The most remarkable things happen when you push the laws of physics to their extremes. Such a place where this happens is space:

Far away in the Gliese 436 star system is a Neptune-sized planet called Gliese 436 b. This world is covered in ice that burns constantly at 822.2˚ Fahrenheit (439˚ C).

The reason why the water doesn’t liquify and then turn into steam is due to the massive gravity of the planet - it exerts so much force on the water that the atoms are bound tightly together as a solid.


So earlier when I told you that when the planets align together overhead you wouldn’t have to worry about drifting away into space, you’d had to have taken my word for it. Well since it’s better to teach a person to fish than it is to give them a fish (or something like that) I’ll explain why no such thing could would or ever will fucking happen.

It’s called Newton’s law of universal gravitation and it’s actually really easy to manipulate. It goes like this:


Since “G” equals “6.67×10−11 N·(m/kg)2”, a constant (called the gravitational constant), you don’t really need to worry about that. So now look at it like this:


What does this mean and why is it easy to understand? Well, “m1” and “m2” are the masses of the two bodies with a gravitational attraction. The reason why it’s always two is that for every body with mass, they both exhibit a gravitational pull proportional to their mass, not just the larger one. Yes, that means the sun is being gravitationally pulled by everything else in the solar system. Why’s the sun at the center then? It’s mass is about 99% of the solar system, as you can see in picture number two.

That said, the masses wouldn’t be changing according to this April Fool’s prank, their alignment overhead would be. It sounds like the prankster is implying that the distances would be close enough that their gravitational pull would overcome Earth’s. Here’s why that’s false:

“r^2” is the distance from the two bodies that are gravitationally pulling on each other. Let’s say the force of gravity between you and the earth is “1”, if you double the “r” or distance between you and the center of the Earth the gravitational force between you would go from the inverse of “r=1^2” to “r=2^2”:

It would go from 1 to ¼. 25% of the gravitational force. What’s the point? When distance becomes bigger the gravitational force between two objects drops VERY fast. It’s an inverse square relationship.

For all the planets  to align at a distance enough to pull us into the air, we’d be watching Saturn’s rings cut into the Moon and even then the Earth would just become a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, we wouldn’t get pulled from the Earth. Even if that sort of “mass” effect were true of the April Fools prank then go back to the total mass of the solar system: 99% of it is the sun. By that logic we’d be melting into vapor on our way into big old Sol.

So there you go. Science.


Cepheid Variable Stars
One of the biggest breaks - and most important -in astronomy comes from something called a cepheid star.

These stars pulse and their brightness ebbs and flows. The speed in which they brighten and dim is proportional to how bright they get. A bright cepheid star pulses and varies very slowly. A star with less luminosity will pulse rapidly.

This trait is one of the single most important features we’ve ever discovered. Since we know that light dims a set amount for every unit of distance it travels, cepheid stars become the way to determine distance in the universe.

The entire field of cosmology is traced back to this finding.

By discovering how to measure the distance of objects in deep space, humanity’s learned one of the most astounding things, one of sciences greatest discoveries:

The universe is expanding, and the speed at which it’s expanding… is accelerating.

Thanks to cepheid stars, we’ve put our fingers on the pulse of the cosmos.

One of the downsides to sleeping at night is that there’s naturally going to be quite a lot you miss out on that the world doesn’t do during the day (or that you can’t see).

Some places are lucky enough to get plankton in the water that glow naturally in a fey blue. It’s so striking to me that nature is consistently the greatest artist around

Have you ever wondered how we do space travel?

There’s a special little trick that space agencies use that allows them to travel hundreds of millions of miles without needing any fuel at all… they use Newtonian mechanics.

An object in motion stays in motion. If you’re in orbit around Earth, to travel to Mars without carrying up tons and tons of fuel, all you need to do is wait until you’re at the right part of your orbit, put the pedal to the metal for a few minutes then turn it off.

What happens when you accelerate forward when you’re already in orbit? You change the shape of the orbit! Using this trick all we need to do to travel the solar system is simply orbit to our locations. This is called a Hohmann transfer orbit.

Using orbits to travel space has a downside. What you gain in efficiency of fuel and cost you lose in opportunity.

All the bodies of the solar system orbit around the Sun at different speeds and so this creates a situation where we need to wait for “launch windows” to open up, times where we can launch into a Hohmann transfer orbit and expect to arrive at a certain place of orbit the same time as our destination gets there.


If you had a “Gods-Eye View” of the cosmos, and you zoomed out and out and out… you’d notice that the universe - at such a small scale -looks like a complex series of filaments. Webs. Veins. Wires.

These are stars and galaxies. We know now that matter (stars and galaxies etc.) seem to all line up next to each other in such a way that when you zoom out far enough, they seem to just blend together and all clearly become a part of a larger structure.

These structures are called galactic filaments and we know they exist. Our best methods to map the universe have resulted in this knowledge.

But why???

Well. The answer, we think, is dark matter.

To explain I need an analogy. If you’re at the beach and there’s a wave coming towards you, just stand there and watch.

What happens? The water, more or less evenly washes over the sand then recedes.

Now with your finger draw a little line in the sand. Draw a webby shape like the top row of images. Now as the water washes over the sand, some is left behind caught in the line you drew.

It’s entirely possible that the universe’s filament “webby” shape is because this is the way dark matter is spread throughout the universe. The gravitational attraction of the dark matter draws regular matter into it, sticking to that part of space like the water got stuck in the lines, or like dust to a spider web.

There are SO MANY MYSTERIES still.

I want to end this post with another thought, another analogy.

Before you watch the water on the beach wash into the lines you draw in the sand do another thing.

Notice the place where two filaments of web connect. Take your finger and carve out a little hole deeper in the sand. As the wave washes over it you’ll notice the water swirling into the hole.

The place where two branches of filament connect, this is where one finds huge populations of star clusters and… whirlpool galaxies. Galaxies that spin and swirl around almost like water down a drain.

Each of these universes does have a hole it spins around - a black hole. Another great mystery.

The vast and enigmatic mystique of our cosmos totally encompasses even the sharpest and most trained minds we have. Slowly we reverse engineer the world around us and I’m so excited to find out what’s going on out there


First Image of a black hole?

The supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy is simply too damn far for our telescopes to get an image of; and that’s the closest black hole we know of.

To get an image of something its size at the distance it’s at we’d need a telescope around the size of Earth.

Ladies and gentlemen, we got one. Because of a technique called interferometry, radio telescopes can work together and pick up different parts of waves of light and then fit them together like puzzle pieces. Spring of 2015 many of the world’s radio telescopes will all move at once and snap a shot where we think the Milky Way’s black hole is. We’re going to take a picture of a black hole!

What’s dumb? :D

In 1954, Ann Hodges was struck by a meteorite in the hip. It didn’t kill her but it did leave a reeeeeediculous bruise as shown above. How bad does your luck have to be?

She’s the only person to have ever been hit by a meteorite. You’ve got a better chance of being eaten by a lion, pooped out and rolled up into a piece of art by a dung beetle.


Alien Post #6: Enceladus - Water World of Saturn?

On April 3rd NASA announced something incredible.

They found a body of water on the Saturnian moon Enceladus. Apparently they’ve deduced that it’s roughly the size of Lake Superior (aka Fucking Huge).

How could they have possibly figured this out? One of Saturn’s rings (the E Ring) is made of microscopic particles. The Cassini satellite orbiting Saturn is able to take samples of these particles and determine what they’re made of. What a surprise when they discovered frozen H2O and organic compounds.


Typically organic compounds mean life you know. Like. Always.

When you type “organic” into Google it gives you this dictionary definition: “of, relating to, or derived from living matter.”

When I look it up in my Apple Dictionary app I get: “1 organic matter: living, live, animate, biological, biotic.”

Obviously anything organic can’t originate in the vacuum of space. How did organic matter get into Saturn’s E Ring? The answer was unwittingly gotten years ago when Cassini photographed what many suspected were cryovolcanoes on Enceladus. Basically, massive geysers shooting something out into space. It’s pretty clear now that the geysers were shooting water particles into space that seem to carry some sort of organic compound from under the icy surface of Enceladus. The material carried in the geysers are what get caught in Saturn’s orbit, forming it’s E Ring.

In some of the better images of Enceladus (like the bottom picture I included in this post) you can see a region of the moon called the “Tiger Stripes”. They look like blue rivers running around the South Pole and that’s not far from the truth. They are freshly surfaced water seeping through cracks in the surface ice of Enceladus. It’s from here that the moon shoots it’s geysers into Saturn’s orbit.

Liquid water? Organic compounds? What the hell is under the surface of Enceladus?

This discovery has implications that we’re only beginning to consider, but clearly their potential runs the gamut of astrophysics, biology and science fiction. It’s highly likely that Enceladus is going to become a top priority now for future missions. I’d personally suspect an attempt to devise some sort of subsurface swimmer to explore the ocean inside this moon.

If it were up to me I’d give the robot a fishing rod…


Alien Post #13: Dyson Spheres

Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at U-Cal Berkeley, discovered 70 of the first 100 exoplanets ever found.

He worked with the robotic telescope Kepler as it harvested light from distant worlds and recently he put together a project for Kepler that has interesting implications.

The Kepler telescope watches as a stars brightness dims due to a planet moving in front of it as it orbits. This is how it finds planets. Marcy decided that assuming there are hyper-advanced alien civilizations out there somewhere, it’s possible we aren’t looking entirely at planets, but something far less natural:

Marcy was awarded $200,000 from the Templeton Foundation to search for things called “Dyson spheres”.

What are those you ask? Imagine a solar panel. Now imagine a huge array of solar panels. Now imagine a huge array of solar panels wrapped around a star. Now imagine how much energy that would generate.

These theoretical machines would be wrapped around entire stars and could produce the energy needed to support a super advanced, possibly interstellar, civilization.

Using his grant money, Marcy is going to lease time to use the Keck Observatory and develop methods to hunt for things like Dyson spheres that would indicate advanced extra terrestrial intelligence. This all while scouring through the Kepler data, looking for aberrations that would indicate we may not be looking at a planet after all.


Monday night and Tuesday morning is going to have a total lunar eclipse in like 99% of North America.

I need to thank moo-moo-117 for reminding me of this eclipse. I suggest everyone go out and check this fly event out. Once the eclipse hits it’s peak the Moon is going to turn into a deep red color, like it’s been suddenly drenched in blood.Why does the Moon turn red during a lunar eclipse? It’s because the only sunlight that reaches the Moon when it’s totally in the umbra of Earth’s shadow, is light that first is filtered through Earth’s atmosphere which is extremely good at taking all but the red part of the spectrum out.

Keep an eye out for your local eclipse times. I know in the Boston area it will be from 3 AM ish to 5 AM ish.


You Are A Dead Star

So when Carl Sagan said, “We are star stuff.” do you actually know what he meant?

In the beginning of the universe, there was only one atom: hydrogen. Stars formed out of hydrogen atoms when our universe was much younger.

To this day the only thing powerful enough to make larger atoms are stars ~ the early ones slammed hydrogen atoms so closely together that new, heavier types of atoms started to resonate from the furnace, atoms that wouldn’t normally bond like helium.

Dr. Michelle Thaller of NASA said it best when she said that, “We are dead stars looking back up at the sky.”

As a star starts to run out of its fuel - hydrogen, it starts to collapse under its own gravity. At a peak point of this process iron is formed, one of the first heavy elements. Right after that happens a star breaths its last titanic breath: it supernovas. This explosion marks the death of its star and during the explosion heat is created that is able to form even heavier elements like gold.

The next time you see blood take a moment to marvel ~ you’re literally looking at the fossil of a long extinct solar system. The creation of the iron that makes your blood red is the marking of the start of a supernova. It’s in this concept that biology, geology, and cosmology etc. all come full circle. We are all the same, we’re all living fossils and we’re all dead stars. This is what’s so beautiful about Carl Sagan’s words.

This is why science doesn’t make me feel small. You had one parent and it was a massive star. It burned and died somewhere in our part of the universe before even our own current Sun existed.

When you look at a person, you can read the life of the solar system in their very blood.

Did you know that in the constellation of Aquilla there’s a cloud of alcohol 1,000 times the diameter of our solar system called G34.3?

It has enough alcohol to supply 300,000 pints of beer every day to every single person on Earth for the next billion years.

That’s around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 pints of beer.


Some great news

We’ve just gotten word from NASA that they won’t be cancelling the seven missions that were up for review this year. Thank goodness.

Amongst the seven missions in danger were the Mars Curiosity Rover and the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan.

It’s looking like the Curiosity rover will get to continue blasting rocks apart with lasers and searching for signs of life and useful materials in preparation for human astronauts in twenty or so years.

The Cassini probe will get to continue zipping around Saturn and Titan doing science on the ringed planet.

( dcfcloverforever, you’re absofruitly right! Thanks, I changed it :D )


Advocating for women in science is something we’ve got to do. I don’t mean this in an, “Oh man well I guess I’m obligated to appease those crazy feminists” sort of way (partially because I’m a feminist but that aside) but one should advocate for women in science even if only on the basis that we need their help.

The human brain is by far the most advanced and intelligent machine that’s ever existed. Roughly half of them are being put down because of gender and many others due to nationality or ethnicity.

The second picture is a woman named Sara Seager. She’s one of my heroes and by far one of the greatest living astronomers. She’s at the forefront of the search for exosolar planets. If you remember my post about the Drake Equation you’d be interested in her work, she recently created a parallel equation:


where: N = the number of planets with detectable signs of life

N* = the number of stars observed

FQ = the fraction of stars that are quiet

FHZ = the fraction of stars with rocky planets in the habitable zone

Fo = the fraction of those planets that can be observed

FL = the fraction that have life

FS = the fraction on which life produces a detectable signature gas


Some scientists in Egypt have just discovered the largest carnivorous dinosaur’s remains. It’s a spinosaurus, which although we’ve known about for a long time, their fossils have been difficult to come by.

We had a collection of their fossils in Egypt before but they were destroyed by Allied bombings in the forties and ever since then we’ve been a bit lacking for them.

Apparently they were semi-aquatic and spent significant time in what’s known as the “river of giants” which is fitting because they were about 50 feet long.

This predator ate “giant sharks and other car-sized fish called coelacanths and lungfish”.

I love dinosaurs.