4th of July, 1054

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!

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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.

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[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