Posts Tagged ‘physics’

NASA, AS17-148-2272, taken from Apollo 17 mission on December 7, 1972, at 5:39 a.m. ESTWe live on a beautiful, fragile yet amazingly resilient world, which we celebrate on April 22.  It’s the third planet from our star, the sun, formed over four and half billion  years ago from accreting stellar matter, along with the rest of our system.  Life developed rapidly on the new planet, taking merely half a billion year or so, maybe a little more, but took another two billion before jumping to a multicellular arrangement.  All the time, it has branched and multiplied, trying all sorts of crazy strategies to get the edge in survival.  The whole system is an intricately interconnected web stretched around a lovely blue marble.

To the right is the most famous photo ever taken of our world, NASA’s image no. AS17-148-2272, taken from the Apollo 17 mission on December 7, 1972, at 5:39 a.m. EST.  We’re more used to see it reversed, with the South Pole at the bottom.   It was the the first clear image of an illuminated face of Earth we ever received — this was a new trajectory never used before by an Apollo mission — and is sometimes described as the most reproduced image of all times.  (That’s an unverifiable claim, but it’s true that this is a widely known, iconic image.  I posted the South-Pole-up version rather than the more familiar reversed version to remind myself that up and down, north and south, are entirely relative to our frame of reference.

I think I’m going to go listen to Vangelis’ Albedo 0.39 now.


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The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.
— Carl Sagan, Cosmos

A few days ago, the free online video service Hulu made Carl Sagan’s 1980 science series Cosmos available among their releases (also available through Google Video).

This is the most recent release, containing Sagan’s 1990 updates as well as recent intro comments from his wife, writer Ann Druyan.

In 1980, the landmark series Cosmos premiered on public television. Since then, it is estimated that more than a billion people around the planet have seen it. Cosmos chronicles the evolution of the planet and efforts to find our place in the universe. Each of the 13 episodes focuses on a specific aspect of the nature of life, consciousness, the universe and time. Topics include the origin of life on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere), the nature of consciousness, and the birth and death of stars. When it first aired, the series catapulted creator and host Carl Sagan to the status of pop culture icon and opened countless minds to the power of science and the possibility of life on other worlds.

Carl Sagan was an astronomer and a writer who did enormous work to popularize science. He died of pneumonia contracted during his fight against myelodysplasia (a form of anemia) in 1996 and I was very sad when we lost him.

This weekend my husband and I watched a few episodes of Cosmos, dreading how old news it might seem after three decades, but the series has aged reasonably gracefully. I wish certain sections were presented in a different order, but I believe it continues to be an excellent introduction to the intricate interconnectedness of humanity’s scientific quest, and the beauty of the universe.

I was 15 when the series was first aired. Sagan’s memorable “Billions and Billions” — with an emphasis on the Bs he reportedly added so there would be no confusion with “millions” — and his beatific gazing at starscapes, the Vangelis soundtrack, and the voyages of the “spaceship of imagination” were among the high points of an otherwise dreary year in high school. The handful of astronomy nerds I hung out with — Nathalie, Christian, Alain, Marc — talked animatedly about the episodes the next day, straining our then-limited knowledge of English. The next Christmas, mom gave me a copy of the book based on the series (there is a bit of irony in this) and later on I used the contents in many a class paper.

Hulu is co-owned by NBC Universal, News Corp. and Providence Equity Partners, and operated independently. Cosmos was first broadcast on PBS.

Links of interest:

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I’m crossing my fingers on appointments for the new Obama administration. While there are a number of appointments that would not be my first choices, I understand that a lot of compromises are needed in politics. A few choices make me look up and hope for, you know, change:

John P. Holdren has apparently been tapped to become the President’s science adviser. Director and faculty chair of the Science, Technology and Public Policy program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Holdren has written many articles on global environmental change, sustainable development, energy technology and policy, nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, and science and technology policy.

Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Chu, head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of Physics and Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley, has been nominated to head the Department of Energy. Chu has been an advocate of developing renewable energy sources to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

Carol Browner, a former head of the U.S. EPA under the Clinton administration, has been selected to be Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, the so-called “Climate Czar”. Her original background was in law and politics, but she has served extensively in various positions related to environmental protection and did a pretty decent job at EPA (from my perspective as a consultant who had to work closely with EPA during that period and since).

Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist from Oregon State University where she is Valley Professor of Marine Biology and Distinguished Professor of Zoology, has been picked as administrator for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She founded the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program and is known for long-time dedication to improving public understanding of science. She too has done considerable work on global climate change issues.

President-elect Obama also named the chairs of the Presidential Council of Advisers on Science and Technology on Saturday: Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and MIT genome biologist Eric Lander, who was one of the driving forces on the Human Genome Project.

I’m very hopeful that these people will bring powerful understanding of science and dedication to rationality to positions that are two often prizes for partisan politics.

Links of interest:

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Principia title pageThis day 321 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, better known as Principia. It gave us Newton’s laws of motion — the very foundation of classical mechanics, his law of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws (which had originally been empirically obtained) of planetary motion.

Interestingly, although Newton had developed calculus as a mathematical tool to derive these laws, he largely left it out of Principia, and instead re-created most of the proofs for his laws using geometry. Presumably, calculus was too much of a newfangled or obscure field of mathematics.

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