Monday, January 12, 2009

huge star will be visible to naked eye tomorrow


the international year of astronomy kicked off on the weekend with news of an astonishing astronomical event. at 7:49am EST tomorrow, the earth will pass within 146 million km of a massive star! by celestial standards, that counts as a head-on collision. the boiling gas ball is huge: it could eat 1,300,000 earths and have room for the moon. you should have no trouble seeing it with the naked eye at any point during the day. if the gargantuan nuclear-powered star came any closer, it would incinerate the planet within seconds - but the astronomers i spoke to at the dal planetarium felt fairly certain it would keep a safe, 8-light-minute distance. if you watch it carefully, you may see solar flares, erupting prominences and coronal mass ejections.

in other sky news...

on friday, the subject was aliens. smu's rob thacker and a video-linked-in doug welch from mcmaster discussed the likelihood at length. there was much talk about the goofy drake equation and discussion of what life requires and what's the best way to go about looking for it. basically, at this point, we've got our ear cocked to the sky, listening intently for any patterned patter. so far: bugger all.

so are there aliens? after much discussion, the two profs announced their conclusion: we haven't a fuckin* clue (i paraphrase). it seems to me that it is quite likely that there is life on other planets: the sheer number of planets out there (billions of billions) makes a one-in-a-billion chance inevitable. but intelligent life? looking at the only case study we have good information about (our own little earth) i'd say it's not likely. of the hundreds of millions of species that have had a go at life, only one (us) has really focused on intelligence as its big thing. those big brains of ours are good for lots of things, like getting food, building shelters, writing blogs, etc. but while us big-brained humans were inside uncommon ground discussing the search for intelligent life, the bacteria were gettin' it on and making babies, and that's all that counts.

saturday, smu brainiac marcin sawicki talked about telescopes and how what they've seen has changed what we see when we look up. the pic is hubble's shot of the eagle nebula. this is an actual photograph from the big space scope, people - not an artist's rendering, not an lsd trip, not art. that's what a cluster of baby stars looks like. new, bigger scopes coming online over the next decade will capture even more wonders.

he also gave a little tour of the expanding-and-infinite universe. it is big. imagine the number 10. it's much bigger than that. the expanding-yet-infinite universe hurt my brain and i talked to marcin about it for quite some time. i think i got my head around it in the end: all of the universe was present at the big bang, but squeezed into a super-dense dot. since the big bang, it has been spreading out like peanut butter, creating empty space as it goes. imagine a rubber band with dots: stretch the band out and the dots get further apart as the band gets thinner, but no more band is created.

tuesday night is black hole night! come by the spring garden road library at 7pm for a public talk.

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