Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sky Dragons, Part...Nothing

I wanted to finish this piece, but, the entire week was too busy. Life happens.

Next week.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sky Dragons, Part 2 - The Darkest Part of Nothing

Stick your arm straight to your side, like half a bird. Now, swing it around in front of you, like half a superman. Unless you did this wrong, or you don't have any arms, your hand should have moved much faster than your shoulder. In the same amount of time, your fingertips moved much farther than your elbow, and your elbow moved faster than your shoulder. If you had recreated this in 360 degrees, this is a lot how a planet rotates, with the outside moving faster than the inside.

This is, however, the opposite of the way a planet revolves. Assuming that most of the mess in a planetary system is in the center, planets closer to the center move faster than planets further out. Sorry. There's no cool arm trick to go with this one.

Think about it this way. Mercury is the fastest planet, going about 48 km/s. Venus is slower than Mercury, Earth is slower than Venus, and so on, until we get to Neptune, which goes only (only!) 5.5 km/s. Remember those certain types of donation boxes, where you put a quarter into a slot, then watch it “circle the drain” until it fell into a hole in the middle. The analogy isn't perfect, but it helps. The quarter (a planet) circles the gravitational hole (the sun) faster and faster the closer it is to the middle. Eventually, it's just a metallic blur dropping into a hold to feed starving children in the middle of the sun (or something.)

But that's the solar system, let's go bigger and talk about the entire galaxy.

Just like the solar system, the Milky Way is mostly flat. It is (as far as we know) 100,000 lightyears across and usually 2,000 ly “tall” with a 6,000 ly “tall” bulge in the middle. (Think of it like a crumbled-up fruit roll up sitting on top of a spread-out fruit-by-the-foot.) So, (as far as we know!) most of the mass in the galaxy is concentrated in the center, just like the solar system. And, all the stuff in the galaxy revolves around the middle, just like the solar system, except that it's a lot faster, and gets up to speeds like 230,000 km/s.

But here's the problem, the sun does pretty much what it's supposed to, but nothing else does. Everything else is moving around the center of the galaxy, but it's either too fast or too slow, depending on how far away it is from the center of the galaxy. Actually, things move a little bit faster than they should further away from the center, so it's more like the half-bird/half-superman trick, instead of the quarter circling the drain.

But it's not even that “clean” of a problem. Overall, stuff is moving not even close to the speeds they should. For example, an object 50,000 ly away from the center (at the edge of the galaxy) should according to the rules of “quarter motion donation” moving at a speed of 100,000 km/s. Turns out, it's going about 2.5 times as fast as that. For comparison sake, if the Earth did this, we would move at 74 km/s (much faster than Mercury) and have a year only 146 days long. The stuff towards the middle should be moving cartoonishly fast, but instead, is nowhere close to as fast it should be. They move at about 230,000 km/s (remember, Mercury moves over 9 times as fast as Neptune). This is the modern-day Neptune/Uranus wiggle problem and the Mercury perihelion problem.

So how should we approach this problem? Well, first and foremost, is our data and observations correct? Do we correctly see stuff further out than the galaxy moving fast than some of the stuff closer to it? Let's assume that our observations are correct and this is actually what we're seeing.

The next thing we do is apply the Neptune method, that is, apply old theories to make predictions about observations to be made in the future. And the old theory states that there should be a lot of mass outside of the galaxy.

How much mass? Well, remember that the stuff inside the galaxy is behaving nowhere near how it should; it is not a little wiggle. So it's going to take a lot of mass to set it right.

The hypotheses differ on how much mass, but they all agree on a lot. Some say five times as much, but for that extra wow-factor, we're going with the liberal estimate that there is nine times as much mass on the outside of the galaxy as there is on the inside. That's like saying that when you see Uranus move a little bit, it's not Neptune, but instead is nine more suns.

So, alright, we have now mathed our way into figuring out what we're looking for, where is it, and how much of it there is. Now, all we have to do is point our peepers into the right direction and say, “aha,” right? But, just like Vulcan, we don't see it. This is where dark matter comes in.

The idea is that the reason we haven't seen all this matter (nine times the amount of all matter in the galaxy, if you recall) is because it can't be seen. It emits no radiation whatsoever, so the name “Dark Matter” is actually a misnomer, as it would, theoretically, be invisible. If you were holding a lump of it in your hand, it would feel heavy (perhaps even very, very heavy) but have no temperature and you could see right there it. That's right. Dark Matter does absolutely nothing except conveniently solve this problem that astronomers have.

Here, I would like to take a moment to explain a few things. For one, I have done my absolute best to explain everything as best as I can, while still keeping things relatively simple. There is some more evidence for dark matter (and dark energy) that I have left out, because it's not important to the point I'm making (next week). For two, I'm not saying for certain that dark matter doesn't exist or that it can't exist.

What I'm saying, at this point, is that we need to look at the most likely scenario of what's going on, which may very well be that only 10% of everything in the universe can be seen. (There is some pretty strange shit in the universe, so this one wouldn't surprise me.) Or, it could be something else completely different (like the Mercury deal.)

I'll be continuing and concluding this series next week, as well as answering the question, “Why the fuck did you waste my time talking about Neptune and dark matter?”

Some Cool ThingsIII

"Our shouting is louder than our actions,
Our swords are taller than us,
This is our tragedy."
-Nizar Qabbani, from "Footnotes to the Book of Setback"

Gleen Greenwald, talk to us again about motive in terrorists, an idea that I hope is sinking in with my readers (Hi Mom!)
Jay Rosen on why the media suck-diddily-ucks and a quick suggestion for how to fix it.
Leonard Pitts Jr. on Obama's election and Reid's comments about Obama's election.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sky Dragons, Part One - No Butt Jokes

For most of human existence, we had no idea where Mercury really was.

Sure, we could look up at the sun and say, “thataway,” but beyond that, we were pretty much in the dark, literally. If you, for example, tried to draw a picture of Mercury as it appears in space, you would almost certainly be wrong or impossibly lucky.

The reason this happened for most of the time, was that we didn't really have a good system for determining where Mercury was, or would be, at any point in time. As a result, for quite a long time, we weren't even close; we thought it was going in a big circle around Earth, which was a cute idea.

By degrees, we got a little bit better. Copernicus figured out that Mercury wasn't really revolving around us, but instead the Sun. Newton learned (part of!) the system that governs how these planets move and for a short while, we kicked so much ass at astronomy.

"How much ass was trashed, Zala?” you ask. I would love to tell you. In 1781, we discovered Uranus telescopically. That is, we looked at it and said, “Oh. There's a planet there.” Pretty much the same thing happened with most of the other planets. About 40 years after we discovered Uranus, we noticed that it had an awkward kind of wiggle to it. Like Bill Cosby's jowls when he's talking about pudding. It was never “lost” but also never exactly where it should be. This is where the story gets cool (but only if you like math.)

In 1845, a very French person with the very French name of Urbain LeVerrier stood up and said, “Step aside. I'mma gonna math it up in this bitch.” (Translated directly from French.) He looked at a couple numbers...a couple hundred numbers...and hypothesized that there should be a planet beyond Uranus that was pulling on it gravitationally, making it wiggle. And, I hate to ruin the surprise for everyone, but he was right. Using proper observations, math, and good ole' fashioned French elbow grease, LeVerrier predicted the orbit and size of Neptune without ever observing it directly. (Chances are very good he was a virgin.)

I wish that my math skill was adroit enough to explain exactly how hard it was to find Neptune by seeing how much it pulled on Uranus, or even how small the pull was, but it's not. I can, however, explain it in simple terms and let you decide for yourself how hard it was: the sun is 19,764 times more massive than Neptune, yet LeVerrier found Neptune's pull on Uranus. That is how much we kicked ass in the 19th century.

Then, the 20th century came and things got screwy. Already there was a small problem with the orbit of Mercury. You should, if your elementary school was worth a damn, know that the orbits of the planets are not circular, they're elliptical, meaning sometimes they are closer to the sun than at other times. (Note: This is not what causes the seasons.) The earth, for example, is 147 million kilometers away from the sun sometimes, and moves back to the 152 million kilometer point ever year. With Mercury, the problem was not the distance from the sun, but the position in its orbit when it was the closest was inconsistent with Newton's laws by a small amount.

(In case you didn't understand that last sentence, imagine Mercury as the minute hand on a clock. It should be at its closest at 12:00, but instead it was closest at 12:05, to oversimplify and exaggerate the situation.)

When I say that this was a small problem, I mean it was a small problem The discrepancy between where Mercury should be at its closest point and where it was at its closest point was off by 1 degree...8,000 years in the future. In other words, every year, Mercury's point where it was closest to the sun was off by 0.00011944 of a degree. It is something that like this that you think would make an astronomer shrug and say, “Enh. Close enough.”

But not LeVerrier, oh no. Fresh off his stint of saying, “Dude, remember the time I predicted Neptune. Yeah. I totally called that shit,” for many, many years, he stood up, announced that he would once again math it up, and predicted that another planet existed between Mercury and the Sun. He even went so far as to name it Vulcan. The whole thing would have been awesome if it weren't total crap. Enter Einstein.

Einstein comes onto the scene and basically says, “Gravity: Ur doin it wrong.” And then he rofled.

I won't explain, at this time, how Einstein changed the way we think about gravity, but it's enough for now to say that he did. The rules completely changed, and in the new set of rules, Mercury was doing exactly what it should. So what is the lesson that we take away from LeVerrier's story? He encountered, pretty much, the exact same problem, twice, and approached it the exact same way, twice, but he was only right once. As Homer Simpson would say, “The lesson is, never try.”

Not quite. And this shows the two different ways that new science introduced. With Neptune, LeVerrier used existing theories to make predictions about observations. With Mercury, Einstein used correct observations to make new theories.

More on this in Part Two

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Some Cool Things II

"The joys os possession I have never felt very acutely. I find it hard to think of myself as the owner of anything. But I do tend to slip into the role of guardian and protector of the unloved and unlovable, of what other people disdain or spurn."
-JM Coetzee "Diary of a Bad Year"

The Dump
Pictures from the protests in Iran
Some more pictures from Afghanistan, something completely absent in US media, to my knowledge.
If I keep posting articles about this, will it make a difference?
Uganda and more Uganda
More on airstriking civilians (spoiler: it is bad.)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Martyrdom, Missing the Goddamn Point

This post occurred with very little forethought. As a result, the end product is a little messy. You have been warned (and probably didn't care.)

Something that I've always found very...curious is the way religious people will argue amongst themselves. It's interesting to see, and impossible to understand.
Take a quick trip down memory lane. Do you remember in 2002 when everyone was joking about how the terrorists thought they would have 72 (or 74 or 76) virgins when they entered heaven. It was hard to avoid comments like these and ever since then, people know exactly one (1) fact about Islam. Keep in mind that jokes about the virgins in heaven came from people who believe that cutting off the end of their dick and dipping babies in water will get them into heaven. Oh, those silly terrorists!
Another argument that I love to overhear is who has it the worst. When it comes to being religious, nothing says "legitmate" more than persecution.
Especially after Christmas, when I know that people said some dumb shit back in the States about Christians being persecuted for celebrating Christmas instead I'll be honest with you, this is another argument I don't understand. But for some reason, it's cool to point out how big your religion is, how popular it is, how it came directly from god himself, but that it is liable to collapse if people don't say Merry Christmas.
But, that's the argument itself, what I don't get is why this is so lauded over. I'd like to think (I'd love to think) that at most times, I have a handle on at least the general concept of what other people think when it comes to their behavior. (Full disclosure: Not true.) However, when it comes to this one, I don't get it at all. I don't see the benefit of knowing that people of your religion, growing up in places completely different from your own, have died. I don't get why religious people seem to almost celebrate these things, letting everyone know how much it sucks to be them.

Malaysian churches fire-bombed as 'Allah' row escalates

This is, the next "my religion is better cos we die the most" argument, so I would like to circumvent it as quickly as possible, in two ways.
First, one thing that I hate hearing from people is how bad "our" group has it when someone dies, because it's so close to being a conscious, genuine concern for the loss of human life, but falls tragically short. Suddenly, the thousands of people who die around the world every day for stupid reasons are not nearly as important as this one group of people, who are being becoming martyrs. I think that the people with moral integrity regard one life as being equal to another, regardless of how similar they may be to your nationality, ethnicity or religion. It seems so simple I can't even explain that any further than I already have.
Secondly, letting everyone know about how people of your religion have died have misunderstood why they died. Yes, it is true that people die because they are of a certain religion, but I would argue that is much closer to the truth to say that they died because they were not somebody else's religion. Had Malaysians died in this church bombing, it would be only in part because they were Christian, but mainly because they were not Muslim.
It is for this reason that whenever I hear theists telling me about how members of their religion have died that I can't help but think they just gave me another good reason to argue that there should be no religion in the world.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Some Cool Things

"The parable, in sense, amounts to this:
The honey of heaven may or may not come,
But that of Earth both comes and goes at once."
-Wallace Stevens, "The Monocle of Mon Ocle"
The Dump


I had slept in the other morning, by about 5 hours. It was more like a hibernation, since I was conserving my food rations (My dishes were dirty.) The heat for the water was, of course, not working in the morning, so I didn't step outside until 2 in the afternoon.
I dressed for January in Taiwan. Two jackets and gloves. The day was not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was much warmer than I expected, and traffic was nearly nil. My plan to drink coffee and write in a warm cafe was abandoned. I picked up a snack and a bottle of ice coffee and started driving, putting the gloves in the trunk and rolling up my sleeves.
My neighborhood is interesting in that it is no more than 10 minutes from the mountains, but is inside the city and with none of the qualities of a suburb. I pass the huge technology compounds on the way up, and then there's nothing but valleys and green.
I was surprised to learn that oranges grow in the winter here. I should have bought some. Coming around any given corner while going through the mountains, one will stumble an orange grove, sometimes with trees so overburdened with fruit, its branches are flirting with the ground. After my scooter broke down and I pissed on the side of the road, a family on bicycles passed me and gave me one. Unsurprisingly, it was as dense as stone and cold inside. I ate it as I watched the smaller birds playing in the high grass just before I went to go home.
I had spotted the family before the scooter broke. They were going uphill and not really enjoying it. I passed them at one of the higher points on the road, and parked to enjoy the view. They had stopped for a break at the place I was planning to sit and write, and they looked happy there. Rather than bother them, I got back on the scooter, which at this point would not start. The bottle of ice coffee made me want to piss.
Perhaps, I told myself, perhaps it just needs to cool. The roads are steep and I was driving for a long time. Besides, I could probably walk half a kilometer and see the river and write, away from happy families that don't wish to bothered with foreign assholes.
The roads on the mountains are circumscribed in that there are only three things that surround them: trees, walls, and cliffs. One doesn't consider these things unless there is a full bladder situation. Somehow, I found a short wall, jumpable, enclosed and hidden from the road by bamboo. After relieving myself on the trees, I realized that I was standing very close to a concrete walkway, leading in the direction of the lake.
I stopped to pick some of the purple, yellow, orange, red bursts of flowers that grew on this walkway. The place was tightly surrounded, so the citrus smell they gave off was enticing and warranted closer examination. I have also yet to reconcile the fact that I was smelling bright flowers in January, while the bees were loving them.
The break in the trees was what made me stop. I could see the lake. The path in front of me veered to the left, and its endpoint obstructed by trees, I romanticized an abandoned shack overlooking the water. I stepped forward, or maybe only shifted my weight and heard the rustling in the bushes to my right side. Animal? Bird? I stepped back to see what I had disturbed.
If I had startled something, I never saw it, but my attention was immediately focused on the spiderweb spanning the width of the path in front of me. Did I touch it just enough to move the branches, but not enough to get it all over me? It certainly looked less than pristine. I checked my clothes for unbidden guests.
Spiders are not my favorite member of the animal kingdom. In fact, they are one of the biggest fears I have. (Above them is flying and commitment. Below them is everything else, residing on a relatively equal plane.) It was enough to make me stop moving and very assiduously look around me. I heard bee wings. Were they coming from a previous unseen section? (No. Toying with the fauna on the forest floor.) I was still chary to step through the web, and knew I would feel better knowing what my arachnid foe looked like. My eyes scrutinized every strand before me, hoping to see my enemy.
When relating stories about insects, it becomes so effortless to exaggerate. The shock of discovering something grotesque multiples its mass in the mind's eye, for one. And for two, nobody really cares about insect stories unless they're gigantic insect stories. (The centipede corpse I unwittingly fished from a drain, mid-shower, has grown an inch for every year the story is told.) To me, I was Frodo in this equation, facing certain doom from the Spider Queen Shelob. As close to reality as I can describe it, the body was two of my fingers, with a wingspan of less than my outstretched (feminine) hand, and yellow joints on the legs. (Yellow joints! What biological purpose could an adaptation like this serve, save for the terror of fresh human prey? It was here that I had my first doubts about evolution and decided that it must be the dark lord guiding the growth of living beings.)
The remarkable thing about this day was not the weight of my eight-legged agitator, but that we so nearly ended embracing on another. One step forward and we would become a ten-legged unholy union, one in which this yellow-jointed fiend would love to see me dead in. (No doubt!) Vowing to, for once, not tempt fate, and allowing for the possibility that my romantic, empty shack overlooking the Taiwanese lake was home to monstrosities such as this, I turned heel and departed my secret walkway. I told myself that this would make a charming children's story, told in rhyming couplets, and ending in a spider-human friendship. I pictured the spider having an adorable accent and big cute eyes, but only because I could think of no other revenge to take upon him.