Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Time Travel, or The Impossibility Thereof

Time travel is a tried and true science fiction staple. It usually involves being able to fly in a spaceship faster than the speed of light or diving through a wormhole. None of those technologies currently exist in the real world of science.
Astrophysicists often discuss wormholes: can one be created without a black hole as the door, would it be be stable, would it be large enough to travel through without getting destroyed in the process, and what kind of energy source might it take to create one? So far, no one has any idea how to do any of that. NASA is currently testing an engine, known as the EM Drive, which seems to have potential for faster than light travel. But, as of now, no one even knows how it generates thrust.
Albert Einstein said that no object with mass, like a spaceship, can go at the speed light as it would take an infinite amount of energy to get there. He didn’t exactly say nothing could travel faster than the speed of light. You might think that if it can’t travel AT the speed of light, how can a spaceship go faster than the speed of light? Physics allows for a phenomenon called “tunneling” where an object can be in condition A and B but not in between. Physicists run rather simple experiments where objects go from A to B even though they can’t be in between the two states. So far, they’ve only done such experiments with objects like electrons, not spaceships, but that may just be a matter of technology.
Scientists have also discussed ways to create wormholes without a black hole doorway. It only takes a lot of energy. Like a sun’s worth of energy, but still not impossible, in theory.
But here is the rub with time travel. One of the most fundamental truths physicists know about the universe is the conservation of energy. Since Einstein showed us that matter and energy are intimately related via his famous equation E=MC2, the full conservation rule is that the total amount of mass and energy must be conserved. It’s known as the 1st Law of Thermodynamics.
Let’s say I want to travel back in time to meet George Washington. Once I left this time, there is suddenly less mass-energy in the universe now and there is suddenly more mass-energy in the universe in 1776. It all averages out, but the 1st Law of Thermodynamics is exact, not an average. This appears to make time travel impossible.
Unless, somehow, the exact same amount of mass-energy transfers from then to now at exactly the same instant I go to then. But you might randomly take half a person from then and move him or her to now.
I think I’d just leave it alone.

On the first Tuesday of each month, I write an astronomy-related column piece for the Oklahoman newspaper. On the following day, I post that same column to my blog page. 
This is reprinted by permission form the Oklahoman and

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Is the Discovery of Earth 2.0 Imminent

On the first Tuesday of each month, I write an astronomy-related column piece for the Oklahoman newspaper. On the following day, I post that same column to my blog page.

This is reprinted by permission form the Oklahoman and

Astronomers currently know of 3726 confirmed planets beyond our solar system. The Kepler space telescope found the bulk of them, and 4496 more Kepler candidate exoplanets await confirmation. Now, two new instruments are set to boost those numbers considerably.
Kepler’s successor is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) which launched last month. Like Kepler, TESS will continuously stare at a large number of stars, watching intently for slight drops in the stars brightness as an orbiting planet passes in front of, or transits, any of them. TESS plans on watching far more stars than Kepler did, so it should be far more successful at finding them.

The discovery process used by Kepler and TESS can only be done in space. The change in brightness as a planet passes in front of its parent star is miniscule, at most only one percent of the star’s brightness. If you have ever look at stars in the night sky from the surface of Earth, you know they twinkle or change in brightness. A star’s twinkling changes the apparent brightness of a star by well more than one percent. That flickering is caused by turbulence in our atmosphere.
In space, stars don’t twinkle as there are no molecules of atmospheric gases interfering with the view. A dedicated space telescope can easily track such tiny changes in a star’s brightness. There are other processes that can cause a star to dim a bit. Sunspots come and go on our sun’s surface all the time, which causes its light output to vary. Some stars are inherently variable. But all the other known ways a star’s brightness can change have a different pattern than a planet transiting a star. Kepler’s and TESS’s software filters light changes of the wrong pattern. And you can’t argue with Kepler’s track record.

The other new piece of equipment goes by the acronym DARKNESS (the DARK-speckle Near-infrared Energy-resolved Superconducting Spectrophotometer). Astronomers love cute acronyms for their projects, even if it is sometimes a stretch. DARKNESS uses a new type of camera with a new imaging technique to actually photograph the planets directly.
This is no easy task. Trying to see a planet close to a star is like trying to see a firefly next to a giant spotlight. The ability to resolve these two objects so close together and so different in brightness is beyond the capability of the semiconductor-based cameras used in all telescopes until now. This is the same technology used by the Hubble Space Telescope, Kepler, Tess and your cell phone. Fine for selfies, but not for seeing a firefly next to a spotlight.
DARKNESS uses superconducting technology for vast improvement in resolution. “When a single photon with the energy of more than 1 electron volt hits a semiconductor detector, it frees one electron," said physicist Ben Mazin from the University of California, Santa Barbara, who led the team developing the camera. "In a superconducting detector, it frees something like 5,000 or 10,000 electrons. And since there are many more electrons to measure, we can do things that you can't do with the semiconductor detector."
DARKNESS will have a capability currently not available. "It actually takes a picture of the star and the planet," said Mazin. "You can [even] get a spectrum of the planet, but it's extremely technically challenging." The ability to get a spectrum means we can decipher the makeup of the planet’s atmosphere and see if it contains certain constituents, like oxygen or methane, which indicate the presence of life.
DARKNESS or TESS may soon find Earth 2.0.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Is This the Way the World Ends?

On the first Tuesday of each month, I write an astronomy-related column piece for the Oklahoman newspaper. On the following day, I post that same column to my blog page.

This is reprinted by permission form the Oklahoman and

Astrophysicists feel like they have a pretty good handle on how the universe began. Nearly 14 billion years ago, a quantum fluctuation randomly popped into being and expanded rapidly, at times even faster than the speed of light. All matter and energy and the laws of physics for the entire universe came into being with that quantum fluctuation, that we now call the Big Bang.
While there is debate on some of the details of this Big Bang theory, the basic picture is accepted by the vast majority of scientists. The ending of the universe is open to far more speculation. Our universe is still growing larger from that Big Bang beginning. And evidence points to the expansion rate increasing, due to some mysterious, unknown force we call Dark Energy. Some astrophysicists think it may expand forever, galaxies simply moving farther and farther apart until our Milky Way becomes totally isolated in the universe. Others think that expansion force is so great, it will eventually rip the galaxy apart, then our solar system, ourselves and, finally, atoms themselves. Ultimately, those scientists say, the universe will consist nothing but a very cold sea of low energy photons.

Some astrophysicists argue that the expansion eventually halts, and the universe starts to collapse, perhaps back to the singularity it all started with. Some think the universe will bounce from that collapse, leading to another Big Bang, one of an infinite successions of such beginnings.
In a recent study led by Anders Andreassen, a physicist at Harvard University, the study scientists claim the universe’s final moment will be triggered by bizarre consequence of subatomic physics called an instanton. An instanton is one solution to equations governing the motions of subatomic particles. An instanton can create a tiny bubble that will expand throughout the universe at the speed of light, swallowing everything in its path. Instantons create this bubble in the Higgs field, the quantum field that gives us the newly discovered Higgs boson and which imparts mass to all subatomic particles.
"At some point you will create one of these bubbles," Andreassen says. "It will be very unpleasant." For ‘unpleasant’ read ‘the end to all life and all chemistry as we know it.’

No need to sit and worry about it, though. Although it could occur tomorrow, the odds are that the universe has a lifetime of somewhere between 10 octodecillion years (one with 58 zeros after it) and 10 quinquadragintillion years (one with 139 zeros after it). Just like the world-busting, giant killer asteroid with Earth in its crosshairs, it’s not likely to happen in our lifetime. It likely won’t occur within in the lifetime of our solar system, probably not even in the lifetime of the Milky Way galaxy.
But it is coming, sometime, to a universe near you.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Should We Announce Our Presence?

Let’s say you and a group of friends invent a transporter device, like on Star Trek, but with one major difference: You have no control over where it would send you. Suppose, on your first trip, you and your friends found yourselves in a back alley of totally unknown neighborhood in a foreign country. Would you announce your presence? Back in your own country, the news regularly reports stories of strangers being treated very badly by locals. Sure, those are isolated events. Most people back home act quite friendly to others. But you don’t know much about the customs and mores of these natives.

Image your machine transported you to another, alien planet, populated with local beings, where you would be the alien visitors. You know nothing about these beings. Are they so much more superior to you that they might look on you as you see a mosquito? Might they just eat you to sample a new delicacy?

That’s a quandary that faces humanity on a larger scale. We have discovered thousands of alien planets, many of which seem quite capable of supporting life, with more discoveries of potentially life-bearing planets coming every year. For some time, Project SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been actively searching for signals from aliens that populate other planets. That’s like you and your friends simply listening on a radio to see what you can learn about these other, foreign people.

But now, a newly formed group known as METI (Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), led by the former SETI scientist Douglas Vakoch, wants to take that a step farther and broadcast our existence to the universe. Some scientists argue vehemently against such an idea. Remember, they warn, what happened to the native populations of the Americas after the discovery of the New World by Europeans. In some areas, 90% or more of the natives were killed and their cultures virtually wiped out.

That, claim some voices of caution, is most likely our fate if other, alien races discovery our existence.

In 1974, the director of Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico, then the largest telescope in the world, wanted to showcase its newly renovated abilities. In a demonstration meant more for publicity than science, they designed and sent a 167 second radio message to a cluster of 300,000 stars, known as M-13. M-13 is 25,000 light years from earth, meaning we can’t get a return signal for 50,000 years.

Martin Ryle, then the Royal Astronomer of England fired off a strong condemnation of the stunt. He argued that ‘‘any creatures out there [might be] malevolent or hungry,’’ Ryle further demanded that the International Astronomical Union, the international governing body of things astronomical, forbid any further communication attempts to alien planets.

Today, the voices of dissent echoing Ryle’s caution include scientific luminaries like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. Like Ryle, they warn that aliens might treat us the way Cortez treated the Aztecs five centuries ago. The problem, they explain, is that humans have existed for a mere few hundred thousand years on a planet only 4.5 billion years old. The Milky Way has been making planets for more than 10 billion years. Any race of beings who detect our messages likely will be as advanced compared to us as we are to bacteria, and view Earth as a place with riches to be exploited. That doesn’t bode well, they say, for our continued existence.

Of course, not all humans are so brutal and calloused. Many actively work to help other less fortunate and less well educated than they are. We’ve protected many species and environments on our planet. But as recent political events show, that may not be a permanent situation. And as the fate of those original natives of the Americas reminds us, such kindness towards others often takes a back seat when the opportunity to enrich ourselves arrives.

So, what do you think? Should we announce our existence and location to the universe at large? Or should we remain in our dark alley corner?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

On Ghost and Ghost Hunting

I hunt ghosts. I’ve been doing it for about 10 years now. I have a lot of the equipment you see on many of the ghost-hunting shows on TV. Like everyone one I know who does this, I had experiences I couldn’t explain when I was younger.

I actually began hunting ghosts almost 40 years ago, but I didn’t realize it. My then-wife and I ha d been experiencing odd things in our house. I read had recently read about people who, while recording outdoors  while watching birds, found an unknown voice on the recordings, someone who wasn’t there at the time. I read of other examples of this phenomenon, so I loaded my portable cassette player with a 2-hour tape, turned it on record and went to bed. The next day I listened to the tape and for 3 hours and 45 minutes, all I heard was the AC cycling on and off. Then with fifteen minutes left on the tape, a VERY LOUD growl, sounding as if it were right by the mic, emanated from the tape. I never caught another odd sound on the cassette recorder again.

Understand that this was LONG before any ghost-hunting shows appeared on TV. When I found the first such show, “Ghost Hunters,” I knew instantly that I wanted to do that, to validate experiences I had experienced since childhood.

Why do I do this? Mostly out of curiosity. I have always believed that death is not an ending, that there is continued existence after physical death. I also believe in reincarnation and can recall bits and pieces of my own past lives quite clearly. I don’t necessarily expect you to believe any of this, but that’s my reason for trying to interact with dead people.

Walking around in the dark looking for ghosts in supposedly haunted locations doesn’t scare me. Certainly I get startled, as anyone would, if a sudden, loud, unexpected noise breaks the silence of the night. But the idea of coming face to face with a ghost doesn’t make me want to run away. While I believe in ghosts, and I know for a fact there are mean, angry or even evil humans who have died, I do not believe in demons or evil spirits. So I don’t feel like there is anything to be afraid of.

I and my team have captured numerous EVP's that are so clear and obviously not one of us. Some respond directly to questions we asked. In one investigation,m we had two EMF meters space about 3 feet apart. We asked any spirits present to activate one for yes and the other for no. For ten minutes we watched something respond to yes/no questions repeatedly and consistently. For example, we asked "are you female?" Yes. "Are you male?" No. Whoever it was told us how many people were in tee room, how old they were and so on. One of the most amazing sessions I've ever been involved in.

I watch all the ghost-hunting shows and I must say I don’t always agree with what they claim as evidence. I can say that even stronger. A LOT of what TV ghost hunters present as proof of ghosts is nothing but natural phenomena. Orbs are bits of dust floating too close to the cameras to be in proper focus. I’ve seen some ghost hunters claim an obvious bug is a spirit manifestation. More than once I’ve seen what a ghost hunter claims is a shadow entity captured on their video that is nothing more than video interference. Most teams don’t try hard enough to debunk client claims or their own experiences. And any time a TV ghost hunter claims “something just went through me” or “it just grabbed my leg (or arm or whatever)” or “Something just changed my mood” is not proof of anything. They may well have been touched. I have been touched on investigations. But it’s totally subjective, and that’s not proof of anything beyond your own state of mind.

I am critical when I hunt ghosts, just as my training leads me to be in science. I have published articles that describe some known, natural, physical or psychological phenomena can be easily misconstrued as evidence paranormal activity. For example, a room with a dimension, length or width, of around 30 feet will have a natural resonance near 18 hertz. That just happens to be the resonant frequency of a human eyeball. So if your investigating a building with long hallways, you might see lots of shadow figures out of the corner of your eye, you brain’s interpretation of a jiggling eyeball.

In one investigation, a teenage boy claimed to see a figure standing in his doorway as he lay in bed. Turns out there is an electrical junction box in the wall less than a foot away from his brain. Being bathed in EMF’s all night can cause psychological stresses, including hallucinations.

Most of our cases do not show any real evidence of ghostly presence. Often, however, clients don’t want to hear that. They’ve already decided their house/place of business is haunted and my team’s job is to find dazzling evidence of that haunting. We sometimes disappoint clients.

If you think your home is haunted and want my team, Insight Paranormal, to investigate it, go to our web page,, and request an investigation. I’ll even let you follow me around, as long you don’t jump and scream every time your house creaks.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Empty Boxes

Remember as a child jumping out of bed on Christmas morning and running into your living room to behold a tree surrounded by dozens of wrapped presents in all sizes? In your mind, this looks like the best Christmas ever!
You wait impatiently as your parents wake up, put on robes, get a cup of coffee and FINALLY sit down on the couch, nodding at you to open your presents. So you tear into the first box and find … nothing. It’s an empty box.
That empty box represents a broken promise. Christmas day, to a child, is all about getting presents. An empty box makes him feel cheated.
Every book offers promises to its readers, promises made by the author. And it is the author’s responsibility to fulfill those promises. This concept of having no empty boxes in your story is sometimes referred to as Chekhov’s Gun. The famous playwright, novelists, and short story writer phrased it like this: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.” In other words, everything you introduce in a story needs to have a function in the story.

In a novel, you’ll have side plots and, usually, several or even many secondary characters. Every one of those must somehow inform us about the main character’s knowledge, feelings, motivations, strengths, weaknesses and so forth, or those of his/her main adversary. Those side plots and secondary character actions may be some of your best writing, but if the box is empty with respect to the main character, you must throw it out of your story.

In those grand, sweeping novels, like the latter ones in the Harry Potter series, such side plots may do little more than help define the edges of the universe you’ve created. That might inform the reader of the possible range of actions the protagonist might take or why the antagonist’s actions hit the main character so hard. But it must somehow relate to the protagonist’s mental/emotional/physical makeup, or provide some foreshadowing of why the circumstances are so bad for him/her, or how the situation might get even worse. The box can’t be empty.

I primarily write children’s books, and my presents are more constrained. In picture books, I reveal only the main character’s thoughts and actions. He/she must be the only one that all the action centers about. She/he may have friends that help reflect some part of her/his feelings or define the possible range of actions available to him/her. But side plots and developed side characters distract young readers, because the kids those books are written for can’t easily follow those plot lines, nor do they want to. In a picture book, such plot elements become like a whole other tree with its own set of presents that are off-limits.

As you get into books for older children, middle readers and chapter books, those constraints are progressively relaxed and are virtually gone by the time you reach YA novels. Yet even at that level of writing, every box must contain a present. A box here, as in novels for adults, may contain a small, seemingly uninteresting presents, but each must eventually be shown to have some relevance to the protagonist’s story, even if subtle.

To a child, an empty Christmas present box would be quite upsetting. To a reader, it will be, too.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Proposed Simpler Definition of Planet

On August 24th, 2006, The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which has the last word on all things astronomical, redefined the word “planet.” Technically, they gave the first actual definition of a planet. Prior to that, “planet,” Greek for “wanderer,” meant any celestial object whose position in the sky changed relative to the background stars. Humans knew of seven planets since long before written history: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, but also two other perhaps surprising planets, the sun and the moon. They, too, changed positions relative to the background stars. That’s not so much a definition as a description.

In more modern times, since the invention of the telescope, three other objects joined the ranks of planets: Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, this last one added in 1930. That’s the way things stood until January 5, 2005. On that date, Cal Tech astronomer Mike Brown and his colleagues Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz discovered a Trans-Neptunian Object, TNO, they called Zena, but whose name would officially be changed to Eris. The rest of the world learned about Eris on July 29th that same year when the astronomers announced their discovery. TNO’s exist in the region of our solar system beyond Neptune, also called the Kuiper Belt, the realm of Pluto.

Early analysis indicated the Eris was about 10% larger than Pluto and thus, if Pluto deserves the moniker planet, Eris did, too. But Brown and his colleagues began finding other not-quite-so-large TNO’s in the Kuiper Belt and eventually decided that Pluto was just one among many objects roughly equal in size and so, their thinking went, represented a large class of similar objects that don’t fit with the other planets. Also, astronomers had begun to regularly discover plant-sized objects orbiting other stars, known as extra-solar planets. They didn’t wander in our skies, so astronomers needed a physical definition of planet.

Partly due to Brown’s team’s discovery of Eris, the IAU meeting in Prague, Czechoslovakia, two years later redefined the word planet. A resolution passed on the final day of the conference, after 3/4ths of the delegates had already left, created a new definition:

      A Planet:
  1. Is in orbit around the Sun but is not a satellite (moon) of another object,
  2. Has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (shape is determined by gravity overcoming the rigidity of the body of the object), and
  3. Has "cleared the neighborhood" around its orbit.

Because Pluto orbited in the Kuiper Belt, it couldn’t satisfy provision #3. Pluto became the first of a new class of objects called Dwarf Planets, and Eris would be classified one as well. Almost immediate controversy followed the vote, particularly regarding the last point. Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar and indisputably a planet, has thousands of asteroids, known as Trojan asteroids, at the L4 and L5 points in its orbit around the sun. Even Earth has asteroids that are near to or cross its orbit. In a sense, no object in our solar system fits that part of the definition. Also, the clause that states “A planet is in orbit around the sun” excludes all the known extra-solar planets.

Speculation mounted that many of those voting didn’t want the number of planets to blow up to unreasonable numbers. Our solar system would suddenly contain dozens or hundreds of objects called planets, to the chagrin of some astronomers. Since then, several persons or groups have proposed new definitions of planet. None of the proposed counter-definitions include a “clear the neighborhood” clause.

Most start with a statement “In orbit around a star (not necessarily our sun).” Many proposals also add something to the effect that it can’t itself be a star, an object which sustains nuclear fusion. I believe that needs further clarification. A brown dwarf is a star-like object much larger than a planet and often called a failed star, and is large enough to have initiated limited fusion reactions. Our suns, as do virtually all stars in the sky, generate energy by fusing four hydrogen atoms to create one helium atom, neutrinos, and energy, essentially the same energy source tapped by a hydrogen nuclear bomb.

Prior to the initiation of this hydrogen fusion stage, also known as a star’s main sequence stage, all stars contain some limited amount of lithium. It’s considerably easier to fuse than hydrogen and most brown dwarfs spend a brief amount of time sporting lithium fusion. That process essentially demarcates brown dwarfs from large gas giant planets, like Jupiter. Brown dwarf is a in a classification distinct from stars and planets.

All planet definitions include the “hydrostatic equilibrium” clause, and many stop there. That would mean our and every other round or nearly round moon in our solar system becomes a planet. Along with the largest asteroids, that makes the total planet count in our solar system over 100. While I abhor making emotional statements like “That’s just too many planets” to become a part of a scientific definition, I think it muddies the planetary waters.

Some planet definitions include the “not a satellite (or natural moon) of another object,” but that also lacks precision. What makes something a satellite of another object? That lack of precision leads me to propose this definition of natural satellite: when two non-stellar objects co-orbit each other, if the barycenter (the center of mass) is within the body of the more massive one, the smaller one is a moon. The barycenter of the Earth-moon system is only 2,900 miles from the center of Earth, barely half way to Earth’s surface. Our moon is truly a moon.

Charon, the largest object orbiting Pluto is so massive, the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon, while close to Pluto, is in space between the two, making Pluto and Charon a double planet. No other Moon in our solar system meets that criteria.

So I propose this definition of “planet:”

     A planet:
  1. Is in orbit around a star (an object capable of supporting on-going fusion of hydrogen or heavier elements) or originally formed around a one,
  2. Is not itself a star, regular or brown dwarf,
  3. Is not a satellite (moon) of another object (see definition of moon),
  4. Has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium.

This definition brings Pluto back as a planet and adds Charon, Eris and all the currently recognized Dwarf Planets, of which there four others, and a few other asteroids. That definition also lets us unequivocally define the planet status of those 4000+ know extra-solar planets. The extra clause “or originally formed around a one” also allows us to also include the many millions of Rogue Planets that don’t orbit a star because they were gravitationally torn from their parent by the gravity of a close encounter with another star.

In order to makes the classification simpler, I propose we divide planets into types. Terrestrial planets include Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, because they’re like Earth, mostly composed of rock and metals, and not frozen volatiles, although if too close to their star the rock/metal could be molten. Gas Giant planets, like Jupiter and Saturn are composed almost entirely of gasses. Although we usually group Uranus and Neptune in that category, they and extra-solar planets like them will be classed as Ice Giant planets, as their interiors include a large proportion of ices. Finally, those planets composed of mostly frozen volatiles, like Pluto and Ceres, will be classed as Ice Dwarf planets. Although in our solar system, the classification seems to follow the distance from the sun, that’s not necessarily true elsewhere. Our list of known extra-solar planets contains a large percentage of “hot Jupiters,” gas giant planets in close proximity to their parent star. It’s virtually impossible that they formed there, but due to their stellar system dynamics, they migrated inward towards their star. One of these categories should apply to all rogue planets, too, despite their orphan status.

Welcome back, Pluto.