BAN #69: A comet brightens, a planet warms

December 10, 2018 Issue #69

Subscribers are the hairy stars in my sky.

Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news that may be too short for the blog, too long for Twitter, but just right (and cool enough to talk about) for here.

Right now, a comet is brightening in the early evening sky and is worth trying to take a look at. It’s called 46P/Wirtanen, and its currently high in the sky not long after sunset, situated to the west of Orion. It’s not quite bright enough to see with just your naked eye (unless you have excellent vision and live far away from city lights) but it should be pretty easy to spot with binoculars. If you have a dark sky it’ll look like a fuzzy green dot.

[Comet 46P/Wirtanen on Dec. 7, 2018. This is a deep exposure so it won’t look quite this spectacularly lovely in the eyepiece — this was taken by master solar system astrophotographer Damian Peach — but it should still be pretty cool. Credit: Damian Peach]

Wirtanen orbits the Sun on an ellipse that takes it pretty near Earth, and as far out as Jupiter. This is a pretty close pass — it’ll be just under 12 million km away on December 16, about 30 times the distance of the Moon— which is why it’s getting bright enough to notice.

You’ll need a finder chart to get a look, and some familiarity with the sky. If there’s an observatory or astronomy group near you, contact them. It’s a decent bet they’ll have telescopes set up at some point to look. I plan on checking it out myself; the weather here has been iffy but if it gets clear enough I’ll look.

And hey, the Geminids peak on Thursday night! That’s a pretty good excuse to be outside anyway.

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Is it hot in here, or is it just anthropogenic global warming?

Climate change is real, y’all

Well — not to coin a phrase or anything — but I have some good news and some bad news.

First, the bad news:

I was getting pretty happy watching annual global fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions; for a couple of years they had flatted out, and it was looking like maybe we were entering a downturn in the amount of CO2 we put in the air.

I was happy too soon: Emissions in 2018 have taken a sharp 2% uptick.

Eric Holthaus@EricHolthausBREAKING: Global carbon emissions have begun to accelerate upwards again in 2017 and 2018, after a three-year lull. It must be said: We are making the worst problem we have ever created even worse—at an ever-faster rate. This is madness. We are self-sabotaging our own planet.

Glen Peters@Peters_Glen

THREAD (Global Fossil CO₂ Emissions) Global fossil CO₂ emissions are on track to rise more than 2% in 2018 (2.7%, range 1.8% to 3.7%). Emissions rose 1.6% in 2017 (leap-year adjusted) after a temporary slowdown from 2014 to 2016. #CarbonBudget #COP24

Mind you this is just from fossil fuel; for a while now I’ve been saying the actual number is closer to 40 gigatons — yes, 40 billion tons — of CO2 put into the atmosphere by humans per year.

My friend Chris Mooney has more on this as well:

Chris Mooney@chriscmooney‘We are in trouble.’ Global carbon emissions reached a new record high in 2018.

As does climatologist Zeke Hausfather:

Zeke Hausfather@hausfathSome grim news: global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry will rise around 3% in 2018, the fastest in 7 years, dashing any hope of a peak. I break down the details of the Global Carbon Project data over at @CarbonBrief: A few key takeaways: 1/5

And yet, there is some good news. As I wrote in BAN #68 (the Thursday subscriber’s issue):

On the other hand, I was surprised to see some heartening news on this front: For one, Xcel energy, the power company for eight states in the west, including my own Colorado, has announced they want to be fossil fuel-free by 2050. Holy wow! That’s a big deal. This goes along with what our new Governor, Jared Polis, has said about making Colorado totally green by 2040, too.

For another, Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, has pledged to go carbon-free by 2050 as well! This is huge news, since shipping puts out a vast amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Since they are such a dominant company this will force ship makers to start thinking about how they can do this now, rather than keep pushing it off into the future.

And there’s more. If politicians don’t take climate change seriously, at least our children do:

Eric Holthaus@EricHolthausIf, over the next 12 years, the world radically reduces emissions in line with what scientists say is necessary and we start to build a truly ecological society to ensure our own survival, *this* will be one of the most important speeches in world history.

Greta Thunberg@GretaThunberg

”So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.” From my speech yesterday at #COP24

And of course some politicians (cough cough Democrats) do in fact take climate change seriously. On Capitol Hill, many of the freshmen incoming Representatives are planning on making climate change a big policy initiative; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, held a town hall meeting to talk about a “Green New Deal”. Science communicator Jayde Lovell is hopeful:

ScIQ on TYT Network@ScIQ_tytTo the objectors of @Ocasio2018's #GreenNewDeal - TYT's science correspondent @JaydeLovell has this to say:

Skeptical Science takes a more reserved stand:

Skeptical Science@skepticscienceA star-studded progressive town hall on climate change drew thousands of viewers online and hundreds in person – but offered little insight into...

At the moment I’m OK with the Dems doing it this way. Just talking about it is a big step! Not big enough — the time to start dealing with climate change was decades ago — but it’s a start. I’m willing to give them a chance to find their footing, make partnerships and cultivate allies, and then start making tangible progress. There’s a vast amount of money to be made mitigating climate change (just ask Tesla or any car manufacturer moving to electric vehicles), and hopefully this is one tack the Dems will take.

Mind you, my patience is finite. Hopefully they’ll get this moving quickly.

And one final bit of good climate news… literally. The Daily Climate site has a section called Good News, the function of which should be pretty obvious. If all the doom and gloom gets you down, this is an excellent place to see that not all is lost, and there are folks out there working very hard to literally save our ability to live on Earth.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

Monday Dec. 3, 2018: *FOUR* new black hole mergers have been found blasting out gravitational waves!

Tuesday Dec. 4, 2018: Welcome to Bennu!

Wednesday Dec. 5, 2018: So, a supernova may have torched a star nearby

Thursday Dec. 6, 2018: How Phobos got its grooves

Friday Dec. 7, 2018: When it comes to craters, what is “small”?

Et alia

You can email me at (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!

BAN #67: Church Moonrise, Photonic mea culpa

December 3, 2018 Issue #67

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Pic o’ the Letter

A cool or lovely or mind-bending astronomical image/video with a short description so you can grok it

Astrophotographer Göran Strand’s images and videos have graced my blog so many times I could dedicate an entire newsletter just to list them all. Heck, just last month right here in the BAN I showed y’all a photo he took of the Moon that was just spectacular.

Getting shots of the Moon is an interesting thing: It’s easy to take some snapshots because you happen to see it in the sky, or near some foreground object. If you’re lucky it’ll turn out OK. But if you really want to capture some gorgeous ephemeral moment, something truly cool, sometimes you have to plan for it.

Göran did just that. In May, on a hike, he started thinking about a particular shot he could take of the Moon rising behind a church, and by November he was ready to get it. But there was a lot of planning that went into it, as he shows in this short and very interesting video on what it takes to get That One Incredible Photo — and trust me, the payoff is incredible:

I dabble in astrophotography; I used to be more serious, and then spent many years doing it (in a way) as a professional astronomer, but now I know that if I try to get more serious it’ll suck up all my time like a black hole. I love it, so I still do it in a limited sense… but it actually is nice to know that there are amazingly talented people out there like Göran going for these challenging shots, and achieving them in such wonderful fashion.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

Monday Nov. 26, 2018: Mars InSight lands on the Red Planet today! Here's how it'll happen.

Tuesday Nov. 27, 2018: An aurora glows over a (possible) rogue planet

Wednesday Nov. 28, 2018: Beginnings

Thursday Nov. 29, 2018: A distant black hole powers a colossal galactic fountain

Friday Nov. 30, 2018: Measuring all the light in the Universe. All of it. Ever.

Mea Culpa

Confession is good for the soul

It was a busy week in blogdom last week, with lots of nice news items coming out that were fun to write about. In that list of blog posts above, the last one listed (Measuring all the light in the Universe. All of it. Ever.) was particularly interesting to me. It was about a team of astronomers who used a clever method to examine the rate at which stars have been born in the Universe — as stars are born, their light interferes with light from even-more-distant galaxies, allowing them to not only calculate how many stars are born at a given time in the Universe, but how that rate has changed over time as well.

I haven’t done any research directly in this field, but there are aspects of that overlap with stuff I have done, so it naturally caught my attention. And there was an added factor: As a bonus, in principle getting the star birth rate allows you to calculate how much light these stars have emitted over the course of time, in a sense counting up all the photons that have ever left a star’s surface. The number was huge: 4 x 1084!

This is catnip to me: A solid scientific story that also has a fun hook to it involving a ridiculously huge number that makes it even more fun to write and hopefully read about. So I dove in, using that number to set up the story before diving into the real science.

[Hubble’s view of the globular cluster M53, a ball of hundreds of thousands of stars. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA]

But that didn’t go as planned. For one thing, I said this was all the light in the Universe ever, and that’s not really the case. It’s the light emitted by stars, and only going back about 11.6 billion years (the distance in light years to the farthest source they observed in the research). So this ignores photons from the even older cosmic microwave background (the leftover light from the Big Bang as it cooled; see here for lots more), which in fact dwarfs the number calculated for stars. As a friend of mine pointed out it also doesn’t include photons that are created and then promptly absorbed inside stars.

I should’ve been more careful. The number itself is not even mentioned in the research paper itself, but is instead only in the press release. That raised an alarm in my head, to be honest, because details on how it was calculated weren’t written out, so I had and have no idea how they actually got to that number. Mind you I’m not saying it’s wrong, just that without those details it’s easier to get tripped up explaining it. But I mitigated that worry, I told myself, by just using it as a fun diversion from the actual science that I would describe in the article.

But I got caught up in it, promoted the article that way, and then had a lot of folks question the number and how I used it — as they should have! I made a mistake. I should’ve been more careful with my word choice, and shouldn’t have devoted so much effort to that number.

Every now and again I let an idea run away with me, and sometimes it goes wrong. This was a case of that, and I apologize. My own lesson: Listen to those alarm bells when they ring.

Et alia

You can email me at (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!

BAN #65: Goodbye, Facebook

November 26, 2018 Issue #65

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Personal Stuff

Yeah, but not too personal

Yesterday, just after lunch, I deleted my Facebook accounts.

I don’t do this lightly. I had two accounts; my personal one and my pro/fan one. I had nearly 4,000 friends and 17,600 followers on the former and 42,000 likes on the latter. That’s a wide reach. I’d built up a pretty decent audience over the years I’ve been on Facebook.

Why? Well, if you haven’t been following the news, a lot of very, very bad press has been aired about Facebook. And the response from the FB admin has been really, truly sickening. Denial, coy “who, us?” statements, and really skeevy crap like releasing bad news on the even of a major holiday to reduce exposure.

You can read all about it in a major New York Times article. It really exposes the fetid underside of this company.

[Sounds ominous. But they’re referring to my page.]

Mind you, my disgust with the company has grown over the years. I started on FB back when it was practically brand new (when I did, you needed a .edu email address to sign up) and quite liked it; MySpace wasn’t very useful to me, and a lot of other startup social media died practically before they started. FB seemed to have legs, and it was fun.

Then it started getting less fun. Every update made the interface worse, and harder to use. I felt the true evil really started when they suddenly made it so that you could no longer reach your audience. I had thousands of followers, but they throttled my reach back so that only a fraction got a notification when I posted unless I wanted to pay to promote my own stuff. This is evil for two reasons; one is that it’s essentially extortion, and the other is that people who in good faith follow some feed they like might not hear from that feed. It shows a complete disdain on the part of Facebook for its user, and really damages people with small businesses.

My friend Zach Weiner just mentioned this very fact on Twitter, and he also linked to this Sheldon comic about it.

[Credit: Sheldon comic by Dave Kellett. Click that link to see the whole thing.]

Then we all found out that Facebook has been polarizing its audience, promoting actual fake news (as opposed to what Trump thinks is fake) because it gets more clicks — and this had an effect on the 2016 election.

And now, as the New York Times also reported, we see they hired an opposition research team which attacked people like billionaire and philanthropist George Soros… who happens to be Jewish, and who has been savagely attacked by racist and anti-Semitic right-wingers for quite some time, though of course that volume has been hugely ramped up since Trump took office.

Does that make Facebook anti-Semitic? No, but it certainly means they don’t care that he’s been the bogeyman of the alt-right for years. That’s a very, very bad look.

So I’m done.

There is some personal toll to this, of course. It was nice to keep up with family members and old friends online, and even throttled I was still able to get my voice heard by a lot of folks. It also means my online social status takes a hit, too, but I can live with that. This is an important ethical decision for me, and there are times those hurt. In some sense that’s telling me I’m doing the right thing as well.

I am not saying you should do this, too. I’m saying that I have had enough, and screw them. If you want or need to stay with them, that’s up to you, and I won’t hold it against you. Heck, I should’ve done this years ago, or at least months ago, so what’s my excuse? Inertia, mostly.

Everyone has a different limit. I’ve reached mine.

If you do decide to stop with Facebook, you can deactivate your account, which puts it on hold, or you can delete it, which gets rid of it. There are a lot of tutorials online on how to do both. I pretty much followed the one on Mashable. I’ll note I downloaded all my info first in a pair of zip files, one for each account, for backup. Once I was sure I had those, I pushed the button.

So is that it?

Maybe. If Facebook has a Road to Damascus moment and realizes they have well and truly screwed up their morals, and then take positive action to fix things (and not just make lame excuses as they have done for years), then and only then I’ll consider signing back up.

Until then, you can find me on Twitter, at, and of course here on my newsletter.

And you know what? Thank you for paying attention. I love astronomy, I love my planet, and I’m even proud my country when it actually lives up to its ideals (which can be damn tough to find examples of these days). If it weren’t for all of you, I’d be shouting this into the void.

I’ll just have to find new and better ways to make sure my voice is heard. I’m up for it.

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Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

Monday Nov. 19, 2018: Is this cosmic sprinkler surrounding galaxy’s next gamma-ray burst?

Tuesday Nov. 20, 2018: Observing galaxy cluster collisions is quite the… enterprise

Wednesday Nov. 21, 2018: The Sun's long-lost sibling found in our own backyard

Thursday Nov. 22, 2018: I'm thankful for a little space. 20 years' worth, in fact.

Friday Nov. 23, 2018: Amazing time-lapse video of a rocket launch… seen from space!

Et alia

You can email me at (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!

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