Tag Archives: astronomy

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.

Columbus and the Flat Earth

Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, by Jeffrey Burton Russell, is the book for the day. Columbus did not show the world that the Earth was round. No educated European in 1492 believed that the Earth was flat. They all knew it was round. As all math geeks know, Eratosthenes of Cyrene had made a good calculation of the circumference of the Earth about 200 BCE.

Catholic church authorities did not say that the plan of Columbus to reach the orient by sailing westward was impossible because the Earth was flat. Their scholastic theology was based on the philosophy of Aristotle, who understood perfectly well that the Earth was round.

There are passages in the Bible that suggest a flat Earth, but almost all theologians of ancient and medieval times knew the evidence for a round Earth was overwhelming, and understood the Bible was not to be taken literally in this and similar cases.

The objection to the plans of Columbus was that, thanks to Eratosthenes, people had a good idea of the distance from the west coast of Europe to the east coast of China, and could easily calculate that no ship of the day could possibly carry enough supplies for the voyage.

Columbus, acting like a 21st century Republican, rejected the best science of the day and chose a smaller alternative value for the circumference that suited his purposes. He was just lucky that the Americas happened to be there. As a result their inhabitants were then horribly unlucky.

The story about Columbus and the flat Earth is a 19th century invention, not history.

Also posted on Facebook.

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.

Possible Sign of Life on Venus

Yesterday I got an email from Cosmoquest about a science press conference (“presser”) where a new discovery would be announced. With all the new distance-based communication technology anybody could watch, rather than just those in a select room, however large. The event was put on by the Royal Astronomical Society today. I watched it on the Cosmoquest Twitch TV channel. I had never heard of Twitch TV before.

The occasion was that

An international team of astronomers, led by Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University, today announced the discovery of a rare molecule – phosphine – in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially, or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments.

The discovery was made by spectroscopy using two different radio telescopes. The significance of this is that the production of phospine by purely chemical processes is very unlikely in the atmosphere of Venus. The team looked at every possible chemical reaction they could think up, and failed to find any that could come close to producing the observed amount of phospine.

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Some of my summer reading