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COSMOS: it’s time to get going again

9 Mar

“The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the Cosmos stir us. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.”

– Carl Sagan, in COSMOS

Those words are how the legendary Carl Sagan began the first episode of the first COSMOS series back in 1980. It was a time when humans were proud of their scientific accomplishments, dreamed of what else might be discovered, and were excited by the unknown.

Now, it’s 2014.

Carl has long since passed.

Science is (in some corners anyway) considered an ‘opinion’.

And in spite of living in a world that is very much driven by technology, and scientific discovery, we have in some ways slipped backwards. The significance of science has been forgotten. The passion for discovery has taken a backseat – particularly amongst political leaders. The notion that we as a species can improve our lives here on Earth by looking to the Cosmos has been forgotten.

“It’s time to get going again.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Tonight on FOX (and National Geographic Channel) the rebooted version of COSMOS begins. It’s a 13-part series, written in large part by Carl Sagan’s compadre Ann Druyan.

The 2014 COSMOS revival is hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He, like Carl before him, not only is an utterly brilliant man, but he also has a way with words. Tyson can turn potentially dry science talk into poetry.

He can excite the imagination.

And that is perhaps what I hope to see most from COSMOS tonight, and in the days, months, and years to come. I want to live in a time where people are excited by their imaginations, and the possibilities of what might be.

Whether we’re talking (now seriously) about potential human flights to Mars within the next decade, voyaging to asteroids, finding an Earth 2.0, or perhaps ultimately discovering life elsewhere in the Cosmos (either nearby or distant) – the exploration of space excites and unites humanity in a way unparalleled by other endeavours.

A show like COSMOS has the potential to sew the cultural seeds in a new generation that are necessary for all this to happen.


No pressure though, Neil.

It’s also going to be interesting to explore how full-circle the new series will come, with the original:

I expect veterans of the original series will enjoy those sorts of nods, and it will add a pleasant undertone to the reboot.

It’s also worth mentioning a kudos to an unlikely man in all this: Seth MacFarlane.

The man behind such shows as Family Guy and American Dad.

By all accounts, a reboot to COSMOS was already in the works for PBS by Tyson and Druyan. Then MacFarlane got wind of this, called Tyson, had a chat about becoming involved, and then took it to FOX.

With MacFarlane’s involvement brought a different, and I would argue valuable, perspective to the project. He thought COSMOS should be a spectacle, to such an extent that even non-science minded folks will tune in.

This is important, since ultimately those are the folks that need to be ‘won over’ by the significance and potential of science.

Related: Intuition gives way to data in exploration of the Cosmos

MacFarlane and Fox’ involvement also likely upped the production budget handsomely, and so the new series will be able to deliver visually and experientially in a way that a PBS series wouldn’t have been able to.

“There has never been a more important time for COSMOS to re-emerge than right now because of the fact that we have, in too many ways, roundly ignored and rejected science when it used to be a source of pride for the country and the species.”

– Seth MacFarlane

It goes without saying that I plan on spending my next 13 Sunday evenings in front of my television, and I expect others will also be parked in front of the TVs.

More significantly though, I hope people will wake up Monday morning re-energized about science and the potential for humanity’s real-life exploration of the Cosmos.

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

– Carl Sagan, in COSMOS

I look forward to continuing the journey.

Intuition gives way to data in exploration of the Cosmos

2 Mar


Only the most anthropocentric among us would seriously argue that Earth, as part of a solar system, is a godsend.

Especially nowadays.

For me, it always made sense intuitively that our solar system is one among many – just as our star is one among many, or indeed our planet is one among many just in our solar system.

We’ve known for a while that our Sun is one amongst, literally, billions in the Milky Way alone. Thousands of years ago though this concept was intuition, and postulation. A lot of ‘what if?’ type statements were made about our Sun, in comparison to the twinkling lights of the night.

“What if we’re just a lot closer to this one, than to others, so it looks bigger and brighter?”

“What if it’s actually not all that different from others?”

Though there was no way to confirm these ideas – even if intuitively they did make a world of sense.

Through the advent of technologies – namely telescopes, invented roughly 400 years ago – data would eventually be provided to confirm the intuition that our little Sun was in fact quite a bit like all those stars that surround us at night.

(Of course to be accurate, the Sun is also dissimilar from many stars in terms of size, temperature, age, and so on — just as Mercury and Jupiter hold some traits in common, they are of course dissimilar in others.)

The Milky Way (Credit: A. Fujii / NASA)

The Milky Way (Credit: A. Fujii / NASA)

As time marches on, we find that in our solar system there is also a diversity of worlds: planets, moons, asteroids, comets – whatever classification you choose, there’s a multitude of those other bodies out there.

Again through technology – and again, namely telescopes – we’re able to confirm ideas that intuitively made sense to people of ages past: what if those wondering stars are other worlds?

In fact the word ‘planet’ derives from the Greek ‘asteres planetai’ – wandering stars – as the paths of the planets appears separate against the backdrop of the star field in our night sky.

Around the same time that we confirm there are other worlds around our star, folks start to wonder ‘what if those stars have planets, like ours does?’

It makes sense intuitively – just as the concepts of other Suns in the galaxy and worlds in our solar system makes sense.

What’s been lacking though is the technology to confirm this intuition – since let’s be honest, intuition alone is a very lousy way to do science.

We need data to confirm the hypothesis.

The first exoplanet – or extra-solar planet, aka a planet orbiting a star other than the Sun – was discovered in 1992. That’s only 22 years ago.

And in fact that 1992 discovery was of planets orbiting a pulsar. The first discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a main-sequence star (something loosely like the Sun) was in 1995 – not even two decades ago!

So on one hand, it might have been forgivable for people to argue that our solar system is unique. There had been, after all, no data to argue otherwise.

On the other, since the mid-90’s, there have been different techniques to detect exoplanets.

Though it wasn’t until 2009 that the rock star took the stage: Kepler.

(if you want to read all about the Kepler mission, go here – those details aren’t what this article is about)

With the Kepler mission taking centre-stage in our planet-hunting endeavour, we were finally able to take the first steps in confirming something that makes sense intuitively: many (if not most) other stars have planets orbiting them, just as ours does.

Exactly how many planets each star has, exactly the nature of those planets orbits, exactly the composition of those planets – and many other details – continue to be open questions in most cases. Though it’s worthwhile to note that in some examples, perhaps a dozen, we have a pretty good understanding of the answers to those questions.

Should it be surprising that we don’t have all the answers? Of course not. We have only confirmed that these things exist in the first place in the last couple decades.

Though as Kepler data continues to be unravelled (even if Kepler’s prime mission is kaput), I expect we will continue to hear announcements like the Kepler 715 release.

There are planets out there everywhere – and lots of them.

Their makeup is as diverse as the makeup of our solar system.

But now that we have data to confirm the exoplanet intuition, we need data for next big intuition: life.

And just has happened historically, we’ll start in our own solar system with Mars.

We have been investigating Mars from afar for hundreds of years. Over the last few decades we’ve been investigating it close-up. We’ve confirmed the presence of water. We’ve confirmed a hospitable environment (at least historically).

What’s next?

It’s time to go to Mars and search directly for life.

This search will primarily be one for ancient life, though it’s not out of the question that some microbes could exist underground near a water supply today.

Once again, this is an issue where it is intuitively plausible that Mars was home to life. We know the conditions were right, so why not?

But this is a big question, and again intuition isn’t enough – we need data.

To this end, the ESA’s Mars mission slated ford 2018 will have a direct search for life as it’s goal. NASA’s next large Mars rover is set for 2020.

I do, openly, speculate that this is another case where intuition will eventually be confirmed by data (whether it’s within the next few years or not though is harder to guess – Mars is a pretty inhospitable place now, and so evidence of past life might be hard to find – if it is there at all).

Speculation aside though, data can confirm for us that Earth is simply one planet amongst hundreds of billions – if not more.

This is a reality that may take some time to sink in, but it is an undeniable truth.

Just as it is equally true that the Earth is round, that we orbit the Sun, and that the Sun is but one amongst a vast ocean of stars.

The great American snow conspiracy actually uses science! …to a point

3 Feb

When the snow fell in Atlanta, Georgia this January people started playing with it (read: experimenting with it).

Folks in the area weren’t used to seeing the fluffy white stuff fall from the sky (and even as a resident of the Great White North, I still enjoy a good snowfall – it is a remarkably serene and picturesque thing). So once it fell, they pulled out their cameras, made snowballs, and a couple tried to melt the snow with their lighters:

Now, of course the snow *IS* melting — but ignoring that for a second — this woman (and many others who posted similar videos) is actually doing science.

She’s doing her own little snow-melting experiment. That’s great!

Something unusual happened – snow in Atlanta.

She picks some up, and starts doing tests on it.

One of her tests gave her a result she didn’t expect: “vanishing” and “burning” snow, when a snowball is exposed to an open flame from a lighter.

She recorded her results. She shared them. Other “scientists” repeated the experiment (What’s that? repeatable results? It’s something most scientists dream of!)

Now here’s where the science breaks down for most of our amateur YouTube friends in this conspiracy theory.

When confronted with a result that can’t be explained, the correct answer is “I don’t know what’s going on here.” Following that, others can try to figure it out. You can continue to conduct your own experiments.

You keep trying to find an answer based on tests and evidence – not wild speculation.

But here, instead of continuing to experiment, folks started jumping to wild conclusions supported by absolutely zero evidence.

Enter Phil Plait.

Here we see Phil doing the same experiment and get the same results. Snowball “vanishing” and “burning” – just like the rest.

But Phil takes the next step in this experiment. He looks a little closer at what’s going on.

And in doing so, we can learn what’s actually happening.

As the lighter melts the snow, the still-frozen snow absorbs the water like a sponge. As the entire snowball melts, we can indeed see that it will all turn to water, once the snow becomes saturated with liquid water, and completely melts.

As for the scorch marks? Again an explanation based on observation: lighters burn butane, a hydrocarbon. But they don’t burn it perfectly. So some leftover carbon from that imperfect combustion stains the snow (think of it as exhaust from the lighter – just like cars that burn too much oil can get black stains around their exhaust pipes).

It's not a conspiracy, it's science!

It’s not a conspiracy, it’s science!

So overall, it’s genuinely great that Americans are all participating in a mass science experiment with snow.

Curiosity is a fantastic trait to have.

But: when you do science, it’s important to follow through and do it right. Don’t give in to wild speculation. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t find the answer right away. Keep testing.

It’s also vitally important to recognize that simply because you don’t understand what’s happening, the answer that it’s a mass government conspiracy should not be what comes to mind (I mean really, they can’t run commuter trains on time, or a health care system, or the DMV — you really think they’re pulling off a massive snow scam so we watch more TV advertisements?).

Here’s the real key though. Even if after all your hard work you can’t figure it out: remember that just because you don’t know the answer, doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer.

Keep up the science.

Christmas at the Moon

23 Dec

Christmas 1968 was a special one.

Do you remember?

1968 started as a troubling year. The strife included an unpopular war in Vietnam. The world also witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

But Apollo 8’s six day journey to the Moon and back might have saved the year.

The mission’s ability to bring people together was a remarkable, lasting trait. And at a time of year when we’re liable to get a little bit caught up in the madness of the holiday season, it’s worthwhile to look back and to remember the wonder of Christmas at the Moon – and how this flight still touches us all today.

Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968 with a three man crew: Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders.

Both Borman and Lovell had flown into space before during the Gemini program; Anders was on his first flight into space.

For all three men though, and indeed for all of humanity, ‘firsts’ was the keyword of the mission.

This was the first launch from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida – adjacent to Cape Canaveral.

Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to leave Earth orbit.

It was the first manned mission to the Moon.

The crew was the first to orbit the Moon and see its far side directly, with their own eyes.

And perhaps most majestic of all, Borman, Lovell, and Anders were the first three human beings to see Earth in its entirety, all at once.

This is by the simple fact that they had gone further away from home than anyone ever had before.

Not bad for a Christmas vacation.

For Apollo 8, besides the risk of launch and just getting underway towards the Moon, the crew faced the added mystery surrounding if their engine would fire precisely enough for them to enter lunar orbit correctly. If the engine failed to provide enough thrust as they approached the Moon, they risked being flung out into the solar system and forever lost. Too much thrust would result in an equally fatal impact on the lunar surface.

On December 23, 1968 at about 6 p.m. EST after a picture-perfect four-minute burn of the Service Module’s main engine, Apollo 8 and her crew were in orbit around the Moon.

And there they would stay for the next 20 hours, completing ten orbits around our nearest celestial neighbour.

While in orbit of the Moon, the crew conducted a live television broadcast back to Earth on Christmas Eve. It was during this broadcast that the crew famously read a passage from the Book of Genesis.

And even as a non-religious man myself, I appreciate the historical significance of reciting that particular passage in that particular place.

Apollo 8’s Christmas Eve broadcast from orbit of the Moon was also, at the time, the most watched television broadcast ever.

For NASA, while the Lunar Lander itself wasn’t ready to fly when Apollo 8 blasted off, this mission was an important one to test the Command and Service Modules to ensure they were capable of carrying crews to and from lunar orbit safely.

The crew of Apollo 8 was also kept very busy while in orbit of the Moon taking pictures. They were required to survey potential landing sites for future missions – in particular the Sea of Tranquility where Apollo 11 would land some seven months later and humanity would leave its first boot prints on another world.

In all Borman, Lovell, and Anders took more than 700 pictures of the Moon’s surface, and an additional 150 frames of Earth.

To be able to come back home, the crew would once again depend on the engine to fire perfectly.

And it did.

So after a couple days cruising back towards our blue marble, on December 27, 1968 just before 11 a.m. EST, the crew of Apollo 8 splashed down in the south Pacific.

For NASA the mission was a success because the crew came back safe, the spacecraft had performed well, they had gathered invaluable information about the Moon and potential landing sites, and last but not least: they were one small step closer to putting someone on the Moon.

For humanity though, Apollo 8 may have left a more lasting impression.

During this mission, we saw two things for the first time through human eyes: that we are all in this together, and that we are all a part of something much bigger.

The first image of our entire world

The first image of our entire world

The first photo of the entire Earth – an image that we perhaps take for granted today – demonstrated clearly that there is but one planet Earth.

No borders are visible from space.

No religions.

No races.

Just Earth – and all of us.

The other lasting image is one famously called ‘Earthrise’ – an image that the Apollo 8 crew captured as they came around from behind the far side of the Moon on Christmas eve.

"Earthrise" taken by Apollo 8 astronauts on December 24, 1968 while orbiting the Moon

“Earthrise” taken by Apollo 8 astronauts on December 24, 1968 while orbiting the Moon

As they peered out their windows, our pale blue dot was visible beyond the horizon of the Moon.

This offered a new perspective for humanity: our Earth as part of a larger system.

Our Earth as a piece in a much larger puzzle.

And as I think about this, I think I might understand why these two images resonated so deeply – and continue to resonate deeply today. They offer each of us a sense of connectedness.

In the individual sense, it is comforting to know and realize that our experiences, challenges, hope, and dreams are not unique. Because, as evidenced by that picture of Earth, we’re not alone.

In the larger sense, it is uplifting to be able to see our planet in the sky of another world. It’s encouraging to be able to realize we are connected to what’s happening around us.

It’s amazing how all this came from just two photographs, taken 45 years ago, during a mission that many people today couldn’t tell you anything about.

So during this Christmas season take a moment to remember what really matters in your life. Tell those important to you how you feel.

We don’t have to go to the Moon to do that – and hopefully this Christmas can be special too.

Merry Christmas!