Friday, December 20, 2013

Astronomical Predictions for the New year

Since the start of a new year often brings prophecies of the upcoming trip around the sun, here are some space-related predictions. These won’t necessarily come true in 2014, but I am confident all will occur eventually, most, I believe, in the lifetimes of the readers of this article.

Mars once had abundant liquid water on its surface. We have lots of intriguing, if inconclusive, evidence of liquid water still appearing seasonally in places on Mars where one might reasonably expect it to be. Photos of the same region, taken over time, show dark streaks running down the sides of cliffs and crater walls. It looks for all the world like liquid water running down slope. These have been explained as CO2, which is heavy and rolls down hills. Frozen subsurface dry ice sublimates to gaseous CO2 and carries darker material from just below the surface with it, creating the stains.

  Streaks seen in Newton Crater could be due to liquid water (Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

I predict that NASA or another space agency from Europe, India, China or wherever, will sometime soon send a probe to one of these locations and verify that is liquid, albeit very salty, water.

Mars isn’t the only non-terrestrial location with liquid water. Jupiter’s moon Europa has a surface layer of ice, perhaps 10 miles thick. Below that is a liquid ocean, 60 to 100 miles thick, if the spotty gravity/density data we have from Europa is correct. And just to bolster that nearly universally-accepted assumption, in mid-December of 2013, the Hubble Telescope captured what are almost certainly erupting geysers on Europa. Europa’s subsurface ocean is kept liquid by tidal stresses on the moon from Jupiter and Ganymede, the next Jovian moon beyond Europa, and the largest moon in our solar system. They constantly squeeze and pull on Europa’s crust, which generates tectonic activity that heats the ocean, keeping it liquid.

This is an artist's concept of a plume of water vapor thought to be ejected off the frigid, icy surface of the Jovian moon Europa, located about 500 million miles (800 million kilometers) from the sun.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

Not long after the Casini probe arrived at Saturn, it discovered mineral-laden water ice geysers blasting off the tiny moon Enceledus. It’s not clear if tidal stress comes into play here, as on Europa; it may be that subsurface the liquid water on Enceledus is transitory, and the geysers may stop any time.

Enceladus Ice Geysers. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

What makes all three cases for liquid water interesting and prediction-worthy, is this: On Earth, almost without exception, where there’s water, there’s life. Even in cracks in rock a few miles below the surface of Earth, microbes can live in tiny water pockets.

I predict that we will find non-terrestrial life elsewhere on our solar system, probably in one of these three places.

Actually, I should write that as “non-terrestrial.” The quotations marks are there because Martian, Europan or even Eceledun life may well be related to Earth life. Planets and moons in our solar system are somewhat promiscuous; they are constantly swapping spit, as asteroids slam into these bodies and knock hunks of them into space. Any hitchhiking microbes may actually survive this unintended space flight, to populate any other world with supportive conditions, meaning liquid water, it might later land on. Whichever of these four bodies – Earth, Mars, Europa, or Enceledus – first developed life very likely spread it like a cosmic cold to the other three. And if that is true, that all life in our solar system is related, any microbes from another location in our solar system could cause deadly epidemics on Earth.

Several state of the art telescopes are now under construction, seeking funding or in the design stages. Some, like the James Webb Space telescope, Hubble’s successor, will be in space. Some, like Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, Giant Magellan Telescope, Thirty Meter Telescope, and the European Extremely Large Telescope, will be ground based, but dwarf in size and resolving power anything that exists today.


 Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, Credit

The Thirty Meter Telescope from above, Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation.

Some, like the eLISA (Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) will search for gravity waves instead of light waves. Gravity waves represent the only direct source of information from the Big Bang itself. All forms of electromagnetic radiation were blocked during the first roughly 400,000 years after the Big Bang.

LISA Gravity Wave Te3lescope, Credit ESA.

Several neutrino telescopes now routinely survey space, and more sophisticated ones being designed promise to provide greater sensitivity and spatial resolution. Neutrinos represent the only direct evidence from the core of stars, where all the exciting stuff occurs.

I predict that over the next several decades, one or all of these telescopes will discover something that will turn astronomy and physics on their collective ears.

If I knew what that discovery was to be, I’d be writing my Noble Prize acceptance speech.

Several tens of thousands of objects baseball-sized and larger orbit Earth, the missions, but also the detritus of the dozens of space launches we humans do every year. The largest object currently in orbit, the international Space Station, dwarfs a football field in size.

Every one of them will eventually fall back to Earth.

Only one person, a woman in Tulsa, OK, is known to have been hit by returning space debris. She was jogging one morning when she felt a hard tap on her shoulder. She looked and found…something. It turned out to be a hunk of insulation from the second stage of a Russian rocket that launched a satellite a couple of weeks earlier. She was unnerved, but otherwise unhurt.

Stuff in orbit falls back to Earth all the time. Much of it burns up from friction with our atmosphere due to reentering at 17,000 miles per hour. But large, metallic hunks of satellites routinely survive this reentry and crash down. Two-thirds of our planet is water, so most of the stuff lands in the ocean. A significant fraction of the remaining land surface consists of rain forests, deserts and other uninhabited areas. So far, we humans have been lucky from this rain of space debris. That won’t always be the case.

I predict that some time in the near future, and major hunk of space debris will hit a populated area, causing destruction and injuring or killing humans on the ground.

My crystal ball reveals other space-related predictions, but the most significant of those involve timescales far beyond our individual lifetimes. And most are a lot scarier than any I listed above.

Friday, May 24, 2013

We are Makeing Life Miserable for Ourselves.

Anyone who says genetically modified foods are harmless is not paying attention to biology.

Just like their fingerprints, no two people have the exact set of genetic materials. Most of the variations and innocuous, like eye or skin color, hair texture, all these small differences that give each of us our unique looks and personality.

Some of these genetic differences create no apparent difference whatsoever between two people. But these differences CAN show up later when the environmental conditions change. One specific set of apparently irrelevant genes in a person may allow that person’s white blood cells to react more quickly when an unknown chemical somehow enters our food supply. Whereas those individuals who lack that gene get sick, those few individuals who possess that odd, rare gene live better.

We humans don’t change very rapidly. Malaria became a serious disease for the human race long ago. It took a while, but over thousands of years, some evolved immunity to it.
It took as much as 20 generations, hundreds of years, for humans to evolve light skin and blond hair. Those changes were driven by an ongoing need to absorb more UV radiation from the sun to make sufficient Vitamin D as we moved into higher latitude with reduced sunlight.

Eventually, only people with that useful genetic trait may exist in the world, or a large region of it, the others having been very slowly eliminated from or reduced in the gene pool. This is not meant to be cruel or racist; it’s why our world is populated with the tremendous variety of people we have today. Those of our ancestors whose bodies could better cope with, say, the Yersinia pestis bacteria or the H1N1 flu virus survived the Bubonic Plague in the mid-14th century and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.



                      Yersinia pestis bacteria                                                                H1N1 flu virus

People who had within their genetic makeup an extra resistance to either that bacterium or that virus survived. Those that didn’t, died, and ended their genetic line. Such genetic mutations occur slowly and randomly in humans, and are then passed to the offspring of those who possess it. We can’t do much to either speed it up or stop it from happening.

Bacteria generate random mutations in theior genetic makeup much more rapidly then we humans do. And bacteria, and for that matter viruses, have an extra “genetic” trick we humans lack: they can swap genes. And I don’t mean to mix their genes in their offspring, as we do every time we make a baby. A living bacterium can amble up to a complete stranger bacterium and exchange genes. Each one tends to offer up what seems to be most effective in the environment they currently live in.

So if, by mutation or ay other means, a single bacterium develops resistance to, say, an overused antibiotic drug, chemical, or a genetic change on a species they prey on, they can quickly pass that on to all their neighbors, who pass it on to their neighbors, and so on. In a relatively short period of time, virtually all the bacteria which haven’t already died from exposure to the antibiotic or chemical are immune to it. We have created superbugs.

All living things evolve over time in the sense that their exact genetic makeup changes. It seems that the more complex the creature, the slower this process is.

So what is the point of all of this? Simple. If we rapidly change our environment, because of widespread and heavy use of drugs, chemicals or even genetically altering our food sources, we will trigger a massive “biological war” with the bacteria, insects and weeds that already attack us or our crops, just as occurred naturally when bacteria exchanged genes and became resistant to penicillin. We are forcing pests to become superbugs, super weeds, etc. Genetically modifying our crops will, in the long run, make life miserable for us humans, just as antibiotics eventually created bacteria and viruses we can’t defeat.

Are you listening, Monsanto?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Forget About Global Warming and Concentrate on Carbon Dioxide.

Global warming is a contentious debate. There is more political debate then there is scientific debate: most scientists accept that human activity is, in fact, changing the climate. Among scientists, there is much greater scientific debate about just how much of an effect humans have than there is on whether or not humans are, in fact affecting the climate.

Put aside political, ideological and religious disagreements for a moment and consider this. The atmospheric level of carbon dioxide I(CO2) has been rising since the industrial revolution began more than 150 years ago. Tree rings, ice cores drilled from glaciers, fossil sea shells and other forms of evidence tell us what concentration of CO2 existed in the past compared to today. We have now reached 400 parts per million, a level that has not existed on Earth for nearly a million years (see for example

It is a simple, proven scientific fact that CO2, methane and other greenhouse gasses trap infrared radiation, or heat. It is a simple, provable scientific fact that CO2 levels in our atmosphere are increasing, and the rate at which it is increasing is accelerating exactly in lock step with our burning of fossil fuels. There is legitimate scientific debate about where that excess carbon in our atmosphere may eventually go if anywhere. Can the oceans absorb some of it? The answer seems to be “Yes,” but at the expense of acidifying the oceans waters and killing many species which can’t handle that excess acidification. Does it make plants grow faster? There is mixed evidence for this, but one thing is certain: one of the main sources of CO2 uptake is the planet’s rainforests, and we’re depleting them rapidly so we can raise more beef cattle, which, by the way, is one of the main sources of methane, and even more potent greenhouse gas.

My point is this: whether or not you believe that the temperature of the planet is actually warming, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is growing and at an accelerating rate. Doesn’t it at all worry you that we are pumping tons and tons of this stuff into our atmosphere every single day without the simplest thought about what it MIGHT do? Doesn’t it make sense that we try to NOT change the atmosphere of the only planet that we know of that can sustain life when we can’t yet predict all the consequences of that change?

Forget about what we may or may not be doing and concentrate on what we KNOW we are doing: increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere of our planet to a level not seen virtually since the dawn of humans.

That alone should be cause for concern.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kimmy Finds Her Key

A TV program about homeless kids made Kimmy sad. Her mother suggested that she should look for the key to her happiness. She sets out with her friend Emily to find her key.
Along the way, Kimmy and Emily admire the tree in Kimmy’s front yard. They begin to appreciate all the things trees provide, including shade and oxygen for us to breathe. The see a baby bird fall out of the tree, and put it back just as the mother bird arrives with lunch.
The pair pick up some trash laying on the street, Later they plant flowers in an empty spot in an empty field on their block where they often play with their friends. With each task, they realize the importance of treating our planet and all its inhabitants with love.
They run into a schoolmate, Ashley, walking to the library. Realizing how far away it is, they ask why she doesn’t ride her bike. Ashley explains that since she lives with her mother in a homeless shelter, she has no bike to ride.
Kimmy decides to help by donating her old bike,the one that she prefers to ride, to the shelter to help homeless kids.
Kimmy realizes that her Key to Happiness is helping other Earth and all the creatures who call her home.

Coming soon from 4RV Publishing.

Friday, February 22, 2013

My Next Big Thing: The Heart Happy Bubble

The “Next Big Thing’ is a blog hop for writers working on their next book. I have been following several writer friends as they post a description of their Next Big Thing. I was tagged by Brandi Barnett. See her Next Big Thing at
Here’s my Next Big Thing! Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts and questions.

1: What is the working title of your book?
The Heart Happy Bubble

2: Where did the idea come from for the book?
This story came from trying to help my then four-year-old who was having some issues in her pre-school class in that she was bringing home emotions and attitudes from other kids in school. I invented this story on the way to driving her in and decided it should be my next children’s book.

3: What genre does your book come under?
Picture book

4: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I think my book would be best made into a movie as animation.

5: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When Emily goes to school, she often takes on the emotional state of other students and comes home sad or grumpy, sometimes being mean to her little brother, so Emily’s mother tells her that she has to figure out some way to avoid these situations.  One night, in her sleep, Emily is visited by the Rainbow Fairy who informs Emily that she, the fairy, is really a part of Emily’s spirit and is there to show Emily how to gather some of her heart muscle (the strongest in the body), some of her love and happiness (positive emotions) and some thoughts (her best mental abilities) and roll it all together, letting the light of her spirit shine on it until it becomes a bright, clear, shiny bubble that goes over Emily– her own Heart Happy Bubble.  Emily’s Heart Happy Bubble not only protects her from taking on the emotional state of the other children, it reminds her to use her own calm state to help other kids overcome their own overpowering emotions.

OK, so it’s 3 sentences. Best I could do…

6: Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?
Shopping for an agent after 5 other books published through a small publisher

7: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Two weeks, but I have been tweaking it for a year. I’ll probably keep tweaking it until I sell it or get an agent.

8: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Everything I See is Part of Me, by Chara Curtis Without You by Sarah Weeks.

9: Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My five-year-old daughter, Azuranna

10: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s a spirituality-based with the theme that we are all connected via our higher selves to everyone and everything else. We can use those connections to help ourselves when we have problems. This is a self-help book for children who need tools to get along with others in life. It gives them a tool to use so that the negative emotions of other don’t drag them down to that same level.

For next week’s hop, I tagged Gayleen Rabbakukk, Patty Stith and Kristi Ayers. Read about their Next Big Things Friday, March 1.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Unique Astronomical Event

Last week, a hunk of space rock 50 feet across slammed into our planet in Russia. No one was hurt directly from the meteorite as it exploded about 12 miles up. But the shock wave shattered windows and falling glass sent more than 1000 folks to the hospital for treatment.

Is this unusual? NASA scientists say an impact of this magnitude is a once-a-century event. The last impact from an object in that size range occurred in 1908, also over Russia. One has to wonder what Russia has done to anger the universe.

The last time any object from space hit Earth was about a second ago. Whoops, there goes another. And another. Truth is, 50,000 pounds of stuff from space comes to Earth every year. At night, we see them as shooting stars. During daylight hours, we don’t see them at all, unless they happen to be big enough to glow brighter than the daylight sky. And they occur over land. Where there are people living. Since most of our planet is oceans, most such events occur over water. Most of the land of Earth is uninhabited, so most meteorites go completely unseen by humans.

That’s the normal state of affairs for a planet, nothing unusual abut it. In fact, our Moon formed when a rock so large we call it a planetoid slammed into Earth 4.5 billion years ago. The debris from that massive collision coalesced into our moon.

Yes, these things can be very dangerous. Just ask the next dinosaur you meet. But big ones, ones that generate significant damage, are quite rare. The little ones, the ones we can experience every clear night, are common.

Would you like to see an absolutely unique astronomical sight, one that no one has ever seen or ever will again? You can, and it’s not the least bit dangerous.

Wait until it gets dark tonight. Go outside and look at the night sky. Look carefully. Do you see it? It is unique in all of the history of the universe.

It is tonight's sky.

As the planets move in their annual dance around the sun, as our sun orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and as other stars move under the various gravitational influences that direct their motions, the sky is eternally changing. The sky has never looked exactly as it does tonight and will never do so again.

This is the true magic of astronomy. You never get reruns. Each night remains unique. So, enjoy this night sky, because it will be different tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Take a Look at the Night Sky

What would it take to get you to look at the night sky, seriously look? A naked-eye supernova? Last time that occurred was 1987 and it was only visible from the Southern Hemisphere, and then it wasn’t really all that bright. The supernova of 1054 that created the Crab Nebula in Taurus the Bull was visible in the daylight for 2 weeks and visible at night whenever it was up for more than 2 years.

How about a major comet? We have one of those coming. Well, maybe, and that’s the problem with major comets. The brightest are first-time visitors to the inner solar system, or at the least one of the very few times they have come in this close. Young comets –ones that have made few, if any, previous visit to the inner solar system – have lots of fresh ices covering them. As these approach the sun, the tremendous heat vaporizes the ices (technically, the ices are sublimated, but the differences are subtle) and solar wind and magnetic field blow the gas dust off of the comet, creating a long, bright tail easily visible from Earth. They become brightest if they pass quite close to the sun to feel more of its tremendous heat.

And there’s the rub. The brightest young comets are those that pass closest to the sun, and therefore generate huge tails to reflect sunlight to create a dazzling display from Earth. But many comets are rather fragile, like a loosely-packed snowball. Passing close enough to the sun to create a brilliant display may also shatter them. On coming around the sun, to the anticipation of sky watchers on Earth, they instead become a major cometary dud. This is not uncommon in the astronomical world.

What if you woke up tomorrow and learned that a 50-mile-wide asteroid was streaking straight towards Earth. Remembering that an asteroid a “mere” 6 miles across wiped out the dinosaurs, do you becomes a sky watcher or do you bury yourself and your family as far underground as you can?

That’s not really a useful scenario for the purposes of this blog. I want to know what will make you become a lover of the night sky, not fearful of it.

How about a diamond bigger then our entire planet? That you can see in the night sky, right now? Would THAT pique your interest?

Then head outside tonight. Look to the east to find Cancer, the Crab. The shoulders of Orion point eastward more or less to it. See the main star chart. After locating Cancer in the east, go to the detailed star chart centered on Cancer. Using this chart, locate 55 Cancri. You’ll likely need binoculars, and you may need to go to a darker location then your backyard.

February 1, 2013, 10:00 pm.
55 Cancri has 5 known planets. The smallest one, designated 55 Cancri e, is abut twice as large and 8time more massive than Earth. Earth’s crust is dominated by oxygen, comprising 46.6% of the elemental composition, mostly in the form of oxides of silicon, aluminum, magnesium and other metals. Carbon makes up a mere 0.03% of Earth’s crust.

But 55 Cancri was born in a different environment than was Earth. Its crust contains a very high proportion of carbon, the stuff of life, of carbon dioxide, of graphite – and of diamond. Scientists estimate that one-third of this planet, as much as three Earth masses, may be solid diamond.

Would a diamond planet get you outside to look at the sky?

Close-up of Cancer and finder for 55 Cancri