Science and Mr. Cranky-Pants

One day, not too long ago, I met a scrooge of a man, but instead of Christmas he seemed to have a hearty dislike of science and basic research. I don’t think it was based on being religous and creationist, just grumpy. I was sitting in a cafe reading on my iPad, he sitting nearby. He was just looking about and curiously asked me about my iPad, what did I do with it or was it simply a toy?

I said, no it wasn’t just a toy, I use my iPad like a computer and use it for many things related to my work. “Oh, and what do you do?” he asked. I told him, I am an astronomer researching the physics of stars. At that point, the cafe became dark and chilly and the man looked like he was about to jump up and proclaim “bah humbug.” Instead, he snickered and asked what’s the use of doing that?

What is the use of stellar physics? It is a form of basic science, understanding the building blocks of the universe, how life can exist about the Sun and other stars. It increases our collective knowledge, and helps us find our place in the universe. Indirectly, it helps spawn new technology and provides a venue for general science education.

My response illicitted nothing but another snicker, and the comment that he hoped his tax dollars didn’t help fund my research. It was my turn to ask why.

He said that tax money should be spent on doing useful research only, but that was only his opinion, as if to excuse his accusation that I am wasting my time and his money. But, understanding stars helps us understand x-rays, lasers and so on. We can observe x-rays from the Sun and other stars and by understanding how the x-rays are generated in better detail we can transfer that knowledge to medical physics, etc. Without basic research by Einstein, lasers might not have been invented and we might not have dvd players, precision laser cutting and welding nor laser pointers that we use to annoy cats, just to name a few.

I don’t know why I was surprised, but the man proceeded to explain that the Sun does not have x-rays, for which I had to convince him otherwise, and that his opinion was based on him being a skeptic and that he paid precious money in taxes. Money too precious to be wasted on such frivolousness. At this point he seemed more like Scrooge or maybe Gollum.

I wish I could have changed the man’s opinion, but I think his head was deeply buried in the sand or possibly somewhere else and no contrary opinion could pierce that thick skull. I would call him a luddite but that might insult luddites. Maybe, if I could summon three ghosts to visit in one night, maybe Yuri’s night, that might change his perspective. One could be the ghost of Isaac Newton, who could show him the basis of curiosity and the power of mathematics. The ghost of science present could Charles Townes, who co-invented the laser, who could show him how he benefits from basic science no matter how obscure. The ghost of science future could be someone with lots of technological gadgets, that are all broken and no one knows how to fix, suffers from hunger because global warming has decimated farming, is poorer because the ghost has no usable skills for which to earn a living and suffering from serious case of stupid caused by too much reality television and not enough reality. Apologies to Charles Dickens for my poor analogy and to Margaret Atwood if I copied some of her themes from her compelling Massey Lectures.

I was shocked by the man’s sentiment and ignorance. But, it seems to be a growing sentiment. Congressmen in the US questioning the role of the National Science Foundation, as if they should decide which research should be funded. The Canadian government changing the role of the National Research Council from funding science to pursuing only economical technologies, trading basic research for get rich quick technologies and hoping for another BlackBerry... but maybe not Nortel. There are too many attacks on basic science these days, sometimes in the name of economic hardships, sometimes in the time of the taxpayer but rarely in the name of common sense.

This is ironic. Basic science has powered much economic development since the second World War. In 1945, the report “Science: the Endless Frontier” led to the creation of the National Science Foundation to promote and fund basic and applied research. It was recognized that science would help drive economic growth and development. And this is true today. Is it coincidence that Silicon Valley and many other tech hubs are situated near prominent research universities? Basic research drives technology innovations, and it is not easy to predict which research will lead to winners. The time scale from basic research to markets can be decades, maybe more, and can build ideas from many disciplines. An election cycle is simply too short of a time.

It is a tough question how much funding science should get and what research projects should share in the funding but I lament how science appears to be perceived more and more as a waste. But, one can hope that this attitude is the exception and not the norm.


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How much gold is in the Sun?

The sun is a bright massive object in the sky, about 1000000 times more massive than the Earth, and there be gold in the sun. It is there just waiting to be mined, well not really. But there is gold.

The Sun like all other stars of its type is primarily composed of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the cosmos. After hydrogen, the second most abundant element is helium, which is not that surprising since the word helium is derived from the word Helios which means the Sun. The element was observed in the Sun before it was discovered in the Earth. Once we account for all the helium and hydrogen in the Sun, which makes up almost all of the mass of the Sun, then we find traces of most of all the remaining elements from the periodic table like carbon, oxygen, iron, copper and of course gold.

In the Sun, only an itsy-bitsy fraction of the Sun contains gold, in terms of the number of gold atoms, the Sun is has an abundance on the logarithm scale of -11.05 or 1 gold atom for every 100 billion atoms in the Sun. For comparison, there is about the same fractional amount of gold on the Earth, gold is not really more common or rarer on Earth as in the Sun.

But, how much gold is there in the Sun? The mass of the Sun is about 2 times 10^30 kg or 2 with 30 zeros after, so pretty heavy. Seventy-two percent of that mass is hydrogen, and about twenty-five percent is helium. Gold has mass 79 times that of hydrogen which means the mass fraction of gold is about 0.00000004%. This means that there is about 8 time 10^20 kg of gold in the Sun, that is 8 with twenty zeros after. That is a lot of gold, and gold is worth about $45 (Canadian) per gram or $45,000 per kilogram. There is about $3.6 times 10^24 worth of gold in the Sun, that is a trillion times a trillion dollars. That is a lot of money (give or take a zero or two), and doesn’t include that there are also rare earth elements, silver, platinum in the Sun too.

The Sun and stars in the Galaxy are mostly hydrogen and helium, but there is also gold, iron, copper, platinum, rare earth elements like those used for cell phones. These elements were not created in the Sun but were there when the Sun formed. The elements were deposited in that the solar cloud when stars more massive than the Sun exploded, creating these elements in the explosion and spreading them throughout the cosmos. These elements end up in the natal cloud that forms the Sun as well as the planets that form about the Sun and in the life that forms in the planets and the gold and precious minerals that ends up as jewelry, art, and technology use by that life, like us.

So now we just need to figure out how to mine the Sun. Of course, it might be more valuable not to mine the Sun and maybe use some of the solar radiation to generate electricity, just a thought.
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Planck and Cepheids: new problems?


Some of the biggest news in astronomy and cosmology is the recent announcements of results from the Planck mission that observed the cosmic microwave background. One of the key results is that the universe is actually a bit older than previously estimated, now 13.82 billion years old as opposed to 13.73 billion years old. What’s 100 million years difference matter in the grand scheme?

Well it is not the age that is the challenge but the expansion rate of the universe or what is called the Hubble Constant. The universe is known to be expanding, for instance when we look at far away galaxies we observe them to be moving away from us and galaxies twice as far are moving twice as fast. This rate tells us about the age of the universe and how much mass and energy is in the universe. The Planck mission found the rate to be 67.3 km/s/Mpc (1 Mpc (megaparsec) = 100000 parsec = 3,260,000 light years). This is interesting, the predecessor to Planck, the WMAP mission measured about 72 km/s/Mpc while other methods measured about 72 - 75 km/s/Mpc.

It is surprising that Planck is so much lower and raises a few questions about these other methods. The best other method employed so far requires measuring the velocity of far off galaxies using their spectra and searching for standard candles in those galaxies to measure distances. When an object is moving and emits light, light at various wavelengths will be shifted, an object moving away appears redder than it would if it were not moving. By measuring how much the light is shifted then we can measure the speed of a galaxy. This is analogous to how the sound of a train changes when it is traveling towards and away from an observer.

Measuring the distances to these galaxies requires finding standard candles. A standard candle is an object that, when observed, allows astronomers to measure the distance to that object. The most commonly employed standard candle is a Cepheid, a personal favourite of mine that I have studied since my PhD. A Cepheid is a variable star whose brightness oscillates for a few days up to 200 days, and that period of oscillation is a direct measure of how much light a Cepheid is emitting. By observing how bright a Cepheid appears and its period, hence its actual brightness, we can measure the distance to that star and the galaxy in which it lives. It is these objects that have been primarily used to measure the Hubble Constant and the best
measurements suggest a greater rate of expansion than the new Planck results.

What does this mean? Could Planck be in error? Or Is there something we are missing in understanding these favoured standard candle? Perhaps Planck is telling us that we need to better understand these stars and that we need to revisit them in greater detail. This is difficult challenge and I am stymied how the Cepheid measurements might be so off. It is important to figure this out because Cepheids will provide an independent check of the Planck results when the James Webb Space Telescope comes online and astronomers will be able to observe Cepheids at unprecedented distances with unprecedented accuracy.

The newly-released Planck results are a giant leap forward in the understanding of the beginning of the universe and the results have consequences throughout the field of astronomy, even to the seemingly unrelated field of stellar physics. But Planck might just be requiring us to rethink what we know about these stars. For every answer, more questions arise; this is why science is awesome.
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Constellations from other perspectives

The night sky is one of the few things that every pain and culture has in common. Every culture in the world has watched the stars at some point. Astronomy has helped cultures develop, the Vikings and Polynesians used stars to help navigate the oceans. Astronomy helped with the development of the calendar, for instance the mound in Newgrange in Ireland that was used to measure the day of the winter solstice through a small opening where light shines through. As cultures learned about the sky, perhaps they developed stories about the stars, their own constellations.

However, the constellations we learn about these days are Eurocentric. This is because, in the northern hemisphere, the constellations were described by early Greek and Persian astronomers and became part of the lexicon of modern astronomy; especially when the International Astronomical Union used these constellations as a basis to map the sky.

The modern view of the constellations, I.e. Scorpio, Orion, etc. all came from Greek astronomers but other cultures defined their own constellations based on their society's experiences. In particular, First Nation groups in both North and South America developed their own view of the cosmos and their own constellations. For instance, the Mi'kmaq nation of eastern Canada have their own constellations. Coincidentally, in the location of the Big Dipper, the Mi'kmaq define a bear constellation, I.e. where the constellation Ursa Major is found (Great Bear). Based on the movements of this constellation throughout the year, the Mi'kmaq created a myth about the bear to describe the changes of the seasons. I paraphrase the story here from the following sources ( Clark, E. Indian Legends of Canada, 1960 and Dempsey, F. 2008, JRASC, 102, 59).


The Great Bear and the Seven Hunters

In the spring of every year, the great bear (the four stars of the big dipper) wakes from her hibernation in her and den and she leaves in search of food. While the bear is searching, she is spotted by one of the hunters, chickadee. But chickadee is too small to hunt the bear on his own, so he summoned his fellow hunters for help. Chickadee and his six companions birds chase after the bear, with robin in the lead followed by chickadee, moose bird, pigeon, blue jay, and two owls. (The closest three are the handle of the Big Dipper)

The seven hunters chase the bear across the sky throughout the summer and into the autumn. But, by then the most distant hunters lose the trail of the bear and fall off the chase. First the two owls lose the trail and soon after blue jay and pigeon give up the chase. The remaining three keep trying and by mid-autumn catch up to the bear.

As the three hunters close in on the great bear, she stands on her hind legs to defend herself. Robin aims at shoots the bear with an arrow, but being so close he is covered in splattered blood. He flies into a nearby maple tree to shake the blood off of his feathers. The blood spills onto the trees making the leaves red.

Chickadee eventually catches up to robin and the two build a fire and begin to cook some the bear meat. When the meat is ready the moose bird joins the duo. But moose bird is clever, he knew the others managed to kill bear and it would take time to prepare the meat. If moose bird took his time then he could arrive when the meat is cooked and would not need to do any work. That is why a moose bird shows up at the end of any hunt. Even though moose bird did not help robin and chickadee still shared their food.

Throughout the winter the skeleton of the bear lies on its back, but the its spirit enters another bear waiting for spring when the bear rises again and the hunt begins anew.


This story hints at the richness of astronomical lore in these other societies. From the story, one can envision how by watching the constellation one could develop a calendar and time the passing seasons. It also hints at similarities with European astronomy in that both groups have a bear constellation, however it is unlikely that any First Nation culture from Canada or Northern US would define a constellation as a scorpion, they would not have experience with scorpions.

As astronomers we seek facts and knowledge about the universe, but we tend to forget (conveniently) that our knowledge is seeded in the Greek tradition and then the western tradition of facts and numbers. There is still much knowledge we can learn by exploring the sky lore of other cultures and by discussing these other traditions encourage other ways to engage with astronomy.

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The World won't end and neither will Betelguese


Betelgeuse is a constant companion in the night sky for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It is the brightest star in the constellation, but its fame or infamy is due to a common fear that it will explode and destroy the Earth in a couple of days. Short answer is it won’t happen. There is zero chance it will destroy the Earth and practically zero chance we will see Betelgeuse explode in our lifetimes much less in the next month or so.

I’ll ignore the nonsense about the Mayan calendar ending except to say that the calendar probably isn’t ending, just starting a new cycle, like when we start a new year in our calendar. What I am interested in is Betelgeuse the future exploding star. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star, meaning that it emits a lot more light than the Sun, about one hundred thousand times more. It is about ten to twenty times the mass of the Sun and Betelgeuse is near the end of its life. The Sun is main sequence star where it generates energy by fusing hydrogen atoms to helium in its center. Betelgeuse has fused all of the hydrogen in the center and has moved on, now fusing helium or maybe carbon. When stars evolve to this phase of life, time is running out; stars like Betelgeuse will live for a few hundred thousand years. This seems long but the Sun is more than four billion years old.

Betelgeuse will continue to age and fuse carbon, when it runs out of carbon it will fuse neon and then oxygen and so on until the core is made of iron. Iron is a poor element for nuclear reactions. When hydrogen atoms fuse together to make helium, energy is released, but for iron atoms to fuse together, energy has to be added to make them fuse. In that case the star becomes unstable and explodes. That is Betelgeuse’s fate and when it explodes we’ll see it. When Betelgeuse explodes it will emit roughly ten billion times more light than the Sun and will appear to use to be one hundred thousand times brighter than it appears now. Since Betelgeuse is about six hundred lightyears away then it will appear to be a bit dimmer than the full moon, at least for a week or so until the supernova begins to get darker and fade away. That’s pretty darn bright. We would be able to see the supernova during the day. But that is about it.

It has been speculated that Betelgeuse will blow up this year and that it could destroy the Earth. I don’t know how it could destroy the Earth, it is too far for a normal supernova to do any damage, if it were a special type of explosion called a gamma-ray burst, and if the pole of Betelgeuse were pointed directly at us then maybe. But, Betelgeuse is not pointing pole on to us, and it is not likely that Betelgeuse will be a gamma-ray burst. Most work suggests that Betelgeuse is less than 20 times more massive than the Sun and gamma-ray bursts are believed to occur in binary star systems or stars more massive. So no destruction there.

We can also be sure that Betelgeuse will not explode for a while. Recent research by a colleague of mine showed that Betelgeuse must be only recently a red supergiant. In his article (Mackey et al. 2012, ApJ, 751L, 10), he modelled observations of a double bow shock that is observed about Betelgeuse. A bow shock is formed by a wind from a star as it speeds through the interstellar gas and dust as the star itself is also moving, like a wake formed as a boat moves through water. It was shown that the double bow shock can form only if Betelgeuse is rapidly evolving from a hot blue supergiant and only just become a red supergiant. If Betelgeuse were a red supergiant for more than a ten to thirty-thousand years then we would see only the one bow shock. This means that Betelgeuse must have a little while to go before it can become a supernova.

So Betelgeuse will not destroy us nor explode in the next few months or years or centuries.
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