Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

from the desk of Bob Siederer

Hello again Science fans!  We hope you are enjoying this very different Memorial Day weekend!

The changes brought to our daily lives by the coronavirus and the shelter-in-place orders give us lots of opportunities to learn new things, both about ourselves and about subjects we might not normally pay attention to.  I was reminded of this earlier this week.  I attended (virtually) NightSchool, a new online talk from the California Academy of Sciences that is sometimes taking the place of their weekly NightLife sessions.  NightLife is aimed at the 21 and over crowd and includes four hours of music, dancing, talks, planetarium shows, and a weekly theme.  It is a very popular place to see and be seen, to meet new friends, and learn things.

This NightSchool was a virtual tour of the universe.  Ryan Wyatt, Senior Director of the Morrison Planetarium at the museum used a version of the software that runs the spectacular planetarium dome to “fly” around the solar system, the Milky Way, and the Universe on our home computer screens.  Ryan gave a fairly basic introduction to what we were seeing.  While watching and listening I was also reading the real time comments coming in and was amazed at the lack of knowledge of many of the posters.  Then I came to a realization…I regularly attend astronomy lectures, including those at the Academy, and I know quite a bit (relatively speaking) about the subject.  For someone with only a passing knowledge of what is in the sky, these comments might not be so “out there”.  Further, I am sure there are topics some of these folks might know in depth that I might ask similar, basic questions of that would seem just as inane to them.  Live and learn.

One silver lining in the cloud that is the coronavirus is the opportunity to attend a presentation you might otherwise not be able to go to and learn about something you might not otherwise learn.  Further good news is that many of these presentations are preserved online.  Ryan’s presentation is available here.

Another presentation I “attended” was the monthly SETI Talk, this one on the question of our having the chemistry to find life on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.  That talk is also online here.

While we list events local to the San Francisco Bay area on our calendar and in the Schmooze, the current situation allows us better exposure to online talks being given elsewhere…all over the world!  This coming Tuesday, Odd Salon, which offers monthly meetings in San Francisco and New York City, goes online with a joint event with speakers from both coasts.

Alex Filippenko, a professor of Astronomy at UC Berkeley, gave a talk with the Commonwealth Club recently that is also worth watching.  Alex’s enthusiasm for Astronomy is contageous.  All Commonwealth Club talks have been free during the shelter times and are available to watch on their Youtube channel.

Alex also passed along some information to us to give to you.  I’ve written about comet SWAN before and it can now be seen through binoculars.  Here’s what Alex had to say about it:

“Comet SWAN can be seen through binoculars, and you might even detect part of its tail if you have very clear and dark skies. A comet is a dirty iceball that evaporates (technically, sublimates — the ice turns directly to gas, bypassing the liquid phase) as it approaches the Sun. The solar wind (charged particles) pushes the gases away from the comet and they glow, producing the tail. (A brighter tail is formed by dust that reflects sunlight, but unfortunately Comet Swan doesn’t contain much dust in its tail.)

“Being very close to the Sun and fuzzy, Comet SWAN is difficult to see, but you can give it a try if you want to! Starting May 24, scan with binoculars very low above the west-northwest horizon about 1-2 hours after sunset, when the sky is dark (but not too long after sunset, since the comet will also have set). The comet will be among the stars near the boundary between the constellations Perseus and Auriga; see the attached chart, made with the Stellarium program. It should appear as a faint, fuzzy patch. Photographs will better reveal its tail (you can find some online, together with additional information, by searching for Comet SWAN).

“The comet should be visible during the next 1.5 weeks, though it will fade with time. On June 1, it will be a little below the bright star Capella in Auriga.”

The planet Mercury will also be visible for the next few days.  Around 8:45 – 9:00 PDT, look low toward the west-northwest horizon.  The bright “star” you’ll see is Venus.  Mercury is 6 – 8 moon diameters up and to the left.  The thin crescent Moon will be above and to the left of Mercury, with the three objects forming an almost straight line.

Staying with astronomy, but moving far away and far back in time, the Wolfe galaxy, an ancient spiral, was formed much earlier than Astronomers thought possible.  Astronomers also captured an image of a planet’s birth.  Closer to home, a new type of object has been found in Jupiter’s orbit.

This week, if all goes well, US Astronauts will be launched into space from US soil for the first time in almost 20 years.  The current projected launch time is Thursday at 1:33 PM PDT.  This will be SpaceX’s first launch of humans into space.  And you can watch it live from home (sources in the article).

Scientists discover new things close to home too.  For instance, a new pygmy seahorse has been discovered far from any other related species.  I’m sure the seahorse has been there for quite a while, but we’ve just found it!

It seems that the coronavirus shutdowns are even having an effect on some dolphins who miss contact with humans.  So they are bring presents!

All of us here write about science denial from time to time.  You might think such thinking is recent, but you would be wrong, as this book review points out.  Looks like this would be a good book to read.

Lastly, I want to say something about science research.  I have touched on this before, saying how the coronavirus has caused lots of research to be publicized and visible far earlier in the process than usual.  Today’s San Jose Mercury News has a front page story discussing just that and the problems with several studies, some of which we have also mentioned.  Unfortunately, the science deniers seize these early results and use them as examples of why research can’t be trusted.  And here’s one reason you can’t rely on the numbers.

Have a great holiday week in Science!

Bob Siederer

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