Category Archives: science

The Dark Side of Gaia

I was reminded tonight of the Gaia hypothesis. It was quite a thing in the 1970s.

The Gaia hypothesis, named after the ancient Greek goddess of Earth, posits that Earth and its biological systems behave as a huge single entity. This entity has closely controlled self-regulatory negative feedback loops that keep the conditions on the planet within boundaries that are favorable to life. Introduced in the early 1970s, the idea was conceived by chemist and inventor James E. Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis.

This had a natural appeal in the early days of the environmental movement. I was skeptical back then, thinking of it as new age wishful thinking, and impossible to test. I was wrong: Its origins are far darker. Here is the abstract of Gas Guzzling Gaia, or: A Prehistory of Climate Change Denialism:

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The mass of Dark Matter particles

An email from Cosmoquest led me to find Physicists Narrow Range of Potential Masses for Dark Matter Candidate articles. Technical details at Theoretical bounds on dark matter masses and on the Arxiv. The mass range is 10−3eV≲mφ≲107eV. Thus we have a range from neutrino masses (still very uncertain, but nonzero) up to about 1/10 the mass of a muon. This appears to exclude WIMPs, which were already in trouble. This also suggests that finding dark matter is not a justification for building a more powerful particle accelerator than the LHC; 107eV is well within the range of the LHC and other current devices.

We still do not have a complete theory of quantum gravity, but apparently enough is understood to make such calculations possible. I am looking forward to seeing what other theoretical physicists say about this.

Blinking Astronomical Photographs

Low-Cost Approach to Scanning Historic Glass Plates Yields an Astronomical Surprise. Technical details at Precise Photometric Measurements from a 1903 Photographic Plate Using a Commercial Scanner.

Professional astrophotography used to be done on emulsion-coasted glass places. That was how astromical discoveries were made for nearly a century.

More than an estimated 2.4 million glass plates are out there in collections in North America alone. These were taken starting in the 1890s right up until the 1970s, when CCD (Charged Couple Device) detectors started to come online for astronomy. Of these, only an estimated 400,000 plates have been digitized to research quality

The team in this article has found a much cheaper way to proceed with this process, using off-the-shelf hardware.

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I went (via Zoom) to a great lecture last night. Serafina Nance spoke to the The Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada on Tracing the Lives, Deaths, and Explosions of Massive Stars.

Supernovae are cosmic events of gigantic power. Their explosions can shine as bright as a galaxy, a pinprick of extraordinarily bright light in the night sky. What is less well-understood, however, is which stars reach the point of explosion and how they evolve to their deaths. Interestingly, their explosions provide astronomers with key tools to uncover fundamental aspects of our Universe. While we know that the Universe is expanding at an accelerated rate due to dark energy, the rate of the expansion of the Universe is not well-constrained. Supernovae provide us with independent ways to measure this expansion and work to resolve one of the most pivotal questions in astronomy: How fast is the Universe really expanding?
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Significant Figures

I found this post on Facebook: Why is it important to know so many digits of pi?.

My comment:

As someone who started computing with log tables and slide rules, the first question I ask is how many significant digits do the other variables in your calculation have? The smallest such number tells you how many digits of pi you need. With electronic devices there is no harm in using more in your calculation, as many as your device has, but do not let that give you a false idea of the precision of your result.

I learned about significant figures in my high school chemistry in 1967-68. (Thank you, Mr. Wheeler!). Use of appropriate significant figures, also from a chemistry class, clearly explains the concept and its use in practice.

I only first saw Star Trek (TOS) after high school, in reruns. Thanks to that chemistry class I gag every time I hear Mr. Spock reporting some calculation to an absurd number of decimal places. His input data could not possibly be that precise!

Water on the Moon

It’s confirmed. There is water on the Moon. OK, what’s the big deal? Water is very common in the cosmos and has been seen on the moon before. The difference is that previously it had been been only in craters near the lunar south pole, perpetually in darkness. Now, as the updated NASA announcement said, NASA’s SOFIA Discovers Water on Sunlit Surface of Moon, which will be much more accessible to future explorers.

How significant this is remains to be seen, but it has provided Katie Mack with some inspiration.

Phosphine on Venus: Not so fast

Last month I posted about a Possible Sign of Life on Venus, which reported on Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus. Earlier this month I mentioned More about phosphine on Venus. The story is not over yet.

A Question of Phosphine links to Re-analysis of the 267-GHz ALMA observations of Venus: No statistically significant detection of phosphine. This team re-analyzed the same data used in the first Phosphine gas paper, but came to the opposite conclusion. So it comes down to a very complicated question of statistical analysis.

Professor Coles also linked to A stringent upper limit of the PH3 abundance at the cloud top of Venus by another team which included Jane Greaves, first author of Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus.

American Poison Gas in World War II

During World War II the United States was prepared to use poison gas against the German army. 100 tons of mustard gas were shipped to the port of Bari in southern Italy, held by the Allies and far behind the front lines, on the ammunition ship John Harvey. Being an ammunition ship, the John Harvey also carried a full load of conventional explosive munitions. Disaster At Bari tells the story of how, on the night of December 2, 1943, the port of Bari was attacked by 105 Ju 88 Luftwaffe bombers. The attackers achieved complete surprise: the Allied high command did not think the Luftwaffe was still capable of a raid this far behind the front lines. The lights were on in the harbor so that unloading the docked ships could continue during the night. The Luftwaffe pilots and bombardiers made good use of this, and sank 17 cargo and transport ships, with 8 others damaged. One of the targets was the John Harvey. As an ammunition ship it blew up in a huge explosion, spreading mustard gas all around.

Hundreds of victims were taken to hospitals with strange symptoms. Many died and the medical staff had no idea why. The presence of mustard gas on the John Harvey was a closely guarded secret. Eventually a senior medical officer was flown in from Allied headquarters in Algiers. He quickly realized that the men had been exposed to mustard gas. With some difficulty, he was able find out that the John Harvey had mustard gas in its cargo. There 617 military and merchant marine mustard-gas casualities that night. 84 men died. No one knows about the casualties among the Italian civilians. Many lives could have been saved if the presence of mustard gas had been known immediately and proper treatment administered to the victims.

Evidence for Literacy in Ancient Judah

The Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and conquered the biblical kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE. Just before then, c. 600 BCE, Judah maintained a small military outpost at Tel Arad, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem. Written inscriptions have been found there on ostraca (pottery fragments), a common writing medium in the ancient world. The fort at Tel Arad was a small place, with a garrison of 20-30 soldiers. Yet a handwriting analysis of 18 incriptions shows that there were least 6 and perhaps as many as 12 authors of these texts. This indicates that literacy was not uncommon in Judah at the time, at least among the army. It was not the exclusive domain a few scribes serving the king.

Given a substantial degree of literacy, it is plausible that some of the books of the Hebrew Bible, e.g. Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, were in fact written down before the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile.


More about phosphine on Venus

Following up on Possible Sign of Life on Venus. After that announcement some scientists took another look at 1978 data from the Pioneer Venus Multiprobe. At the time nobody was specifically looking for phosphine, but a new analysis of the raw data supports the possibility that there is phospine in the atmosphere of Venus. Details at Is Phosphine in the Mass Spectra from Venus’ Clouds?.

This has happened before in astronomy. After both Neptune and Pluto were discovered, astronomers looked at old records and found that their predecessors had seen both bodies, but had not realized they were significant. In the case of Neptune one of those predecessors was Galileo.