BAN #209: What did Hubble see on your birthday?, 2020 graduation commencement video

13 April 2020   Issue #209

[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]

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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.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. I’ll have something up on the blog about this closer to the actual date, but NASA is already starting to roll out some fun stuff.

For example: What did Hubble see on your birthday?

Hubble observes things all the time, so the folks at Imagine the Universe (a GREAT site for kids) put together a collection of Hubble images for each day of the year, and you can see what Hubble happened to be looking at on your birthday (year not specified).

Here’s what it saw on mine:

[Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble]

Coooool. That’s the GOODS south field, a huge deep survey of galaxies in the Universe, similar to the Deep Field. Pretty much every object you see in that image is a galaxy. Happy birthday to me.

There are 365 more images like that to see on that site, one for every birthday in the year.

So hey. What did Hubble see on yours?

Apropos of nothing

Not everything needs to be themed

Pencils of Promise is an organization that is dedicated to bringing quality education to kids around the world. Because education is a little tougher these days thanks to the pandemic, they've asked some people, including me, to give a short virtual graduation commencement speech to the Class of 2020.

This is what I came up with. Under the video is a transcript.

To the graduating class of 2020:

My name is Phil Plait. The good folks at Pencils of Promise have asked people like me to talk to you about graduation, to give our thoughts on what this means.


The Universe is a funny place.

Imagine for a sec that it’s completely empty, nothing in it, except for a star and a planet, and the planet is orbiting the star.

Now the funny thing here is, as long as they’re the only two objects in the entire Universe, then we can predict exactly what they’ll be doing at any time, past or future, no matter how far back or how far ahead you choose. That’s the way the math works out. Two objects, complete certainty.

But add a third object, and something bizarre happens. Suddenly, you can’t know what they’ll be doing. The way the math works out, you just can’t solve the equations infinitely into the future or past. Eventually, even if it takes a million billion years, the objects’ paths will diverge from what you predict, and chaos results. It’s just the way the Universe works.

And it doesn’t matter what the object is. It happens if the object is big, like another planet or a star, but that unpredictable chaos is inevitable even if the object is smaller, like a moon, or an asteroid… or even a virus.

It’s weird to think something so tiny can cause so many problems. But given enough time and opportunity, it can.

And I’ll level with you: You’re graduating into a time of great uncertainty, and maybe even for you personally it’s chaos. You don’t know what you’ll be doing this summer, or this coming autumn. This lack of certainty can be difficult, even frightening.

What can you do?

Well, not to sound too precious here, but what you can do is: Whatever it is you can do. Maybe you can help your family in some way, or your neighbors. Maybe, depending on what you’re comfortable risking, you can get a job or do volunteer work. Maybe you can help yourself by staying home and studying up on topics you want to take in college, or for a job.

If you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few weeks or months, then figure out what you can do in the next few days. Even just today. You have to start somewhere.

I can’t tell you what you as an individual can do any more than I can predict where that third object will be sometime in the fuzzy future. On that scale it’s fundamentally unpredictable.

But here’s another way the Universe is funny. While individuals or even three objects, aren’t predictable, large groups of them are. If you flip a coin, I can’t tell you if it’ll be heads or tails, but if you flip it a million times I can confidently state it’ll be close to half a million of each.

What you can do right now is not for me to predict. But you’re not alone. There are thousands, millions of folks who are with you right now virtually wondering what they can do too. For each individual person, maybe a little. Maybe a lot. Hard to say. But put together, all of us doing whatever it is we can?

The laws of the Universe imply we can smooth out the chaos, tame the unpredictability, and find that future that right now may seem so hard to see.

So to you, the class of 2020, look for that path. With all of you together, you can make the future.

P.S. Pencils of Promise wants your participation in all this! This Twitter thread (click through to see the whole thing) describes what you can do, including uploading videos of your own grads and maybe getting a sort congratulations video from me!

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Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[The alien comet — literally from another star and traveling to us through interstellar space — has been seen to split. From Monday’s post. Credit: Gemini Observatory]

Monday 06 April, 2020: An alien comet dropped something off on its way out of the solar system

Tuesday 07 April, 2020: Birds and creation on the asteroid Bennu… and why we name names

Wednesday 08 April, 2020: Down the mouth of a monster: Event Horizon Telescope stares down a blazar's jet

Thursday 09 April, 2020: Are some parts of the Universe expanding faster than others? Maaaaaaybe.

Friday 10 April, 2020: On a brown dwarf 35 light years away, a gale force wind’s a-blowin’

Et alia

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