Tag Archives: science

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?

Going Buggy Over the Rio Games

Friday, August 5th marks the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.  This time around, the Games are quite controversial with allegations of corruption amongst the various contractors, incomplete work, the fact that this is taking place during a political coup in the host country, etc.  But one thing that is getting lots of press is also one of the smallest (literally) issues.

By now, most people have heard about the Zika virus.  It is mainly known from Brazil, though it has appeared in other parts of the world as well, is spread by mosquitoes and, in most cases, the symptoms range from none to rather minor.  That is if the victim isn’t a pregnant woman.  By processes that are poorly understood at present, the Zika virus can cause microcephaly (an abnormally small head due to an abnormally small and deformed brain).  Microcephaly is incurable and untreatable.  Naturally, this has caused a great measure of concern.  So much so that some athletes have bowed out of the Games (even male athletes who, last time I checked, can’t get pregnant).  Even TV networks have changed their plans with NBC replacing some of the female reporters they were originally going to send with Meredith Vieira and Hoda Kotb (that is not a typo – it is an issue of transliterating her Egyptian last name from Arabic writing to Western writing).

There is also some concern in the United States as the mosquitoes we have are capable of carrying the virus.  But what I think has the government in near panic mode is the fact that Zika is a nightmare for the right-to-life crowd.  For most other birth defects, they can argue that, with appropriate therapy, the victims can have some semblance of a life.  They also claim that future advances in fetal surgery and other medical technology can mitigate defects as well.  Not so with microcephaly.  That’s it.  Hence the pressure that is being exerted on the scientific community to derive some sort of method to combat Zika and its mosquito carriers.

At least one scientists claims they found a weak spot in the mosquito genome that would make it possible to wipe them out completely.  Then there is talk that a vaccine is being worked on.  However, given past history in humanity’s struggle to deal with mosquitoes, there is ground for skepticism.  Mosquitoes are highly adaptable and have a proven ability to acquire resistance to whatever insecticide or strategy we can throw at them.  And it does seem unusual that someone claims to be near to developing a vaccine for a virus that is little known.

If the effort to control Zika is as successful as the effort to control other mosquito-borne diseases, Zika is here to stay.  Since it mainly poses a threat to pregnant women, perhaps it might be a good idea to consider strategies from that angle.  Perhaps it might force people to actually put some thought into the idea of whether or not to have kids.  Currently, most people put more thought into choosing players for their fantasy sports teams than they do in reproduction.  There could be other changes in how people reproduce.  Can you think of some?

Of course it could be worse.  In Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Galapagos”, he postulated a microbe that destroyed the ovaries.  It spread throughout the world via air travel until the only group that wasn’t affected was a band of tourists in the Galapagos Islands (hence the title).  Cut off from the rest of the world due to the disease, the tourists are the last breeding set of human beings.  Over long spans of time, the humans gradually evolve into something resembling a very intelligent and dexterous seal.  The story was said to be inspired by Vonnegut hearing about the evolution of Darwin’s Finches (birds on the islands that evolved from a single group of birds blown to the islands in a storm).  Then there is the story and film “The Children of Man” which recounts how human reproduction ceases and the utter chaos that takes place when a pregnant woman is discovered.

While Zika is nowhere near as bad as its fictional counterparts, I think it may take some effort and time to come up with ways to bring it under some measure of control.

Is “The Big Bang Theory” the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” of Space Science?

Since it is the start of the new television season, I thought it would be a reasonably appropriate time to bring this up.

For the benefit of those readers who are either young or are not too familiar with the history of radio and television, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a program that started out on radio in 1928 and was created by two white actors/writers Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll who were inspired by a conversation they overheard between two African-American janitors.  Originally, it was a 15-minute nightly dramatic program and, in 1943, morphed into a weekly sitcom that ran until 1955 and finally a music program from 1955 to 1960.  During its radio run, Gosden and Correll did most of the voices (being radio, they could get away with it).  In 1951, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” moved to TV and had an all-African-American cast.  The TV version was almost immediately met with divided opinion in the African-American community.  Some had no problem with it.  Others, such as the NAACP, felt it perpetuated negative stereotypes.  The opinion of the NAACP carried the day and the show was taken off the air in 1953, though it managed to hang on until 1966 in syndication.  Here is an article with some detail on the program.

Now, back to the present discussion.  “The Big Bang Theory” is a sitcom which deals with a small group of scientists (presumably astrophysicists and others who work for NASA) and their misadventures.  However, it is not a flattering portrayal and, in my opinion, perpetuates negative stereotypes about people in the sciences much the same way “Amos ‘n’ Andy” perpetuated negative African-American stereotypes.   For instance, the scientific protagonists on “The Big Bang Theory” are portrayed as extremely inept and dysfunctional in any area outside of science and technology.  Being an amateur astronomer and follower of space science, I have seen many in the field who are totally unlike what you see on that sitcom.

For instance, there were some members of my astronomy club who served with distinction in the military (in World War II, no less) and went on to make inventions, including one (a means of measuring errors in transmitted data) that had impact in the nuclear industry, was used by the U.S. Navy, and probably had a role in the creation of what we would later call the Internet.  Then there was one member who endured terrible hardships (the Ukranian famine as well as a stint in a Nazi slave labor camp) and went on to become a very productive citizen and prominent member of the club.

I have also seen some professional astronomers who would not look out of place in a country-western bar.  Most space scientists I have seen look perfectly normal.

This raises the question of why Chuck Lorre, the creator of the show, would choose to have such a stereotypical depiction of space scientists.  After all, I doubt he would be crude enough to insult people like those club members I mentioned above.  Granted, there may be some in the field who share some of the traits of those sitcom characters, but in this day and age, we are supposed to frown on such stereotyping in entertainment media.  It wasn’t that long ago that a sitcom was yanked off the air because of a single joke based on a Puerto Rican stereotype.  I suspect that he feels that it is acceptable to ridicule small groups who lack clout in the lamestream media, ones who are unlikely to lead sponsor boycotts or other types of resistance.

Since the show does well in the ratings and rakes in huge amounts of money in syndication, it is unlikely that it will ever be retooled to address this grievance.  The best that could be hoped for in this regard would be the addition of some space scientists who are not stereotypes to balance things out.  However, this is also unlikely.

One solution I would suggest is that Chuck Lorre take some actions on his own to show that he is not against space scientists.  For instance, a publicized donation of a significant sum to a group like the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) or the Planetary Society would be a good move.  Another would be to show support for amateur astronomers, possibly by making cast members available for personal appearances at astronomy events (with either Lorre, the production company, or CBS eating the appearance fees).  These actions would be like the requirements that a polluter take steps to mitigate the effects of the pollution they create.  In addition, these steps would bring useful publicity to astronomy and space science.

Do you have any suggestions on how to counter negative space science stereotypes?  Are these negative depictions an issue or are they best ignored?

Indonesian Insult?

Just because this blog is titled “Space Between the Lines”, that does not mean that it will focus only on space science.  Also, even though Glenn Wargo’s “Astrology Notes” are the most popular posts in these parts, not everything here will be happy-go-lucky fun and games.

One of the interesting things about science is that it has all kinds of people.  Normally, this is a strength as it offers many positive examples of minorities and women who achieve greatness.  However, when you have all kinds of people, you also have some who are not the nicest of people and even some downright troublemakers.  Some troublemakers, like the late Halton Arp in the field of astronomy, were relatively harmless.  Then you have those who will stoop to some pretty low levels just to push their agenda.

Before I get to an example of someone who likely crossed the line to push their view, here is a little background.  Back in 2004, a group of scientists working on the island of Flores in Indonesia found the remains of a few rather short individuals.  They were no taller than about three feet and had adult teeth, but rather small brains.  After much study, it was concluded by the vast majority of scientists that these individuals were not modern humans, but rather some more primitive species, dubbed H. Floresiensis.  Opinion is divided as to whether these represent a dwarf variety of H. Erectus or something along the lines of H. Afarensis.  I sort of lean towards the H. Afarensis opinion.

Just when everything seemed to be mostly resolved, along comes Robert B. Eckhardt, a professor of developmental genetics and evolution at Penn State.  Eckhardt recently published a paper that claimed the individuals discovered on Flores were not a new species, but rather deformed modern humans who suffered from Down’s Syndrome.  The announcement was carried widely in science media including Space Daily.  I am sure that most readers of this blog are as disgusted as I am to hear someone, a scientist no less, imply that those with Down’s Syndrome are deformed freaks.

Believe it or not, this is not the first time another species in our genus was described in this kind of manner.  In 1829, the first bunch of H. Neanderthalensis bones were discovered near the Neander valley in Germany (hence the name of the species).  When examined, they appeared somewhat similar to human bones but there were some differences.  In 1856, eminent German pathologist Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902) explained that the bones were those of a cavalry soldier from Napoleon’s army who suffered from severe rickets and had further deformities from his military career.  He then wound up with severe head injuries in battle and died in the valley.  Virchow can be excused since nobody knew anything about evolutionary biology in those days and the idea that there were species that went extinct was fairly new.  But Eckhardt can’t use those excuses today.

Eckhardt’s assertion can be proven wrong on several points.  One of the major lines of evidence that identified the Flores bones with H. Floresiensis was the bone structure of the wrist.  Some of the bones had a more primitive shape than that found in humans.  While Down’s Syndrome may have effects on the skull, it does not affect the wrist bones.  Also, Down’s Syndrome does not cause a small brain to the extent that was found with the Flores remains.

Another argument has to do with the adult teeth found in the jaws.  This would imply that these individuals lived to adulthood.  In primitive societies (and some not as primitive), people with birth defects were considered bad omens and signs of divine disfavor, as described in a recent post on EsoterX.  Such folks probably would not live very long, either being killed or dying from bad treatment.  Lest anyone think that regarding those with birth defects as monsters or warnings of divine anger was a phenomenon of stone age cultures, Dr. Beachcombing of Beachcombing’s Bizarre History had a post describing how children in some rural areas of Europe with severe mental issues were considered non-human and were often killed, even up until the 19th century.  In fact, no less a figure than Martin Luther (founder of Protestantism) once claimed that a child, who we today would consider severely autistic, be put to death.  When the Electors (a fancy German term for a group of princes) refused, Luther then suggested that the local populace should pray daily for the elimination of said individual.

Finally, there is the lore of the inhabitants of Flores.  They describe a creature they call “Ebu Gogo” which matches the physical description of H. Floresiensis to a T.  You are probably thinking “So what? Lots of cultures have legends of ‘little people’.”  True.  But in almost all of those legends, the “little people” (fairies, leprechauns, elves, etc.) are described as having some kind of supernatural ability.  The Ebu Gogos do not. They are described as stupid, greedy thieves with no powers whatsoever.  According to local lore, it was their penchant for thievery that got them wiped out when the local humans decided that enough was enough.

If these points are not enough, it seems that there may be some irregularities about Eckhardt’s paper and how it got published.  These are described in this newspaper article.

All of this makes one wonder why there are some people who would go to such lengths and stoop so low just to keep those individuals from being classed as a new species? What could be their motivation(s)?