Monday, February 27, 2006

Cold dome

Above you can see the view that I had from my roof at 6 a.m. yesterday morning. Venus, when sitting alone in a clear sky, is just entrancing, no doubt about it. And I'm also sure that photographs don't get the magic across. Photos are just rectangles, really. There is no substitute for actually going out and standing, sitting, or lying down beneath an all-encompassing sky. I've been doing too little of that in recent months, which is why I'm making a big deal of going out yesterday.

And it was unbelievably cold, because of the wind. The highs in New York these days are just below freezing, but it's the wind that gets you. I blocked the wind by getting behind a chimney on the roof. I sat down, closed my hood, put away my gloved hands and waited another half hour for sunrise. My hope was to see the crescent moon, just about a day and a half away from new -- and no luck. Too many clouds on the horizon.

I noticed that Jupiter, in the binoculars, was making a triangle with two star-like dots to its left. One was in the plane of the ecliptic ("pointing" to Venus from my perspective) and was sure to be one of the Galilean satellites. But below it was another dot, and that did not seem like it could be a moon of Jupiter. It had to be a star. It's just that I'd never seen such a lovely mini-conjunction in the sky. It was truly gorgeous.

The star turned out to be SAO 159028, shining at 5.2 magnitude from 765 light-years away. Just above it, Ganymede was shining at 4.6 magnitude. The conjunctions with this star are still occurring and can be seen anytime that Jupiter is up.

Later that night I visited my sister, nephew and niece in Dobbs Ferry, New York, about an hour north of the city. Leaving the light pollution of the five boroughs is always exciting, and I invited my sister's family to take a little lark with me just after sunset, on the Hudson River. Since the river was barely a minute away, we all went, and the sky was crystal clear -- but the winds were so strong that we stayed in the car almost the whole time, spying on the river with binoculars, and looking for Mercury. I could not locate it until we started driving away. Then we all got out briefly -- very briefly. It was around 6:30 p.m., forty-five minutes or so after sunset. Everyone saw it with the naked eye, including 9-year-old Ian and 6-year-old Maddie. But we all shivered uncontrollably, and Ian was pushed around by the wind when he tried to steady himself with the binoculars.

It was great to show Mercury to my family, since hardly anyone ever sees the planet -- but the night was not fit for observing. I don't even have a photo, because the bones in my hands could not stand being out in the air long enough to play with the camera settings.

Riding home in the car with my father, I could see through the car window an object that I never see in the city without binoculars -- the "sword" in Orion, where M42 is located. It's a shame that cloudy days are warm, and that clear days are so cold, as if we were lying exposed under the cold of space and not just its stars.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Life as Science

I don't usually repeat on my blog the posts I make elsewhere on the web. But earlier today I left the following comment at Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy site, responding to an analogy he was making -- and the comment I left there just seems to touch on everything that I tend to write about, so I'm pasting it here. I'm also putting it on both my blogs, which is also something I've never done; but as I said, it touches on everything I care about.

I just want to point out some problems I see with Phil's analogy.

"Those organisms that can handle the input from their environment survive, while those that cannot deal with it fail. Those that can adapt, even marginally, to outside influence are able to better cope with whatever comes next.....

"A scientist who is too stiff, too resistant to change, will find themselves extinct if the evidence from observation becomes overwhelmingly against them.

"Evolution is a fact, both in nature and in science. If more people realized this simple truth, and the beauty inherent in it, then a lot of nonsense would become extinct as well."

Phil is talking about adapting to an environment of ideas. This seems correct; as a layperson not studying evolution myself, the theory of evolution is not a thing that comes to me apart from the ideas of others; it reaches me not as a material fact, but as an idea from the environment of ideas.

But Phil slips into talking about how people should realize that evolution is a fact in nature as well as in science: how we should adapt to the input of nature itself as well as to the input of scientists. All this is true, of course; but the way it's put is problematic. It's the environment of ideas that we're adapting to. People adapt to the ideas that are prevalent in their culture. If I'm religious and I see friendly ideas out there, and other unfriendly ones out there, I live among the friendlies and fight, or take flight from, the unfriendlies. That's how our adaptation looks: it's not so much a rational focus on mere material facts in intellectual theories; what we're interested in is whether everything we care about (including nature, or science, or God, or family, or material facts and intellectual theories) can find a friendly environment in which to grow.

And so creationists and scientists take flight from, or fight, each other, while attaching themselves to friendlies. And both sides regard their opponents as not really paying attention to facts (or at least not to the important facts).

Anyway that's how our adaption to the environment works. We adapt to cultures. We also adapt to material facts, but those tend to be facts about our present material condition, not about whether the earth existed 10,000 years ago. Cultural evolution does not favor necessarily those who have the correct theory about the past. It favors those who can find friendlies, avoid or defeat unfriendlies, adopt life-enhancing ideas (a lot of people, myself included, find religion to be life-enhancing), and influence others.

I'm certain that Phil's analogy will strike a too-broad range of religionists as unfriendly. Religionists are, after all, essentially metaphysicists (like all of us, in a sense, since we all care about much more than intellectual theories concerning material facts). An analogy likes this tells them essentially that they're maladapted creatures. I fully accept evolution, and regard both creationism and ID as wrong, so I'm not particularly vexed by all this; I happen to love Phil's work against bad thinking. But even I feel as if I'm appearing in this analogy like a maladapted creature, just for being someone who thinks that we're responsible for adapting to much more than the theory of evolution.

Like all of us, I care about things other than intellectual theories about material matter; and like creationists, I care about God and about whether my religion has friendlies or unfriendlies. I care about things other than theories about material matter, which is, for me, a problem with an analogy in which the primary thing that makes us well-adapted and destined for prosperity is not anything metaphysical (and certainly not our belief in God), but our adherence to intellectual theories about matter, as brought to us by scientists. Those theories may be correct (and evolution certainly is), but as a non-scientist dealing with much more than matter, my prosperity rests on much more than these theories; and it certainly does not rest on what these scientists have to say about God and all the rest.

If it were the case that adapting to intellectual theories about matter were the most important factor in our prosperity, scientists should have a privileged place; and what they say about anything metaphysical should trump what any non-scientists has to say. I doubt that Phil, for one, believes this; but I see his analogy as having this consequence. A different analogy, in which we're all adapting to cultures and fighting for the things we care about, puts us all on a more equal plane; and it does not suggest that we have to listen to scientists or materialists when it comes to God or religion. That is the great fear of creationists -- that evolution (besides being wrong in their view, because they follow the Bible literally) will be used to promote a worldview in which everything they care about will be marked with labels such as "irrational," "maladapted," "headed for extinction."

A little more attention should go to the cultural war, and into models explaining how we take flight from it, or fight in it; or seek a truce. It seems to me that long lifespan can be expected for all of us if we find a way not just to avoid war (flight) or win it (fight), but to defuse it.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Googolplex

Time to laugh a little.

The googolplex is a famous number so large that it cannot be written out in a conventional manner. The number of digits in a googolplex exceeds the space available to put them in, even if you printed each digit at the size of an atom and used all the space in the known universe.

A googolplex is unimaginably larger than a googol, which can be written out as a 1 followed by a hundred zeroes, or 10 to the power of 100. Let me write that out (with some help from cutting and pasting):

000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,

Another way to write it out is as 10 to the power of 100, which is 10 multiplied by itself in a string that includes a hundred instances of "10".

10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10.

That's a large enough number. The estimated total number of electrons, protons and neutrons in the known universe is 10 to the power of 80, which is just a tiny fraction of a googol. If you took away the last 20 zeroes in the number above, you would have the total number of elementary particles in the universe. If you imagine that number as P, you get a googol by multiplying P in the following manner:

P x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10.


P times 100,000,000,000,000,000,000.

How would you say this equation? "P times a hundred ..." What? What's the term that comes after millions, billions, trillions, and zillions? Well, if you type "millions, billions, trillions, zillions" into our old friend Google, you find that Word Reference lists a certain "jillion" coming after zillions. Unfortunately it is merely defined as a term for any indeterminately large number. Other sites list a slang term, "kazillion". A more formal table of terms is at Zillions and Zillions!, where I found out that my way of looking at it is American; the European scale is different.

In the formal terms, zillions don't even exist. In the American system, trillions are followed instead by quadrillions, and then by quintillions. So an American would say the above equation as, "P times 100 quintillion." In England you'd say, "P times 100 trillion." Sticking to the American terminology, you would say that the total number of elementary particles in the universe is estimated to be a hundred-quintillionth part of a googol.

A googol, incidentally, would be listed in the U.S. as 10 million trigintillions. I have no idea, even with the table in front of me, how to say that in Europe.

So that's a googol -- 100 quintillion times the number of elementary particles in the known universe.

Here is where it gets funny -- the googolplex. This is a number with a sense of humor. You arrive at it by multiplying 10 by itself in a string such as the one above, where "10" appears one-hundred times -- except that you have to write it out a googol times. That's right. The number typed out above, with a hundred zeroes, is the number of times that the "10" has to appear in such an equation. And each time it appears, of course, the total number grows ten times larger -- but that is by no means the hard part of trying to imagine a googolplex. What's beyond our normal reasoning is the number of times that "10" appears in the equation. If you take on the process of stuffing a "10" into each elementary particle in the universe, and do that entire process 100 quintillion times, you get to write out the equation. Never mind the result.

And that is still just so much talk.

Take your average person weighing around 150 lbs., or 70 kilograms. That person is comprised of about 7 octillion atoms, written out with 27 zeroes. The body's total number of electrons, protons and neutrons is 64 octillion, or 64,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000. That's the number we're starting with.

Multiply that by 1 quintillion (that's 18 zeros). Take 85,000 of those and you've got the mass of the earth. Take 300 earths and you have Jupiter. Take 1,100 Jupiters, and you've got our sun. According to Sten Odenwald's Back to the Astronomy Cafe, estimates for the total mass of our galaxy, the Milky Way, tend to fall around 700 billion times our sun's mass -- contained in around 1 trillion stars. The total number of stars in the universe is estimated -- give or take a factor of 10, of course -- at 80,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That's 80 sextillion stars. (A sextillion comes after quintillions). If you want to say it in terms of the Milky Way's trillion stars, you'd say 80 billion trillion stars. 80 billion Milky Way masses.

Now take the result and multiply it, as we worked out it above, by 100 quintillion. That's a googol.

And that's the number of times you will write out the number "10" on the black board, just to write out the equation for a googolplex.

But I did promise a little laughter.

A very funny site is Googolplex. That will spin your brain. It's one of the oldest pages on the web; back in 1995 it was awarded a distinction as one of the top 5% internet sites.

The page shows you how to print out a googolplex, if you're so inclined. Maybe that's why it's also listed as one of the most useless sites on the Web.

I say that laughter is vastly useful, however. From that site, and with a little exploration, I found myself laughing harder than I have in years -- especially at a site called Gizoogle. Translate any text, or even a web page, into jive.

Now a Googolplex has a 1 followed by 10 ta tha powa of 100 zeroes.

Gizoogle is listed at a page called Pointless Sites. Another distinguished member on that list: The Infinite Cat Project.

All this madness started a week ago by watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Episode 9, "The Lives of the Stars." That's the one that has Carl explaining the Googolplex, trying to write it out on a roll of paper, explaining mathematical infinity (a googolplex is no closer to infinity than is the number 1), exploring the Table of Elements, describing the fates of stars with enormous masses, flattening Alice's tea party under excessive G's, and threatening to cut a slice of apple pie down to atoms (it takes 90 successive cuts). Best of the "Cosmos" episodes.

I highly recommend meditating on the googolplex. A bit of madness will take hold of you for a while, but it will pass.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cell phone moon

Our friend, Kate Magram, of Kirkos fame, took these shots of the moon last November 20, 2005, just as it was rising. This was her first time taking any astrophotos, and she used a unique camera -- her cell phone. The other instrument was my telescope, which I lugged over to her roof that night -- the same night that Mars and Venus appeared at the potluck. A memorable astronomy session.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Blizzard

Well, we broke the record. New York got nearly 27 inches of snow by the time the blizzard ended several hours ago. That's half an inch more than the previous record in 1947 -- and the greatest snowfall in this city since these kinds of measurements began.

Ten years ago we got a storm that was called the Blizzard of the Century, and that was just above 20 inches.

It's been a weekend of shoveling snow and reading books. I didn't travel far, but I got a few photos.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Greenpoint Blues

We're losing our sky here in this part of Brooklyn. Large buildings are going up everywhere in Greenpoint and in neighboring Williamsburg. Look at this picture of two buildings under construction right in front of our kitchen windows:

That's directly west -- where I've taken lots of photos of sunsets, new moons, and conjunctions.

I don't really know how much my astronomy will be effected by this. Much depends on how high these twins go. But it does stick in the craw.

This makes me want to go back to the Southwest -- where Dess and I took our honeymoon -- more than ever. I remember a lot of flat horizons there. Already there's only so much I can do with the telescope here. I can climb up the fire escape to the roof with a camera, but not with anything heavy like a telescope. Except on occasional trips to friends' houses, the scope has to stay on our fire escape, where I sometimes get some nice photos -- but always photos of the same hemisphere of the sky, the western half.

Urban astronomy is something unique, however, that I could never really regret. And now that these twins are going up, I will appreciate any photos I take in the west that much more. I just wish I didn't have to take photos of tall buildings blotting out the vistas that this neighborhood once enjoyed.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Got some fine shots of the moon at around 8 p.m. last night. The moon was 5 1/2 days old, and almost 37% illuminated. Below you can see a close-up near the middle of the terminator. The left-most prominent crater, with a very noticeable mountain in its center, is Theophilus.

From Virtual Moon Atlas:

Type: Crater
Geological period: Eratosthenian (From -3.2 billions years to -1.1 billions years)

Dimension: 104x104Km / 61x61Mi
Height: 4400m / 13300ft
Height/Wide ratio: 0.044

Circular formation forming a remarkable trio with Cyrillus and Catharina. Tormented and steep slopes overhanging Sinus Asperitatis from 1200m and supporting Cyrillus to the South-East Theophilus F to the West and Mädler to the East. Very high walls with terraces overlapped by Theophilus B to the North-West. Flat floor. Imposing central mountain 1 400 m high with 4 summits. Line of crests hills and craterlets.

Interest: Exceptional formation
Observation period: 5 days after New Moon or 4 days after Full Moon
Minimal Instrument: 10x binoculars

Longitude: 26.4° East
Latitude: 11.4° South
Quadrant: South-East
Area: Theophilus crater North-West region

Name Origine:
Detailed Name: Theophilus
4 th century greek Philosopher born in Greece
Born at: Alexandrie? in ?
Dead at: ? in 412
Name Author: Riccioli (1651)
Name by Langrenus: Ferd. Francisci Imp. Rom. F.
Name by Hevelius: Mons Moschus
Name by Riccioli: Theophilus

Finally, you can see the horn of the crescent, below, near the South Pole. I thought it was cool how far it extended into space.

Venus flashes in Sky & Telescope

Just plugging myself a little here. The March 2006 issue of Sky & Telescope, on newstands since February 1st, contains a photo from my opening blog post back in September. The author, Fred Schaaf, mentions my observations, including the flashing of Venus. The article is not available on the website, but the title is "Return of the Venus Green Flashes -- Part 2" (p. 72). Part 1 was in February's issue.

My thanks to Fred and to the magazine.