Posts Tagged ‘Astronomy’

Just to keep things in perspective

January 28, 2023

Hat tip to The Kids Should See This.

The James Webb Space Telescope

July 18, 2022

The successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope was a great morale booster for me.  It showed that my country, the USA, is still capable of great national achievements.

It is a million miles from the earth’s surface—four times as far away as the moon.  Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which was 300 miles above the earth, it couldn’t have been repaired if anything went wrong.

The telescope detects stars and galaxies more than a billion light-years away, which means it sees them as they were billions of years ago.

When our civilization is no more, the Webb telescope will still be in orbit, a symbol of the effort the human species was willing to make in order to understand the universe they live in.  

Project workers overcome great difficulties.  Just one is that the telescope components were refrigerated as close to absolute zero as possible because the telescope detects infra-red rays and anything that has the slightest degree of heat gives off infra-red rays.

The PBS video gives an excellent account of the project and the challenges it overcame.  This shows, too, that PBS is still capable of great journalism.

It does note that the project was behind schedule and over budget.  There was a plausible case for abandoning it, but in this case the correct decision was to persevere and got it done right.

PBS went out of its way to show the racially diverse nature of project workers, which is fine.  I’m inspired by examples of people from different backgrounds working together for the common good.

Also, this was not an exclusively American project.  The Webb telescope was launched with Ariane booster rockets, which were developed by the European Space Agency, from France’s launch site in French Guiana.

Whether or not you have time to watch the entire PBS video, I recommend you read Lambert Strether’s and Silas Laycock’s posts about the project.


The Incredibly Cool James Webb Space Telescope by “Lambert Strether” for naked capitalism.

James Webb Space Telescope: An astronomer explains the stunning, newly released first images by Silas Laycock for The Conversation.

The blind astronomer of Nova Scotia

June 11, 2016

Via and Great Big Story.

Weekend reading: Links & comments 10/23/2015

October 23, 2015

Iceland Just Jailed Dozens of Corrupt Bankers for 74 Years, the Opposite of What America Does by Jay Syrmopoulos of the Free Thought Project (via AlterNet)

Iceland sentences 26 bankers to a combined 74 years in prison by gjohnsit for Daily Kos (Hat tip to my expatriate friend Jack)

Icelandic courts have sentenced 26 bankers to prison terms for two to five years each—a total of 74 years—for financial fraud and manipulation leading up to the financial crash of 2008.

The important precedent here, and the great contrast with the United States, is that Iceland prosecuted individuals, not banks.  An organization structure cannot commit crimes, any more than a bank building can commit crimes.   It is the individuals within the structure who have criminal responsibility.

JADE: A Global Witness Investigation Into Myanmar’s Big “State Secret” (hat tip to Jack)

High-quality jade is the most valuable product of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.  But the government and people of the country get little benefit from it.  Instead the trade is controlled by military elites, corporate cronies and U.S.-sanctioned drug lords.

Nawal El Saadawi: ‘Do you feel you are liberated?  I feel I am not’ by Rachel Cooke for The Guardian (Hat tip to Jack)

An interview with the formidable 83-year-old Egyptian author, freethinker, feminist, medical doctor and campaigner against female genital mutilation.


It’s a big strange universe out there

August 20, 2015

Hat tip to

A look at the galaxy next door

April 27, 2015

The Andromeda galaxy, aka M-31, is the one closest to our Milky Way galaxy.  It has 100 million stars.  The Hubble telescope gave a better image of that galaxy than every before.  Each little dot in the video is a star equivalent to our sun.


Where are we in the universe?

February 15, 2015

As my friend Jack Belli once remarked, every new astronomical discovery and cosmological theory shows a universe that is bigger, stranger and more awesome than what had we had previously thought.

Source: This is the most detailed map yet of our place in the universe by Brad Plumer for Vox

The complete real estate of the Solar System

July 7, 2014

Randall Munroe shows the surface area of the planets and asteroids in the Solar System that are hard enough to walk on.   Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus don’t count because they don’t have solid surfaces.  If they did, their surfaces would be many times bigger than that whole map.

via xkcd.    Hat tip to

Our galactic home: the Solar System

August 31, 2013

Just to keep a sense of perspective.

Hat tip to

New worlds: we live in an age of discovery

August 3, 2012

Click to enlarge

Randall Munroe, who draws the xkcd cartoons, is great at presenting information in visual form.  Here is his presentation of the 786 newly-discovered worlds in the vicinity of our own solar system.  I wish I could live long enough to know whether it is possible for human beings to journey to these new worlds, and, if so, what they will find there.  Either there are living beings on these worlds, which would be a wondrous thing to learn about, or there are not, in which case it would be humanity’s mission to spread life through the universe.

Many intelligent people — Wendell Berry, James Howard Kunstler, Dimitri Orlov — think that our high-technology civilization is unsustainable, and that space exploration is a diversion from what we truly need to do, which is to learn homesteading skills and husband the earth’s remaining resources.  They have good arguments.  There are many things that could bring down our high technology civilization—radical global climate change, peaking of oil supplies, a dysfunctional global economy based on debt—even the threat of nuclear war has only been mitigated, not eliminated.  Once there is a collapse, it will be difficult to rebuild, because humanity will have used up our easy-to-get fossil fuels and our easy-to-process metal ores.

I persist in hoping that this will not come true, although the only real basis for my hope is that I’ve lived a long time and worried about global catastrophes the whole time, and none of the things I feared came about.  The population bomb has been defused, at least for a while; population growth is leveling off in many countries, and the world produces enough food to feed everyone, if it were properly distributed.  The atomic war between the USA and USSR didn’t happen.  Totalitarian governments did not triumph.  None of these dangers has completely gone away, but none of them is an immediate danger.

Human beings are biased toward optimism, experimental psychologists have found.  We believe, as the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides put it, in “the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.”  So maybe humanity is not living in a brief interval between barbarism and barbarism.  Maybe we’re on the threshold of a real human history, in which people look back on us as we look back on the Sumerians.  In some moods, I think this is an illusion arising from having read too much science fiction in my youth.  In other moods, I think my pessimism is an illusion arising from old age and knowledge of mortality.  This is still a great time to be alive.

Click on NASA’s PlanetQuest and the Paris Observatory’s Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia for more about newly-discovered worlds.

Click on xkcd for Randall Munroe’s cartoons.

The lunar year

July 16, 2011

More wonders of time-lapse photography.

Hat tip to Jason Kottke

Cassini’s flyby images of Saturn

March 23, 2011

These images of Saturn are not CGI  (computer-generated images), but were assembled from thousands of still photos taken from the Cassini spacecraft.

The fullest moon in 18 years

March 21, 2011

On Saturday night the full moon was bigger and brighter than it has been in 18 years, and I didn’t even notice.

Hat tip to Warren Allen Smith

‘Why I never bawl out a waitress’

July 6, 2010

Harry Golden, the journalist and amateur philosopher, wrote this in his 1958 book Only in America.

I have a rule against registering complaints in a restaurant; because I know that there are at least four billion suns in the Milky Way — which is only one galaxy. Many of these suns are thousands of times larger than our own, and vast millions of them have whole planetary systems, including literally billions of satellites, and all of this revolves at the rate of about a million miles an hour, like a huge oval pinwheel. Our own sun and its planets, which includes the earth, are on the edge of this wheel. This is only our own small corner of the universe, so why do not these billions of revolving and rotating suns collide? The answer is, the place is so unbelievably vast that if we reduced the suns and the planets in correct mathematical proportions with relation to the distances between them, each sun would be a speck of dust, two, three and four thousand miles away from its nearest neighbor. And, mind you, this is only the Milky Way — our own small corner — our own galaxy. How many galaxies are there? Billions of galaxies spaced out at about one million light-years apart (one light-year is about six trillion miles). Within the ring of our largest telescopes there are at least one hundred million separate galaxies such as our own Milky Way, and that is not all, by any means. The scientists have found that the further you go out in space with the telescopes the thicker the galaxies become, and there are billions of billions as yet uncovered to the scientist’s camera and the astrophysicist’s calculations.

When you think of all this, it’s silly to worry whether the waitress brought you string beans instead of limas.

For a contemporary slide show that illustrates what Harry Golden was talking about, click on English Astronomie by one A. Zartha.  English is evidently not Zartha’s primary language but his pictures speak for themselves.


Hubble telescope looks at “empty” space

May 8, 2010

In 1996 and again in 2004, scientists pointed the orbital Hubble telescope at seemingly blank parts of the sky.

Click on this to see what they found.

I feel awe and wonder at how the immensity and complexity of the universe exceeds my power to comprehend it.  The philosopher Bertrand Russell said that thinking about the stars and galaxies helped him see his frustrations with human affairs in perspective; this helps me see what he meant.

I thank my friend Bill Elwell for forwarding the link.