Understanding Space and Time

Have you ever noticed how it is almost impossible to find documentaries made more than a few years ago?  I was doing some reading on the Casimir effect this evening and came across the name of Julian Schwinger (1918-1994), the American theoretical physicist who shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics with Richard Feynman (1918-1988) and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga (1906-1979).  I remember, after all these years, that I had enjoyed watching a BBC documentary series that featured Schwinger (as well as George Abell) called Understanding Space and Time.  It was broadcast in 1979 or 1980 and featured thirteen 28-minute episodes.

  1. Ground control to Mr. Galileo
  2. As Surely as Columbus Saw America
  3. Pushed to the Limit
  4. Conflict Brought to Light
  5. Marking Time
  6. E = mc2
  7. An Isolated Fact
  8. The Royal Road
  9. At the Frontier
  10. Shades of Black
  11. Measuring Shadows: The Universe Today
  12. A Note of Uncertainty: The Universe Tomorrow
  13. Vanished Brilliance: The Universe Yesterday

Granted, some of this material is now dated, but much of it is still relevant and certainly of historical interest.  Why is it (and a host of other documentaries) not available on DVD or for downloading?

We really need a company to fill a different niche alongside The Great Courses, Curiosity Stream, and Netflix.  That niche would be to uncover and rerelease past documentaries of merit1, often hosted or presented by historically important individuals.  Documentaries such as Understanding Space and Time would be nice to own and watch again.

1One must certainly include many PBS documentaries and older episodes of documentary series—NOVA, for example—that are no longer available.

Dodgeville Street Project Proposals

As illustrated below, a lot of drivers in Dodgeville take a dubious “short cut” from King St. to Iowa/Bequette by way of W. Leffler instead of taking King St. all the way to Iowa/Bequette.  Most of the people taking this short cut are leaving Lands’ End and heading to their homes in the Madison metro area.  These folks are not Dodgeville / Iowa County taxpayers.  Here’s the problem.  W. Leffler has been beat all to hell and is badly in need of resurfacing.  All that Lands’ End traffic has contributed mightily to the degradation of W. Leffler.  Now, as a bicycle commuter trying to get from Lands’ End to most of the rest of Dodgeville (always a dangerous proposition), it makes sense to use W. Leffler to minimize the amount of time I have to ride my bike on busy King St. and very busy Iowa/Bequette.  But W. Leffler is so broken up that for safety reasons I need to ride near the middle of the road—but a steady stream of vehicles takes the short cut down W. Leffler instead of staying on King St. up to convenient entrance ramp to Iowa/Bequette.  It is a no-win situation for Dodgeville bicyclists.  One solution would be to have W. Leffler dead end at King St. with only a bike-path connector between King St. and W. Leffler, though I suspect that would be quite unpopular in our auto-centric community.  Another solution would be to resurface W. Leffler and never let it degrade this much again.  Is that too much to ask?  It is a short street, after all.

The Lands’ End Shortcut to the Madison Metro Area

I’m not a big fan of roundabouts, but if ever there was a case for one it would be at the intersections of Iowa/Bequette, N. Main, E. Spring, and W. Spring.  In my crude map overlay below, it looks like one building would probably have to be removed.  The roundabout would need to be designed to easily accommodate the comings and goings of fire trucks from the nearby fire station.  Presently, this “octopus” of an intersection is dangerous, and I completely avoid ever making a left turn there.  Why not prohibit all dangerous left turns at these intersections by installing a roundabout where every turn will be a right turn?

Where a roundabout is needed in Dodgeville

Dateline 2024: Total Solar Eclipse

In little more than six years, another total solar eclipse across the continental U.S. will pass as close as Southern Illinois and Indiana.  Like our recent eclipse of August 21, 2017, the next total solar eclipse will also take place on a Monday and, remarkably, just a few minutes earlier in the day.  Save the date: April 8, 2024.   Actually, not long to wait.  Think about what you were doing around December 7, 2011.  Can you remember?  No question about it, the next six years will go faster than the previous six did.  Seems that as we age our sense of time changes, and time seems to go faster and faster.

The point of maximum length of totality for the 2017 eclipse was 12 miles NW of the center of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where totality lasted 2m40s and the path of totality was 71 miles wide.

The point of maximum length of totality for the 2024 eclipse will be near Nazas, Mexico (in the state of Durango), where totality will last 4m28s and the path of totality will be 123 miles wide.  Yes, this will be a longer eclipse!

Remarkably, there is a location in southern Illinois that is on the centerline of both the 2017 and 2024 eclipses!  That location is 37°38’32” N, 89°15’55” W, SW of Carbondale, Illinois, near Cedar Lake and the Midland Hills Country Club.

When did a total solar eclipse last grace Dodgeville, Wisconsin?  Nearly 639 years ago, on May 16, 1379.  The duration of totality was 3m48s.  Perhaps the Oneota people then living in this area witnessed the event.

The next total solar eclipse visible from Dodgeville won’t happen for another 654 years.  There’ll be annular eclipses in 2048, 2213, 2410, 2421, and 2614.  Then, finally, on June 17, 2672, the totally-eclipsed Sun will once again grace the skies of Dodgeville—weather permitting, of course.  The duration of the eclipse at Dodgeville will be 2m47s.  There will be another annular eclipse in 2678, followed by another total eclipse (duration 3m01s) on June 8, 2681.  Then, just two years later there’ll be another total eclipse at Dodgeville: on November 10, 2683 (0m49s).  That’s three total eclipses and one annular eclipse visible at Dodgeville in just 11 years!

Faintest Constellations

There are a dozen constellations with no star brighter than +4.0 magnitude.  Many of them are deep in the southern sky.  They are:

ANTLIA, the Air Pump
Brightest Star: Alpha Antliae, apparent visual magnitude +4.25


CAELUM, the Engraving Tool
Brightest Star: Alpha Caeli, apparent visual magnitude +4.45


Brightest Star: Beta Camelopardalis, apparent visual magnitude +4.02

cuh-MEL-oh- PAR-duh-liss

CHAMAELEON, the Chameleon
Brightest Star: Alpha Chamaeleontis, apparent visual magnitude +4.047

cuh-MEAL-yun, or cuh-MEAL-ee-un

COMA BERENICES, Berenice’s Hair
Brightest Star: Beta Comae Berenices, apparent visual magnitude +4.25

COE-muh BER-uh-NICE-eez

CORONA AUSTRALIS, the Southern Crown
Brightest Star: Meridiana, apparent visual magnitude +4.087

cuh-ROE-nuh aw-STRAL-iss

MENSA, the Table Mountain
Brightest Star: Alpha Mensae, apparent visual magnitude +5.09


MICROSCOPIUM, the Microscope
Brightest Star: Gamma Microscopii, apparent visual magnitude +4.654


NORMA, the Carpenter’s Square
Brightest Star: Gamma2 Normae, apparent visual magnitude +4.02


SCULPTOR, the Sculptor
Brightest Star: Alpha Sculptoris, apparent visual magnitude +4.27


SEXTANS, the Sextant
Brightest Star: Alpha Sextantis, apparent visual magnitude +4.49


Brightest Star: Anser, apparent visual magnitude +4.45


Falling Ice Chunks

There are a number of documented cases of large chunks of ice falling out of a clear blue sky.  After we eliminate ice falling from airplanes or nearby thunderstorms, there still appear to be some events that remain unexplained.

I first heard of this phenomenon over ten years ago, when a 50-pound chunk of ice fell through Jan Kenkel‘s roof in Dubuque, Iowa on Thursday morning, July 26, 2007.

These unexplained falling ice chunks are been given a rather inappropriate name: megacryometeor.  Why don’t we just call them “falling ice chunks”  or FICs for short, at least until they receive an explanation?

It almost certainly is some sort of unusual atmospheric phenomenon, as ice balls from space would vaporize before they reach the ground.

An unknown blogger (in Spain?) has been documenting news articles about all manner of falling ice chunks since the Dubuque event.  The blog is called HALS, which is the plural abbreviation for hydroaerolite—certainly a better name than “megacryometeor”—though this perhaps is also a geological term used to describe “silty sediments transported by the wind and deposited on a temporarily wet surface”.

Obviously, more peer-reviewed scientific research needs to be done on these falling ice chunks, megacryometeors, hydroaerolites, or what have you.

The LED Lighting Revolution

Solid state lighting, namely light-emitting diodes (LEDs), are completely revolutionizing indoor and outdoor lighting.  Here’s why:

  1. White LEDs on the market today have a system luminous efficacy ranging from 50 (least efficient) to 80 (average) to 140 (most efficient) lumens per watt.  This far exceeds the luminous efficacy of incandescent (5-35 lumens/watt), and generally exceeds compact fluorescents (45-60 lumens/watt).  Prototypes of the next generation of white LEDs have luminous efficacies up to 150 lumens/watt, and theoretically 200-250 lumens per watt may someday be achievable.  Since the traditional white light source of choice for outdoor lighting has been metal halide with a luminous efficacy of 65-115 lumens/watt, white LEDs are well on the way towards replacing metal halide.  Even the more efficient orange high pressure sodium (HPS) lights, with an efficacy of 150 lumens/watt, are nearly matched by the best white LEDs.  Only monochromatic low-pressure sodium (LPS) with an efficacy of 183-200 lumens/watt will give more lumens per watt than the best white LEDs.
  2. White LEDs last much longer than other light sources: 50,000 to 100,000 hours (between 12 and 24 years, operating dusk-to-dawn 365 days a year).  In comparison, high pressure sodium typically lasts about 5 years, and metal halide a little less at 4 years.
  3. Unlike high-intensity discharge (HID) sources such as metal halide, HPS, LPS, and mercury vapor, white LEDs are “instant on / instant off” with no warmup time to full brightness, so they can be switched on and off as often as you like with no shortening of bulb life; and they are easily dimmable. LEDs will render dusk-to-dawn lighting a questionable option rather than an operational necessity.

My only concern is that we finally “get it right” with LEDs instead of blindly following the “more is better” philosophy as we have with every lighting efficiency improvement in the past.  Low levels of white light (fully shielded to minimize direct source glare) is the most effective and efficient way to provide adequate illumination.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, however.  Think of the light provided by a full moon as we have this week.

Unfortunately, most places that is not what is happening.  Light levels are increasing, as is the amount of lighting.  We seem well on the way towards eliminating anything resembling a natural nighttime environment for most people.  I don’t know about you, but that is not a world I want to live in.

DIAL (15 June 2016). Efficiency of LEDs: The highest luminous efficacy of a white LED.  Retrieved from https://www.dial.de/en/blog/article/efficiency-of-ledsthe-highest-luminous-efficacy-of-a-white-led/.

Kyba, C., Kuester, T., et al. 2017, Science Advances, 3, 11, e1701528

Planets Without Satellites

It may be rare for terrestrial planets to be accompanied by satellites, especially large ones.  It is far too early for us to draw any conclusions about terrestrial exoplanets (as no terrestrial exoplanet exomoons have yet been detectable), but in our own solar system, only two planets have no satellites, and they are both terrestrial planets: Mercury and Venus.  Mars has two small satellites that are almost certainly captured asteroids from the adjacent asteroid belt rather than primordial moons, and that leaves only the Earth among the terrestrial planets to host a large satellite, though it, too, is almost certainly not primordial.  Only the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) have large systems of satellites, at least some of which may have formed while the planet itself was forming.

Though neither Mercury nor Venus has any natural satellites, Venus is known to have at least four transient quasi-satellites, more generally referred to as co-orbitals.  They are:

322756 (2001 CK32)
Comes close to both Earth and Mercury in its eccentric orbit (e=0.38).
Wiki  JPL  Orrery

2002 VE68
Comes close to both Earth and Mercury in its eccentric orbit (e=0.41).
Wiki  JPL  Orrery

2012 XE133
Comes close to both Earth and Mercury in its eccentric orbit (e=0.43).
Wiki JPL Orrery

2013 ND15
Comes close to both Earth and Mercury in its very eccentric orbit (e=0.61), and is the only known trojan of Venus, currently residing near its L4 Lagrangian point.
Wiki JPL Orrery

2015 WZ12 is a possible fifth Venus co-orbital candidate.  Observations during the next favorable observing opportunity in November of this year will hopefully better determine its orbit and nature.

2015 WZ12
Possible Venus co-orbital.
Wiki JPL Orrery

There is concern that there may be many more Venus co-orbitals, as yet undiscovered (and challenging to discover) that pose risks as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) to our planet.

There are no known Mercury co-orbitals.  If any do exist, they will be exceedingly difficult to detect since they will always be in the glare of the Sun as seen from Earth.

Asteroids orbiting interior to Mercury’s orbit (a < 0.387 AU) would be called vulcanoids.  I say “would be” because none have been discovered yet, though in all fairness, they will be extremely difficult to detect.

A spacecraft orbiting interior to Mercury’s orbit looking outward would be an ideal platform for detecting, inventorying, and characterizing all potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) that exist in the inner solar system. A surveillance telescope in a circular orbit 0.30 AU from the Sun would orbit the Sun every 60 days.

The Parker Solar Probe, scheduled to launch later this year, will orbit the Sun between 0.73 AU and an extraordinarily close 0.04 AU, though it will be looking towards the Sun, not away from it.  The Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) is a proposed mission to look specifically for PHAs using an infrared telescope from a vantage point at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrangian point.

de la Fuente Marcos, C., & de la Fuente Marcos, R. 2014, MNRAS, 439, 2970
de la Fuente Marcos, C., & de la Fuente Marcos, R. 2017, RNAAS, 1, 3
Sheppard, S., & Trujillo, C. 2009, Icarus, 202, 12

It Came from Outer Space

Just watched a sci-fi movie this past weekend I had never seen before, thanks to Netflix.  In fact, this movie was released three years before I was born—in 1953.  I probably passed this one by before now because of its cheesy, B-movie title: It Came from Outer Space.

Actually, this movie was far better than I had expected.  Definitely a sci-fi classic, a must see for anyone interested in the science fiction genre.  It is rated “G” so is suitable for all ages (so rare nowadays for any dramatic movie, sadly), and is 1h21m in length, so not a huge time commitment.  The story is by noted author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).

And, hey, the lead characters are an amateur astronomer and his gorgeous schoolteacher girlfriend, living in Arizona.

Without giving away too much of the plot, let me just say that aliens crash land in Arizona, and are simply trying to repair their damaged spacecraft so they can return to outer space.  How do we humans react?  All too predictably, sad to say.  The unknown frightens us, and  “What we don’t understand we want to destroy.”

As you’d expect from Bradbury, it is a good story.  Enjoy.  And think about the implications for the survival of the human race.

Spirit and Opportunity

The Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars on January 4, 2004 and January 25, 2004, respectively.  Spirit continued operating until contact was lost on March 22, 2010, a total of 2,269 Earth days, which is 2,208 days on Mars (sols)1Spirit operated on the Martian surface 24.5 times as long as its design life of 90 sols.

Even more amazing: Opportunity has been operating on the Martian surface (as of this publication date) for 5,108 Earth days, which is 4,971 sols.   That’s 55.2 times its design life of 90 sols!

Spirit and Opportunity faced their greatest challenge up to that point during the global Martian dust storm of July 2007.  Here is what I wrote about it back then.

Spirit and Opportunity‘s Greatest Challenge (7-26-07)

The intrepid Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity—which have been operating on the surface of Mars over 14 times longer than planned—each carry two 8 amp-hour lithium batteries, and these batteries are charged by solar panels.  Before dust storms began significantly reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the rovers’ solar panels, they were generating about 700 watt-hours of electricity each day—enough to power a 100-watt light bulb for seven hours.  Not much, it may seem, but plenty enough to operate each rover’s internal heaters, motors, scientific instruments, and communication equipment.

In recent weeks, both rovers have seriously been affected by the dust storms, particularly Opportunity which last week was able to generate only 128 watt-hours of electricity on the worst day.  With precious little energy to replenish the internal batteries, controllers have hunkered down the rovers to conserve energy for the most critical need—internal heaters to keep the core electronics warm enough to operate.  Remember, the average surface temperature on Mars is -85° F!

At press time, weather conditions appear to be improving for both rovers, but there are still worries that the rovers could have been damaged by all that dust blowing at them for days on end.

As it turns out, after the global dust storm of 2007 subsided, the rovers benefited from subsequent “cleaning events” where the winds of Mars blew most of the dust off of the solar panels.

There have been no global dust storms on Mars since 2007; however, another one is anticipated later this year.  Hopefully, our intrepid Opportunity will weather the storm and continue to generate enough life-giving power from its precious solar panels .

1A Martian day is called a sol and is slightly longer than an Earth day.  A mean solar day on Earth is 24h00m00s, by definition, but a mean solar day on Mars is 24h39m35.244s Earth time.  To convert Earth days to Martian sols, divide the number of Earth days by 1.0275.

A Better Lotion Bottle

For many of us, winter in the Upper Midwest means dry, cracked hands and nasty splits at the ends of our thumbs and fingers.  The only way to avoid or at least mitigate this is to apply lotion to your hands after every hand washing, because soap removes too much of your skin’s natural moisturizing oils (lipids).

I’m not a big fan of pump dispensers when it comes to lotion.  When the pump has pumped all the lotion it can, there is still a lot of lotion left behind in the bottle.  And most of us don’t want to go through the extra effort needed to get to the remaining lotion, so we throw the bottle out rather than utilizing the remaining lotion and then recycling the bottle.

Wasteful lotion container on the left – Better lotion container on the right

Recently, just to see how much lotion was left in a Gold Bond® pump dispenser (excellent lotion, by the way), we used a razor blade to cut all the way around the midsection of the lotion bottle, separating it into roughly two halves.  Then we used a spoon to scoop out all the remaining lotion in the two halves and put it into a clean plastic tub—formerly a sour cream container.  The amount of leftover lotion is substantial, as you can see in the photograph below.  A many-days supply, to be sure!

Leftover lotion from a seemingly empty pump dispenser

We consumers need to put pressure on pump-dispenser lotion manufacturers to package their lotions in containers that make it easy to extract all the lotion.  Some lotion manufacturers are already doing this, and we should purchase their products.  O’Keeffe’s® Working Hands® is one good example.

You can get all of the lotion out of a container like this

Sometimes, lotion manufacturers package their product in both types of containers—pump dispensers and tub containers—but your local grocery store, pharmacy, or big-box store only carries the less environmentally-friendly pump-dispenser type of container.  Do your research, and meet with the store manager to ask them to carry the tub container alternative instead of—or in addition to—the pump dispenser.

Each and every day we can make choices that are better for our environment.  This is yet another example: use all the product and make it easy to recycle the container.