Is Resistance (to Light Pollution) Futile?

For the benefit of the few readers of this blog who may not be familiar with the term, light pollution is excessive and misdirected outdoor lighting that makes it difficult to impossible to observe objects in the night sky.

With the definition out of the way, some organizations such as the International Dark Sky Association and Globe at Night claim that their efforts to raise awareness of this issue have met with a measure of success.  While this may indeed be the case, I think the progress has been minimal.

One example concerns Earth Hour, which was from 8:30 PM to 9:30 PM on March 28th.  What is supposed to happen during Earth Hour is that people are supposed to shut off their outdoor lighting for the duration.   Instead, very little of the sort actually happened as is usual for every year this event has been held.  The lamestream media did give it some mention and pointed out that some towns and cities celebrated it.  These “celebrations” were quite noncommittal and merely involved turning off the outdoor lights around a prominent local landmark or two.  Besides this governmental involvement, nobody appears to have done anything.  Yet, when there is an occasion that asks for people to turn lights on, such as the National Night Out held every August, the level of participation is very high.  Apparently, people have a strong aversion to turning off their outdoor lights even though it costs them money for the electricity and the security benefits are limited (according to sources such as the FBI).

What I would like to see is a city or town decide to celebrate Earth Hour with a partial reenactment of a World War II-era blackout.  Younger readers of this blog might not be aware that, during the war, people were in fear of being bombed at night by the enemy.  For the British, this fear was very real as the Luftwaffe frequently bombed targets in Britain under the cover of night during the early part of the war.  In the United States, the fear was more hypothetical as the capabilities of the enemy were not well known.  While the country was definitely out of range of German aircraft, the range of the Japanese planes was largely unknown in the early days of the war and there was speculation that they could reach targets on the west coast.  To frustrate night bombers, towns and cities adopted a blackout strategy where, when a signal was given, every source of possible outdoor illumination was either shut off or completely shielded.  While this was not 100% effective in Britain (the Germans had an early sort of radio navigation), it did make it harder for British cities to be struck, and in the United States, blackouts did raise war awareness among the public.  Getting back to the main point of the paragraph, towns and cities should celebrate Earth Hour by turning off as much outdoor illumination as possible (except traffic signals) and possibly even compete with one another for achieving the greatest light reduction.

Another example was a recent news article that carried a night-time satellite image of the Korean peninsula.  South of the 38th parallel, there were brightly lit cities and towns.  North of it, almost complete darkness.  The author of the article was implying that light pollution is a sign of economic vigor and is a good thing, despite growing evidence of health and ecological problems it causes.  By not having light pollution, North Korea was dysfunctional.  Actually, one doesn’t need a satellite image to figure that out.  Any society where the police manual has a chapter devoted to cannibalism has very serious problems and lighting is not going to fix that.

However, for any serious progress to be made against light pollution, there would need to be a change in mentality that I do not see happening.  An example of the kind of thinking that helps perpetuate light pollution was aired on my local AM radio station.  Every Wednesday morning, they have a short (about forty minutes) program hosted by Milton Paris, titled “Getting Ahead in Business”.  Each program, Paris would bring on a business owner that he met at one of his public functions and that owner would describe his business while Paris would ask questions and make favorable comments.  Recently, he had the owner of a sign company and the two of them waxed rhapsodic over illuminated business signs.  The part that caught my attention was when they said that it made good sense to leave said signs on all night as advertising.  Aside from the obvious contribution to the light pollution problem, such an approach would be wasting money for those businesses since they would be spending money on electricity to power the signs when there is nobody around to see them.  While I am not advocating doing away with illuminated business signs, nor am I against their use for advertising, I believe that an intelligent business would have them shut off after a certain time when potential viewers of the signs are not around.  After all, a sign shining at three in the morning is not likely to be seen by anyone except the occasional over-the-road truck driver or police officer on patrol.  In short, why pay to put on advertising when there is no audience?

The point of all this is that there cannot be much real progress against light pollution until the mindset of leaving lights on all night even when there is no need for them is changed.  Does anyone see any way to change that?

Glenn Wargo’s Astrology Notes #14

Due to the long pause in postings,  here is a heaping helping of horoscopic humor from AAI’s Glenn Wargo.

ASTROLOGICAL NOTES:

Fashion: Since Asteroid 4 Vesta was in conjunction with the Sun on 1/11, this will be the proper season for 3-piece suits.

Relationships: Asteroid 3 Juno was in opposition on 1/29.  Expect to take flak from your spouse if you stayed up to observe Jupiter.

With Comet Lovejoy (C2014/Q2) sparkling between Andromeda and her hero Perseus, the first half of February is a time to spark up the romance with your sweetheart. Flowers, candy, fine food, even jewelry can help, but loving words and tender attention are also essential.

Weather: With Mercury at minimal elongation around 1/30, look for the rest of January and early February to be chilly.

Finance: Nearly stationary Pluto is relaxing with the Teapot in Sagittarius while Hercules, The Strong Man, is up at dawn. The Fed will remain blissfully unconcerned about inflation while sports authorities strive to tackle the problem.

Nutrition: With gas giant Jupiter up all night in opposition on 2/06, you’d be well advised to skip “seconds” on the cabbage and bean casserole.  Heck, skip “firsts” if you think you can get away with it.  And with a very noticeable Moon on Leo for 2/04-06, it’s time to put your cat on a diet.

Are Some Astronomers (Culturally) Illiterate?

Sometimes, the public perceives astronomers, especially professionals, as being somewhat out of touch.  Every now and then, an incident comes along which explains how that impression may have come about.

As  chronicled in an article from Space Daily, two astronomers from Northwestern University, Sourav Chatterjee and Jonathan C. Tan, published a paper in which they discussed Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized extrasolar planets that orbit exceptionally close to their suns.  These astronomers explained that those planets likely formed at or very near to their present locations because they accreted (came together) from material that spiraled in towards the star from the protoplanetary disk.  So far, nothing very controversial and it probably is how it actually happened.

Where the cultural illiteracy enters the picture is the terminology the two scientist use to describe the planets.  They refer to them as “Vulcan planets”.  Their rationale is that, back in the 19th century, astronomers noticed that the orbit of Mercury was a bit off from what Newtonian mechanics said it would be.  Inspired by the discovery of Neptune from variations in the orbit of Uranus, Urbain Leverrier proposed the existence of a planet that orbited closer to the Sun than Mercury and named it “Vulcan”.  Despite a reported sighting by a French amateur astronomer, nobody found anything that fit the description, and when Einstein explained the variation in Mercury’s orbit as being caused by relativistic effects due to the warping of space-time by the Sun, the whole business was forgotten.  Since this non-existent planet orbited very close to the Sun, the two astronomers thought the term “Vulcan” should be used to name the planets described in their paper.

While the whole history of the close-to-the-Sun planet that wasn’t was well-known to astronomers, it flies over the head of the general tax-paying public (the people who fund a lot of astronomical research these days) like the Blue Angels at an air show.  If you asked people on the street what pops into their mind when you mention the term “Vulcan”, probably nine out of ten would answer either an arid Earth-like planet envisioned by Gene Roddenberry or a pointy-eared, green-blooded, inhabitant of said planet, the most famous of which was portrayed by Leonard Nimoy (and portrayed in the J. J. Abrams version of the franchise by Zachary Quinto).  Either those two astronomers were extremely ignorant of popular culture (very unlikely) or they thought they were better than other people.

Should astronomers show more awareness of popular culture when they come up with names and terminology?  Does their ignorance and/or contempt for popular culture show a contempt for the public that provides much of their funding?

IAU: Incompetent Astronomical Union?

Those who have read Laurel Kornfeld’s Pluto Blog know that she believes the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is essentially a totally Euro-centric elitist old boys network.  And Alan Stern, arguably the hardest working man in space science as he is working on two space missions (Rosetta and New Horizons) in addition to running the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), wants to start up a rival organization, though I feel it will wind up being an astronomical version of a rump republic (a governing body with very little to no legitimate authority).  I believe the IAU is a flawed organization, but I thought it could be fixed through reforms.  Now I am not so sure.

Recently, the IAU announced a contest to name extrasolar planets. Sounds like an interesting idea, doesn’t it?  However, the way the IAU is carrying this plan out indicates that the problems with the organization are very deeply rooted in its culture.  For starters, only astronomical organizations that are registered with the World Directory of Astronomy (run by the IAU) will be allowed to participate.  This does not mean that members of these groups can submit entries.  Rather, the group as a whole submits their entry.  On top of that, it appears that IAU will be using the convention used to name minor planets in our solar systems, which I feel is totally inappropriate for the job.  This process only nominates the names.  Then comes the voting.  The details can be read in the official contest rules.

The whole thing reeks of dishonesty.  The IAU will control the nomination process and it is very likely that the vote totals when the names are voted on will never be made public.  Given the IAU’s penchant for voting irregularities, it is entirely possible that the winner will be decided regardless of the actual votes.  Perhaps the IAU needs election monitors to audit the voting.

Then there is the idea that the minor planet naming system can be extended to extrasolar planets.  A better naming system already exists.  When the Vikings landed in Iceland, they used a system called “landnam” or land-naming to assign names to geographical features.  The names derived from Viking mythology.  I am not proposing that Viking mythology be used to name extrasolar planets.  What I am suggesting is that extrasolar planet names be derived from what could be considered the mythology of space – science fiction.  For example, if an Earth-like extrasolar planet is discovered in or near the habitable zone of the 40 Eridani system, it should be named Vulcan.  The “Star Trek” franchise alone contains a good number of names suitable for extrasolar planets, such as Bajor, Cardassia, Bolia, Betazed, Romulus, and quite a few others.  Then, there is the “Star Wars” franchise. In fact it even has a name suitable for a gas giant – Bespin.  Add the other noteworthy science fiction franchises (“Babylon 5”, “Galactica”, “Doctor Who”, etc.), and there should be enough names to serve the purpose for quite some time, especially if the names are limited to Earth-sized or nearly Earth-sized planets (the taxpaying public who fund exoplanet surveys are not terribly interested in extrasolar gas giants, hot Jupiters, or hot Neptunes).  However, in the increasingly unlikely event that a gas giant is detected in the Alpha Centauri system, it should be named “Charybdis”.  If it was good enough for James Cameron, it should be good enough for astronomers to use.

This proposal would engage the attention of the public, who as I explained earlier, fund much of astronomical research through their taxes.  And, as the old Scottish proverb goes, “He who pays the piper gets to call the tune”.

Now, some might argue that such an approach could run afoul of copyrights, trademarks, etc.  First of all, any holder of such rights would be very stupid to complain about this.  What they would be getting out of the use of those names for this purpose is free advertising.  Best of all, this free advertising would last essentially forever.  Every time someone would write a scientific paper about a given named exoplanet, they would use the name.  This is the kind of publicity that cannot be purchased and most businesses would love to have their products, or parts of their products, immortalized on the biggest billboards imaginable.

Of course, another solution would be to have an international body, such as the United Nations, grant whatever organization that would be in charge of astronomical matters (a reformed IAU or whatever replaces the IAU) exemption from those laws.  I believe that the Internet Archive has an exemption of that sort already.

Getting back to the point that got this started, do you feel that the IAU can be fixed via reforms or should the whole edifice be torn down and replaced with a newer, more responsive organization?

Glenn Wargo’s Astrology Notes #13

Due to the long pause in postings,  here is a heaping helping of horoscopic humor from AAI’s Glenn Wargo.

ASTROLOGICAL NOTES:

Weather: With Mercury in superior conjunction with the Sun on 12/08, expect more seasonable temperatures (which we had at the time, but then we got hit with this cold snap later in the month – The Astronomer)

Correspondence: With Jupiter stationary on 12/09, expect a letter from the electric company, even if it’s just a bill.

Politics:  Mars will be at perihelion (only 128.4 million miles from the Sun) on 12/12. Look for the newly nominated Secretary of Defense to be on the hot seat at Senate hearings.

Science: Asteroid 3 Juno was stationary on 12/14.  But, as usual, it won’t be long before Jupiter gets involved in shenanigans his wife will NOT stand still for.

Sports: With Mercury, swift-flying courier of the gods, not making it above the trees at the end of the day, don’t expect to find the Jets in postseason play (Another one of Glenn’s prediction that proved to be quite true – The Astronomer).

Travel: With Uranus stationary on 12/22, expect frustrating travel delays this week.

Mood Swings:  With Saturn, the ancient god of Time, in Scorpius, the sting of regret for paths not chosen and now forever closed is hitting you hard.   Soon you’ll feel like throwing away your calendar (Predicted accurately on 12/29/2014 – The Astronomer).

Weather: With the Earth at perihelion (only 91.4 million miles from the Sun) on 1/04 as the Quadrantid meteor shower from the obsolete constellation of Quadrans Muralis (the Wall Quadrant) continues to rain down, you’ll feel like staying inside your walls and snuggling up to something warm.

Could This be Historic?

First off, many apologies for the lack of postings in the last several weeks.  Unfortunately, it was a case where work obligations, the holiday rush, and a computer project conspired against blogging.  Now on to the post.

Unnoticed by the lamestream media as it was recovering from their New Years’ Eve hangovers, reporting on the effort to retrieve bits and pieces of plane wreckage from the Java Sea, and covering the violent rampage in France, a discovery was made that could potentially be one of the greatest in the history of history.

The last several months, the websites that deal with weird stuff of dubious validity would carry reports of someone claiming to spot something in the images from the Curiosity Mars rover that look like one kind of odd object or another.  However, someone recently came forward and announced that they saw something amazing in some of those images.

According to this Space Daily article,  Nora Noffke, a geobiologist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, noticed something familiar in an image taken of a sedimentary rock formation.  What appeared in the image resembled a sedimentary layer that contained the fossil remains of a microbial mat, a flat, slime-like mass of microorganisms that forms in bodies of water under favorable conditions.  When alive, sediment grains get stuck in the mat and that leaves telltale markings when the sediments turn into rock.

Noffke has studied microbial mats and the fossils they form for over twenty years and she claims that, after very detailed analysis of the images from Mars, these features do bear very strong similarity to known microbial mat fossils on Earth.

If this can be confirmed, these would be the first fossils found outside of Earth and the first evidence of extraterrestrial life.  But that is the problem.  While Curiosity did take detailed images, it turns out the rover is not well equipped to confirm whether these are indeed fossils.  It is quite likely that any organic compounds in the material have long since disappeared and it has also been announced that one of the analytical instruments on Curiosity suffered some contamination on landing, therefore compromising any effort at detailed measurements.

So, it may be a very long time before we can either send a probe with advanced instruments capable of testing for microfossils, return samples to Earth, or have human geologists examine them on Mars.

To her credit, Noffke is keeping an open mind to the possibility that the markings are of strictly geological origin.  While this would not be as amazing a discovery as microfossils, it would still indicate that Martian geology has some surprises, which would be of scientific significance as well.

Any opinions?

Glenn Wargo’s Astrology Notes #12

This time around,  AAI’s Glenn Wargo has come across a celestial circumstance that even he has some difficulty in deciding what it means.  See below.

ASTROLOGICAL NOTES:

Politics: With asteroid 23 Thalia, The Muse of Comedy, going into opposition on 12/02 in Taurus The Bull, Congress will reconvene for a lame duck session.

Or…

Entertainment:  You may be about to run afoul of an extraordinarily multitalented Mexican pop star.

The omens are somewhat cloudy.

Weather: Oh, did I mention?  Cloudy.