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Lunar Mythbusting

Tonight is October 8th, which has been declared International Observe the Moon Night (IOMN).  Personally, I would choose a date as close to September 13th as possible to take a jab at the late Gerry Anderson and his bit of lunar lunacy known as “Space: 1999”.  Yes, I know I missed that date as well on this blog, but I had other issues to deal with.  With IOMN clouded and/or rained out tonight for a large portion of the United States, I thought I would provide some educational lunar entertainment to make up for it.  So, I dusted off an article I wrote for the Asterism (AAI’s long-defunct newsletter) and I’m using it for material here.

Some years ago, I went to a convention and saw Dee Wallace, best known for playing the mom in E.T. The Extraterrestrial. She was quite nice and she was also there to push DVDs of “The Howling”, a werewolf movie she was in. I took the opportunity to explain to her that I didn’t find werewolf stuff too interesting due to my knowledge of the Moon and the fact that it exerts no strange influences. Dee agreed, but she said that the myths about the Moon were quite pervasive in popular culture, even after the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon without anything strange happening to them. So, let’s take a detailed look at why the Moon, while interesting, is not mystical.

Time and Tides: People who believe in the mystical powers of the Moon often point out that it could exert its spooky actions through tidal forces. On the surface, this might seem reasonable. After all, anyone who has spent more than a few hours by the ocean or a bay has noticed that the water rises and falls due to tides. Some have argued that, since the ocean is water and people are mostly water in terms of composition, lunar tides should affect people and their behavior. They point to claims of increased weird behavior at times of full Moon and then the old stories always say that werewolves change from people to beasts at full Moon.

However, the “Full Moon effect” has been shown to be false by numerous statistical studies. Also, if one knows how tides work, it is easy to see that they cannot influence living beings.  Tides result when the side of an object nearest a gravity source experiences a greater pull than the opposite side does.  In the case of the oceans, the sea facing the Moon is about 8,000 miles closer to the Moon than the ocean on the opposite side of the Earth. Since the Moon is about a quarter of a million miles away, the diameter of the Earth is a measurable fraction of that distance and the ocean feels the effect of the difference.

Now, consider the case of a human being. To make things as fair as possible to the werewolf buffs, our example will be a player from the NBA who is seven feet tall. The difference in the pull of lunar gravity between the top of his head and the soles of his feet is so close to zero that it can be considered zero for any practical purpose. Even the varying distance of the Moon from Earth (the Moon’s orbit is slightly elliptical), while important for ocean tides, does not alter this conclusion.

It could be argued that tides do influence some living creatures since a number of sea animals lay eggs at times of very high tides. This is the result of their biological clocks, not lunar influence. And they are not infallible tide predictors as the large number of horseshoe crabs that die stranded on beaches each spring can attest to.

Blinded By The Light: Anyone who has been at an observatory on a public night during a full Moon knows it can appear very bright, especially through the telescopes. This brightness is deceptive. Actually the Moon reflects light about as well as the pavement of a road (an albedo of about 7%). It appears bright because the Moon is surrounded by nonreflecting space, so even a dark object like would appear bright. But that is not the whole story.

It is known that the full Moon appears about ten times as bright as it does at first or third quarter. Before people knew much about the Moon, this must have appeared strange. But there are two reasons for this effect. First of all, during full Moon, the Sun is overhead as seen from the lunar surface. There are no shadows. At other times, there are always some shadows formed by mountains and crater rims. But the other reason was only discovered after the Apollo missions returned lunar samples to Earth.

Most of the Moon is covered in a layer of dust, which is essentially lunar rock that has been pulverized by eons of micrometeorite impacts. When samples of this dust were studied on Earth, it was discovered that there were numerous tiny bits of glass in it. The glass formed as the impacts of micrometeorites melted little bits of surface material. The bits of glass give lunar dust a weak retroreflective property like those reflectors embedded in many roads. Due to this effect, the lunar dust actually reflects a bit more light towards Earth at full Moon.

No Cheese, Green or Otherwise: The final proof against strange lunar influence is the composition of the Moon itself. It is now widely believed that Moon formed as the result of a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized planetesimal in the early days of the solar system, which sent debris from the Earth’s mantle into space.

Because of this origin, only about a dozen minerals make up the Moon. Besides basalt and anorthosite (basic igneous rocks), most of these are oxides of iron, titanium, chromium, aluminum as well as some silicates, along with some minerals rich in potassium and rare earth elements. Recently, something new has been added to this list. In 1998, the Lunar Prospector probe found evidence of hydrogen-rich material in some permanently shaded craters near the lunar South Pole. While it could be buried water ice from ancient comet impacts, hydrated minerals and cometary hydrocarbons have not been ruled out. While this mix of minerals is interesting to those who want to build lunar bases, it is about as non-mystical as one can get.

As one can see, the Moon is an interesting place with great potential importance for humanity’s future. Now, isn’t this far more interesting and exciting than mysticism and werewolf stories?

Happy 50th Anniversary!

Thursday, September 8th, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of a cultural milestone – “Star Trek” as the original series premiered on September 8th, 1966.  While this blog discusses issues of a scientific and/or historical nature, this anniversary was one of those occasions that cannot be ignored.

As most people, especially those intelligent folk who read blogs like this one, know, “Star Trek” followed the exploits of the crew of the Starship Enterprise and its womanizing egotistical captain James T. Kirk.  Despite not being terribly popular during its original network run, struggles with budgets, and other pains, the series became legendary.  This was in part due to its success in syndication, but it also was due to the writing, the characters, and the stories.  While the late Joseph Campbell (professor of Comparative Religion at Sarah Lawrence college and renowned expert on the connections between mythologies and religions) never mentioned “Star Trek” as far as I can determine, Casey Biggs (Damar on “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” and a fan of Campbell’s works) believes that the “Star Trek” franchise fills the function of a mythology in modern society (a system of stories that metaphorically explore universal truths).  This is probably the key to its grip on the public mind.

Before this gets too mythological, it should be noted that the “Star Trek” franchise was extremely influential on our society.  It is generally thought that the concept of the flip phone was inspired by the communicators from the original series.  Today, scientists who are working on handheld analyzers say they are inspired by the tricorders (very portable scanning devices) from the franchise.  And the people involved in research on artificial vision systems that promise to help blind people all say they found inspiration in the visor worn by Geordi LaForge, a blind character from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.  Those who work on non-lethal weapon technology cite the phaser (the standard issue Starfleet weapon) as their ideal, since it could be set to stun enemies rather than kill them.

However, “Star Trek” has also inspired a number of scientific cul-de-sacs or outright dead-ends.  One prominent example is research into teleportation.  It is thought to have been inspired by the transporter used in the franchise, a device used to transmit matter (people, cargo, or whatever) from point A to point B.  The reason it was used in the series was not because people believed it would be developed in the future, rather it was because Gene Roddenberry wanted a way to get people from the Enterprise to a planet surface and could not afford to do special effects shots of the shuttlecraft transporting people to their destination.  But when people saw it on the show, many believed that if it was on “Star Trek”, it was in our future.  What real teleportation does is it merely transfers the quantum state of a particle to a similar particle some distance away.  While it is impractical for Trek-style uses, it is expected to play a part in quantum computing technology.

Another Trek-inspired false lead is warp drive.  Warp drive was how starships were able to travel throughout the galaxy in reasonable time scales without messy things like Lorentz contraction, time-dilation, and those other nasty relativistic effects that happen when one travels near the speed of light.  While the idea of a warp drive does not seem to contradict relativity and there is (if you accept cosmic inflation) one example of something that was similar to warp physics – the cosmic inflation that explains why the universe appears flat and also why there is so little variation across the Cosmic Microwave Background.  In that case, space itself expanded – for a very brief time – at speeds that would make the Enterprise-E (the latest version of the ship) look extremely sluggish.  Cosmic inflation was thought to be the result of processes associated with the Big Bang.

But this didn’t stop Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre from coming up with an idea for a warp drive to move starships.  However, Alcubierre found a problem that has persuaded most physicists that the idea of warp drive was crazy to begin with.  In the original equations, the energy required is truly enormous.  It would take energy equivalent to the entire mass of Jupiter (remember E=MC2?) to generate a tiny warp field.  And if it could be generated, it would be virtually impossible to control.  However, NASA scientist Harold White has picked up where Alcubierre left off and is studying the idea.  White claims that, if the shape of the warp field is modified, the power requirements are reduced to the energy equivalent of a ton of matter.  That is still quite a bit of energy.  White has also claimed that his tiny-scale experiments have gotten some results, though most people think that White was merely observing some kind of quantum phenomenon unrelated to what he is looking for.

Of course, there are the people who like “Star Trek”.  And to the surprise of some people, not all fans of the franchise are like those negative stereotypes seen on “The Big Bang Theory” (discussed in my earlier post about that program).  Among the people who like the Trek franchise are many NASA employees, most astronauts, many professionals from all walks of life, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and even one head of state (King Abdullah II of Jordan).

Then there are some surprising folk who really liked “Star Trek”.  Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed Nyota Uhura on the original series, was at a book-signing in London when an enormous man with a shaved head, numerous tattoos, and all the regalia of a skinhead walked into the store.  Even the security guards were frightened.  The man then said that he stopped by because he had a message for Nichelle.  He explained that he used to be a skinhead.  One night, while he was bored, he turned on the TV and a station was running a marathon of “Star Trek” episodes.  As he was watching, he noticed how the crew got along with one another and how they dealt with various moral issues.  He then decided that the skinhead life was not the way to go.  The man then thanked Nichelle for her work on the series and offered his help if she ever needed any assistance during her stay in London.

Naturally, when there is something that popular, there are always those to try to denigrate its positive contributions.  On top of the vast multitude of negative stereotypes of fans, there are incidents that are even uglier.  A few years ago, the weekend edition of “Good Morning America” did a story on research into visual prosthetics.  Some of you might remember from an earlier paragraph that almost every scientist in that field was inspired by Geordi LaForge and his visor.  Did the GMA story bring that up?  No, it didn’t.  Rather than crediting the correct inspiration, they tried to imply it was inspired by Steve Austin’s bionic eye on “The Six Million Dollar Man”.  Those of us who knew the truth were not taken in, but some people might have been.  Why did the folks at GMA do this?  One could argue they disliked the Trek franchise.  I suspect something more vile.  Steve Austin was portrayed by Lee Majors, a white actor.  Geordi LaForge was portrayed by the talented LeVar Burton, an African-American actor.  Was racism involved?  Given our society, it can’t be ruled out.

On a happier note, I have been fortunate enough to have met most of the surviving actors and actresses from Trek franchise as a result of my convention travels.  They are all interesting people and all deserve credit for being part of the success of the Trek franchise.  With the J. J. Abrams movies and their alternate take on the Trek universe, the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” series, as well as tons of fan-created stories, songs, etc., who knows what’s going to happen at the next milestone anniversary?  And what do you think of this magnificent franchise?

In honor of this occasion, I leave you with a video featuring one of the franchise’s most beloved characters – Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.  The video was released by Paramount shortly after James Doohan, the actor who created the character, passed away.



Why Wink When You Should Salute?

August 25th, 2016 marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the lunar surface.  Shortly after his death, the Armstrong family announced that, to honor Neil, every August 25th, people should wink at the Moon if they see it.  I feel that does not go far enough.  One should salute it instead.

One of the main reasons for this was that the man was a true American hero.  While taking over the lunar module’s controls to steer the craft away from a field of boulders that would have brought the mission to a fatal end would be considered a very heroic feat, it wasn’t his only one or even his first.

In the Korean War, Armstrong flew fighter jets from a carrier to attack targets in North Korea.  On one of his missions, his plane ran into a cable stretched across a valley by the North Koreans to wreck low-flying American planes.  For most pilots, the level of damage would have been enough to cause the pilot to eject, which would have likely resulted in a stay at a North Korean POW camp.  But Armstrong was no ordinary pilot.  He managed to maintain some control over the plane.  While returning to the carrier was impossible, there was a Marine base that was within flying range.  Armstrong proceeded to fly to the base.  Just before he reached the base, the plane became uncontrollable and he was forced to eject.  Armstrong made it safely to the ground and was promptly rescued by Marines from the nearby base.

Another heroic feat was during the Gemini 8 mission.  This was to test the concept of docking spacecraft in orbit.  The test target was the upper stage of an Agena rocket.  Shortly after docking, the crew noticed the capsule was moving in an odd manner.  Thinking the problem was with the upper stage, they quickly undocked.  The problem only got worse and the capsule started to spin.  What had happened was one of the Gemini capsule’s thrusters got stuck in the on position and was causing the spacecraft to spin, almost to the point of uncontrollability.  Sizing up the situation, Armstrong decided to use the thrusters designed for reentry as a means of stopping the motion, something that nobody had considered.  Fortunately, the maneuver worked but it meant that they had to return to Earth immediately.  But that quick action saved the life of Armstrong and that of his fellow astronaut.

However, heroism wasn’t his only claim to greatness.  There was his character.  He never bragged about his heroic deeds.  When Apollo 11 returned from the Moon, Armstrong was always quick to credit the success of the mission to the vast number of engineers, scientists, and workers who designed and built the spacecraft.  He never lorded his accomplishment over others and, after he retired from NASA, he became a professor of aeronautics.  If our elected officials had only one-percent of his character, this country would be a better place.

Armstrong’s post-Apollo conduct was reminiscent of that of another great American hero – one of our first.  After the Revolutionary War, George Washington could have asked for, and got, anything he wanted.  Yet, he decided to return to his home at Mount Vernon and operate his plantation.  At the end of his two terms (he felt two terms were enough) as president, he again went back home and kept to himself.

So, if you see the Moon on August 25th, don’t wink, salute.  Let’s honor a great American hero, one who never disgraced himself and one we don’t have to apologize for.

T-Minus 1 Year

Today is August 20th, 2016 and that means it is one year until the Great American Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to cross the continental United States since 1979.  This is the first post on that eclipse and there will be others as we get nearer to the date.

If you want information about the eclipse, such as its path, weather prospects, and such, the official Great American Eclipse website is the best place to look as it is frequently updated, has a wealth of maps, and very detailed information, including input from Fred Espenak, considered by many to be America’s foremost expert on solar eclipses.

While the information on the site is accurate, there are quite a few things that would-be eclipse observers should be aware of.  Most (if not all) the people intelligent enough to read blogs like this one already know that looking directly at any portion of the uneclipsed Sun without proper filters will result in severe retinal damage.  But there are other less obvious issues.

Most people live a considerable distance from the eclipse track (except for the 12 million or so who live on it) and that means that they must travel.  Unfortunately, long distance travel is quite a challenge these days, especially to those who have limited time and limited means.  The pundits say that one should choose their observing spot as soon as possible.  If we lived in a world with perfectly predictable weather, that would be easy.  Unfortunately we do not.  If one is traveling by air, and they see on the weather forecast that the weather their chosen site is going to be bad, that can mean a scramble to select another site, cancel the flight plan, and book another flight.  And as most people realize, changing air travel plans at the last minute can be rather costly.  On top of that, I predict that the airlines will raise airfares substantially next August just because of the eclipse.

Some people will travel by car to an eclipse site.  Driving to an eclipse site does take time and, if one can’t get much vacation time from work, that greatly limits possible eclipse sites.  Car travel does offer flexibility in terms of dealing with the weather, but there is a catch.  Travel range is limited.  According to Sky & Telescope magazine, given one day’s notice of a change in eclipse plans, it is thought that an eclipse observer can cover something on the order of 500 miles or so, depending on how long they plan to drive continuously.  Of course some will try to add to the range by increasing their travel speed.  But the interstate highway system is not like the German autobahn.  There are speed limits.  And I predict that police and state troopers all along the eclipse track will be instructed to be out in force with their radar guns to nab speeders.  According to the Great American Eclipse website, transportation departments in states along the eclipse track are well aware of the upcoming eclipse and I suspect the information will be passed along.

Does this mean that you should give up on observing the total eclipse next year?  Not at all.  It does mean that you should be aware of potential pitfalls when you make your plans.  Future posts will bring up other aspects of this truly astronomical event.  Stay tuned.