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From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"At Least We Don't Behead Astronomers...Anymore"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 31 July 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Solar eclipses have been happening for a long time. Humans have been around for a long time (not as long as eclipses, but pretty long nonetheless). And when folks see eclipses, they tend to want to record the event. Today we have our smartphones, and I'm sure the upcoming solar eclipse on August 21st will generate plenty of social buzz, especially for those lucky enough to see totality.

We have records of eclipses in antiquity, but as you might imagine those records are a little sparse. The earliest possible recording is actually prehistoric - a petroglyph on a monument near Loughcrew, Ireland might depict a total solar eclipse from 3340 BCE.

Our first written record is actually a story - and possibly just that, a story - about how the Chinese emperor Chung K'ang was surprised by an unexpected solar eclipse in 2137 BCE. When he found out that his royal astronomers were out partying, and hence failed to predict the event, he had them beheaded.

The astronomers who served later emperors must've learned that valuable lesson, as after that we have nearly a thousand recordings of eclipses in China spanning fourteen centuries.

"Universality"

on Monday, 24 July 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

One of my favorite things about physics is its universality. A hydrogen atom in the laboratory behaves exactly the same as a hydrogen atom on the back end of the Milky Way galaxy. Gravity is gravity is gravity; the force that keeps your feet planted to the ground is the same force that keeps planets in orbit around the sun, and that's the same force that has shaped the largest structures in the universe.

This key concept allows us to make enormous leaps in understanding. We can understand the state of the first few minutes of the Big Bang because we know how high-density plasmas work, so we can make testable predictions. We can figure out how stars die and blow up without having to visit one, because we can run a computer simulation of the fundamental physics.

Pretty handy, if you ask me.

"Let's (Not) Go To Mars!"

on Monday, 17 July 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Ah, the question asked since the dawn of human civilization: Should we go to Mars? Earth is getting pretty crowded, we're using up all the easily-accessible resources, and we're pretty much done exploring here. So let's go somewhere new!

Hence the anonymous question asked on the whiteboard by my desk recently. Mars seems like a good place to visit, and maybe even move to. But should we?

Mars certainly has a lot going for it. As planets go it's not too far away. It's bigger than the moon, which gives it a more Earth-like gravity. There's a lot of water on the surface just laying around. You could certainly pick a worse place to plant your interplanetary feet.

On the other hand, there's no air. Well, a little bit, and it's all carbon dioxide. The water is frozen. The gravity, while stronger than the moon's, is only about a third that of the Earth. And "not too far away" in space is...really, really far away.

Getting to Mars is certainly technologically feasible. Building a colony there? Possible, but it will take some major leaps and bounds, not to mention a century or two of solid investment, before it could be self-sustaining.

But in the end, should we go to Mars? Maybe.

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