Tag Archives: News

As we sail into the unknown

13 Sep

This is a big moment in human history, though like many moments it probably won’t sink in for years to come. Nevertheless, humanity – with the reach of the incredibly long-lived Voyager 1 space probe – is now a civilization of the stars.

The official announcement came from NASA yesterday (September 12, 2013) after careful data analysis from Voyager 1’s Plasma Wave instrument: the spacecraft has passed though the heliopause (the bubble that separates the inside of our solar system from the outside) into the interstellar medium.

To watch the full press conference, hit play here:

NASA scientists were able to confirm Voyager 1’s exit from the heliopause by measuring a significant change in the plasma density that surrounds the probe. And interestingly, the change they noted was a marked increase in density. This may seem counter-intuitive, but as the plasma temperature of the interstellar medium is significantly cooler than the solar system’s plasma, the increased density makes sense – and was in fact expected.

(Warning, the following is a simplification: All things being equal, cool objects have a higher density than warm objects, as their molecules have less energy and pack closer together. This is why solids are denser that liquids; liquids denser than gases; gases denser than plasma – in each state of matter transition energy is added, which causes a decrease in density.)

“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” ― Carl Sagan

The other interesting thing to note is that Voyager 1 , it appears, actually entered interstellar space on August 25, 2012 – more than a year ago! But it took until now to make sense of the data the probe was sending back. But I kind of like this. When we as a species are going somewhere and doing something no one has ever done before, it takes time for us to understand what we’re seeing and what’s happening. Exploration and discovery doesn’t happen in 20 seconds – it takes years (and historically speaking, many years) of concerted human effort to accomplish these amazing firsts – whether we’re talking about crossing the oceans, inventing medicines, sailing around the globe, building landmarks, landing on the moon, and now leaving the solar system.*

Voyager 1 is right now about 19 billion kilometers from the Earth, or 125 times further from the Sun than we are, and getting ever further away at a speed of about 60,000 kilometers per hour – or roughly 500 million km per year! A little perspective: we think of the dwarf planet Pluto as “far away” but Voyager 1 passed the orbit of Pluto in 1989 – 24 years ago!

And let’s not forget about Voyager 2 either. It is still within the heliopause, and will also cross into interstellar space in the coming years. Voyager 2 is on a different – slower – trajectory than Voyager 1 and so it is about 5 billion kilometers behind its twin sister, on a southbound course away from the Sun.

The Voyager mission will, I expect, to continue to deliver more discoveries. As the probe continues to sail into the unknown I look forward to it sending back new data that will continue to answer questions – and perhaps more importantly – raise new questions, in order to push our understanding of the universe forwards.

To read more about the Voyager mission, check out these other posts I’ve written on the subject over the last couple years.

* While Voyager 1 is now travelling through interstellar space, it technically hasn’t left the solar system. I know this might sound bizarre, but it’s due to the fact that the Sun’s gravitational influence reaches far beyond the influence of its plasma. There are (at minimum) billions of chunks of rock and ice in the Oort Cloud that orbit our Sun over thousands of years that are still many times further away from the Sun than Voyager 1 is. It may be in fact thousands of years before Voyager 1 passes the last of the Oort Cloud objects. All that having been said, the heliopause is accepted as the limit between inside our solar system and “amongst the stars” in interstellar space, just as Oort Cloud objects are “among the stars” even while being bound by gravity to our Sun. Phil Plait also wrote on this subject here.

Quit ‘yer whining!

8 Jun

I’ve made a few comments about the Quebec student protests here and there on Facebook or to my friends, but I haven’t said much about it here.

Until right now. Jacques Villeneuve has inspired me with his comments yesterday about the protests:

“It’s time for people to wake up and stop loafing about. It’s lasted long enough,” Villeneuve told reporters at a cocktail benefit that kicked off the four-day Grand Prix festivities.

“We heard them. We listened. They should stop. It’s costing the city a fortune. It makes no sense.”

As for their parents, Villeneuve said: “I think these people grew up without ever hearing their parents ever tell them, ’No.’ So that’s what you see in the streets now. People spending their time complaining. It’s becoming a little bit ridiculous. They spoke, we heard, and now it’s time to go back to school.”

He said that in a democracy, people can vote to turf governments, and speak their mind between elections to make themselves heard — but they have to know when to give it a rest.

“That’s what democracy is. We vote for people — and if you’re not happy, then you vote for other people the next time around. And if you’re not happy you complain, they listen, and that’s it,” he said.

“Same with your parents: ’Daddy, mommy, I don’t like this.’ Well, go back to bed now.” Villeneuve said he was raised to believe in hard work, and not imagine money will fall from the sky.

(source: National Post)

Bang on.

When a democratically elected government makes a decision you don’t like (or do like for that matter), because we are lucky enough to live in a free country, you have absolutely every right to let them know. You also have every right to make some noise so that other people, if they agree with you, can also tell the government that – in your opinion – they have taken the wrong decision.

Maybe the government will agree and change their course, or maybe they won’t.

As I think about this today, I think back to a Political Science class I took in first (or it might have been second?) year while I was at the University of Guelph. One day the professor asked what is the best political system?

There were a number of suggestions put forward, mainly revolving around systems where corporations didn’t have any rights, systems where the government ran the economy because they knew best, and so on. Being at a reasonably left-wing university in a political science class, none of these answers were surprising to me. Most of the suggestions amounted to some version of socialism, though in fairness not all.

After listening to all the ideas, I raised my hand and put forward a rather crazy suggestion: Democracy was the best system.

You should have seen the looks on people’s faces.

I shit you not, you would have thought I just drowned a cute animal in front of everybody. They were flabbergasted.

Their reactions made sense though in the context of how they thought/viewed the world: They were totalitarians. They believed that they knew best about how the country should operate. How the economy should function. How each individual person should live their lives and what they needed to be happy. Democracy would stand in the way of them “fixing” things.

I of course do not feel this way about it. I believe that they best person to run your life is you. The best person to run my life is me. And hence I believe in the best political system that allows for this to happen – a free democracy.

If you want to drink fair trade coffee and only eat organic lettuce, in a free democracy you can do that. If you want to drive a Hummer and drink Starbucks, you can do that too.

And best of all when elections come around you get your vote, just like everyone else, as to who your representative will be.

The big problem with this for some people though – and this is where Mr. Villeneuve is precisely right – is when you don’t win in a free election, you have to accept this. You have to accept that you didn’t get your way. You have to accept that people didn’t agree that your way/your opinion was the best one. You have to accept that, as Jacques put it, you have been told “No.”

Then in a few years, there will be another election. You can make your arguments for the policies that you believe in. You try to convince people that you are right, and the causes you believe in are the most important. Perhaps people will agree, perhaps they won’t.

But when they don’t – and trust me, they’re disagree far more than they agree – you do not have the right to run around crying about it – and disrupting everyone’s lives – endlessly. It can be a humbling experience to be told “no”, but it’s an important lesson in life.

Go back to school, lesson learned.


In honour of Adeline Helberg

15 May

She’s the new-born daughter of Jocelyn Towne and husband ‘The Big Bang Theory’ actor Simon Helberg (Howard Wolowitz).

Here are some of Howard’s best moments: