Monthly Archives: March 2011

Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson

i-bd4f6318fa3193df56e94ad49fb8772d-neilParaphernalia-thumb-245x289-63243.jpgI am going to interview Neil deGrasse Tyson this coming Sunday on Minnesota Atheist Talk. Details of the timing and how you can listen to the interview live can be found here. Unlike my recent interview with PZ Myers, in which I literally asked him the very questions you posted on my blog, I’ve got a handful of topics I’d like to bring up with the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium and widely read author. However, I will be happy and honored to pick one or two (or three) questions among those you may post below. So go ahead and suggest a question or two.

Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries

Yes, yes, I know … Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson did not just come out, and it is not part of any current news story, so I’m not supposed to mention it in a blog post, because blog posts are only about things that happened during the last forty-five minutes or so. But what did happen in the last few minutes is that I finished reading it, and I’m recommending it to you.

It is said that Neil deGrasse Tyson is a modern day Carl Sagan … an astronomer who is superb at communicating science to the masses. That is sort of true but not exactly. Sagan and Tyson actually practice in different subfields of astronomy (rather pedantic of me to point out) and Tyson’s style is different. Aside from being a bit edgier, I find Tyson to be more like Asimov in his discussion of stuff about the universe. I’m reminded, when reading Death by Black Hole, of the Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Universe. Which, I admit, I read when it came out, so it has been a few years…

Death by Black Hole is a fairly comprehensive review of the main issues in modern astrophysics. In particular, Tyson focuses on how we know things, and how the how part sometimes interferes with, or at least makes more difficult, the dissemination of that knowledge. He points out, for instance, that to explain the details of one of the most interesting fairly recent finds in astro-science … the nature and composition of interstellar gas clouds … one needs to explain spectroscopy. Explaining spectroscopy, or any other fairly technical methodology, is often a deal-killer when it comes to getting people excited about something. I had this problem the other night when I had to explain to a bunch of people how optically stimulated luminescence worked in order to say something interesting about the recent pre-Clovis archaeological find in Texas. Fortunately, I was able to relate the esoteric dating technique to baseball and glow-in-the-dark plastic Virgin Marys, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Death (the book) is a collection of previously written essays edited slightly to account for natural redundancies and cross references.

The best part about the book is simply Neil deGrasse Tyson’s approach to explaining things that can be hard to explain. He also interjects the extra enthusiasm one gets when an author is speaking about pet peeves, about things like how the sun is depicted in art and how certain science is depicted in certain movies. The book is NOT about death by black holes. That is only one of the many topics covered. There are, it turns out, a whole bunch of other ways to die. He covers all the important ones.

If you haven’t read it, then read it. The Kindle edition is less than 9 bucks.


This is the picture of Vesta, which is an object in our solar system:


That’s the picture that Wikipedia uses as of this writing, and it was taken by the Hubble. The key thing to note is that Vesta, which lies in the asteroid belt and has been thought of as a big asteroid, is very globular like a planet. This is unusual for an asteroid.

This is a picture of Vesta as conceptualized by NASA scientists. It is a model, not a photograph.


Model of Vesta This image shows a model of the protoplanet Vesta, using scientists’ best guess to date of what the surface of the protoplanet might look like. It was created as part of an exercise for NASA’s Dawn mission involving mission planners at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and science team members at the Planetary Science Institute in Tuscon, Ariz. Other resolutions, desktop images here. Click the image to embiggen.

The images incorporate the best data on dimples and bulges of the protoplanet Vesta from ground-based telescopes and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The cratering and small-scale surface variations are computer-generated, based on the patterns seen on the Earth’s moon, an inner solar system object with a surface appearance that may be similar to Vesta.

Vesta makes up about 9% of the entire asteroid belt. In fact, if you take the largest handful of objects in the asteroid belt, Ceres (that’s the largest), Vesta, Pallas and 10 Hygiea, you’ve got half of the mass of the entire thing, according to the most current estimates. This sort of thing makes one wonder if some or all of these objects should be thought of as something other than asteroids. And this is a question that has been raised in relation to NASA’s Dawn project.

“I don’t think Vesta should be called an asteroid,” said Tom McCord, a Dawn co-investigator based at the Bear Fight Institute, Winthrop, Wash. “Not only is Vesta so much larger, but it’s an evolved object, unlike most things we call asteroids.”

The layered structure of Vesta (core, mantle and crust) is the key trait that makes Vesta more like planets such as Earth, Venus and Mars than the other asteroids, McCord said. Like the planets, Vesta had sufficient radioactive material inside when it coalesced, releasing heat that melted rock and enabled lighter layers to float to the outside. Scientists call this process differentiation.

McCord and colleagues were the first to discover that Vesta was likely differentiated when special detectors on their telescopes in 1972 picked up the signature of basalt. That meant that the body had to have melted at one time.

Special sensors. I gotta get one of those.

Anyway, this July, the Dawn Space Robot will approach Vesta and spend about a year in the vicinity. We’ll see how close that model is, and hopefully, Wikipedia can get a better portrait of the protoplanet/minorplanet/asteroid!

More details on the project are here.

Lester Park Stromatolites

Some years ago, I was asked by a friend to accompany him on a visit to a site in Saratoga Springs, New York, where we were to witness the activities of a gen-u-wine geomancer. I had never heard of a geomancer before. If you don’t know what one is, be happy. If you do, you have my sympathies. The thing is, this geomancer wanted to geomance (I just verbed his noun) with these rocks in or near a place called Lester Park. Now, if you’ve heard of Lester Park you may be thinking you know which rocks this guy wanted to commune with, but you are probably wrong. Lester park has some of the most famous rocks in the world, and then it’s got these other rocks. The other rocks are geologically interesting. They are small formations, ranging from the size of a van to the size of a cottage sticking up out of an otherwise flattish landscape. It appears that the parent rock of the area, which I take to be some kind of schist or otherwise highly metamorphosed stuff, had some force act on it to cause vertical parts to be slightly more resistant to erosion and thus stick up above the other rock. Personally, I think it might be diagenesis concentrated along joints or fissures of some kind, where hot gasses were allowed to mingle with rock under great pressure, deep below the surface of the earth in the depth of time. The geomancer thought it was energy flux lines passing through the earth and linking these rocks to Buddhist Temples in Asia. I came to my conclusion using the old fashioned scientific technique of guessing. He came to his conclusion using a bent coat hanger.

Anyway, not far from this spot, in Lester Park, one finds this rock:

Continue reading Lester Park Stromatolites

Japan quake, tsunami, nuke news 12: Engineers discover giant trench filled with radioactive water; Plutonium in nearby soil?

The most interesting and important current news, interesting if confirmed, is that plutonium has been discovered in soil near Fukushima. With all this talk about radiation, it is easy to forget that some of these elements are extremely poisonous in their own right. Plutonium is a very nasty poison. I’ve not seen the news reports or any details yet … as of this writing, this is just reasonably reliable rumor. I’m off the intertubes for the rest of the day, but I’ll update tomorrow on this topic.

The cooling systems are still not operational and a huge amount of radioactive water has been found in a trench that communicates with the reactor/turbine complex that either TEPCO was unaware of the existence of, did not think to look in, or has known of but remained silent about since March 11th. I’m not sure which is worse, a zillion gazillimsuts of extra radioactive dihydrogen oxide they didn’t know about, their ability to selectively not mention very important things for very long periods of time, or the astonishing incompetence demonstrated by ignorance. I guess we’ll find out eventually.

Now, on to Ana’s feed:

Ana’s Feed starting at about 10 after midnight, today, March 28:

Re: reactor no.4, from video evidence – The crane has fallen onto the spent fuel rods – “the likelihood of damage to the fuel cannot be denied.” Also, the yellow lid of the containment vessel can be seen … off to the side … there was no fuel in the reactor at the time of the quake. (NHK)

  • Clarification: There was no fuel in the reactor CORE at the time of the quake. It had all been moved upstairs to the spent fuel pool which is now crushed by crane
  • Seawater continues to be pumped by truck onto the spent fuel area – white steam/vapor continues to rise.
  • (this entry slightly edited to reflect later corrections)

The plan to pump highly contaminated water from the turbine rooms into the condenser units for storage has hit a snag in that the condenser units are full. The next plan of moving the water from cond. units to “outside pools” has also been challenged by the fact that these pools are also full. -NISA

Some residents with homes inside the 20km evac. zone have left shelters and returned. Officials believe there are about 30 people in violation of the order, but given the danger in the area, no one has gone in to check. SDF forces may be mobilized to extract them forcibly. (NHK)

TEPCO has sent soil samples taken from around the plant on March 22 to independent research centers where they will be checked for highly toxic plutonium. Results are expected in the next days. (NHK)

Edano on reactor no.2: It is possible that the water inside the pressure vessel has come into contact with melted elements. That is a possibility. (NHK)

  • Q: Does the fuel continue to melt?
  • A (Edano): NISA will give an expert report.
  • Analiese Miller Gauge-topping readings of 1,000mSv/hr. are confined to the interior of the no.2 building. There is concern about this material seeping into groundwater. (Edano presser)
  • My understanding is that entombment is not an option so long as the fuel has heat – that doing so would only increase the likelihood of nuclear explosion – that, in fact, it has been the “controlled venting” of the reactors that has kept them more or less intact to this point. I haven’t heard anything about this rationale from Michio – haven’t heard him acknowledge that concern.

Is it possible, given that soil samples have been sent off-site, that the equipment in use at Daiichi does not allow for detection of the weak gamma-ray emissions of plutonium? Someone tell me this is not a possibility.

I-131 found at levels 1,150 times normal in the sea, 30m N. of discharge pipes of units 5 and 6.

  • NISA spokesman says: Generally speaking, the current here moves N. to S., but the sample was taken near shore, so maybe those currents don’t hold. The assumption is that the contamination moved along the shore from S. to N., but that is not certain.

“Highly radioactive water has been found outside the reactor building.” (NHK)

  • There is a pipe-lined, underground trench running horizontally from reactor no.1 – no.3, at about 16m deep. The pipes in this trench can be observed by workers on the ground through a manhole. Workers have looked into this manhole and have seen water. It has nearly filled the observation column to the surface, and is of the same radioactivity as found in the adjacent turbine room of reactor no.2, 1,000mSv/hr. (NHK analyst)
  • (When talking 1,000mSv/hr., we’re talking more than that – apparently no one’s got a dosimeter that can read anything higher.)
  • TEPCO says that the trench does not directly connect to the sea.
  • see this

As of 16:00 March 28, 2011 – some very high readings outside the evac. zone.

(Ana’s Feed is a collection of Analiese Miller’s facebook status entries posted as she takes in the news live in Japan.)

Links to news stories and updates:

International Atomic Energy Agency update edited for brevity. See this link for the rest, and for radiation monitoring information.

The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant remains very serious.

The restoration of off-site power continues and lighting is now available in the central control rooms of Units 1, 2 and 3. Also, fresh water is now being injected into the Reactor Pressure Vessels (RPVs) of all three Units.

Radiation measurements in the containment vessels and suppression chambers of Units 1, 2 and 3 continued to decrease. White “smoke” continued to be emitted from Units 1 to 4.

Pressure in the RPV showed a slight increase at Unit 1 and was stable at Units 2 and 3, possibly indicating that there has been no major breach in the pressure vessels.

At Unit 1, the temperature measured at the bottom of the RPV fell slightly to 142 °C. At Unit 2, the temperature at the bottom of the RPV fell to 97 °C from 100 °C reported in the Update provided yesterday. Pumping of water from the turbine hall basement to the condenser is in progress with a view to allowing power restoration activities to continue.

At Unit 3, plans are being made to pump water from the turbine building to the main condenser but the method has not yet been decided. This should reduce the radiation levels in the turbine building and reduce the risk of contamination of workers in the turbine building restoring equipment.

No notable change been reported in the condition of Unit 4.

Water is still being added to the spent fuel pools of Units 1 to 4 and efforts continue to restore normal cooling functions.

Units 5 and 6 remain in cold shutdown.

We understand that three workers who suffered contamination are still under observation in hospital.

For more information and essays about the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Reactor problems in Japan CLICK HERE.

Japan quake, tsunami, nuke news 11 … overnight spike was false reading?

Sea water has now been replaced with fresh water for cooling reactors, and, apparently, spent fuel storage pools. Work continues on restoring power and repairing cooling systems, but the cooling systems remain unrepaired. An interesting development overnight (overday in Japan): A very high radiation reading in Reactor 2 showed what apparently was high enough radiation to cause workers to immediately evacuate, as well as a high enough rate of short-lived radioactive isotope to make it a certainty that fission was happening, if not currently, within the previous few hours, and that radioactive stuff was leaking, according to the engineers, from the core.

Then, later, it was determined that the reading was a mistake. The person who took the reading ran away the moment the reading showed this high level. That may be because the workers who were injured in the radioactive “puddles” in Reactor 3 suffered those injuries in part because they did not believe the high readings they were getting. Policies and procedures were updated, we were told, so that would not happen again.

In the case of last night’s reading, however, it is normal that a second reading would be taken, but that did not happen because the first reading was so astoundingly high that, apparently, running away seemed to be the best thing to do.

At present, we don’t have any reports of new readings that are lower than the very high reading taken some time ago. What we have is the engineers deciding that the very high reading was too high to be believed. I’m not sure how to interpret that. Probably, it was just a bad reading.

Now that you have the necessary background, I give you Ana’s Feed and the usual links to recent news reports and commentary, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) update. Ana is asleep right now, and has not heard about the retraction of the high reading.

Continue reading Japan quake, tsunami, nuke news 11 … overnight spike was false reading?

The Crack at Fukushima Reactor 3, and other matters

A crack in the containment vessel of Fukashima Reactor 3 has been mentioned by MSNBC and ABC news, citing the New York Times. The New York Times has an article in which the crack is mentioned in a side bar, attributed to an anonymous person. An anonymous source is not particularly impressive, but the New York Time is. So I suppose this is somewhat impressive.

Various news sources are reporting an actual quote from the anonymous source and say a little more about him. This is what is being reported:
Continue reading The Crack at Fukushima Reactor 3, and other matters

Geraldine Ferraro, the First Woman to Run for VP, has Died

Ferraro was from Newburgh, New York and served in the US House. She was a progressive Democrat. She ran for Vice President with Walter Mondale. She was the first woman, and the first Italian American (which in those days meant more than it does today) to do so.

The fact that she was a woman was used against the Democratic ticket by a fairly conservative press (never quite forgave Ted Koppel for being a dick about it all) and, of course, by the Repulbicans.

In those days (and still to some extent, today) powerful men attach themselves to women who will not give them too much trouble by having, like, opinions and experience and stuff. That way, all the bad shit the man is into can be more easily hidden from the prying eyes of the press and public. But when a woman ran for office, she would have this husband, and he would have a life, and thus, there would be two people to be scrutinized. This as also considered important, I assume, because of a barely subconscious presumption that a woman in elected office would be influenced by her husband, while a man in elected office would be assisted by his wife.

This worked against Ferraro as Republican dirty tricksters implied that the Italian candidate and her Italian husband were unscrupulous. There were even mob-connection implications, which were absurd. The press and the Republicans screamed when Ferraro’s husband refused to release his own business financial information (it was not required by law) and this became the major issue in the campaign. They were eventually forced to release this information. It was fairly uninteresting.

No one can remember what else happened that year, but women were subsequently excluded form serious consideration in the presidential arena thereafter. I personally feel that this was the basis for what would become a growing commitment on the part of the right wing to this sort of strategy to keep progressives, women, and non-whites out of politics. It was, in essence, a first draft of today’s birther strategy.

The next woman to run on a national ticket was the only other one ever in the US: Sarah Palin. I apologize for uttering that name in a blog post on Geraldine Ferraro.

Japan quake, tsunami, nuke news 10 … Tickling the Dragon’s Tail?

This is a particularly important update. An anonymous source in Japan has told reporters connected to the New York Times that there is a visible crack in the Fukushima Reactor 3. This is the reactor that showed isotopic evidence of a leak of some kind. Arguments had been made that a hole in the reactor vessel was an impossibility. The increasingly convincing evidence of a leak led people to admit, or realize, that the reactor vessel already has holes in it … those designed to allow pipes and such in and out of the large thick-walled metal object. It was then presumed that this is where leakage was happening, and that remains a distinct possibility. This presumption was based on the repeatedly stated impossibility of the reactor vessel being burned or corroded through.

But now we have evidence of a visible crack. A crack is a whole nuther matter. If there truly is a crack and the crack is through-and-through and allowing leakage, the we may be observing an excellent and disturbing example of how nuclear accidents often play out, and, in fact, why they happen to begin with. There have been repeated arguments made, in the press, on this blog (in comments), and elsewhere that there is no way that even melted down nuclear stuff inside the reactor vessel could eat its way through that vessel. Then a concession was made for pipe-holes. In the end, however, eating through the vessel or corroded or melted pipes may not be the point. Cracking the vessel then leaking out may be a possibility. Hadn’t been considered before.

There is isotopic evidence that the material leaking out of Reactor 3 is in part the product of fission that has occurred since shutdown of the machine at the time of the earthquake. This is not confirmed and there may be other explanations. But, if that is true, this probably means that fuel pellets have come free of their containment in fuel rods and accumulated somewhere in the reactor vessel in sufficient density to cause a chain reaction. If this has happened, it is probably not that severe of a chain reaction (or we would see more heat and other bad things). But, if there are fuel rods that have fallen apart, this means that future movement or pressure changes or other effects in the vessel could be more dangerous. Under some scenarios, just adding water can cause a brittle corroded fuel rod to fall apart, dropping more pellets into an accumulating pile of pellets lower down in the vessel.

Put metaphorically, the concentration of radioactive material in a mass that is increasingly close to that necessary to cause a chain reaction was dubbed, in the early days of nuclear research, “tickling the dragon’s tail.” Researchers, it is said, would move two piles of radioactive stuff closer and closer and measure the increase in radioactive output, in part to determine what a “critical mass” would be for that material. In theory, they would stop just before a high-level reaction occurred. Louis Slotin went to far with this technique in May, 1946 and it killed him.

If the isotopic evidence truly indicates that there has been post-quake fission in the reactor chamber, then this may mean that there is a dragon in there, metaphorically speaking We just have to hope that the Japanese engineers know how to keep the dragon calm.

There are other startling developments including a shakeup in the government. Ana has put together a very interesting feed. Read on:
Continue reading Japan quake, tsunami, nuke news 10 … Tickling the Dragon’s Tail?