The World’s First Computer

This extremely complex device was made 3000 years ago!

In 1901, some sponge divers came across the wreckage of an ancient Greek vessel. From that vessel they pulled a very unusual looking lump of metal dating back from the 1st Century BC. This lump of metal has been fascinating scientists ever since, to the point that there’s even a research team at University College London that is dedicated strictly to determining its inner workings. (Incidentally, you can see the actual metal remains at the National Archeological Museum in Athens.)

It turned out to be a complex device that included numerous gears, pins, dials and metal plates. Since it was found off the coast of a Greek island named Antikythera, it’s been called the Antikythera mechanism ever since. It was so rusted it took a long time to determine the purpose of this thing, but now, according to this article, scientists have come up with a working model of how this device would have functioned.

It seems that this complex mechanism was able to track the paths of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which were the only planets they were aware of at the time. It also tracked the path of the sun, the phases of the moon, predicted eclipses, retrograde motions, and the position of the zodiac constellations. It even, oddly enough, described the timing of various athletic events such as the Olympics.

This device required experts in Math, Astronomy, and Geometry to be invented, and it’s entirely too complex for me to describe here, but if you enjoy bathing in the Land of Nerd as much as I do, you’ll really want to watch this half hour video. It made me understand for about 15 seconds, and now it’s gone again. Something to do with prime numbers. It is very legitimately called the world’s first computer.

What fascinates me the most is that scientists were able to figure it out based on a rusted lump that was only 30 percent intact. The inscriptions on the front and back helped, but basically they had to reverse engineer the whole thing  based on what the Greeks knew about the cosmos at the time, so they also had to employ historians.

The ancient Greeks believed that all the planets, and the sun, revolved around the earth. So they had to really put serious thought into how the planets seemed to be going in retrograde motion at various times. The device actually accounts for that quite accurately.

This mechanism alone demonstrates that some people were a lot more sophisticated 3000 years ago than we used to think. But that makes me wonder why they didn’t take things even further. The Antikythera mechanism was the key to the universe. They could have gone beyond that.

As is often the case, the mysteries of the past will most likely remain just that. But kudos to the scientists for learning so much from so very little. That’s impressive.

When I said that there’s now a working model, I didn’t mention that scientists made it using modern tools. The next challenge will be to try to create it using ancient Greek methods. How did they produce something so solid and accurate back then? Time will tell.

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Astrology with an Agenda?

This makes me uncomfortable.

I just read an article entitled, “Meet the Woman Bringing Social Justice to Astrology”, and I am torn.

First of all, let me say that I’ve always taken astrology with a grain of salt. It’s fun to read horoscopes, but I don’t think our day’s fate is dependent upon one of twelve possible outcomes. I know I’m a Capricorn, and I feel like a Capricorn, but I’d like to believe I have more control over my life than the stars and planets seem to allow. I feel like more of a product of my life experiences and the choices I have made than anything else.

So, when I read that a very popular astrologer named Chani Nicholas combines social justice messages with her astrology, I thought, well… Yeah, okay. Apparently, she does things like urge action related to net neutrality, the MeToo movement, the border wall, DACA, sexual violence prevention, voting, and things of that nature.

My gut instinct was to think, “How dare you push your agenda as a prediction for my life?” But then I realized I kind of like her agenda. I’m also a firm believer in raising awareness about causes. And let’s face it: everyone who writes has some sort of an agenda, including yours truly.

Of course, her stance does tend to ruffle feathers, and according to the article, her response to that is, “I’m a stranger writing something for a million people. Don’t take it too seriously. If it helps you heal or navigate through our current crises of humanity, great. If it doesn’t fit you, move on.”

From that angle, I say more power to her!

But.

Rightly or wrongly, lot of people really buy into the whole astrology thing. They do take it seriously. If Ms. Nicholas is posing as an expert on that subject, then her agenda has undue influence on true believers. That makes me uncomfortable. Just sayin’.

L0071319 Horoscope of Prince Iskandar. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Horoscope of Prince Iskandar, grandson of Tamerlane, the Turkman Mongol conqueror. This horoscope shows the position of the heavens at the moment of Iskandar’s birth on 25th April 1384. This is a fly leaf from the personal horoscope of Iskandar Sultan (died 1415), grandson of Timur, who ruled the province of Farsin, Iran. He is best known for his early military career and his patronage of the arts and sciences. Apart from being a horoscope, this manuscript is an exquisite work of art and an exemplary production of the royal kitabkhana ‘publishing house’ or ‘workshop’. The manuscript of 1411 is lavishly illustrated and reflects the efforts of a whole range of specialists: astronomers (among them Imad ad-Din Mahmud al- Kashi), illuminators, gilders, calligraphers and craftsmen, and specialists in paper-making. The manuscript was bought in Iran in 1794 by John H. Harrington, who had started his career as a clerk in the East India Company. In 1932, it was auctioned at Sotheby’s and bought for £6/15d by Sir Henry Wellcome who added it to his collection of Oriental books and manuscripts. 813/1411 Wellcome MS Persian 474 Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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The Things We’re Overlooking

Other things are happening. Miraculous things.

I feel like we’ve been in crisis mode for years now. Each news cycle is more shocking than the last, and because of that, I’m losing the will to be shocked anymore. I now understand how people can seem lethargic in war zones. It just all becomes too much.

But the most heartbreaking aspect of this, in my opinion, is that other things are happening, miraculous things, spectacular things, horrific things, record-breaking things, and we don’t even hear about them because we’re overwhelmed by Trump’s tomfoolery or this nightmare pandemic.

For example, check out this article entitled, “First Ever Image of a Multi-Planet System around a Sun-like Star Captured by ESO Telescope”. And the most amazing thing is that this system is located only about 300 light years from us. On a universal scale, we’re practically neighbors.

And we have a great deal in common. Our suns are very similar, although theirs is younger. And there are two gas giants circling that sun, similar to ours, although a great deal larger and farther out. Soon, astronomers hope to see if there are smaller planets in the system as well.

What an amazing discovery. This is the first time we’ve seen anything like this, ever. We can learn a lot from this system. This is huge. This is incredibly exciting!

And yet it gets lost in the drama that is our current reality. It makes you wonder what else we’re missing.

First ever image of a multi-planet system around a Sun-like star
This image, captured by the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, shows the star TYC 8998-760-1 accompanied by two giant exoplanets, TYC 8998-760-1b and TYC 8998-760-1c. This is the first time astronomers have directly observed more than one planet orbiting a star similar to the Sun. The two planets are visible as two bright dots in the centre (TYC 8998-760-1b) and bottom right (TYC 8998-760-1c) of the frame, noted by arrows. Other bright dots, which are background stars, are visible in the image as well. By taking different images at different times, the team were able to distinguish the planets from the background stars.    The image was captured by blocking the light from the young, Sun-like star (top-left of centre) using a coronagraph, which allows for the fainter planets to be detected. The bright and dark rings we see on the star’s image are optical artefacts.

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Pursuing Comet Neowise

It takes a lot to get me up at 4 am.

I’m obsessed with all things astronomical, so when I heard that Comet Neowise was passing by, and wouldn’t visit us again until the year 8786, I figured I better make an effort to see it. Even if I somehow achieve immortality, I’m sure that by 8786 my eyesight would be pretty much toast. Or, worse yet, I’d forget having seen it immediately afterward. That, and I’m not very good at delaying gratification.

So, several days this month, when there were no clouds in the sky, I’ve set my alarm for 4 in the morning. That should be an indicator of my dedication. The first time, I thought for sure I was seeing it. But it turned out to be Venus. Pretty, yes, but not quite what I had in mind.

On my last attempt (as of this writing) I managed to find it, but it looked like a faint smudge. But that could have been because I had to keep wiping the sleep from my eyes. I tend to lack focus at that hour. It’s part of my charm.

After all that sleep deprivation, I was equal parts delighted and irritated to discover that for the rest of this month, it should be visible in the Northwest sky, below the big dipper, an hour or so after sunset here in the US. Check out this article for details.

Incidentally, Neowise is a cool name. It was so named because it was NASA’s Neowise spacecraft that first discovered it. Funny to think that that craft will seem extremely quaint by the time the comet visits us again. I wonder if Earth will be just a sun blasted, dusty rock by then. Neowise only knows.

For a spectacular picture of Neowise taken with Seattle in the foreground, check out this link. And if you want to see a closer image, over Death Valley, check out this link. Both require a Facebook account. Also, the photo you see below was taken by my friend Mike Wainwright.

Keep reaching for the stars…

Neowise by Mike Wainwright
Neowise by Mike Wainwright

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4th of July, 1054

Once upon a 4th of July, something ELSE happened.

We Americans can get awfully full of ourselves, especially on this, the most patriotic day of our year. Yes, three cheers for independence and freedom, and for fireworks and hot dogs on the bar-b-que. I do love all these things.

(Skip this paragraph if you’re as tired of righteous indignation as I am, but…) I won’t get into the fact that this country was occupied long before we came along, and that it’s been feeling a lot less free of late. I won’t rant about how the entire system is rigged for the 1 percent, and how we fight amongst ourselves rather than show that small percentage that by dint of sheer numbers, they shouldn’t be the powerful ones. And… blah, blah, blah.

Happy 4th of July.

But I did think that perhaps we might gain a little perspective by seeing that something else really amazing happened once upon a 4th of July. It’s something that most of us don’t even know about, but it was ever so much more spectacular than any fireworks display that we can put on.

I’m talking about SN1054.

Yeah, I know. That’s not a very gripping name. It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. But it certainly kicked some cosmic butt when it exploded.

According to Chinese astronomical records, July 4, 1054 was the first day that this supernova was observed from this planet. It was also recorded by the Japanese, and is found in a document from the Arab world as well. It may even be recorded in a pictograph by the Ancestral Puebloan people that is located in current day New Mexico. At a time when global communication didn’t exist, it seems that all eyes were focused skyward.

There was good reason for this. This supernova seems to have remained visible in the daytime sky for two weeks, and was still visible by the naked eye at night for two solid years before it finally faded. Can you imagine? Man, I’d have loved to have seen that!

And the best part about it is that even amateur astronomers can see the gorgeous remnants of this supernova today. It’s called the Crab Nebula. It’s in the constellation Taurus, and you can find a detailed description of how to spot it here, if you have access to a telescope. (Or you can cheat and use a star gazing app on your phone.)

The Crab Nebula is the first astronomical object that was ever identified with a historical supernova explosion, according to Wikipedia. That’s pretty impressive.

This gorgeous nebula is about 6,500 light years from us, and it’s estimated that the main star must have blown up about 7,500 years ago. But for me, at least, it will forever be associated with the 4th of July.

The Crab Nebula in Taurus

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Get Your Scientific Groove On

I love science. Whether it’s anthropology, meteorology, sociology, psychology, chemistry, oceanography, astronomy… you name it, I’m fascinated by it. I wish I realized that as a child. In public school, I viewed science as just another damned subject I had to get through. And my teachers didn’t inspire enthusiasm. I might have taken another path in life if they had.

Now more than ever, science is important, because our current administration is against all things scientific. When someone encourages you to be ignorant, it’s time to closely examine that person’s agenda. Knowledge truly is power. Don’t let anyone take your power from you.

The most exciting thing about today’s world, in my opinion, is that thanks to the internet, we can now all be scientists. There are all sorts of citizen science projects out there. If you have any spare time at all, even a minute a day, you can make a difference.

Five years ago, I wrote about my favorite people-powered research site. And since then, Zooniverse.org has expanded its studies to an unbelievable degree. On any given day you can track wildlife in Kenya, track solar storms through space, train an algorithm to detect plastics on beaches, explore the ridges on Mars, identify meteors, identify marine mammals, classify orchids, transcribe museum records, annotate soldiers’ diaries from WWI, and find planets around stars, just to name a few of the projects.

I get excited just thinking about it. You can be an explorer without leaving the comfort of your own home! How cool is that?

There are other sites that are interesting as well:

Scistarter.com uses citizen scientists to address local and global problems. You can help collect search and rescue data related to hurricane Harvey, map Mars, detect orca sounds, investigate weather and climate change, help measure the brightness of the night sky, and many other projects that you can search according to your interests.

If you want to get even more hands-on with your scientific inquiries, check out publiclab.org. They help you come up with ways to actually do field science to collaborate on and contribute to locally important matters, with the support of the global community.

And the National Wildlife Federation offers a lot of fun and family-friendly ways to assist scientists in their research. You can monitor fireflies, track the migration of monarch butterflies, count the birds in your back yard, or observe constellations.

There are just so many ways to make a difference now! We can all contribute. We can all make this a better world, in spite of trends to the contrary. Expanding our knowledge is the best way to resist ignorance. Join me!

science

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Five Planets at Once

Between now and February 20th, about 80 minutes before dawn, you should be able to see Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in the sky with your naked eye. That is, of course, unless you live in the Pacific Northwest like I do. Then you’re lucky to even see the sky at this time of the year. To read about the best way to view this phenomenon, check out the EarthSky website.

Whenever any kind of stellar (or in this case, planetary) event occurs, I get butterflies in my stomach. It’s not that I think it’s going to bring about the apocalypse, or that there’s some need to sacrifice a virgin. It’s just that when things happen on such a grand scale, I get to realize how small I am in the overall scheme of things. Oddly enough, I find this comforting.

It’s nice to know that there’s really no need to get worked up about stuff. The planets are going to do their thing whether or not I get the dishes washed. Nothing I do or don’t do will impact their orbits one bit. It’s really quite liberating to know that.

There’s no perspective quite like the universal perspective.

Happy stargazing!

5-planets-NHemisphere-80minsbeforesunrise-EarthSky1-e1453249867188

Pursuing the Perseid

The other night the Perseid meteor shower was going to be at its peak around 2 am. I love a good meteor shower. I tried to get a couple of friends to join me, and they all sort of looked at me askance.

It made me sad, because I really wasn’t just asking for star-gazing company. I’m about to move across the country, so what I was really saying was, “Come make one last memory with me.” But they all preferred to sleep. Now I know how Jesus felt in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Well, not really, but you see what I mean.)

So I decided to pursue the Perseid alone. I set my alarm for 1:30 am, and for reasons known only to the clock, it didn’t go off. I woke up at 3 am with a start, and headed out. But that close to dawn, there was no point in driving all the way out beyond the city lights. Oh, who am I kidding? I kind of got the creeps, thinking of sitting there alone in an open field. So I opted for the nearest park that had a northeasterly view.

I’ve actually seen more than one astrological event in this particular park, so I figured it would be a decent enough choice. But I hadn’t been there in years, and I didn’t realize that it had gone through quite a metamorphosis. It used to be a shady idyll with unpaved paths down to a rough shoreline. Now it was a gorgeous  park with wide paved sidewalks, a gazebo, statuary, and lights. Lots and lots of lights. I bet you can see this park from the surface of the moon. So I couldn’t even see stars, let alone meteors. I gave up and went home to bed.

When the Perseid meteor showers roll around next year, I’ll be in a completely different place in the world, physically, emotionally, and financially. I’ve marked my calendar to make them an event. Maybe by then I’ll have a man by my side and it will be a romantic evening. Or maybe I’ll have some more flexible friends. Or I’ll be alone. But that will be okay, too, because I will have moved ahead in my life, I’ll have achieved something, and that is something to celebrate.

Of course, I will be in the Pacific Northwest, so there’s a good possibility that the clouds will obscure the sky. But a girl can dream, can’t she? So check back with me this time next year.

perseid-shower-13-meteor-625.si

[image credit: rt.com]

Cool Science

Wow! How did I not know about this before? Thanks to the power of the internet, little old me (and little old you, for that matter) can help scientists make some pretty amazing breakthroughs.

Seriously, you have to check out the Zooniverse website. From there, you can link in to any number of amazing projects.

  • At Galaxy Zoo you can help scientists classify the bazillions of galaxies in our universe. You might even be the first person to actually see a picture of a particular galaxy. EVER. This is my favorite.
  • At Moon Zoo you can help visually classify features of the moon.
  • At Solar Stormwatch, you can study explosions on the sun.
  • At Planethunters.org, you can help find planets around stars.
  • At the Milky Way Project, you can help scientists understand how stars form.
  • At Planet Four, you can help them learn more about the weather on Mars.

Are you hooked yet? I am! But wait. There’s more.

  • At Old Weather, you can help scientist study past weather observations made by Royal Navy Ships.
  • You can classify over 30 years of tropical cyclone data at Cyclone Center.
  • Help identify texts and documents to study the lives of the Ancient Greeks at Ancient Lives. (This one is fascinating, but I wish there was a way to get the translation once you’ve helped decipher it.)
  • Help marine researchers understand what whales are saying at Whale FM.
  • Study images of the sea floor to create a library of ocean habitats at Seafloor Explorer.  (This is one of my other favorites.)
  • You can even help characterize bat calls at Bat Detective!
  • And perhaps most impactful of all from a human standpoint, you can help find a cure for cancer at Cell Slider.

Honestly, I can’t believe every home-schooler and every student for that matter, every retiree, every unemployed person isn’t glued to one of these websites! You can learn so much and actually have an impact. How can you resist?

star solar mixed_cancer_cells_color cluster