Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Taking a Leap with the SciSchmooze

Bob Siederer
Feb 26 2024

JWST NIRCam image of SN 1987A, the remnants of a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud

Hello again Science Fans!

This year is a leap year, when one day is added to the calendar to account for the difference between the tropical year and the common year. The tropical year is the time it takes Earth to make one complete orbit around the Sun, or 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds. It would be pretty difficult to have a calendar that matched that exactly, so we use the common year length of 365 days. That means we fall slightly behind the actual year by almost 1/4 day. So every 4 years (with exceptions) we add one day to the calendar, that being February 29, to get back in synch, more or less.

Back in the day, namely 46 BC, the Julian calendar was imposed, named after Julius Caesar. That calendar was 11 minutes and 14 seconds longer than the tropical year. The Julian calendar was in use, without adjustment or correction, until 1582. By that time, we were 12.7 days off. Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar by instituting leap day in any year evenly divisible by 4, unless it was also divisible by 100, except when it was divisible by 400 (that’s why 2000 was a leap year). What about those 12.7 days? In 1582, Thursday, October 4 was followed by Friday, Oct 15, thereby getting things back in synch, more or less, and the Gregorian calendar came into being. Those with birthdays on October 5 through 14 probably weren’t too happy about that. But the Gregorian calendar wasn’t accepted everywhere. It wasn’t until 1752 that England switched, and by then another one-day correction was needed.

There are other calendars too. In the Assyrian calendar it is 6766, the Hebrew calendar shows 5784, and in the Mayan calendar it would be Then we have the Stardate calendar where dates are calculated differently depending on which Star Trek series you are watching!

Thanks to today’s Mercury News for some of these calendar facts. Astronomer Andrew Fraknoi has some thoughts about this too.

Just to muddy the waters a bit more, we change our clocks forward one hour in two weeks as we switch to Daylight Savings Time. Much of the rest of the world that observes Daylight time will switch two weeks later.

Space Stuff

Odysseus, the first privately owned spacecraft to land on the moon successfully made it onto the surface, only to trip and fall over on its side. It is still in communication with Earth (I’ve fallen over and I can’t get up!), but most of the antennas are not pointing where they should. The approach to the moon was also drama-filled as the laser range finders were determined to be malfunctioning. Without those, Odysseus would not have been able to adjust speed for a soft landing. One of the experimental parts of the mission, NASA’s Navigation Doppler Lidar, was activated through a software update and was used to guide the lander safely to the surface. It had nothing to do with the fall, which was caused by one of the lander’s feet catching on a rock. In any event, this is the first time in 50 years that the US has landed on the Moon.

We’ve written several times about OSIRIS-REx, the probe that returned from the asteroid Bennu after sampling the surface. It collected much more of the asteroid than planned, and the sample container couldn’t be opened at first. Once NASA got the container open, it found 1.81 ounces of sample inside, which when added to the sample material outside the container, added up to a total of 4.29 ounces, far more than the mission objective.

OSIRIS-REx isn’t done. It is now on its way to another asteroid, Apophis, and has been renamed OSIRIS-APEX

For the first time, astronomers have detected dark matter. Using the Subaru Telescope on Maunakea in Hawaii, researchers indirectly observed dark matter in the Coma Cluster of the cosmic web. The story explains how, and why this is significant.

NASA’s New Horizons probe, launched to explore the outer reaches of our solar system, visited Pluto in 2015, and continued collecting data as it went away from the Sun. It has detected much more dust than expected, meaning either new dust is being produced, or solar winds are pushing dust further into space.

Back in 1987, we were able to see a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, some 168,000 light years away from Earth. While scientists have been able to observe the remains from this explosion ever since, they have not been able to determine what happened to the remnant core star…until now. Such supernovas result in either a neutron star, or a black hole. Using the James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers have now answered that question.

Those of you planning to travel to see the April 8th total solar eclipse may be treated to a bonus. Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, discovered in 1812, is due to make its closest approach to the sun less than 2 weeks after the eclipse. It should appear about 25 degrees away from the sun during totality. Of course, you won’t need to travel to the path of totality to see the comet.

Nature and Climate

Many, many animals migrate with the seasons, some going tremendous distances to breed and raise their young. This year, a record number of sandhill cranes arrived in Nebraska during the first week of their annual migration. Sandhill cranes stop for a few days in Nebraska where they rest and eat corn kernels left from the fall harvest before continuing north. The record number this early in the migration season appears to be caused by Nebraska’s relatively mild winter this year.

Meanwhile, the portion of the Atlantic Ocean where hurricanes tend to form is much warmer than usual, which, when combined with the effects of El Niño in the Pacific, may result in more extreme hurricanes this year. In fact, scientists are considering adding a sixth category to the scale used to classify hurricanes because of the stronger storms that have formed these past few years.

If every household in the US installed a heat pump, what would happen?

Lately I’ve been interested in linguistics, the development of languages. I’ve written before of my Ukrainian friend and her daughter. At the age of two, when her language skills were just starting to emerge, they moved to Germany from Ukraine, where she was emersed in German. She also started picking up some English from watching cartoons on TV. To her, I doubt there’s a recognition that these are different languages, but it is interesting to watch as her communication skills improve.

Within Germany, which is a relatively small country compared to the US, there are quite a few dialects with totally different words being used in various parts of the country to describe the same thing. Add in differences with Austrian German and Swiss German, and it is a wonder German speakers can understand each other at all! YouTuber “Feli from Germany” did a video about this recently that compares Swiss, Austrian, Bavarian, and Northern German that is eye opening.

What happens with a group of scientists from different parts of the world are isolated together for six months…in Antarctica? They develop a unique accent!! Recognition of this helps explain how American and British English have diverged the way they have.

A somber anniversary

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The cost has been huge, both in terms of property loss in Ukraine and human life on both sides. At first, it seemed unlikely that Ukraine stood a chance against the supposedly powerful Russian military. Yet they have persevered, made advances, and continue to frustrate Russia’s attempts to take over the country.

This is in large part due to the aid, both financial and military, provided by the US and our allies around the world who see the threat to Europe and democracy that Russia poses with this invasion. That US aid is in jeopardy right now as the hard right faction in the US Congress blocks a bill supported by most lawmakers as well as most of the public.

Professor Heather Cox Richardson provides some history and context on the current situation.

Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine).

Sunflowers are the national flower of Ukraine. Credit: Gillian Claus, via Facebook. We first published this picture two years ago.

Have a great week in Science!

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