not having to know if words in English have a feminine or masculine case.  What I’ve discovered since, it’s easier to remember a language if you are situated where it is spoken.  Otherwise, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  It’s also where I learned a bit of Texan dialect.  Someone asked me if the bell was fixin’ to ring for lunch and I’m thinking, I didn’t know the bell was broken.

Typically you’re confined to the cafeteria during lunch but Sharpstown was an open campus, meaning you were free to explore the premises or leave the campus.  One might head to the west end of the second floor terrace smoking section for students.  The Mad Men sensibility had infiltrated high school.  One student would spend his lunch hour throwing a frisbee at one end of a stairwell, then casually walk twenty feet to the other side catching it at the end of its trip as it rolled along the semicircled brick wall.  Sometimes I opted to go to a friend’s house across the street.  We’d joke about avoiding Rubber Biscuits in the cafeteria.   It was all good as long as you were back before the end of the lunch period.

High school culture is pretty tribal and the students were organized among musical tastes.  There were still some of the old 70’s standbys. The Who opened the school year with their final Keith Moon album and Led Zeppelin closed out the following summer with their last effort.  Disco, while on its last legs, still had a bit of steam going (Donna Summer spent 10 weeks out of 52 atop the singles charts from September 1978 to August 1979). Although punk and new wave was making serious inroads, it didn’t get much airplay in Texas.  In the pre-internet era, it took quite an effort to hear what The Clash was up to.  However, Bob Marley started to get some airplay along with new talents such as Ricki Lee Jones.  One sizable contingent among the students were the Kikkers, named after the country radio station KIKK.  I plead ignorance as to what was happening in the 1979 country scene, as I said, high school is pretty tribal.

Now that I am on the teaching side, I endeavor to break down tribal barriers in class.  In retrospect, I can recall some teachers amplifying those differences.  That’s a mistake.  You want your students pushing out from their social comfort zones.  One way to do this is to throttle up on the subject content to the point so students have a greater sense of urgency to succeed in the course more so than expressing their social self-identity.  It’s not a coincidence gym class is where high school tribalism reached its peak.  With no instruction and only a requirement to put on your gym shorts to pass, it allows students to slide back on their worst instincts.  While tribalism in high school can be pretty silly, beyond that it can have dire consequences.

In November 1978, over 900 members of the Jim Jones cult committed suicide by drinking the now infamous Kool-Aid.  Actually, it was Flavor Aid, which was to Kool-Aid what Mr. Pibb was to Dr. Pepper.  Besides being quite insane, Jones was quite cheap.  That’s an outlier, thankfully,  However, tribalism can lead to dysfunctional workplaces and politics.  America is a more tribal, less goal oriented society now then in 1979.

My summer job in 1981 was at Ashland Exploration in the Houston Center downtown.  Down the block was James Coney Island where I would eat lunch along with oil execs, geologists, drafters, and administrators.  All of us jammed in school desks the restaurant used to seat its customers.  We’d talk politics and I’ll never forget one chemical engineer, who was conservative by nature but told me, always better to deal with moderates on the other side than extremists on your own side.  He also said you obtain political goals by seeking the golden mean.  Try having that discussion today and your likely to hear the latest from the conspiracy-industrial complex.

While I can’t change that on a national scale, I can at least demonstrate to my students that excessive tribalism, to paraphrase that fictional educator Dean Wormer, is no way to go through life.  Lack of self-reflection on the group affiliations in your life can lead you down a rabbit hole you don’t want to go.

Given my outsider status, I was not plugged into the Sharpstown culture as I had been at my prior high school, but Sharpstown was large enough and the social structure pliable enough to find a groove to navigate on.  The transient nature of the place gave me a set of friends from all regions of the country and internationally, including Cuba.  This was quite different from Buffalo where most families had resided there for several generations.  You don’t learn everything from a book, and having this diversity of experience was an added bonus.

It was a good crew.

Perhaps too good, and too rambunctious, we went though several history teachers before one was found that could manage us.  While I have been teaching, I’ve learned that each class has its own dynamic.  The dynamic in history was quite boisterous.  To be honest, I rather enjoyed it and looked forward to this class each day.  However, this was a difficult class for any teacher to handle and I don’t envy the task they had.  Taking control of a class after the year has started and the student behavior already ingrained is among the more difficult jobs a teacher will have to face.  Kudos to Ms. Newman for getting a handle on that situation.

From there it was back out to the shacks for geometry, except the hum of the air conditioner was often overwhelmed by the claustrophobic pounding of raindrops from the torrential afternoon thunderstorms that often hit Houston.  I don’t remember much about this class, only that the teacher was very unhappy to be there, making me very happy when the bell was fixin’ to ring and I could get out of there.

Then I would make the trek back home.  One student I met had to walk all the way towards Meyerland by the 610 Loop when he stayed with his father, a two-hour walk.  Guess I didn’t have it so bad.

My last memory of Sharpstown was bumming a ride home after the English final in May.  That final was difficult, not in a challenging way but in a ridiculous way.  Half of the exam consisted of obscure passages from novels we read throughout the semester and asked what chapter it came from.  How on Earth would I know that?  Nobody in the class memorized these things verbatim.  I left the shacks for the last time in a pretty foul mood, wondering what the hell that was all about.  I would find out in a few years.

During the summer, the Iranian Revolution caused block long gas lines and the massive Woodway Apartment fire gave pause to those who thought wooden roof shingles in Houston was a good idea. The ambient background noise included Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, My Sharona by the Knack, Children of the Sun by Billy Thorpe, and Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Sharpstown started to fade in my rear view mirror.  On deck was a new high school, where the KKK held a cross burning just a few years before.

That’s a story for another time.

By 1981, I had moved back to Buffalo for college when Sharpstown appeared in the local newspaper by surprise.  My English teacher had been arrested for extorting sex with students for passing grades.  That bizarre final made sense, most likely designed to flunk students making them vulnerable to this predatory behavior.  Beyond the original article, I know nothing else of what happened.  Only that it was extensive and had gone on for a period of time.  I don’t know what assistance was provided by the district for the victims, but knowing what other victims of this type of abuse experience, it’s safe to say many are still suffering from the effects to this day.

A few years back, I heard a lecture by a neurologist on the physical effects imparted on the brain by repeated high stress episodes.  The doctor noted that modern brain scans on patients with PTSD are difficult to differentiate from those who experienced a concussive injury.  In other words, a traumatic event can physically injure and/or hinder development of the brain and can cascade into a life long pattern of depression, drug abuse, and sometimes, suicide.  This stresses the need for schools to coordinate professional counseling and medical attention for abuse victims as soon as possible.  That may seem like common sense, but as we saw with the Catholic church and more recently Penn State, these situations are often met with a determined wall of silence.

And this also highlights how inadequate the recent attempts to “teach grit” to students who are under duress are.  An analogy, grit is great to have if diagnosed with cancer, but it’s not a substitute for chemotherapy.  I find the arguments for teaching grit more of an excuse for resource deprivation towards schools in high need districts.  And grit will not be enough for the victims of sexual abuse.  If the district did not provide resources for those students at Sharpstown then, it should do so now.

As grotesque as the events described in that 1981 news piece was, I don’t think it would be fair to let it dominate my memory of Sharpstown.  There were some 2,000 students and they, especially those who rose above the high school culture, along with the teachers who did their best, deserve that prominent spot in my mind.

Sharpstown High has had a turbulent existence since I left.  The aspects of the building which made it the most distinctive of the three high schools I attended, the courtyard, the stairwell/frisbee courts, the shacks, also make it very difficult to monitor what is going on inside.  The new building, a rectangle with a commons in the middle and the classes around the perimeter seems to be designed to address that need.  It’s understandable, especially getting rid of the shacks, but still, I’ll be sorry to see the old building go.

The Space Between Us

From our vantage point on Earth, we tend to think of our surroundings as the norm of the universe.  It is not.  When we study astronomy we focus on the planets, the Sun, stars and galaxies.  These objects represent a small fraction of the universe.  If you could shrink the Sun to the size of a grain of sand, the nearest star would be another grain of sand over four miles away.  On this scale, light would travel at seven inches an hour.  What lies in all that space between the stars?  A cauldron of plasma, dust, gas, and magnetic fields in conditions we do not experience on Earth.  Some of the most important processes in the universe occurs in these environments.

Plasma is electrified gas.  In the Sun, or in any star, the heat of the core separates positively charged nuclei (ions) from negatively charged electrons.  These free floating particles are then discharged into space via the solar wind.  Plasma does not occur naturally on the Earth’s surface although it can be created to be used in florescent lights and plasma TV’s.  As plasma carries an electrical charge, its movement is determined by the ambient magnetic field.  A charged particle travels along the path of a magnetic field line.  In turn, the solar wind drags the solar magnetic field towards the planets.  This is referred to as the Interplanetary Magnetic Field or IMF.  As a result of the Sun’s rotation, the IMF is spiral shaped much like water from a rotating sprinkler.  The IMF also undulates in a wave-type formation as the image below indicates.

Parker Spiral, Credit: NASA/J. Jokipii, University of Arizona.

The journey of this plasma is fairly uneventful until it collides with a planet.  In the case of Earth, the IMF connects with the Earth’s magnetic field to transfer mass (the plasma) and its energy.  Once this plasma enters the Earth’s magnetic field, it follows the Earth’s magnetic field lines eventually finding its way into the upper atmosphere near the magnetic poles.  Here, these highly energetic particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms.  The kinetic energy of these collisions excites the atom’s electrons to a higher energy level.  The electrons eventually fall back to their original energy levels and release the energy in the form of light causing the aurora.  Without this protective shield, life could not exist on Earth’s surface.  And that scenario is played out on Mars which lacks a magnetic field.

Most of the solar wind does not collide with planets.  What becomes of it?  Eventually, it hits the heliopause.  Here is where the solar wind meets the interstellar medium and no longer has the ability to push out any further.  Both Voyager I & II, launched in 1977 and still sending data back to Earth, are headed towards the heliopause.  Both have crossed the termination shock which precedes the heliopause.  It is here where the solar wind slows from supersonic to subsonic speeds.  It is not known specifically when the Voyager’s will cross this threshold into the interstellar medium.  But hopefully, it will occur before the Voyager’s last instruments are shut down in 2025.  What do we know about the interstellar medium?

Voyager’s golden record. The hydrogen electron spin state is depicted on the lower right. This provides a calibration for distance and time for any extraterrestrial life that might encounter Voyager. A detailed explanation of the golden record can be found here.  Credit: NASA/JPL

As hydrogen was created in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, it is the most common element in the universe.  In interstellar space, it is not hot enough to ionize hydrogen.  Neutral hydrogen (HI) emits 21 cm radio waves.    If the spin of a hydrogen atom’s electron and proton are parallel, the electron flips its spin to be anti-parallel.  This action causes the electron to occupy a slightly lower energy level emitting radio waves in the process.  Unlike light, radio transmissions penetrate through dust clouds.  Think of it this way, if you have your radio on, the reception will be the same regardless how dusty your room is.  This has allowed astronomers to complete comprehensive maps of galactic hydrogen gas clouds.  This is crucial in mapping the Milky Way as hydrogen’s radio transmissions give us a better look at our home galaxy.

In a spiral galaxy, hydrogen tends to be found in the arms.  It is in these areas where stars tend to be born.  The rotational velocity of the hydrogen in the arms and its resultant red/blue shifts allow us to differentiate it from intergalactic hydrogen.  The 21 cm radio emissions are so ubiquitous that it was decided to use these emissions on the Voyager golden record as a calibration scale for potential extraterrestrials who might find the probe.  The thinking being, as this is the most common emission in the universe, any alien race would also know about it and use it to decipher the time and distance measurements.

A 360 degree map of hydrogen in the Milky Way. The oval represents a sphere flattened by making a cut from one pole to the other. Bluish gas is approaching Earth while greenish gas is receding from Earth. The plane of the Milky Way runs across the center while the neighboring Magellanic Clouds are in the lower right. Credit: HI4PI: A full-sky HI survey based on EBHIS and GASS, Astronomy & Astrophysics.

When there is a star near a hydrogen cloud, it can heat it up to the point where it ionizes.  When accelerated, charged particles emit radio waves.  In an ionized hydrogen cloud, when a negatively charged electron is near a positively charged proton, it accelerates and emits radio waves.  This is something akin to radio transmission towers on Earth.  Electrons are accelerated up and down the tower generating the radio transmission you receive at home.  Ionized hydrogen clouds are hot enough to emit visible light as well.  By combining radio and visual observations, astronomers have been able to map out the spiral arms of the Milky Way.

Orion Nebula as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. During winter and spring it is visible with binoculars.

Hydrogen is not the only element in interstellar space.  The second most abundant element is helium, also created in the throes of the Big Bang.  Beyond that there are trace amounts of other elements such as oxygen and carbon generated in the nuclear fusion of ancient generation stars that released these elements as a planetary nebula or supernova explosion.  While small in amounts, these are large in importance.  This is especially true of organic, carbon based molecules in space.  It is these molecules that form the basis of life on Earth, and perhaps elsewhere.

Also occupying interstellar space are dust grains.  If lightwaves are smaller than the dust grains, it is scattered in random directions.  If a lightwave is longer than a dust grain, it is not scattered and allowed to pass through unabated.  Thus, on Earth, short wavelength blue light is scattered by dust in the atmosphere resulting in the blue sky.  Conversely, long red wavelength passes through dust and creates the red sky at sunset.  The same processes are at work in space.  Dust grains scatter blue light reddening celestial objects when viewed here on Earth.  In some cases, such as nebulae and the galactic center, dust can obscure our view entirely.  The answer is to view in even longer wavelengths than red light – infrared light.

Infrared light, which is basically heat, is not visible to the eye.  You cannot see body heat with your eyes, but you can view it with night vision goggles, which is an infrared detector.  At near-infrared wavelengths, located adjacent to the optical band on the electromagnetic spectrum, dust is transparent.  Far-infrared, which has longer wavelengths closer to radio waves, can detect dust formations that radiate in these wavelengths.  The Earth radiates most in infrared and thus, it is advantageous to have an infrared observatory in space protected from interference from Earth.  The Spitzer Space Telescope does just that by observing in the infrared.

A composite image in both far and near infrared showing stars in the Milky Way core and the dust that normally obscures those stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dust grains are important for life.  When dust grains begin to clump together around a protostar, it is the first step in planet building.  It has been theorized that dust is how organic material was delivered to Earth to form the building blocks of life.  The early Earth would have been too hot for organics to survive on the surface.  The theory is ultraviolet radiation broke apart dust grains, allowing them to recombine into organic compounds to be deposited on Earth via asteroids and comets.  The jury is still out on this, and while we cannot observe the formation of the Earth, we can observe the formation of other planetary systems via infrared and radio observatories.  The James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2018, will observe in the infrared and should advance our understanding of these processes greatly.

The interstellar medium has about one atom per cubic centimeter.  The intergalactic medium has less than one atom per cubic meter.  It is also very hot at 100,000 to 10,000,000 Kelvin.  This is not intuitive given the lack of obvious heat sources between galaxies.  We know the temperature as the intergalactic medium emits high energy x-rays indicative of hot objects.  The heat is generated by active galactic nuclei and gravitational wells of galactic clusters.  Temperature is a measure of energy which in turn is a measure of motion.  Since this space is so rarefied, it does not take a lot of push to move it to high velocities.  And since it is so rarefied, this is where dark energy makes its full impact.

The expansion of the universe slowed until about 5 billion years ago when dark energy became more dominant than gravity. Credit: Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Nic Ross, BOSS Lyman-alpha team, Berkeley Lab

Dark energy is the force that is speeding up the expansion of the universe.  Until about 5 billion years ago, gravity dominated the universe and was slowing down the acceleration.  Since then, dark energy has dominated and has accelerated the expansion.  What is dark energy?  We don’t know.  Within the confines of galaxies, gravity still dominates and we don’t feel the universal expansion on Earth.  However, these confines are but a small part of the volume of the universe.  The ultimate fate of the universe will be dictated by dark energy in the intergalactic void.  Some feel that the universe will end in a Big Rip where even subatomic particles are shredded apart by the continuing expansion of the universe.  Obviously, life could not exist in this state.  Worry not, this would be many, many billion years in the future.  Nonetheless, our universe has a life cycle.  And this underscores our need to understand the processes at work in seemingly, but not quite, empty space.

*Image atop post is Hubble wide field view of NGC 6791, an open star cluster that also has a couple of galaxies in the background.  Credit:  NASA, ESA, and L. Bedin (STScI)

Life Magazine and the Detroit Riots (plus some other history)

During the summer of 1982, I worked at the City of Houston Tax Office.  Listening to homeowners grouse about their taxes 8 hours a day was not fun, but the job paid well, and it beat working at McDonald’s for the summer.  Lunch hour was literally that – one hour long and it gave me a lot of time to explore downtown Houston.  Across the street from City Hall was the central library.  On the first floor was a nifty bound periodical section that included all the issues of Life Magazine from its run starting in 1936 and ending in 1972.  The release of the movie Detroit this week concerning the 1967 riots brought me back to that summer.

Typically, to read old issues of a magazine such as Life, one had to head towards the microfilm room.  It was a treat to spend my summer lunch hours reading the real deal.  Historians will usually claim that history can’t truly be understood until 50 years afterwards.  It often takes that long for classified documents to become public.  However, I think there is certainly value in experiencing history as the people did during any given time period.  And for most of its run, Life was the go to source for photojournalism.  Being a World War II buff, I made it a point to examine every issue from 1939 to the end of the Nuremberg trials.  And it was the Detroit riots that provided a first crack in the edifice for me of standard World War II history, where America was entirely united in wartime.

I was nineteen and by then, I had a pretty good background on the war, the politics, and the battles, but was still lacking in nuance.  How did the Detroit riots of 1967 play into this?  To understand what happened in 1967, you have to understand the 1943 Detroit riots.  And those riots are not typically addressed in high school history or encyclopedia accounts of World War II.  Life magazine gave me a first glimpse into that aspect of American history and later in the 1980’s, Studs Terkle and Paul Fussell, among others, provided a more comprehensive understanding of America during that period.

Google has partnered with Time-Life and has all the issues of Life online.  Besides allowing me to relive the summer of ’82, we can take a look at how the Detroit riots were covered at the time.  It started in 1942, when a white mob attempted to block African-Americans from occupying the Sojourner Truth Homes.  As the war resulted in intense labor shortages, blacks were recruited from the South to work in the war plants.  Life’s coverage of that event can be found here.  Five months later, Life followed up with a series on the racial factions in Detroit and the ongoing tensions still existing.  Tragically, Life’s reporting was prescient of things to come.

The 1943 riots lasted from June 20-22 and left 34 dead.  The start of the riot, as is often the case, was generated by false rumors of both white attacks on blacks and vise versa.  The root cause was ongoing racial discrimination from housing and the best jobs in the auto industry.  Detroit’s population surged from 465,000 in 1910 to 1.6 million in 1940 resulting in a housing shortage that left blacks in sub-standard dwellings.  The casualties of the 1943 riot were mostly black as both white mobs and police outnumbered black residents.  The Life coverage of the riot notes that, “Detroit can either blow up Hitler or blow up the U.S.”  In the end, Detroit blew up Hitler, but as Life noted, the riots were a huge propaganda tool for Nazi Germany.  Life’s nine page coverage of the riot can be found here.

The 1967 riot was a link in a long chain of racial tensions in Detroit.  The 1967 riot was more deadlier – 43 died and it came just after the Newark riot.  Life begins its coverage by referring to the riot as “the Negro revolt” akin to the phrase rebellion used today.  The economy was booming in 1967 with a national unemployment rate of 3.8%, even lower than it was in the late ’90’s boom.  However, it was 11% for blacks in Detroit.  Also, the decade saw the migration of whites and jobs out to the suburbs and out of reach for inner city blacks.  Add in the additional stress caused by the Vietnam War and you got a toxic brew of racial tension.  Life’s coverage of the 1967 riot can be found here.

Riots weren’t the only thing I read about in 1982.  Here are some links to articles that stand out to me 35 years later.

Germany invades Poland

Life Looks Back at a Year of Disaster – an end of year 1940 article covering fall of Western Europe to Nazi Germany.

War in Russia – Germany invades Russia.

America Goes to War – coverage of Pearl Harbor.

Battle of Midway

Red Army Fights for Mother Russia

Beachheads of Normandy – images of the first wave hitting the beaches.

Allies Squeeze the German Bulge

Iwo Jima

Concentration Camps Liberated

War Ends in Europe

Victory in Europe issue

Allies Round Up War Criminals

Atomic Bomb Dropped in Japan

Japan Signs the Surrender

Nazi Leaders Sing Their Swan Song

First Image of Earth From Space – taken by captured V-2.

The Feat That Shook the Earth – Sputnik launches space age.

JFK Memorial Issue

Week of Shock – MLK assassinated, LBJ declines to run for 2nd term.

Death of Robert Kennedy

To the Moon and Back – Apollo 11 Special Issue

The Big Woodstock Rock Trip/Norman Mailer’s Fire on the Moon/Manson Murders

Apollo 13 Returns Home

Attica Prison Riot

Nixon’s Great Leap into China

Local Interest (Buffalo – where I currently reside)

The Big Snow – 1945 blizzard

Coal Strike Affects Buffalo in 1950

Can This be Buffalo – 1965 Albright-Knox Festival of Art

These, of course, reflect my personal interests.  To explore the Google Life archives you can go to its homepage.  Also, the Google Life photo archive has millions of photos and you can take a gander at that here.  The online search function makes it easy to locate issues of interest, but browsing through issues and randomly looking at articles and advertisements can provide some nuggets as well.  The dichotomy between the articles on the war front and home front is particularly striking during World War II.

And what of the collection at the Houston library where I originally read these articles?  Its been moved to the closed stacks and replaced by a computer lab.  Like everything else, progress sometimes comes with a price.


Social Media in the Classroom

Social media, like all things on the internet, can provide great benefits or be a total cesspool depending how it is managed.  On the plus side, a teacher can funnel new discoveries directly to students.  This is much preferable to waiting a few years for that to be published in textbooks.  On the downside there are the usual trolls waiting for you.  And obviously, we don’t want the classroom to resemble a website comments section.  For this post, I’ll focus on Twitter and Facebook.

I was reluctant to sign up on Twitter with its 140 character limitations.  However, I teach astronomy, and NASA is a Twitter machine.  This is particularity true with ongoing missions. Once a mission has ended, but the data is still being processed, NASA seems to prefer Facebook to make those announcements.  In Twitter culture, there is an emphasis on acquiring large amounts of followers.  Unless you work in mass media, I would recommend looking for high quality of interaction over quantity.  The Twitter landscape is populated by trolls and bot accounts.  Target certain accounts that are subject related and be quick to use the block feature to prevent an interloper from ruining the experience.  If Twitter is being used in a class, using a private account may be a good option.

Twitter is at its best when researchers are disseminating and reviewing results.  At times, you may get to see the scientific process at work when scientists debate their results.  In the class, this can be a demonstration of the dynamics of scientific discovery.  Sometimes it’s messy!  It can be used to display professionalism when researches volley back and forth over the meaning of their data.  It can also be used to demonstrate that even professionals can stumble and personalize their arguments.  In science, its the argument, not the person, that wins the day.  Used wisely, Twitter can be a useful mechanism to bring current research results into the class.

Facebook is a different animal.  With greater privacy settings, it is easier to contain the trolling element without going completely private.  Once a mission has ended, NASA’s twitter accounts tend to go silent while further discoveries are announced on their Facebook accounts.  For example, after the Messenger mission ended, the discovery that Mercury was shrinking was released on Facebook but not on Twitter.  For astronomy, this makes Facebook a key supplement to Twitter.  Unlike Twitter, Facebook does not have a character limit allowing for more descriptive posts.  Also unlike Twitter, you are not likely to see scientific debates on Facebook.  However, Facebook has a higher quality interface for images which is especially helpful for astronomy.  To start off, below are some links.

For Twitter, you do not need an account to access a public Twitter feed.  The blue check marks next to an account name verifies this is a legit feed.


NASA Earth

Hubble Space Telescope

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA Climate

NASA Astrobiology Journal

NASA Solar System

NASA Sun & Space

Keck Observatory

James Webb Space Telescope

European Southern Observatory

Of course, as you explore various Twitter accounts you’ll find others that strike your fancy.  Like Twitter, Facebook allows accounts to verify themselves as legit with a blue check mark.  Facebook requires an account to view other feeds.  Some good Facebook feeds to start with:


NASA Earth

Hubble Space Telescope

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA Climate Change

NASA Solar System Exploration

Curiosity Mars Rover

NASA Sun Science

Keck Observatory

James Webb Space Telescope

European Southern Observatory

Over a thousand years ago, the Silk Road served to transport knowledge and ideas between Central Asia, China, India, and Western Europe.  The internet serves the same purpose today and social media is a key component.  With a little experience and time to manage it, social media can play a constructive role in the classroom.

The Subatomic World – It’s a Jungle Out There

In high school, students are typically introduced to the three basic particles that constitute atoms, that being, protons, neutrons, and electrons.  Unless you decide to take physics in college, education of the atom typically stops there.  That gives the impression that these particles are the smallest bits of matter to be found.  Both protons and neutrons consist of even smaller sub-atomic particles.  The electron cannot be broken down any further.  However, unlike the simple models taught in high school, it is not a particle that orbits the nucleus like planets orbiting stars.

Quantum mechanics dictate the properties of sub-atomic particles which behave quite differently from the large objects we can see.  As a result, their behavior can be counter-intuitive as our eyesight is not capable of resolving these particles.  In the quantum world, particles can pop in and out of existence and consequently, tunnel through barriers in a manner large objects cannot.  The Standard Model guides our understanding of this realm.  This model predicts dozens of quantum particles and configurations – the subatomic jungle.  This post will not be a comprehensive going over of that as that would require a Modern Physics course, but will serve to stretch the bounds of your knowledge beyond the simple atomic model.

Protons and neutrons make up the nucleus of an atom.  Protons have a positive electrical charge and neutrons have no charge.  Both protons and neutrons are made of quarks which have a charge that comes in thirds.  Up quarks have a charge of 2/3 while down quarks have a charge of – 1/3.  It takes three quarks to make a proton or neutron.  In the case of a proton, there are two up quarks and one down quark (the charge is 2/3 + 2/3 – 1/3 = 1).  The neutron is made of one up quark and two down quarks (the charge being 2/3 – 1/3 – 1/3 = 0).  Besides the difference in charge, there is a slight difference in mass between protons and neutrons.

Neutrons are slightly more massive than protons.  If the neutron resides in the nucleus, it is stable.  If it is a free-floating particle, the neutron eventually decays into a proton.  During this process, known as beta decay, an electron and an antineutrino is released.  Beta decay often occurs in nuclear reactors.  An antineutrino is the antimatter version of a neutrino.  Neither an antineutrino or a neutrino have electrical charge and their mass is close to zero.  Neutrinos are produced in the nuclear fusion of stars including the Sun.  In fact, each second, tens of billions of neutrinos pass through your body.  These particles interact very weakly with matter and it requires very complex instruments to detect them.

It can take many thousands, and according to some estimates, millions of years for a light photon created in the Sun’s core to reach the solar surface and begin its journey in space.  As neutrino’s interact very weakly with matter, it only takes a few seconds to reach the solar surface.  Thus, the study of solar neutrinos can provide clues pertaining to the current state of the solar core.  Of course, this same property makes it very difficult to detect neutrinos and require specialized instruments.  One such facility is the SNOLAB near Sudbury, Ontario.  The detectors are located 2,000 meters below the surface to shield it from cosmic ray noise.  This is similar to locating a telescope in a dark area to prevent noise from human made light.  Neutrinos can also give an early detection method for supernovae.  As a supernova will release neutrinos before light, detecting these neutrinos can alert astronomers to turn their telescopes to observe the moment light is released from these events.

Like neutrinos, electrons are a fundamental particle.  Unlike neutrinos, electrons have a negative charge.  In neutral atoms, the negative charge of  electrons offsets the positive charge of an equal amount of protons.  In high school, we are taught the model that electrons are point-like particles orbiting the nucleus.  This is a simplified model to start students off in understanding the atom and has provided the misconception that electrons are similar to miniaturized planets orbiting the Sun.  The reality is more complex.  Electrons are smeared into a cloud encircling the nucleus.  The cloud is a probability curve in which the electron exists in all its possible states.    Bizarre?  Welcome to the quantum world.

How would this translate to the large-scale world we can see?  Think of a dice in a box.  Shake the box, which number of the dice is facing up?  In the quantum world, all six configurations exist simultaneously in the box.  That is, until you open the box and the probability curve collapses to the configuration observed.

Helium atom with 2 protons and 2 neutrons in the core. The 2 electrons are smeared in the surrounding orbital cloud. The darker the area, the higher the probability the electron resides in the area.  Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that more we know about the position of a quantum particle, the less we know about its momentum (and velocity).  Also, the more we know about a quantum particle’s momentum, the more uncertainty there is about its position.  Thus, the atom is not mostly empty space as we are taught in grade school.  Credit: Wiki Commons

That’s how Niels Bohr saw it and it is referred to as the Copenhagen Interpretation.  To some, this explanation was unsatisfactory and led to Schrödinger’s cat.  Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment where a cat is placed in a box with a cyanide capsule that would be triggered when a Geiger counter detected a radioactive decay.  The decay had a 50% probability of occurring.  Thus, in the quantum world, the atom exists in both states-one where it had decayed and released radioactivity and the other where it had not.  But what about the cat?  Did it too exist in two states, one dead and one alive?  Worry not, no one has tried this experiment.  It was Schrödinger’s way of pointing out the inconsistencies between quantum mechanics of the atom and the law of relativity which governs how large objects behave.  Others, such as Hugh Everett III, sought another explanation.

In his 1957 doctoral thesis, Everett argued that the universe splits with each possible action.  Thus, in the dice example, once you shake the box, the universe splits into six different universes.  Each universe has the dice with a different number facing up.  This removes the need for an observer to collapse the probability wave.  It’s a fascinating proposal, as this would mean there exists separate universes for each course of action you could have taken in your life.  While many physicists are very enthusiastic about Everett’s work, they have not yet devised a way to test it experimentally as we are unable to observe other universes.  Unless such a way is devised, for now, we have to treat it as a very interesting hypothesis.  The same can not be said about the Higgs boson.

Unlike the particles above that make up matter, bosons transmit the basic forces of nature.  There are four of these forces, electromagnetism, weak-nuclear, strong-nuclear, and gravity.  Photons are particles of light that transmit electromagnetic force.  W and Z bosons transmit the weak-nuclear force that causes radioactive decay.  Gluons transmits the strong nuclear force that binds atomic nuclei together.  It is this force that is released in nuclear weapons.  Gravitons are a speculative boson that would transmit gravity.  To date, we do not have a quantum theory that explains gravity on an atomic scale.  And then there is the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle.

The God particle is a misnomer.  Leon Lederman, who was awarded a Nobel in 1988, referred to the Higgs boson as the Goddamn particle as it was so difficult to detect.  Lerderman’s popular book on nuclear physics published in the early 1990’s was to be titled after the original moniker, but the publisher shortened it to The God Particle.  While the Higgs boson has no religious connection, it is crucial as it imparts the property of mass in atoms.  Mass is often confused with weight.  Mass is constant whereas weight can change.  If you travel to the Moon, your weight will be 1/6th what it is on Earth but your mass will remain the same.  Weight is a measure of the force of gravity on a body whereas mass measures the amount of “stuff” in a body.

Aerial outline of the CERN facilities. Credit: Maximilien Brice/CERN

In 2012, it was announced the Higgs boson was discovered at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  The Higgs boson was predicted by the Standard Model and the evidence matched the prediction.  CERN is a consortium of 22 nations and operates by the Swiss-France border.  The LHC was opened in 2008 and is a 27 km ring that accelerates sub-atomic particles close to the speed of light via supercooled magnets.  Besides its many discoveries in particle physics, CERN invented the World Wide Web in 1989 to disseminate its work.  CERN allowed the World Wide Web to enter the public domain in 1993, making the internet boom of the 1990’s possible, not to mention, this blog.

The LHC is the world’s most powerful supercollider.  The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) that was being built in Texas during the early 1990’s would have dwarfed the LHC.  The SSC would have been a 87 km ring and three times as powerful as the LHC.  Construction on the SSC was halted in 1993.  Several factors conspired to do in the SSC, among them the economy, politics, and cost overruns.  The US economy entered into a recession during the early 1990’s prompting the federal government to look into cost cutting.  Then there was Texas senator Phil Graham, who brought the bacon back to Texas but delighted in nixing projects in other states.  Cancelling SSC was a way of returning the favor.  At the time of cancellation, over $2 billion had been spent and the project was running several billion dollars over its original estimate.

The SSC under construction. Credit: Physics Today

That the SSC had cost overruns is not a surprise.  In any project where technology has to be invented to complete it, there is a large degree of uncertainty with costs.  This is true of the space program as well.  When entering the realm of the unknown, the economics of that kind of project are not really known until completion.  The SSC site now lies abandoned, with over 20 km of tunnels dug.  Had it been completed, it could have opened our knowledge of quantum physics in the same manner the Hubble did for astronomy.  The largest American supercollider, the Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois, was shut down in 2011 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.  The next generation of supercolliders is being built in China, set to begin construction in 2020, will be twice the size of the LHC.  To date, there is no American proposal to match these efforts.

While the traces left behind in particle accelerators allow us to deduce the properties of sub-atomic particles, we are unable to see the particles themselves as they are much smaller than lightwaves.  Using x-rays, which have shorter wavelengths, we can see atomic structure in crystallized lattices, but not the particles themselves.  This gets even more problematic when it comes to string theory which posits sub-atomic particles consisting of strings with a length of 1035 meters.  Detecting this is beyond the capability of the LHC and while string theory is impressive in its mathematical formulation, it will remain a hypothesis until a means is found to experimentally verify their existence.  For other properties of sub-atomic particles, we can look into the most extreme environments of the universe.

If a hydrogen atom were the size of Earth, the nucleus would only be a few hundred feet wide with the rest being electron orbitals.  If that’s the case, why can’t we walk through walls?  When atoms are compressed in a smaller volume, electrons are excited to higher energy states and create outward pressure.  This pressure is what prevents you from walking through walls.  It takes a lot of energy to compress atoms.  In white dwarfs, gravity compresses matter to the point where all the available energy states are taken up by electrons.  The intense gravity of a white dwarf, 100,000 times that of Earth, is offset by the outward pressure force created by the energized electrons.  Neutron stars can compress matter even more than white dwarfs.  Formed by the supernova explosion of high-mass stars, these objects crunch electrons and protons to form neutrons – hence neutron stars.  A teaspoon of this material would weigh about a billion tons compared to 5.5 tons for a white dwarf.

The Sun, in about five billion years, will shed its outer layers and form a planetary nebula with a white dwarf at the core.  In a few tens of thousands of years afterwards, the nebula will dissipate leaving the white dwarf.  There is no longer any fusion process when a star becomes a white dwarf, its luminosity is caused by the initial core temperature of 100,000 C.  It takes many billions of years for white dwarfs to cool down.  In fact, more time than the current age of the universe of 13.8 billion years.

Understanding the nature of sub-atomic particles allows us to understand the ultimate fate of the Sun.  It has also allowed us to make many technological advances.  Transistors, lasers, semi-conductors all owe their existence to our understanding of the tiniest particles of the quantum world.  The pure theoretical work of modern physicists in the first half of the 20th Century made possible the world we currently live in.

*Image on top is the remains of neutrino collision at CERN.  The particle tracks represent electron-positron pairs recorded in the particle accelerator.  Credit:  CERN