JWST’s MIRI looks at Stephan’s Quintet. Courtesy NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute
It should be no surprise that aging scientists from all fields gravitate (ha!) to astronomy as we get more interested in the grand fates of things. Fortunately there are many sites and channels to scratch that itch, giving us a perhaps too comfortable view of complex material. The life and death of stars is an example where the high level explanations of gravity versus fusion do work but where the many omitted details cause midnight befuddlement. Where does the energy come from? Where does it go? Wait… how fast – Relativistic speeds?
Anonymous Youtuber “But Why?” breaks the barrier with this beautiful video on the collapse of very big stars – the kind that leave neutron stars or black holes in their wake. It isn’t all symmetric implosions and classical rebounds and the thought of a giant object collapsing 5000-km in a tenth of a second boggles the mind. The depth of detail is breathtaking, the amount of research inspiring, and taught me much new physics that I incorrectly thought I already knew.
Youtube Channel: But Why?
Sports Illustrated quoted this Japanese proverb back in 1975 in conjunction with Cal’s championship men’s gymnastic team of that era. The adage abides with the James Webb Space Telescope now in its halo orbit around the Sun-Earth L2 point, its optics and instruments slowly cooling to their ultimate cryogenic temperatures, the better to collect the faint signs of heat from the early universe. Little has been said to the public about the instruments nestled in the big box behind the 6.5-m primary mirror. This is perhaps not surprising. There are no secrets here, just that the real science goals and the optical engineering to meet them are fiendishly complex. Friendly Neighborhood Astronomer Christian Ready tackles the challenge, explaining where the precious photons will go and what will happen to them once they arrive. The comment section clamors for more detail on the MIRI cryocooler which will take the mid-Infrared Instrument’s focal plane array below 7K. Here’s to hoping for a full video on this beast, built across the hall from me, and on which I spent a couple of weeks when the team was shorthanded.
Youtube Channel: Launchpad Astronomy
As the man said after the Eagle landed: “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
The James Webb Space Telescope, largely designed, built, and tested at Space Park in Redondo Beach, has launched, raised itself from the spacecraft, deployed its 5 layer sunshield, and put its primary and secondary mirrors into place. It will take another few months for the telescope to cool in the shade and then to commission the instruments before science measurements can begin.
It has been a long and contentious wait but the magnitude of this accomplishment is worth celebrating.
Youtube Channel: Northrop Grumman
Look at The Martian Chronicles. At the height of American optimism, Bradbury wrote a bittersweet novel about the failures of science, technology, and progress. Humanity makes it to Mars, but the triumph is illusory. Mars becomes a landscape of ghost towns. The novel was an extraordinarily fertile moment in American imagination. He suggested the notion of unlimited positive progress was an illusion. His wasn’t the dystopian vision of Orwell or Zamyatin but something gentler and more elegiac. H. G. Wells could write about the end of civilization from a global perspective. Bradbury made the vision personal and lyric.
— Dana Gioia on Ray Bradbury
I’ve read a lot of Bradbury recently, that is to the extent that I can focus long enough to read much of anything. The Illustrated Man was better than the The Illustrated Woman contained in the uniformly depressing Machineries of Joy which I am struggling to finish. There can be no question though that The Martian Chronicles deserves the accolades and adaptations.
I struggle with Bradbury’s categorization as a science fiction writer. Chronicles aside, he is a breed apart from Asimov and Clarke who briskly get down to business peddling a bright future for one and all enabled by the latest in vacuum tubes and servomotors. Bradbury doesn’t fit that mold and through his thick glasses he saw a grimy future broken by the ones who people it. He is lyrical, almost to excess in fact, and it takes a special frame of mind to deal with his unusual rhythms and devices. His observations on technology are profoundly gloomy. Not for him the boundless optimism and things coming out well in the wash. Long before Sputnik, Gagarin, or their American counterparts, he saw that a future world, a spacefaring one, would eventually have to send the worst of the species after the best had paved the way. The Chronicles are full of careerists, louts, and brutes going not to explore but to exploit.
In recognition of the Bradbury centennial, Hawthorne expat and recent state Poet Laureate Dana Gioia speaks to Bradbury’s wide and ongoing cultural impact in dialogue with his biographer. The discussion does locate Bradbury firmly as a Los Angeles writer, a thing that still surprises many as that which does not, can not, or at least ought not to exist in the heart of the entertainment industry. Gioia acknowledges that “major mainstream journals published [Bradbury’s] fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV.” He leaves out the stage apart from a brief mention in another list and more’s the pity. The lyricism, the elegiac odes to humanity’s perpetual folly is what allowed the Pandemonium Theatre Company to bring so many of those stories to life with humans speaking to humans and not through effects in post-production. Pandemonium was another Bradbury creation nurtured by others until its demise in the early 2000s. The Falcon hosted an uneven Fahrenheit 451 in 2002 with other, more successful productions at Theatre West and the lovely yet now defunct Court Theatre. He often appeared in the audience and, when asked, would say a few words before curtain to an appreciative audience sufficiently steeped in LA etiquette to applaud yet keep a respectful distance.
It is trivial to hang present day realities on deceased authors but there is no doubt that it is the pessimistic futures Bradbury foresaw decades ago that have played out and not those of his compatriots. We don’t have energy too cheap to meter, we aren’t in control of our robots, and ubiquitous telecommunications has served to narrow, divide, and power the slide into darkness. We are the same desperate creatures that came out of the caves only with flashier and deadlier toys.
Here are two sobering stories adapted in 1950 for the Dimension X radio series.
Youtube Channel: Old Time Radio Researchers
The online astronomy office hours from the UofA continue apace. Every week Prof. Chris Impey answers ex tempore a mix of questions from planetary science to the fate of the universe from a thirsty audience across the globe. A large Indian contingent stays up until the wee small hours of their morning to join in. Part of the fun is pausing the video and trying to figure out the answer from basic considerations before resuming. It is fun to be right but more instructive to be wrong. I’ve been moved to send in three questions over the past couple of sessions and all have been answered.
- When in relation to the Big Bang did dark matter originate?
- There is a surprising correlation between supermassive galactic black hole size and the population of old stars in a galaxy. Can telescopes now resolve individual stars in distant galaxies well enough to distinguish old from new to establish this connection?
- Observational results come from the successful. How do astronomers get precious telescope time?
Youtube Channel: Astronomy State of the Art
Silicon Valley has reshaped the earth, Hollywood has driven our perceptions of it, and not always for the better. Less well known is the outsized role California has played in understanding our universe. Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar, and their astronomers have had a Copernican impact on where we stand in the grand scheme of things. The word ‘vision’ gets bandied about a lot these days but George Ellery Hale had it in spades. Here’s how the two observatories that housed Hubble, Humason, Shapley, Zwicky, Baade, Rubin, and Schmidt came to be.
The third video from Corning’s Museum of Glass shows that the path to science is not always smooth and that learning from mistakes is the norm. The original 200 inch pyrex disk for the Palomar primary did not go according to plan and had to be recast. The second attempt succeeded and even so, it took ten years of painstaking grinding and polishing at Caltech before it was ready for use.
Youtube Channel: Palomar Observatory
Youtube Channel: Irish Astronomy
Youtube Channel: Corning Museum of Glass
I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library
— J.L. Borges
No, I haven’t read any Borges but this is one of those quotes that is very popular with my ilk. But, libraries are indeed wonderful things and I remember hanging out a lot – and later volunteering – at the old Albany (California) Public Library on Solano Avenue in the late 1970s. Don’t look for it there now, it is a youth center affiliated with the YMCA. I spent as much time at the Doe and Bancroft as any science major at Cal could. The specialty books and journals were in Hildebrand Hall but the atmosphere in the general purpose stacks was unbeatable. The Internet has obliterated what little attention span I once had so sitting down and reading a physical book is next to impossible and yet the lure, the promise, and the perfume of endless shelves of books is still strong.
“Objectivity” is one of Brady Haran‘s strongest and most addicting channels. Most of the episodes are filmed at the Royal Society‘s Library in London and feature Keith Moore, the hypnotic and wildly popular head librarian who pulls from a bottomless collection of manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, and instruments from Newton to the present. The Brits were pieces of work for several hundred years but there can be no denying that they made a few positive contributions to somewhat offset their spherical bastardy.
Visiting the Society’s collections may just be sufficient to deal with the rigors of travel in whatever a post-COVID landscape may look like as well as London’s notoriously high prices.
Enjoy the long-requested Q&A with The Man which includes a very candid answer to a probing viewer question. Be sure to check out the rest of the channel – some selections below.
Youtube Channel: Objectivity
Is this thing still on?
I’ve posted previously of CinemaTyler’s excellent but breathless exploration of 2001: A Space Odyssey. ParallaxNick takes a more leisurely and historical look at the same film. It is less about the filmmaking process and more on its origins, development, context, and implications. Nick’s videos about astronomy are well worth the watch.
Youtube Channel: ParallaxNick