Friday, January 23, 2015

Two more planets for our solar system?

Time now again for Science Friday.

There is another planet out in space. Maybe two.

We're not talking about exoplanets, but rather two additional ones right here in our solar system.They may exist beyond the orbits of Pluto and may be larger (perhaps even ten times more massive) than Earth. Why this conjecture? Well, it has to do with analysis of what are termed "Extreme Trans-Neptunian ObjectS" (ETNOS). There are 13 ETNOS, including the dwarf planet, Sedna, that have been studied. The orbits of these bodies are different from as they should be according to mathematical projections.

"This excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters makes us believe that some invisible forces are altering the distribution of the orbital elements of the ETNOs, and we consider that the most probable explanation is that other unknown planets exist beyond Neptune and Pluto," the astronomical study's lead author Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, of the Complutense University of Madrid, said in a statement.

"The exact number is uncertain, given that the data that we have is limited, but our calculations suggest that there are at least two planets, and probably more, within the confines of our solar system," he added.

This is quite a big deal for astronomy. Seriously, I'm actually kind of finding it mindblowing. I must admit that I never considered it likely that we would ever find more planets right here in our own solar system. Many of us grew up knowing there were nine planets. This changed a few years back as Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet" status, relegating it to a classification similar to Ceres and Sedna. Now, shortly after kicking one out of the "planet" class, we may be welcoming two more back in. It certainly has played havoc with mnemonic devices we grew up with to memorize planet names (or at least those who weren't geeks and pored over junior science books.) Despite this promise of fantastic news, however, there is reason to be cautious.

The perturbations in ETNOs behavior might not be due to the presence of other large planetary bodies. Sedna and others might have been pushed out by the influence of other stars in the Sun's birth cluster. It's too soon to be definitive yet and further analysis is needed. The signs at this point, however, are at least intriguing.

So what will we name these new planets? Maybe just "Planet X" for one of them as an additional planet has long been theorized. I'll let Godzilla get all excited about that one.

Oh and I'm not even touching Nibiru.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 22, 2015

OnSight: Exploring Mars virtually

Explore space without ever leaving the office.

That's the basic idea behind OnSight, a new device that will enable scientists to work virtually on Mars using wearable technology called Microsoft HoloLens. 

"OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices," said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover."

This new device will take real information from the Curiosity rover to create a lifelike simulation of the Martian environment. This will allow for POV inspection of the rover's surroundings as opposed to an image on a screen. Scientists can then get a better idea as to the rover's relationship with the landscape and adjust the rover's mission from time to time.

All this happens by Curiosity team members wearing what's called a HoloLens device. This surrounds the wearer with images sent directly from the rover and overlays information across critical points in order to help inform decisions. The team members can then, as the JPL press release cites for example, stroll down a rocky surface or investigate a particularly interesting outcropping.

It is of course quite a leap from the usual NASA box of problem-solving tools. The technology involved is rather awe-inspiring in its own right. Normally that's the kind of thing that gets all my gray matter and pink parts tingly. So what's nagging me about this?

Irrationality, I'm thinking. When I see Mars-related announcements, I'm wanting to read about strides towards human missions. Yes, I know all about what Elon Musk is doing while I also understand that efforts such as OnSight are valuable, and likely rather cost-effective, tools that will help pave the way for such a thing. After all, it would hardly do to land a mission amidst a landscape that had not first been thoroughly surveyed.

Besides, I'll really be changing my tune if we can get an OnSight-capable probe on Phobos, Mars' moon. There's a monolith there, you know. And it might be hollow. Speculation also runs that it may be a spacecraft orbiting Mars, an alien "planetkiller" weapon, a previously mined asteroid (but by whom?), and all kinds of groovy babelism worthy of Richard Hoagland.

Seriously. Get OnSight to Phobos...or hell, to Cydonia...and let's see what's there. That will get all of these cover-up allegations out of the way.

Then again, would it perhaps stoke them or confirm them?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bees, the Bible, and the apocalypse

Loss of bees may lead to human extinction.

No really. I've been looking into the possibility. You can read all about it at End Times Headlines. While that might not be the most academic of sources for an argument, the idea is essentially correct. We need bees to pollinate crops that we grow for food. It is thought that pesticides may be the leading culprit for what's now being termed Colony Collapse. Also in the running are electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and the effects of climate change.

Yet there is another challenge that is increasing the threat to bee livelihood, at least in California. It's drought. Drought has crippled the amount of food sources bees can forage for. So much so that as this documentary at The Atlantic points out, it would now have to rain for an entire year before things returned to normal status. The beekeeper interviewed in the doc reports spending over $100,000 in the past year to feed bees artificial supplements in order to keep them alive. The beekeeper closes out the short film by stating that he will likely have to move his bees to a better environment such as Kansas or one of the Dakotas.

This is significant because California is such a large grower of our produce. If bees go extinct, we can forget about fruits and vegetables. We'll be stuck with corn and wheat. Oddly enough, we'll also have grapes as they self-pollinate and olives because they are pollinated by the wind and are not dependent on bees. I say "oddly enough" because this has...of all things...religious overtones.

As found in a much older article on Boing Boing, the exclusivity of grapes and olives is actually mentioned in The Book of Revelation. That part of the Bible predicts a plague that will spare both grapes and olives will precede the apocalypse. So more good news. I mean, what could be worse than human extinction? I'll tell you what: a bunch of fundies gloating that they predicted it. Then again you can pretty much make whatever you want out of the Book of Revelation, so I'm not going to worry about that part of things too much. I am, however, going to continue to be concerned about Colony Collapse.

Would I really be myself if I didn't have a circus of at least a few extinction scenarios whirling around in my head?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Majestic 12

I seem to see UFO connections in innocuous things.

In culling together resources for an impending lecture on Isaac Newton, I pulled a book from the shelf that was simply titled Astronomy. Its author was Donald Menzel.

That is a name significant not only for contributions to that eponymous field of science but also because he was allegedly a member of Majestic 12. This was a cabal of experts said to have been brought together by President Harry Truman in 1947 to both study and conceal UFO phenomena. Given that I am concurrently researching a book on Dulce, I decided to revisit the idea of Majestic 12 and a governmental UFO conspiracy (for a primer, please check out my review of Stanton Friedman's book, Top Secret/MAJIC.)

While Majestic 12 is purported to have been formed in 1947, I have found assertions that the United States government knew about UFO activity long before then. A pivotal moment is thought to be the Battle of Los Angeles. This was a documented case that occurred in February of 1942. Just slightly over two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an object of unknown origin moved into the airspace over Los Angeles. With the nation already on a firm war-footing, this prompted a response of searchlights and numerous anti-aircraft shells. Nothing much officially emerged from this stour aside from it maybe being one of (if not the) first UFO incident where the explanation of "weather balloon" was given. Yet this object seemed to take multiple hits from heavy ordinance and keep moving. Kinda tough to manage for a balloon (click the link to see the object outlined in the spotlights.)

What I didn't know about was that there are those who claim that an actual craft was downed in this "battle." It crashed into the Pacific and was recovered by the U.S. military. This supposedly prompted the formation of the Interplanetary Phenomenon Unit. Of course if you read this post by Kevin Randle, you can see for yourself how the IPU was all disinformation and bunk. We shall press forward, though.

So in 1947, this thing called Roswell happens. It is arguably the most well-known UFO incident in history. There's far too much to get into for this post, but I'll try for the "long story short" treatment. At the beginning of July of that year, something crashed in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico. It is said that it was an alien spacecraft. The craft...and its occupants...were recovered by the U.S. military (as you can see, this is starting to become a theme of sorts, what with all these crashes.)  This is where conventional conspiracy theory marks the formation of Majestic 12. Shortly after this, Project Sign published an Estimate of the Situation, a top secret document that contained accounts of UFO sightings by pilots and scientists, as well as concrete evidence that supported Project Sign's conclusion that UFOs were likely extraterrestrial in origin.

One of the most intriguing, compelling, and yet disturbing connections to Majestic 12 is the sudden and shocking demise of James V. Forrestal. Forrestal was Secretary of the Navy during World War II and was the very first Secretary of Defense. He is also named in the supposed Majestic 12 documents as being one of the 12. In 1949 he was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital due to mental exhaustion. On May 22nd, 1949, Forrestal died from a fall from the window of his hospital bed. The incident was ruled a suicide. However, many have doubted that conclusion, believing that he was the victim of officially sanctioned assassination. Was he about to divulge the truth (whatever it is) about UFOs? His alleged involvement with Majestic 12 adds another strand to his death that is both more dramatic and sinister.

As for Majestic 12 itself, the documents that spawned their legend are dubious. Much criticism has arisen as to their authenticity. Still, if you read Stanton Friedman's work, you'll find that he at least presents a compelling argument for them. I don't know.

Sorry for my ufological brain farts. I obviously need sleep.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, January 16, 2015

Star gets swallowed by warp in space

Time now again for Science Friday.

Space-time warps have long been theorized in space science. Now, we may have actually seen one.

A star has slipped out of view due to the space-time warp it creates as it orbits. While this is certainly a unique enough astronomical finding, it is made all the more interesting because the star is actually a pulsar and also one component of a binary star system. A pulsar is a neutron star (a very dense core of a star, the result of a star collapsing inward on itself) that rapidly rotates. As it rotates, it emits a beacon of electromagnetic radiation, similar in concept to the beam of light from a lighthouse. We can detect these pulses (hence the name) via radio telescopes.

Astronomers had been studying the binary star system known as J1906. Recently, radio waves from the pulsar in the star system could no longer be detected. According to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, objects of extreme mass, such as the pulsar's companion star, are able to warp space and time in the immediate area. The mass of the companion star makes the pulsar actually sink into a dip in space. This causes the axis of the pulsar to shift and the signals are no longer sent in the direction of Earth.

So perhaps "swallow" is the wrong verb here, but still to have evidence of the actual warping of space is pretty fabulous. I mean, an entire star has been more or less obscured from sight.

Day in and day out, I seem to get more fed up with arguing. I'm talking about "primate politics," such as worrying about the fiscal damages of partisan politics and bickering over the alleged shortcomings of the president. Findings like these, that space-time can in fact be warped, remind me that this is still an amazing universe, regardless of our penchant for focusing on the petty.

Here's another amazing thing, though: the pulsar is not gone forever (a "temporary swallowing?") as it is estimated that the pulsar will return in another 160 years.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Artist creates "ominous dioramas"

One of my favorite forms of art is the diorama.

I have no idea why. Many find such things to be dorky (like that's ever stopped me with anything else) but I just can't help but be fascinated by scale models of sweeping settings, such as cities or other locations. I could sit and stare for hours at the railroad model of the Midwest-Pacific in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. I love those miniature "Christmas towns" you see for sale in hardware stores during the holiday season. Maybe it's art, maybe it's exposure to Godzilla-style special effects at a young age, I don't know.

Artist Amy Bennett creates dioramas as both models and oil paintings. However, she typically adds one unsettling element to the tableau. This has the effect of spilling over into the overall perception of the piece, tainting the water, so to speak. But in a eerie and delightful way. Take for example the piece at the top of this post. It is ostensibly a neighborhood deep in winter, but the subtle presence of the white ambulance and the paramedics hints at something not entirely peaceful. In fact, the figures themselves suggest that they aren't moving all that fast. "No need to hurry." That's never a good sign with paramedics.

Bennett constructs her dioramas out of wood, foam, and paint, and then augments them with railroad models. In addition to lakeland landscapes, neighborhoods also seem to be a favorite of hers. Both have the addition of at least one disturbing element placed subtly into the mix, such as a single crashed car or distraught figure. Something "real" to mackle or break the suburban spell.

Maybe Bennett has stumbled upon something creepy that is inherent to all dioramas. They're just a little "off." They look real, but then they don't. They might be detailed and accurate, but their tiny size is just off-putting and not "right."  A whole living scene shouldn't be that small or so our minds tell us. Amy Bennett has captured this here, I believe.

OK, so I've always wanted to create a diorama. What should I make?
Leave your suggestions in the comments section.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets