January 6 – Crack Of Doom

Today’s factismal: When the iceberg at the Larsen C Ice Shelf breaks off, it won’t directly raise sea levels.

By now, you have probably seen the news reports. There is an iceberg about the size of Delaware that is getting ready to break off of the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica.  Because the iceberg is already floating in the water, when it breaks off, it won’t raise the sea level. But it is still important because the same thing has already happened at Larsen B in 2002 and Larsen A in 1995 which tells us what will happen next – nothing good.

Glacier dynamics made simple

Glacier dynamics made simple

Ice shelves like Larsen C form when glaciers reach the sea and spread out. And glaciers form when snow piles up in the mountains and compresses into ice under its own weight. This compression creates ice so pure that it turns blue! The ice then slowly creeps downhill, like fudge sliding down the side of a scoop of ice cream. The ice actually moves in several layers, like sheets of paper sliding over each other; if you look at the top of a glacier, you can often see these layers in the lines of rocks that have fallen onto the ice. Once a glacier meets a deep enough body of water, it starts to float. The stress at the end of the glacier causes pieces to break off; this is called “calving” and the pieces are called “icebergs”. These bergs can range in size from smaller than a doghouse to larger than the state of Rhode Island! And when the bergs break off, another part of the glacier flows downhill to replace it, raising sea level just a little.

Larsen B breaks up after the loss of a large ice berg

Larsen B breaks up after the loss of a large ice berg
(Image courtesy NASA)

Right now, the Larsen C ice shelf is holding back the glaciers that are uphill. But when it breaks apart like Larsen B and Larsen A did, it will uncork enough ice to raise the sea level around the world by nearly a foot! If that doesn’t sound so bad, remember that the total sea level rise since 1870 was just seven inches. Of course, this won’t happen overnight; instead, it will take perhaps as much as twenty years. But while the sea level rise will be slow, it will also be unstoppable. Places such as New Orleans, New York City, and the Netherlands will all be challenged by rising sea levels.

Ice on the west side of Antarctica, where it is being lost in record amounts (My camera)

Ice on the west side of Antarctica, where it is being lost in record amounts
(My camera)

Today climatologists are working to puzzle out the climate changes that are caused by people (anthropogenic climate change) from those caused by other things (changes in the amount of sunlight, changes in the cloud cover, etc.). If you would like to help in this effort, then why not join Old Weather? You’ll read logs from sailing captains and help identify weather.

October 10 – Mad, Mad Moon

Today’s factismal: 3753 Cruithne was discovered in 1986 orbiting near the Earth.

Back in 1986, the search for Near Earth Asteroids was just getting started. And one of the first objects that they found was an oddball that they named 3753 Cruithne (pronounced “CREW-eee-nuh”; it is the name of a Pictish king).Why is it so odd? Well, for one thing, it is in a 1:1 resonance with the Earth; what that means it that it takes the same amount of time to go around the Sun that the Earth does. But because it has a highly elliptical orbit, sometimes it is far away from the Earth and sometimes it is very near. (Well, not that near; at its closest, 3753 Cruithne is thirty times farther away than the Moon.)

A plot of the orbits for 1,400 of the Near Earth Asteroids; 37 Cruithne is in there somewhere (Image courtesy NASA)

A plot of the orbits for 1,400 of the Near Earth Asteroids; 3753 Cruithne is in there somewhere
(Image courtesy NASA)

Because 3753 Cruithne has a regular relationship to the Earth, some folks refer to it as a “second moon” even though it isn’t. The confusion happened because astronomers love to think about what things look like, especially orbits. And when you look at 3753 Cruithne’s orbit, something amusing (to the astronomers) orbits. If you flew above the Sun and watched 3753 Cruithne orbit, you would see it moving out toward Mars and back in toward Venus, crossing Earth’s orbit twice on each trip. And, thanks to the odd shape of 3753 Cruithne’s orbit, it actually takes about a year to complete each go-round. It would look something like this:

3753 Cruithne's orbit as seen from above the Sun (Image courtesy Jecowa)

3753 Cruithne’s orbit as seen from above the Sun
(Image courtesy Jecowa)

But if you stand on Earth and watch 3753 Cruithne orbit, it looks much different. Because Earth passes 3753 Cruithne in its orbit, it appears that the asteroid is making a “horseshoe” in space. So the astronomers giggled for a while about some asteroids being close enough for horseshoes and left it there. Which is where the internet found it. Unfortunately, most of the people on the internet aren’t astronomers. (You are shocked, I know.) As a result, they don’t know that the horseshoe “orbit” of 3753 Cruithne only happens when you look at the asteroid from the moving Earth; that it is a geocentric view. Since we know that the heliocentric view is much closer to reality, using a geocentric one to claim that an asteroid is the Earth’s second moon makes about as much sense as claiming that the Sun orbits the Earth. And 3753 Cruithne is hardly the only asteroid to look like it is orbiting Earth when it isn’t; in 2014, 2014 OL339 was shown to also have a horseshoe orbit.

When viewed from Earth, it appears that 3753 Cruithne orbits us (as does everything else) (Image courtesy Jacowa)

When viewed from Earth, it appears that 3753 Cruithne (and everything else) orbits us
(Image courtesy Jecowa)

But that isn’t to say that the Earth doesn’t have a second moon every once in a while. (This is where life gets even more interesting than the internet thinks it is.) Due to the odd orbital interactions of all of the various bits of junk out there, every so often a small asteroid will get trapped in orbit around the Earth for a few days or a few weeks or a few years. When this happens, Earth truly does have a “second moon”; because these asteroids aren’t trapped by Earth’s gravity and are just “passing through”, they are referred to as coorbiting asteroids. In 1999, asteroid 2003 YN107 began a coorbit of Earth that lasted for seven years. And some experts estimate that we have a small, temporary “second moon” almost all the time!

The path of Earth's true

The path of Earth’s true “second moon”
(Image courtesy NASA)

So why aren’t we sure about how often the Earth has a “second moon” (even if it never is 3753 Cruithne)? Simply because asteroids are small and space is vast. As anyone who has ever tried to find a remote control in a room has discovered, it can take a long time to locate something if it is very small compared to the room that you are looking in. But having more people looking can help. And that’s where you can join in on the fun! The Asteroid Survey is looking for folks who are looking to be looking for asteroids! (Here’s looking at you, KD!) You’ll sort through photos, identifying objects as stars, asteroids, or “junk”. And you’ll be helping to identify the millions of bits of junk that fly through our Solar System and give us our second moons. To join in on the fun, orbit over to:

September 22 – Falling All Over The Place

Today’s factismal: Today is the first day of Fall, the twenty-second day of fall, and the fifty-third day of fall.

Well, Summer is over at last. Then again, according to some folks Summer has been done for quite some time. How can that be? It all has to do with people and our need to categorize things. The problem is that different groups of people can look at the same thing and break it apart in different ways. For example, today marks the first day of Fall for the astronomers. (Unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case, it is the first day of Spring.) For a meteorologist, today is the twenty-second day of Fall. And for folks who studied the classics, it is the middle of Fall!

It all started back in the days of the early Roman kings (about 2,700 years ago) when the calendar ran from late spring to early winter and then went silent for a couple of months. The Romans held various fertility and harvest festivals to celebrate the seasons, but the actual date when those were held slipped around a bit thanks to those missing two months. It wasn’t until Julius Caesar fixed the calendar that we started seeing folks who could say with any authority (a legion of armed men is authority, right?) that Summer was officially over and Fall had begun.

Visitors to the National Cherry Blossom Festival (My camera)

We no longer use the blooming of trees to determine the seasons – or do we? (My camera)

The interesting thing is that, while the various Roman provinces didn’t like the Romans very much (after all, what had Rome done for them other than the aqueducts, sanitation, roads, education, and the wine?), they loved the calendar because it made it easier for them to observe their religious rites and mark their seasons. And one of the most influential (at least in Europe) set of seasons was the one that modern pagans call “the Wheel of the Year”, which divided the year into four seasons (Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall) and arranged them so that the middle of each season happened on an astronomically significant date. The middle of Winter would show up on December 20 (the Winter Solstice), the middle of Spring would occur on March 20 (the Vernal Equinox), the middle of Summer would be on June 20 (the Summer Solstice), and the middle of Fall would roll in on September 21 (the Autumnal Equinox). This method of timing the seasons lasted for more than 1,900 years; you can see its influence in things such as Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” which takes place on the Summer solstice. And while the dates have slipped a bit due to the Earth’s wobble in its orbit, the basic idea remains and is celebrated in many countries.

But as we moved into the 20th century, we decided that those dates didn’t work well for us (mainly because there is nothing special to mark February first as the start of Spring). So we came up with a new system. Actually, we came up with two new systems. Around 1950, the meteorologists decided that the seasons would start on the first day of a specific month, so that each season was roughly the same length of time. Spring ran March, April, and May, Summer took up June, July, and August, Fall was September, October, and November, and Winter was December, January, and February. (These seasons are generally referred to as “meteorological spring” etc.)

M42 (Orion Nebula) Over Virginia (My camera)

The stars don’t set our calendar either – or do they? (My camera)

At about the same time, the astronomers decided that they weren’t going to let no stinking pagans decide when the seasons started based on obsolete astrological superstitions; instead, they’d start the seasons based on the stars. So the astronomers decreed that Spring would begin on the Vernal Equinox, Summer would come in on the Summer Solstice, Fall would commence on the Autumnal Equinox, and Winter would hold sway beginning on the Winter Solstice. That this effectively shifted the seasons by half a wavelength was irrelevant; it just made more sense to the astronomers.(These seasons are generally referred to as “astronomical spring” etc.)

The three seasonal calendars in use today

The three seasonal calendars in use today

So, as a result, we now have three different dates to start each season. Of course, Mama Nature is famous for not reading calendars (as anyone who has been caught in a May snowstorm can attest); she starts her seasons when she wants and marks it by changes in the plants and animals. And it turns out that there are a lot of scientists who are more interested in reading her calendar than man’s. If you would like to help them do so by recording when the leaves change color or the butterflies leave or the buds blossom in your area, then why not write a few pages in Nature’s Notebook?

September 21 – The Heat Is On

Today’s factismal: This summer was the warmest since we started keeping records in 1880. The previous record-holder was last summer.

If you think that it was just too darn hot outside this summer, you aren’t alone. Meteorologically speaking, this summer (June, July, and August) was the warmest that we’ve ever recorded. Even more interesting is that the previous record holder was last summer. And even more interesting than that is that we’ve had fifteen months in a row of record warm temperatures, globally speaking. And even more interesting than that is the last time we had a global average temperature that was below average was back in December of 1984 – 32 years ago! And the last time we had a year that was cooler than average was in 1976 – 40 years ago!

The average global temperature has risen quite a bit in the past 136 years (Data courtesy NDC)

The average global temperature has risen quite a bit in the past 136 years; the blue line is the 20th century average global temperature
(Data courtesy NDC)

So why are we getting warmer? It is no secret; as a matter of fact, this very thing was predicted back in 1896 based on a discovery made in 1859. It is the CO2 that we are adding to the atmosphere. CO2 happens to block some of the “heat radiation” given off by the Earth. This is reabsorbed by the atmosphere, raising its temperature slightly. (Think of it as being like the interest given to you by a bank. You give them a dollar and every year they give you four cents more as interest. Over time, that interest builds up and so does your bank account.) Of course, lots of other factors come into play when you are talking about a planet , so the temperature change isn’t instantaneous and it has some wiggles in it. But overall, the pattern is clear: increasing CO2 increases temperature and changes climate.

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average. (Image courtesy NOAA)

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average.
(Image courtesy NOAA)

As a citizen scientist, there are two sets of things you can do. The first is to reduce the amount of energy you use; a nice benefit of this is that you also save money. For example, making sure that your tires are properly inflated will save you the equivalent of $0.10 per gallon and save the US the equivalent of 1.2 billion gallons of oil. Adding a layer of insulation to your water heater (like that blanket on your bed) will save you about $30 per year and save the US another 500 million gallons of oil. There are plenty of other way you can save money while saving the planet. But if you still want to do more, why not help record the changes that global warming is bringing to your neighborhood? Join the Citizen Weather Observer Program and help them monitor how temperatures, weather, and other things are changing. To learn more, head to:


September 6 – OMG! GMO!

Today’s factismal: We’ve been using genetically-modified organisms to save lives for 38 years.

If you keep up with the news, you are aware that there is a lot of arguing going on over the use of genetically-modified organisms, also known as GMOs to the acronym-lovers out there. On the one hand, there are those who (rightly) point out that we don’t know everything about how DNA works and that inserting genes isn’t as exact a science as we would like. (Though it is getting much, much better.) On the other hand, there are those who (rightly) point out that we’ve been genetically modifying organisms for 12,000 years yet and have yet to create a Killer Tomato; instead, GMOs have simply saved thousands upon thousands of lives – and given us cuter pets.

These Norwegian rats are GMOs; they have been selectively bred to have unique coloring and a friendly temperament (Image courtesy CDC)

These Norwegian rats are GMOs; they have been selectively bred to have unique coloring and a friendly temperament
(Image courtesy CDC)

Genetic modification techniques have advanced a lot since the days in Sumer when we’d breed wheat to be bigger, tastier, and better in beer, though it took a long time to get there. Back in 12,000 BCE, it would take decades of painstaking work to change an organism via selective breeding. It wasn’t until the DNA molecule was identified as the thing that made chromosomes work back in 1953 that genetic modification slipped into overdrive and designer genes became something more than a science fiction fantasy.  Just twenty years after Franklin, Watson, and Crick identified the structure of DNA, scientists were creating new organisms that had DNA from two (or more) critters.

DNA makes up the chromosomes which tell our cells how to be us (Image courtesy  U.S. National Library of Medicine)

DNA makes up the chromosomes which tell our cells how to be us
(Image courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine)

But they weren’t doing this for fun. They were doing it to save lives and to learn more about DNA so that they could save even more lives. For example, one of the first GMOs was a bacterium that had a gene to make antibiotics inserted into it; the idea was to test new ways of creating life-saving drugs. And the first commercially successful GMO was a type of e. coli (one of the bacteria that lives in your gut) that had been modified to make human insulin.

E. coli may not look like much, but this GMO is a life-saver! (Image courtesy NIH)

E. coli may not look like much, but this GMO is a life-saver!
(Image courtesy NIH)

That was important because at the time diabetics had three choices. They could try to keep themselves alive by eating a diet of less than 1,000 calories a day. They could take insulin derived from sheep or cows and risk a life-threatening reaction with every shot (the first patient to have an insulin shot nearly died due to his reaction). Or they could just die. But the GMO e. coli changed all that when it was patented back on September 6, 1978. Because the GMO produced human insulin and not insulin from a cow or sheep, there was no risk of an allergic reaction. And because e. coli was inexpensive compared to sheep and cattle, the new source of insulin was much, much less expensive. Suddenly, everyone could afford the new medication and diabetes changed from a risky disease to a manageable condition.

If you’d like to learn more about genetic modification and maybe even try a little virtual modification on your won, why not flip over to Phylo? This citizen science project asks you to help sort out DNA so that we can better understand diseases like cancer and diabetes – and maybe even create a GMO that will help cure them!


August 23 – Far Sighted

Today’s factismal: Galileo demonstrated the telescope to the public for the first time 407 years ago today.

It isn’t often that someone invents one device that literally changes the way we see the Universe; what is exceptional about Galileo is that he invented two devices that did it. In 1625, he invented a occhiolino (“little eye”) that allowed him to explore the world of the miniscule; at a dinner in his honor, one of his students gave the device the name that we now know it by: the microscope (“seer of little things”). But that wasn’t his first foray into optics, nor his most famous. For that invention, we need to step back to August 23, 1609, when Galileo revealed his telescope (“seer of distant things”).

Galileo's telescope revolutionized our view of the Universe - literally!

Galileo’s telescope revolutionized our view of the Universe – literally!

Though there were field glasses before Galileo, they had limited magnification and blurry images. Worse, the poor quality glass caused rainbow rings to show around everything. Galileo got around these problems by using several lenses in series to adjust the image bit by bit. This method is still used today in binoculars and other optical devices.

Jupiter and three of its moons, as seen through a modern camera (mine)

Jupiter and three of its moons, as seen through a modern camera (mine)

Once Galileo had invented his telescope, he turned it onto the sky and saw nothing but trouble. One of the first things he saw was Jupiter and four bright points of light that circled around it. By the end of the week, he had proven that these small starry messengers revolved around Jupiter. Being a savvy sort, he published his findings in Sidereus Nuncius, a short treatise that was dedicated to Cosimo II de’ Medici and called the four moons of Jupiter “Medicean stars”. We now know them as Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and Io and call them the Galilean satellites.

Before Galileo, nobody knew that the Moon had craters (image from my camera)

Before Galileo, nobody knew that the Moon had craters (image from my camera)

His invention literally changed the way we see the universe, but his discovery did so figuratively. Under Aristotle’s view of the cosmos, the Earth was the center and everything revolved around it. Things in the heavens were perfect and pure, and were in heaven because they were pure and perfect. Because the ideology fit so well with the dogma of the Catholic Church, it was adopted as Church Law – to challenge it was to challenge the very essence of belief. Though some troubling differences had arisen between the pure circles demanded by Aristotle and the observed paths of the planets, these were smoothed over by Ptolemy’s “epicycles” of circles on circles. Questioning these ideas was dangerous at best and heresy at worst.

The Solar System as Copernicus saw it (and Galileo proved)

The Solar System as Copernicus saw it (and Galileo proved)

Galileo did worse than question them: he made it possible for anyone to see that he was right and the Church was wrong. By simply looking through the telescope, people could see everything that he discovered. They could see the moons of another planet. They could see the “jug-ears” of Saturn. They could see the phases of Venus. They could see the spots on the face of the Sun and the scars on the face of the Moon.

Galileo's sketch of Saturn

Galileo’s sketch of Saturn

Galileo was first rewarded for his discoveries and then punished for his hubris. He became a superstar in Pisa, and other city-states wooed him, trying to get him to move and to bring his beautiful ideas with him. But his ego led him to clash with others, making enemies out of supporters. Eventually, he was brought before the Inquisition for heresy and threatened with torture. He renounced his views and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. It would be 206 years before the Roman Catholic Church would take his works off of the banned list and 376 years before the Vatican would formally clear him of any wrongdoing.

Galileo's drawing of sunspots (Image courtesy The Galileo Project)

Galileo’s drawing of sunspots
(Image courtesy The Galileo Project)

In opening the heavens to us, Galileo laid the foundations of modern science. He showed that clear logic alone (Aristotle’s approach) is not enough. Logic must be backed with evidence and hypotheses must be checked against observations. If you would like to honor Galileo, there is no better way than in joining one of the citizen science groups that is classifying and naming features on the Moon!

August 1 – A Real Shot In The Arm

Today’s factismal: August is National Immunization Awareness Month.

The smallpox virus (Image courtesy CDC)

The smallpox virus, former public enemy number one
(Image courtesy CDC)

If you want to be thankful for modern medicine, all you have to do is look at what used to kill us. In 1900, influenza was the leading cause of death in the USA (153,000 deaths or 202/100,000); today, it is the ninth most common (50,097 or 16/100,000). In 1964-1965, there were 20,000 babies born with congenital rubella syndrome in the USA; in the past ten years, there were none, thanks to vaccines. In 1916 in the US alone, there were more than 27,000 new cases of polio that paralyzed thousands and killed 6,000 people; in 2012 for the entire world, there were just 223 new cases of polio and no deaths or paralyzations. And then there is the best example for why we vaccinate – smallpox. In 1967, 2,000,000 people were killed each year by smallpox and countless others were left scarred or blind; today, nobody dies of smallpox thanks to an effective vaccination campaign.

Vaccines contain trivial amounts of antiseptics (Data courtesy CDC)

Vaccines contain trivial amounts of antiseptics
(Data courtesy CDC)

Unfortunately, a lot of people have forgotten how dangerous things used to be and are no longer vaccinating their children. They are worried by vaccine ingredients such as aluminum potassium sulfate (the stuff that makes pickles taste sour), agar (the stuff that makes toothpaste a paste), formaldehyde (made by your body as part of the energy cycle), and dihydrogen monoxide (water). Even though the ingredients are tested and known to be safe, scaremongering news stories have led many to stop vaccinating. And that’s a bad thing.

A simplified view of herd immunity

A simplified view of herd immunity

It is bad because vaccines do more than protect the people who take them; they also protect the people who can’t. People such as newborn infants (like the ones who were infected with measles by a missionary returning from overseas), people with compromised immune systems (such as children with cancer), and people for whom the vaccine never took (estimated to be about 5% of the population). By getting vaccinated, we create a “ring of immunity” that keeps the disease from spreading as quickly as it otherwise would (the Disneyland outbreak is a good example of herd immunity at work). And, of course, if enough people use the vaccine, then the disease is eradicated which means that we can stop using the vaccine!

A comparison of the deaths caused by measles and those caused by vaccines; the vaccine deaths were exaggerated for clarity. Each face represents 1,000 deaths.

A comparison of the deaths caused by measles and those caused by vaccines; the vaccine deaths were exaggerated for clarity. Each face represents 1,000 deaths.

Now it is true that vaccines are not perfectly safe. An estimated 10,000 people have died from vaccines. But it is also true that getting vaccinated is much, much, much safer than not doing so. Let’s take the flu for example. The flu vaccine reduces the chances of getting the flu by nearly 70% (that is, if 1,000,000 people who took the vaccine would have gotten the flu then only 300,000 actually do); experts estimate that the flu vaccine has saved at least 40,000 people’s lives. Similarly, the polio vaccine prevents two million cases each year which would kill nearly 500,000 people and leave another 750,000 paralyzed.

So what can you do for National Immunization Awareness Month? First, take care of yourself and your family by making sure that everyone’s vaccinations are up to date. Then take care of others by working with Global Vaccines. They are using their profits from vaccines in countries like the USA to pay for vaccinations in poor countries:

If you’d like to help drive a disease into extinction, then join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:

And remember that flu season is just around the corner. Flu vaccines are safe, effective, and free under most health plans!