BAN #291: Science is catnip, Observe variable stars, GOP hot air

25 January 2021   Issue #291

[The planetary nebula M 2-9, winds from a dying star. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Legacy Archive / Judy Schmidt]

Subscribers shine steadily.

Upcoming Appearances/Shameless Self-Promotion

Where I’ll be doing things you can watch and listen to or read about

Last week on the blog I wrote about a remarkable object called StDr 56, a spectacular nebula that is very odd; it’s possibly a planetary nebula but that’s not at all clear. I called for professional astronomers who read my blog to look into observing it with some big telescopes, so we can ID what the heck it is.

To my delight I found out that the professional journal Nature put it into their newsletter (along with a few other topics, much like this BA newsletter does) helping spread the word. I was told about it in a tweet, but it also popped up in my Google alerts (back in the day when I did a lot more debunking I was attacked on the regular, so I set up the alert if my name showed up in articles; now I keep it going because it’s fun to see where my articles turn up). To my delight, this is what I saw:

[Screenshot of the Nature Briefing newsletter linking to my blog, with a title.]

Oh my. I mean, sure, I’m interested in why cats love it so, but I wouldn’t say I’m baffled. Of course, more observations are always better.

I think what happened here is the reader shows the newsletter title, but then displays an excerpt of the issue where the searched-for term (in this case, my name) happens to be. Someday we’ll get this Internet thing figured out.

Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news

Have you ever had a hankering to do real astronomical science but lack the will to go through the 7 or so years of graduate school to get that degree? I hear ya, and you’re in luck: The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) has partnered with Ball State University and the International Planetarium Society to create a citizen science project observing variable stars.

These are stars that change brightness, many of which are easily visible to the unaided eye. They vary for many different reasons — some are binary stars that eclipse each other, some are red supergiants that expands and contract, others are young and still not quite balanced in their lives yet — and by different amounts, but it’s possible to gauge that change over time. There’s real science here; you may remember Betelgeuse going through lots of shenanigans in late 2019 and early 2020, and the AAVSO had a lot of folks measuring just how much it dimmed.

Every month, the AAVSO is picking one variable star for people to watch, and report its brightness. These can be done by eye, though binoculars help, and a telescope with a digital camera is even better, but you don’t necessarily need that equipment to participate. They’ll provide a finder chart so you can pick out the star, and give brightnesses of nearby stars to compare it with.

[The Pleiades (top, by Robert Gendler) a cluster which looks like a little dipper not far from Orion, with a finder chart (bottom, by the AAVSO) to help you pick out the stars.]

For January they’ve chosen Pleione, one of the stars in the Pleiades, which is up high right now after sunset and easily seen by most people on Earth. Other stars coming up are Betelgeuse (of course) and Algol, a famous eclipsing binary in Perseus.

In these days where it’s not a great idea to gather in groups, astronomy can provide a way for you to have fun by yourself, or with people you may have in your own bubble. If you have clear skies, decent eyesight, and a desire to do some science, then give the AAVSO a try.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[StDr 56, a possible planetary nebula in the constellation of Triangulum. From Wednesday’s article. Credit: Robert Pölz, Marcel Drechsler, Xavier Strottner]

Monday 18 January, 2021: How do you find when a supernova blew? Run the clock backwards.

Tuesday 19 January, 2021: Marshmallow world: WASP-107b is a superpuff planet with a weirdly tiny core

Wednesday 20 January, 2021: So what the heck is StDr 56?

Thursday 21 January, 2021: Turns out, you *can* get something out of a black hole... but it’s not easy

Friday 22 January, 2021: Hubble’s half-dozen cosmic train wrecks


As Dave Barry said, “Poli” = many and “tics” = blood-sucking parasites

Is there a German word similar to schadenfreude but milder, meaning ironic amusement? Because that’s what I felt when I read that Frank Earthorne, the chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party, made some noises about Wyoming seceding from the United States.

When a friend of mine tweeted about it, my immediate reaction was laughter. In general, red states get more federal funding than blue states do, when you normalize by how much each state pays into the federal system. Wyoming is very red, and is tenth among the 50 states for that ratio, meaning they seriously depend on federal funding. In fact, they get roughly a third of their revenue is from federal aid.

If they secede, poof, that money’s gone. It’s like slashing their economy by a third in one stroke. I imagine all those ranchers dependent on federal subsidies wouldn’t be too happy after, oh, say, six months.

But there’s a deep, deep irony here. Wyoming gets a lot of money for fossil fuels; just read how much coal and natural gas they produce. They suddenly would have to figure out how to sell that to the rest of the US… when the rest of the US increasingly doesn’t want it. Coal is dying. Natural gas is picking up a lot of that slack, but green energy is ramping up fast.

Eathorne, as you might imagine, loves him some fossil fuel and hates green energy. But here’s a fun thing: Due to the pandemic, the economy of Cheyenne (the most populous city in WY) was expected to lose about 25% of its tax revenues in 2020. But the treasurer of the city got a shock when for most of 2020 tax revenues went up by over 20%... and September alone had an increase of 80%!

Why? The Roundhouse Wind Project, a green energy producer west of town, had profits that went through the roof. The article linked notes that a large part of this jump may be due to new construction, but even when it steadies out — and I’ve been to Wyoming many times, since it’s just north of me, and that state is windy — it’s likely to be a solid source of revenue, even as coal and other fossil fuels tank.

I wonder how Eathorne would feel about all this? Hmmmm.

Et alia

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