Friday, April 30, 2010

Understanding the Hubble Expansion of the Universe with Schlitz Light and Then Running Out of Ketchup

This is one of the most bizarre photos taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. It is a tiny section of a tiny section of the outermost halo of the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest large galactic neighbor, 2.5 million light years from us. The stars are all in the Andromeda Galaxy's outermost reaches. Behind them are several galaxies, each one far more distant than the other. All are orders of magnitude farther from Andromeda than it is from us. Space is big.

The best way I've found to get a mental picture of the ongoing expansion of the Universe is with the following analogy. [1]

You decide to visit your friend who lives three miles up the road. You walk at three miles per hour so you get there in about an hour and both enjoy a cold, frosty Schlitz Light.

But as you start walking, a weird force begins stretching the distance between your house and your buddy's house at the rate of one inch per hour. So by the time you reach your buddy's house in an hour, his house is an inch farther from your house than when you started walking. No problem. What's an inch among friends and a cool, frosty Schlitz Light? But what if your buddy lives 3,000 miles away? Well, you start walking at 3 mph and it takes you (without sleep) 1,000 hours to get there. During that time, this weird force has made your buddy's house 1,000 inches (83 feet) farther from your house from when you started walking. But so what? Now he's got a bigger yard for you to both enjoy a cool, frosty can of Schlitz Light.

So if you keep doing the math, with your friend's house farther and farther away, you can still always get there, even if this weird force keeps making your buddy's house an inch farther from you every hour you walk. Yes, if your buddy lives 3 million miles away, his house will be 83,000 feet farther away than it was when you started, but so what? You can still make it. It just takes a bit more time and lets him go to the store and get another 12 pack of Schlitz Light, just in case.

Add a twist. Assume this weird expansive force that adds an inch between you and your friend's house each hour is not constant. It actually speeds up a tiny bit each hour. So, after 10 hours, it starts to add 1.001 inch to your distance each hour. And after 20 hours, it adds 1.002 inches to your distance. And after 1,000 hours, it adds 1.01 inches to your distance. This is still no problem if your buddy's house is only 3 miles away.

But it becomes a big problem if your buddy's house is 3 billion light years away. Not only does his house get a bit farther from yours each hour, but the rate at which it gets farther also increases every hour that you walk. If your buddy's house is far enough away from you, and since you can't faster than 3 miles per hour, at a certain distant X, the rate at which your buddy's house gets farther from you every hour will exceed your walking speed. You will never get there. No Schlitz Light for you.

This is exactly what happens to photons emitted by stars in galaxies billions of light years from Earth due to the Hubble expansion of space. Like us, photons can only move so fast. We can walk at about 3 mph. Photons travel at 186,000 miles per second. We and photons have a fixed, upper limit of how fast we can travel. As it turns out, for galaxies billions of light years from us, the expansion of space itself between us and them extends the distance between us and them faster than 186,000 miles per second. Once this threshold is reached, photons from these galaxies can and will never reach us. They are still "out there" but we will never ever have an inkling that they are.

Another way to think of the Hubble expansion is imagine your teenage son gets in the family car to go to the store to get hot dog rolls. Just as he is pulling out of the driveway you realize you're also out of ketchup. So as he starts to drive down the road you run after the car trying to get him to stop. Assuming he doesn't peel out, initially you can run fast enough to catch up with the car and flag him down. But if he's cranking up death metal in the car with the windows rolled up he can't hear you and keeps driving, pushing the accelerator pedal of the car down further. As each second goes by, he keeps going faster but you are already running as fast as you can. If he doesn't hear you or see you and stop, as every second goes by the distance between you and the car increases, even as you are running as fast as you can. After a number of seconds, he has pulled so far away from you that he disappears down the road. But in the case of space, the accelerator pedal has no bottom, and the speedometer has no top. After awhile, your son and your car are going faster than the speed of light. Even if you grabbed your cell phone and called him in the car to pick up ketchup he would not get the call because the radio waves from your phone would be moving too slow to catch up with him. So you order chinese instead.

Light Bubbles Are a Bitch

The movie "Lord of the Rings" has a scene where the message to attack is sent by glymphs or whatever using a sequence of bonfires on mountain tops. As each glymph sees the fire on the adjacent mountaintop, they set alight their bonfire and the message is quickly sent over hundreds of miles. Even though each bonfire lighter can only see the fires just above and below them, the message chain works. They are able to communicate 'over the horizon.'

In the same way, I've pondered if there's a way for distant galaxies to help us "leap frog" past the light bubble that surrounds us like these bonfires on the mountaintops. Is there a way for these galaxies to tell us what's over our horizon?

The "light bubble" is short hand for saying that because light travels at the speed of light, if the Universe is 14 billion years old, then we cannot see any object that is more than 14 billion light years from us. This doesn't mean there are no objects farther out from us than 14 billion light years, there are, it's just that we can't see them yet because the Universe is not yet old enough for their light to reach us.

What complicates the whole thing is that we are not at the center of the Universe. We are only at the center of our 14 billion light year bubble. The Andromeda Galaxy has the same size light bubble as us but it is centered on them, and they are 2.5 million light years from us.[2] So, technically, a species from Andromeda can see things that we can't and we can see things they can't because our bubbles are in different places. But the Andromeda galaxy is really close to us so using it as an example is not very fair.

So let's choose a galaxy way way way way far from us, like one of the most distant and faintest smudges of light in the Hubble Deep Field images. These buggers are somewhere around 10 billion light years from us, getting close to the edge of our light bubble. Now let's imagine if some folks in one of these smudges of galaxies also took their own Hubble Deep Space Field photograph of the farthest galaxies they could see. What would it look like? What would it show? This is where things get very weird.

The first problem is that unless these folks took their Deep Space Field photograph 10 billion years ago and broadcast its digital code into space, we would not be able to receive it now and look at it. But let's say they did. If some very smart, benevolent folks in one of these massively distant galaxies took their own Deep Space Field photographs 10 billion years ago, digitally encoded it in a translatable form, and blasted this code via radio waves for the nearby Universe to read, the latest picture we could get from them was the one they sent out 10 billion years ago. So we would get a nice snapshot of what things looked like from their perspective 10 billion years ago. We wouldn't be in it, of course, since our solar system and sun didn't even exist until 5 billion years after they beamed out the photo that we're just receiving, decoding and seeing today.

The next question is whether these folks in this galaxy 10 billion light years away could tell us about what is "over the horizon" from us: places and galaxies that are outside of our own 14 billion light year radius light bubble. At one level it seems possible. These folks are at the very "edge" of our light bubble and their own light bubble extends much farther than ours in certain directions. They can see in certain directions much farther than we can see. So why can't they just take a picture of this stuff we can't see and beam it out into space so we decode it and see it? Well, cuz the light bubble is a bitch. Here's the problem.

Let's assume these nice folks took very deep, sharp pictures of the farthest objects they could see every hour and broadcast them out into space, and we could read these data feeds, decode them and turn them into photos. Unfortunately, the latest series of photos they sent that we could see were sent out 10 billion years ago, showing the sky as they saw it 10 billion years ago. But 10 billion years ago, the entire Universe was only 4 billion years old, not the 14 billion years old it is today. So the light bubble they had then was only 4 billion light years in radius, not the 14 billion light years we have today. And 10 + 4 = 14. Every photon they could see 10 billion years ago in their 4 billion light year bubble is one that we can see today in our 14 billion light year bubble. Certainly, the resolution and detail of their photos of their local neighborhood would be far better than ours, and would show much richer close-ups of places that to us are just tiny smudges, but every single photon that hit their telescope 10 billion years ago would be a photon that hits ours. And here's the catch. Not a single photon they could record 10 billion years ago would be from a galaxy "over the horizon" from what we can see today. We today, and they 10 billion years ago, would be both taking pictures of the same horizon and seeing the same horizon.

Today, those folks, if their descendants still exist, are definitely seeing stuff that we cannot see. At this moment, they are now seeing way past our horizon. The problem is they cannot communicate to us right now what they are seeing because, if they send us a photo of what they are seeing right now, we will not get the message for 10 billion years and more. It's sort of like having a friend in California and you live in Boston. For both of you to eat lunch at the same moment, he has to eat lunch at 9 a.m. to eat lunch when you eat lunch at your noon, or you have to eat lunch at 3 p.m. for when he eats lunch at his noon. Your noons are three hours apart and there's nothing you can do about it. Now times that a few billion. It's that intractable.

So there's no way you can use a series of galactic friends as interlocking beacons to send each other messages as to what things look like over your respective horizons because the messages cannot travel faster than the light itself. Well, you can do it, but the messages will not come any sooner than the light from the objects reaches you on their own. The photos they send will be better, of course, because your buds are much more closer to these distant objects than you and can take better close-up photos. But none of the photons their photos capture will be photons that would have otherwise been too far away to reach you. They cannot send you any "over the horizon" photos. It would be kool, but it can't happen. The light bubble is a bitch that way. It doesn't allow leap-frogging or cheating.
[1] I like to call it the "Hubble expansion" because it was discovered by astronomer Edwin Hubble at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California in the 1920s.
[2] Here's a fun fact about how much space there is compared to stuff. The Andromeda galaxy is about 2.5 million light years from the Milky Way. Both galaxies are about 100,000 light years in diameter. So it would take 25 Milky Ways to cover the distance between the two galaxies -- and there is almost literally nothing between them. So even with two large neighboring galaxies the ratio of non-stuff to stuff is still about 25:1. The Universe is mostly non-stuff.

The Pilgrims were Illegal Immigrants.

All our ancestors crossed the U.S. border illegally. The people on the Mayflower at Plymouth were all illegal immigrants. The freakin' Nausets at Wellfleet took pot shots at them. Myles Standish had no papers granted and stamped by Massasoit or Chickatawbut. It's a non-issue. Let's focus on the real issues that affect real people.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Home Alone in the Local Universe

Much ado about Stephen Hawking's admonition we Earthlings should not loudly advertise our existence to aliens because they might not be very nice to us.

Given the solar system was formed in roughly the last third of the age of the Universe, 4.5 billion years ago, it would seem that any evidence of past colonization efforts over the last 4 billion years would be observable, say, on Mars, which has a bedrock surface that has not changed much since its early formation, minus a few big, extinct volcanoes.

The question of visitation is a question of archaeology, not listening for signals from space. Planetary archaeology, thus far, shows not a single sign of any habitation or visitation anywhere. Lunar mapping can now show objects on the Moon’s surface as small as the Apollo lunar module. But no signs of any other “craft.” No other “craft” in 4 billion years?

While photo resolution on Mars is not as good as the Moon, still, there are no signs of anything except entirely natural features. Eric von Daniken aside, not a single bit of evidence of visitation on Earth has ever been found, even though our fossil record goes back more than a billion years.

Given the past observable record, it seems ‘visitation’ that leaves permanent, observable marks has been non-existent in our solar system for millions of years. So it seems a very slim chance that now, suddenly, “they” will appear, coincidentally just as “we” are technologically advanced enough to look for “them.”

Problem: Space is 99.9999999998 percent Space

The problem with space is that it's well named. It's almost all blank, empty space. Just space. Lots and lots and lots and lots of empty space. Empty. Space. It's like a one act play where the play writer includes a stage instruction which says, "pause and look expectant toward stage right for 1 million years, then deliver next line."

But that's in part because our little solar system is in a sparse part of the outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy. There are other parts of space that have a lot more stuff than space as compared to where we are.

One example is the middle of a giant globular star cluster like Omega Centauri. As NASA notes at its Hubble Space Telescope site: "The average distance between any two stars in the cluster's crowded core is only about a third of a light-year, roughly 13 times closer than our Sun's nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri."

A third of a light year is "only" 2 trillion miles. For comparison, Pluto is 3.6 billion miles from Earth. That's about one three hundredth of a trillion, or the length of one football on a football field. So even if we were in the center of one of the densest star clusters in the Milky Way galaxy, the nearest next star to us would be 650 times farther than from Earth to Pluto. That's the length of one football on two football fields with the space for the band thrown in. Another more stuffy and less spacey spot is smack in the center of our own galaxy, but the dimensional difficulties described above are still there, if not worse.

So if we were in the center of a tight globular star cluster or the center of the Milky Way, there would be a lot more stuff than space compared to where we are now. We're kind of in a galactic Podunk. Or Easter Island. The last place to get strung up for cable. That's us. And there's nothing we can do about it. As the French say, il est teh suxxor.

First Contact: A Rorschach Test for Homo Sapiens

Lacking a scintilla of scientific evidence for any past or present contact or existence of any space aliens evarr, the concept is like eating cotton candy. Or as Detmar Schnitker said, "When you have no data, you can speculate all you want." And so we humans do. I cannot resist.

But precisely because there is no data to weigh, except in the negative, what you get is a Rorschach Test of each person's ideas about themselves and the world as they perceive it, including all their innermost fears, insecurities and ambitions. Asking the question, as Stephen Hawking did, of "how would aliens treat us if they found us" is really an exercise in holding each respondents' concept of themselves and humanity up to a carnival mirror. The only data to weigh is how people think of themselves as filtered through how they predict aliens would think of us. These comment threads give a good statistical cross-section.

Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel labels Hawking's statement "cowardly." Bad Astronomer Phil Plait agrees with Ethan, in the sense that he wants to side with his optimistic side, saying in essence that any alien advanced enough to travel light years to Earth would be advanced enough to have overcome any avaricious, rapacious tendencies it once may have had. This is all internal projection, of course, since no data exists to show either side is right or wrong. Without actual aliens, actually expressing their intent, or any evidence they even exist (or ever existed), it's a wide open playing field. It's like a poker game without rules where you can invent your own winning hand just by saying the cards you have is the "best" hand. But the other guy can too. It's like a board game where the rule book is missing so everyone can invent their own rules.

But Let's Play Anyway ...

If we accept the speed of light as a barrier, then "robot probes" to our solar system from other stars would be ineffectual, since they could not report back data for centuries, and most likely could not even do that because the signal strength would be too tiny and would be lost in the background. So, the only rational purpose for any visitation would be colonization, with the colonists having no hope of ever making a return trip home. And for any carbon-based, DNA based life, Earth is the only habitable planet in the solar system, or anywhere near it.

Earth is a pretty unique place in the neighborhood of 10 light years diameter from us. It is the only habitable place for carbon-based life forms. Nothing else even remotely fills the bill.

So colonization and inhabitation would be the only purpose for a visitation. And it would most likely not go well for us, since our visitors would be massively more technologically endowed.

Hawking for the win.

Now we need to stop destroying the one and only inhabitable planet known in the Universe.

Wait ... I'll take Bristle Cone Pines to block !!!

The Bristle Cone Pines of the Panamint Mountains around Death Valley U.S. America are the oldest living creatures in the known Universe. They can live to be 5,000 years or older. [The story of how the Methuselah Tree was cut down by a couple of idiot biologists in the 1960s to see how old it was, and then, after killing it, they found it was the oldest living thing in existence until they killed it, simply proves Stephen Hawking is correct at multiple levels.]

Bristle Cone Pines can live for 5,000 years or more. This is 50 to 100 times older than any Earth mammal. We don't really know how long whales can live, since we killed them all, but we know at least a few survivors of our harpoon insanity can live far longer than humans. But even whales can only live at best 10 percent as long as Bristle Cone Pines.

Now if an intelligent alien could live as long as a Bristle Cone Pine, then a long space journey would not be a big deal. For a creature that lives 5,000 years or more, interstellar space travel at sublight speed is not a long trip. It's only a real long time because us humans have a very short life span compared to trees.

Was Earth First Invaded by Alien Trees?

It's possible. Trees are, by far, the longest living creatures known in the Universe. And longest-living is the key requisite for interstellar space travel. You've got to be alive when you get there. And you can't be impatient during the ride.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Cormorants say the Alewives are Here

I was just outside in the yard and saw 10 double crested cormorants flying in formation over the house going up the Kennebec River. Which means the alewives have arrived in the Kennebec River. This is about a week earlier than usual.

Cormorants only eat fish and they only appear on the Kennebec in April when the alewives have come in from the ocean to spawn upriver. I've watched the synchronicity of cormorant arrival vs. alewife arrival for 10 years now at the Kennebec's head of tide in Augusta and the correlation is uncanny. If the cormorants are here the alewives must also be here.

It's funny how you can tell a certain type of fish has entered a giant river just by sitting in the side yard and see a few birds fly over.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Click Beetles Are Up and Clicking About

Click beetles come out when fiddleheads come out.

Patty cake, patty cake, baker's man.

There is nothing more kooler in the world than Click Beetles. And now, in early spring, just as Jack in the Pulpits start to pop out, is when Click Beetles come out in the open and start clicking around.

Click Beetles get their name because if you see them on the ground and flip them over on their backs, they pull their legs in close to their body, become perfectly motionless and look like a sunflower seed without the stripes:
Photo by Jennifer Schlick at
Then they arch their backs and violently spring upward off the ground, creating an audible "click" sound and pop several inches into the air, whereupon they land on their feet and run or fly away. It is a very unique anti-predator device because it combines hiding motionless (like a hognose snake or opossum does) followed by a sudden and very odd burst of movement that, to many predators, must appear to make the click beetle disappear.

The click beetle, like the hognose snake, adopts a two-phase predator avoidance approach, but in reverse. The hognose snake, also called the "puff adder," first adopts a menacing aggressive stance and puffs up its body to make it look much bigger. Then, if that fails, it rolls on its back, goes limp and plays dead. Click beetles first play dead, then aggressively "click" up in the air and pop out of sight.

Here's a click beetle with giant fake eyespots. You can see the real eyes at the end of the click beetle's head, just behind the antennae. Unfortunately, these fake-eyed click beetles are not found in Maine. A number of click beetle species display these out-sized, prominent fake eyespots, but many species do not. This is an interesting question for evolutionists. These giant fake eyespots must convey some survival advantage or they would not have developed, since they make the beetle very easy to see, and presumably easier for predators to see them. But many click beetle species, like those in Maine, have no eye spots and are quite inconspicuous and drab by comparison. Why did the click beetle species native to Maine not evolve these eyespots? Why did those click beetles with giant fake eyespots develop them in the first place? Rather than convergent evolution, this suggests divergent evolution, wherein an ancestral species "splits off" at some point in the past and the two divergent, but closely related species adopt very different, nay almost opposite, survival strategies, except for the click. What say ye?

Discussing the big fake eyespots of some click beetles the other night, my wife Lori noted that it's hard to believe a predator, say a sparrow, would be "scared" by the fake eyespots on a click beetle, since despite its fake eyespots, the beetle is still less than an inch long. To even a small bird, it's still just a little bug. As Lori says, "It's not like the bird suddenly thinks it's an owl." But maybe? [1]

So perhaps the false eyespots are not meant to scare away predators but evolved to act as reverse camouflage in concert with the click. The false eyespots are so loud and bold and easy to see that once the click beetle senses a predator it flips on its back, pulls its legs tight alongside its body and stays perfectly motionless, like a tiny oval stone. If the predator (a sparrow) is tracking the click beetle based on the bright and big eyespots on top of its head, when the click beetle suddenly flips on its back, concealing its eyespots, it might from the bird's perspective look like the click beetle has disappeared. And if that still doesn't work, the click beetle can still use its clicking power to pop up in the air and confuse the bird further. It would sort of be like a tiger swallowtail butterfly having an underside which is completely drab and muted and gray and the swallowtail being able to "switch sides" in a split second and blend in with the gray, muted tones of a tree trunk when a predator approaches.

Here's a click beetle on poison ivy near the Presumpscot River, Westbrook, Maine.

While I'm no expert on Click Beetles, I do know that they are only commonly observed in Maine in the spring, just as the leaves are coming out on the trees, ie. early May. At this time, the click beetles perch themselves in very visible locations, like the tips of leaves, or as below, on the cap of a glue bottle in our side yard. Soon after, they disappear. When they do this "perching" behavior, they are very non-skittish and stationary and you can get quite close to them, which is how I got these photos. I am wondering if this is a mating behavior since it occurs in the spring and only lasts for a week or so.

Our tiny in-town yard (1/8th acre) in Augusta, Maine has an abundance of click beetles every spring. This is probably in part because we don't spray or use any chemical herbicides or pesticides. If you spray stuff that kills insects in the air or in the ground, you can't expect to see many of any species, especially beetles, which live in the ground as larvae for several years or more. I like beetles and insects of all types. They are endlessly fascinating. Click Beetles helped create this song.

UPDATE: I needlessly confused GrrrlScientist by the last sentence, for which I apologize. There are no recordings of click beetle clicks in the above song, which is named "John Kpiaye" in honor of the guitarist in Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dub Band, whom I always try to copy. What I meant was that I used the click beetle photo above labelled "Ambient Custard" as one of several CD covers for the instrumental CD which includes that song. I can attest that my little buddies the click beetles were certainly an inspirational component when that song and CD were written and recorded.

[1] Of course, this explanation does not explain why click beetles did not just stay drab and inconspicuous and not develop big fake eye spots in the first place. Perhaps big fake eyespots take advantage of a neurological trigger in predators that fools them into thinking the beetle looks "BIG" even though ocular evidence shows it is not. This is not unprecedented. It is well documented that small mother wrens will continue feeding baby cowbirds or cuckoos in their nests even though the babies are twice or three times the size as their foster mothers, and the foster mothers do not notice the obvious and bizarre discrepancy in size.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Sebago Lake's Shoreline Continues to be Destroyed with State of Maine's Support.

These photos, taken on April 4, 2010 by Roger Wheeler of Friends of Sebago Lake, show the destruction of the natural beaches and shoreline of Sebago Lake, Maine continues unabated.

Friends of Sebago Lake has more details on what you can do to help stop this destruction.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Terraced Gardens, Raised Beds, Peas and Global Warming

March 2010 was one of the warmest Marches on record in Maine. April began with three of the hottest days in early April on record, with temps. up to 77 degrees in Bangor. With these conditions and the chance of another hard frost nearly non-existent, it seemed a good gamble to plant peas and swiss chard in the terraced garden with raised beds we built in our yard:

The raised bed above has two rows of peas (Sugar Snap), planted 2 inches apart and the rows 8 inches apart. The rest of the bed will be for tomatoes in mid to late May.

This shows the three raised beds we built into the terrace between our house and the house uphill. The front of the farthest bed is planted with Bright Lights Swiss Chard from Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine.

This is our garden, taken from the giant silver maple out back in May 2009. The peas and swiss chard are in the beds on the left.

The next few weeks will tell whether I got all rambunctious and planted too early, since this is very early for planting anything outdoors in central Maine. However, this spring is already shaping up as a very mild one, most likely influenced by El Nino along with global warming. And because we are using raised beds, the soil temperatures tend to get higher than the ambient ground temperature and the raised beds keep the soil from getting waterlogged after a hard rain. We shall see.

A Cold Frame from Curio Case Doors and Yard Junk

Our old cold frame fell apart over the winter so it came time on Easter Sunday to build a new one for the tomato and pepper seedlings we grow in our raised beds:

It so happens in the garage we have a couple of heavy glass doors from a curio cabinet. We only have the doors, not the cabinet. The doors measure 48 x 19 inches each. So first I found some old crap lumber around the yard to build a box to hold them:

The back plate is made from two chunks of high school bleacher seats with braces from a pressure treated 2 x 6. The sides are half inch plywood running from 13 1/2 inches at the back to 5 1/2 inches at the front. The front plate is the rest of the pressure treated 2 x 6. This is all old scrap lumber. Then I put the first door on:

Then I put on front plate with corner braces cut from a small junk piece of 2 x 4, and then attached the lower door. Except for the front plate, which needed 3 1/2 inch galvanized finishing nails, the rest of the cold frame uses 1 inch galvanized sheet metal screws left over from a metal roofing project.

So after a couple hours we have a 48 by 38 inch cold frame with extremely fancy doors for a cost of zero.

Queequeg T. Dog, Ph.D. inspects the finished cold frame with seeds installed inside, planted in cat food cans. Since we have five cats we have a never ending supply of empty cat food cans, which make ideal pots for starting tomato and pepper seeds. This will hold 150 seedlings. At night I put a dirty old sleeping bag over the frame to conserve heat. Total cost = zero.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Women should stop taking sexism so personally.

Women cannot be objective on the issue of sexism. They get all emotional about it, almost as if it affects them every day. Us men, on the other hand, are like the true compass, unswayed by fickle emotion and hormones. For this reason, we are uniquely capable of taking the larger view.

If you need to know how you should feel as a woman, just ask us. We'll be happy to tell you.

For hours!