Archive for category Astronomy, Cosmology, Space

Stars Give Up Their Planets

Posted by on Thursday, 28 October, 2010



What’s harder to find than an honest politician?

Exactly. A new planet.

The old planets, they’re local. They’re located around our sun. There are now eight of them. Nine for a while but Pluto’s a rock again.

Committee decision.

The first seven weren’t so hard to find. No telescopes needed.

Earth, of course, was easy. Between yer toes.

Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Uranus, and Saturn weren’t too bad either. They “wander” in the sky. Stars don’t do that when yer sober.

Big clue.

Uranus, which wasn’t discovered until the 18th century,  took some finding. And the next one, Neptune, did have to wait for telescopes to be invented. Johann Galle gets the credit along with J. J. Leverrier who told him where to point the thing.

J J didn’t like Uranus’ orbit.

“By King Louis Philippe,” he said, “I’d bet my mustache there’s a planet tugging on it and with a couple a mathematical tricks, I think I can figure out where that planet should be.”

“You bite the big one, J J,” said Galle. “You’re not gonna find a planet with mathematics.”

“Just you point your foolish lenses where I tell you, “J J said”, and we’ll see who bites what around here.”

J J was right and that was planet number eight.


Eight planets.

Our solar system was fully mapped. If you wanted more planets, you had best be looking around the good Lord’s firmament.


If you DID look beyond our solar system, what did you see? Stars are bright. Finding a planet around a star is like figuring out who’s in a car coming at you at night with headlights on.

Worse even.

Glare, glare, glare.

How it is.


You can see the star. But any planets would be hidden by its tremendous luminescence.

For a long time – a long, long time, really – we figured there might not BE any other planets anyway. But people – Carl Sagan was one of the most prominent – felt there should be planets elsewhere. Why would our own star, the one we call “sun”,  be so different?

By 1998, astronomers  figured  out a way to detect planets around other stars (exoplanets). Two ways, actually. One way involved watching the star wobble as the planet pulls on it. The other way involved watching a star dim as a planet passed in front.

Kinda sleuthy but it works  well enough to find great big planets, anyway.

A start.

These methods have gotten better with practice. The list of exoplanets is over 400 and growing fast .


Now what if the stars DIDN’T shine so bright? What if you COULD see the planets orbiting other suns?

Can now.

A team led by E Searbyn (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) invented an “Apodizing Phase Plate” which cancels out much of the glare from a star so you can see its planets. With it, they had a clear look at a star (HR8799) and its planets.

Not perfect. Still needs more refining to see the smaller planets. But an amazing piece of science magic anyway.

They say the next version’ll be better yet.

We believe them.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10


Image credit: Jet Propulsion Labs


Posted by on Friday, 17 September, 2010


Image credit: NASA


You and I have been using rocket ships as our basic transportation into orbit for as long as we can remember. Could say they’re the cruise liners of the IPad era. But they’re a bit rich at 1.3 billion dollars per cruise, aren’t they? They’re also inefficient and they’re not exactly “Environment Green”. Also, since each launch is a boo boo  away from a “big bang”, you would be right to conclude they’re dangerous as crap!


Wasn’t it  Werner Von Braun who said that rocket ships give the Law Of Diminishing Returns a bad name, requiring, as they do, that the passenger list include the fuel tank, itself, which has to be dragged into orbit even as the stuff in it is being consumed? The tank (filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen) weighs about 1.7 million POUNDS and you gotta bring it along each trip if you hope to escape the pull of SOL (Stupid Ol’ Earth).

Well it’s not as inefficient as democracy but it’s close.

So, where was I? I had a point here..

(MISTERScienceAintSoBad shuffles his papers).

Ah.. I think I was telling you that NASA’s having a change of heart about this idiocy of flying 10 story buildings into orbit. If a rocket scientist’s THAT smart, he.she oughta be able to think him.herself right outta business. Least, that’s the theory.

So Stan Starr, Chief of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Flight Center has been scratching together a proposal to combine some existing technologies and then throw lots of money at them to see if the bills’ll stick. The idea seems to be a three phase system where the first phase is some kind of track or sled (could be electromagnetic propulsion or something else) which would accelerate the craft faster and faster, horizontally.  Then, after reaching some horrifying number of machs, scramjet engines (phase two) would cut in to fly the beast up to the point where, in phase three, a relatively dainty “second stage” type rocket would boost it on its way to its mission. And, instead of jettisoning the usual singed and dented crap to be hauled back for retrofitting, the launch vehicle would simply return to base and land.


Really, really, elegant.

And fictitious.

None of this exists. But all the basics are there. Rail guns exist. Rocket sleds? check. Neither is anywhere near “up to spec” as a space launch platform but, in astronautics, hope springs eternal. Ramjet supersonic spaceplanes? Che… well, coming along, anyway. Point is, that each phase has advanced technology to build on and could, with appropriate guidance and a humongous “stimulus check”, become part of an entirely new vision of space transport.

ScienceAintSoBad greets this proposal with lots of enthusiasm.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10 big ones. Go for it, guys!


How do I introduce Stephen Hawking?

Monumental.  The best of the best in Physics. Creatively brilliant. Reaching up, out of an ALS destroyed body that barely keeps him alive, to the highest order of accomplishment in one of the most difficult fields of endeavor.


How could anyone ignore the most profound handicaps to accomplish what he has?

As for God, what can I say?

Really he needs no introduction.

Like Hawking, he stands alone and his very existence seems filled with miracles. He is beloved  and admired by billions who look to him for comfort and guidance.

G_d (Image suffers from the usual deficiencies of trying to capture an ubiquitous being)

So what is one to make of the current clash between the two?

Hawking says God’s role in the creation of the universe  has been overimagined. In his new book, The Grand Design, Hawking asserts that the laws of physics provide a perfectly adequate explanation  for the beginnings of the universe and that, therefore, God’s role is redundant,  unnecessary, and suspiciously convenient for the religious establishment which benefits from the widespread belief that nature needed a hand from the Big Guy (the Big Guy, being God, by the way,  not Hawking).

He confronts, directly, the argument that only God could create something from nothing, discussing the quantum mechanical implications of doing that very trick.

God, on the other hand, has chosen to ignore Dr. Hawking.

So far, at least.

A guy as smart as Hawking will surely appreciate the advantages of leaving things that way.


Posted by on Wednesday, 24 March, 2010




Hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy. Hundreds of billions of galaxies.  Lots of stars and lots of planets.

Lots .

How many restless alien souls are looking this way, wondering what’s over here?


Meanwhile, we’re looking for planets; we’re listening to signals; and we’re trying to figure out how to tell  if a planet has life on it from a long, long distance away.

If we keep at it long enough, won’t we come up with something?


MISTER ScienceAintSoBad knows it’s been a while since we started “the search” (in the 1980’s).  One of our first readers, BlaseBoy14 says: “If it were out there, we’d a heard by now.  If it was gonna happen, it woulda happened.

Well, yeah, MISTER ScienceAintSoBad‘ll fall of his chair about the same time you do if we do hear from the pickle brains in the Andromeda Cluster. But stay with me here.  You knew the Red Sox would never win the World Series, didn’t you? You knew an African American would never become President of the United States, right? And you knew those electronic book things would never catch on and replace real books. So let’s SAY you’re wrong this time. Let’s just SAY we get “pinged”. What do we do?

“We’re HERE! We’re HERE! We’re HERE! Whoopee! Oh BOY!


No reason not. They’re gonna be too far away to hurt us. Plus they’ll be wise and kindly.  Maybe they’ll tell us how to end wars.

Nuh uh.  We have an agreement. I’m sure you never heard about this, but there’s to be NO talkin’. At least not till we’ve checked around with all concerned parties (which would be, more-or-less, the occupants of this particular rock).

paper by Michael Michaud, written back in 1991, talks about what’s to be done before answering a signal received from ANY non-Earthians but, basically, it consists of some careful checking around to make sure us Earthians are on the same page about accepting the tiny risk that off-Earthers we’re chatting with, turn out to be the North Koreans of Andromeda.



Then there this:

We’re wasting money looking for intelligent life “out there” when we should be spending it on our own people right here on earth. At 10 billion dollars a month, this stupid diversion of funds is more expensive than a major war. And what good is it? How’s it going to help us to hear the a-m-a-z-i-n-g opinions of some slithery space creatures? I say close down the programs and concentrate on poverty in this country.  – Proud2BeLiberal14

Aw Proud. You should be ashamed.  Here’s the cost of war . And, anyway, your numbers are all wrong. Searching for intelligent signals is cheap, cheap, cheap and the funding is private.


science ain’t so bad’s t-shirts and mug’s and such

Einstein’s Musical Career and The Clever Octopus

Posted by on Sunday, 27 December, 2009


Physics: Notes.

Albert Einstein.

I realize he didn’t exactly invent the Universe. But SUCH a scientist! They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Just walking around in his own mind (“thought experiments”) he could see the way things MUST work. What others thought were the rules, were only a special case. He took a few inches off of the height of Isaac Newton, his only real rival for the Great-God-Of-Science prize, showing that Newton’s achievements, amazing as they were, were only a door to the true mysteries of the universe.

Einstein guided us through that door.

I have to recyle my “Newton Spinning In His Grave” drawing here (below).

Still Spinning

Still Spinning

Einstein came to realize that light has special properties. For some crazy reason, when you measure its speed, it is always the same. No matter how fast or slow you are going.

So he thought about it.

And the ramifications.

When he worked it all out, he saw that the sizes and masses of things follow unexpected rules, depending on how fast you’re going (Special Relativity). He looked at time differently too. And he found an explanation for how gravity works (General Relativity). And he described atoms. And photons (the photoelectric effect) and helped kick off Quantum Mechanics, a bastard child which he had some second thoughts about later in life.

I’ll stop. You can read the Wikipedia article. But what’s funny about this funny guy is that he liked things or he didn’t like them based on some inner aesthetic. If it was beautiful it had to be right.


So that’s interesting, isn’t it? Our greatest modern scientist was an aesthete. He played the violin. And the piano.

He loved Mozart; he loved Bach.

Indifferent to Brahms.

He began playing the violin as a little child. Real serious.

Once, he was supposed to give a physics lecture to his students (Geneva University). Instead he decided to play his violin for them. He figured they would like it better than a physics lecture.

And understand it a LOT better.

No doubt.

So would he have become a musician if he hadn’t become the greatest physicist of modern times?


He already had a job in the patent office. Maybe he LOOKED like a dreamer with his long flowing hair, but Einstein wasn’t THAT dumb!

After all. He was Einstein.

BehavioralEcology: Tool Use By Octopuses

What has eight legs and.. eight hammers?

Used to be that we had a franchise on intelligence. We were the smart guys. Apes and monkeys chattered mindlessly in trees. Elephants munched at the bottom of them. And octopuses were too dumb to grow a proper set of arms and legs.

Used to be.

We used tools. We had language. We wore clothes. We did karaoke.

The creatures we ate didn’t do any of those things.

But observation by observation, study by study, our distinctions over other species have shrunk.

We still out gun our nearest biological competitors when it comes to dumping carbon into the atmosphere, but we now know that chimpanzees can sign and understand extensive human language as can various apes, dolphins, and parrots. Even walruses.

And the use of tools is definitely out there. We’ve seen it in chimps and other primates as well as birds and even elephants (which have very large brains, as you might expect, with very large “thinking surfaces” as you might not expect).

Now a paper in Current Biology describes the use of tools by Octopuses.

Octopuses are Cephalopods which means non hat wearing ink squirters. If you follow their comings and goings, you know already that their dopey looks are deceptive. They have good memories and are good learners. They routinely solve their way out of mazes and Dr. Maury Schlaffer (University of Teheran) claims he has observed them scavenging old electronic components on the ocean floor and reassembling them into devices such as OPhones and OPods for their own uses.

We would LIKE to believe Schlaffer’s work but, unfortunately, the evidence is kinda weak and we have to give it a ScienceAintSoBadRating of less than 2. The Current Biology paper, however is good. It’s got the “pusses” dragging around shells which they use for protection (“tents”).

That’s thinking ahead.

If I ever DO become a vegetarian, it’ll be because of a scientific study – one like this.

Homeopathic Medicine. It Can’t Hurt.

Posted by on Thursday, 17 December, 2009

Watered down to something?

Homeopathic Medicine: Safe As The Water You Drink

Jange Spengstre is a ballet dancer who lives in East Flatbush (N. Y.) She had a question for the homeopathy expert at Science Ain’t So bad.

“My drugstore sells homeopathic medicine right beside the other stuff and I can’t really tell the difference. The labels look official. Should I be leery of the homeopathic drugs? They claim to be very safe.”

According to Wikipedia, Homeopathic medicine is a form of alternative medicine in which the patient is given a drug which is diluted with water over and over again and “Dilution often continues until none of the original substance remains.”

Which is strange.

If nothing’s left but water, is it.. is the medicine WATER? Is that what they’re selling as a cure?

That’s legal?

Well, Dana Ulman, an “expert in homeopathic medicine” says (Huffington Post) that homeopathy’s fine. Don’t pick on it.

Those who say homeopathic cures are just water are “proving their ignorance”. There’s lots of proof, he says, that very small doses of substances can be efficacious. Why not, he says, think of the homeopathic enterprise as “nanopharmacology” to emphasize the small doses used?

Admitting that the scientific basis for “nanopharmacology” is a mystery, he reminds us that nature is full of mysteries.


Practitioners of the art of homeopathy realize that they are diluting the original substance so much that nothing may be left but water. The traditional explanation is that water has a “memory” of the original drug.

Ulman does suggest a couple of novel explanations for how water could have this memory. Could be that “fragments of silica” flake off of the sides of the bottles when they are shaken and those fragments play some role in the mystery. Or maybe it’s the unexpected temperature or pressure effects. You have doubts? What about Brian Josephson, a winner of the coveted Nobel Prize in Physics? He supports Homeopathy. (No offense if you’re a fan of very edgy ideas, but Dr. Wilson’s credibility should be viewed in light of the fact that he also supports ESP.)

You can get a little bit of the other side of this debate from a posting by Paul Wilson.

Not to be a curmudgeon BUT Ulman’s article seems like an effort to confound the facts with a lot of conjecture. And he seems a little confused about the difference between a LITTLE of something and NONE of something. Homeopathy’s fine by me for those who want to believe. But its methodologies aren’t consistent with evidence based science and I, for one, think that there IS something wrong with marketing its products on the same store shelves with drugs whose manufacturers had to spend millions to prove they work.

To Ulman’s fascinating and creative article in the Huffington Post, we give a ScienceAintSoBadRating = 0 . And that’s generous.

PHYSICS: Dark Matter


This is sensational.

Dark matter has been identified finally. Or so it seems. We are waiting for confirmation.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10

Uncle Europe Wants YOU!

Posted by on Sunday, 29 November, 2009
First Humans On ... Earth

First Humans On ... Earth

Image based on a model (Lunar Electric Rover) by Google 3D Warehouse.

SpaceScience: Mars Without The Gamma Rays. The European Space Agency’s looking for volunteers to spend 520 days pretending they’re on a trip to Mars.


Posted by on Thursday, 17 September, 2009

Image courtesy of

SpaceScience: A Ticket To Mars

According to a “blue ribbon panel” reporting to the Office of Science And Technology Policy, we can’t afford a “manned” lunar program. The United States is emerging from a recession with a lot of bills and it has to reduce costs wherever it can.

If we can’t afford the moon, how can we afford Mars?

I don’t want to sound like a broken blog, but this isn’t the first time I’ve discussed the expensive conceit of sending humans to Mars. Quoting myself, “Throughout NASA’s history, there’s been considerable tension between those who believe in the symbolic importance of getting our human butts out there and those who feel that the astronomical (good word here) costs and barely manageable risks aren’t justified when robots are proving themselves so capable.”

Lawrence Klauss suggests that we can solve all this by making the trip to Mars one-way. In a 9/11 interview on NPR’s “Science Friday”, Klauss discussed the cost of sending humans to Mars and, rightly, in my opinion, brought up the advantages of robots. He said that robots will continue to improve and, by the time we are ready for the trip, their abilities may rival those of human astronauts.

So that’s what we should do, right? Send robots?

Well no. Instead of reaching the obvious conclusion, Klaus, feels the pull of putting boots on red sand and thinks there’s GOTTA be a way. Why not, he says, do a one-way mission to establish the first permanent space colony? This, he says, makes sense since it would cost less to deliver the human payload and could lighten the required radiation shielding. A return trip might be fatal anyway because of Gamma ray exposure. So make it one-way.

ScienceAin’tSoBad respectfully doesn’t get it.

What about the unbelievable ethical implications of exposing a crew to HALF of a fatal dose of radiation? Will we prohibit transmissions beyond the first joy-filled 3 months so that we don’t have to watch them sicken and die? Would this colony, once established, have hopes of generationalism – bearing children and rearing the first native Martians? If so, the radiational offspring of the colonists may give us a chance to communicate with REAL Martians. Two heads, eye stalks, and obsidian skin.

Chopping out the return trip, although it does simplify the shielding design and reduce the bulk of the rocket, is unlikely to reduce the costs enough to make the numbers work but, even if it did, that doesn’t justify putting human beings at such risk.

Besides. The “One Way To Mars” idea only blurs the absurdity of a human program. We should focus on building great robots. By the day of the expected human landing, maybe robots will be capable of experiencing the joy of watching the sun set over the earth. They could be our true, if improbable, descendants.

And we wouldn’t have to watch them crawl around on the rim of a crater, dying from radiation poisoning.

ScienceAin’tSoBadRating = 3

Neurobiology: Focusing The Brain

I hope you have a well-behaved mind.

Many of us don’t.

My own mind skitters out from under me whenever it chooses.

What’s different about those with great concentration and those who are easily distracted? Some new research suggests it may be related to how large your “working memory” is. Working memory is believed to be a type of short-term memory which is used to temporarily store things while you’re thinking. It determines the number of thoughts you can keep “alive” at the same time.

For example, if you’re late for dinner, you can think “Man! She’s gonna kill me!” AND think “but I better not forget to stop for gas on the way”.

According to a study from the University of Oregon, people with large working memories are less easily distracted.

It makes sense, doesn’t it?

ScienceAin’tSoBadRating = 7

Unless the problem is due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

While it varies in its severity, ADHD can make it difficult to concentrate and, in general, manage your time.

A study at the Brookhaven National Laboratory involved 97 people. It found that the 53 subjects with ADHD (the rest were controls) had abnormally low dopamine in the parts of the brain that control reward and motivation. And it found that such people appear to need extra stimulation which they don’t always seek out in the healthiest ways – sometimes overeating or abusing drugs or alcohol. In other words, immediate gratification seemed to win out over other things.

There are ways to increase dopamine levels in the brain. Some involve drugs (and side effects) and some do not. But this would seem to be a great thing to explore (carefully).

Good paper. More work needs to be done to solve this problem.

ScienceAin’tSoBadRating = 9