Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pisces the Fish

Enough 2012 stuff, let's get back to the constellation mythology.

To the left of Aquarius is the zodiac constellation Pisces the Fish. If you thought Aquarius was hard to find, Pisces is even worse. The stars are all so faint that they are only visible from a dark sky away from city lights. There is a ring of stars for one fish that's tied by a string a stars to another fish left and then up from the first fish. It looks like an "L" drawn with the base too long. Where the cord bends, you will find a star called Al Rischa which means, "The Knot of the Band."
The story behind Pisces is related to the one about Capricornus. A long time ago the gods were terrorized by a roving monster named Typhon. He was such a horrible creature with 100 dragon heads instead of fingers. When Typhon came around all of the gods hid by changing into animals. Apollo turned into a crow, Diana into a cat, and Venus and Cupid (the gods of love) turned into fish. They jumped into the Euphrates River to escape Typhon but tied their tails together so that that would never be parted.
Pisces is part of a very watery part of the sky that includes Aquarius the Water Bearer, Piscis Australis, and the fish-half of Capricornus. I don't believe in astrology but the Sun does go through Pisces from March 12 to April 18. If you were born between those dates, according to an astronomer, you're a Pisces.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The 2012 Movie Was Hilarious!

Spoiler alert: This review will mention things that happen in the movie so, oh, who am I kidding? You can see the plot coming a mile away.

As comedies go, the movie 2012 was hilarious. I laughed out loud – mostly at how scientifically flawed it was. Essentially the movie was John Cusack and friends out-divining an earthquake in a limo, out-flying the city of Los Angeles as it fell into the Pacific Ocean, literally out-running a volcano when Yellowstone erupted, out-flying the ash cloud, outflying the destruction of Las Vegas, and finally out-sailing a tsunami that submerged the Himalayans. When the laws of physics broke, I broke out into laughter.

Now to the science: There was some – 95% wrong. They started in a deep mine where astronomers are actually trying to measure cosmic rays but the overactive Sun was heating up the core of the Earth. There was even a boiling well (that produced no steam BTW). This heating will eventually cause “crustal displacement,” and change the face of the Earth. After all, “this is the biggest solar season ever,” some unnamed scientist says in the movie. Good gag, but in reality we are experiencing the quietest solar season in the past 100 years.

There is brief mention to a rare planetary alignment which takes place every 640,000 years and a youtube video of the planets aligned with the galaxy. Conspiracy theorists love this but it is simply not true (see the post below). Later in the movie the magnetic field of the Earth decreased 80% in four hours. This type of decrease could happen but would take hundreds to thousands of years.

Some other funny science in the movie: the poles flip putting the South Pole in Wisconsin, Hawaii melts, and China moves 1,000 miles closer to the US in less than a day. Plus how they transported giraffes and rhinos to the ark in the mountains cracked me up!

Now to the Mayans and their prediction of doom on December 21, 2012: The movie barely mentions it in a quick 20 second scene. No details just, “The Mayans predicted the end of the world.” So no Mayans - no astronomy. Cool.

As someone a little edgy to answer the wave of 2012 hysteria that will build up over the next 3 years, the movie was surprisingly reassuring. It presented such a crazy, absurd, and impossible vision that it ceased being scary. It was almost as if it was happening to another planet or in another dimension. There is nothing to debunk because it was all so fantastical. And there is nothing to be scared of from 2012 – unless you’re afraid of laughing yourself to death.
You were warned.


Monday, November 16, 2009

2012 Hoax: The Real Story

I'm sorry but I need to take a break from constellation myths to comment on 2012 hysteria. The new #1 asked question at the Cincinnati Observatory is, "What will happen December 21, 2012?"

Answer: Nothing.

The world will not end. Forget what you read on websites. Don’t believe the horrible Hollywood movie.

The Ancient Mayans knew great things about astronomy, could predict eclipses and cycles of Venus. But their calendars predict neither gloom nor doom. In fact their calendar cites an event to occur 2000 years in the future. They just flip their calendar over and start again every so often (like we do every year). The last time it flipped was August 11, 3114 BC. The world survived that date just fine.

In case you hear otherwise here are some facts:
1) We do not have a second Sun that will come near us called Nibiru
2) No asteroid is scheduled to hit us in 2012
3) The Earth's magnetic field is fine
4) The pole shift may be happening but it takes years and years and won't change anything
5) The continents will not move 1000 miles and Florida will not be on the North Pole
6) The Sun is not crazy-active, nor will it be in 2012
7) The Sun is not lining up with the center of the galaxy (that happened in 1999)
8) The planets will not align on that day

I do have one prediction for December 21, 2012:
It will be seasonably cold in Cincinnati. So will the next day.

I'll have a full review of the movie 2012 next week. Spoiler alert: It was about as believable as when Bugs Bunny sawed off Florida in Rebel Rabbit. "Take it away, South America!"Bugs Bunny sawing off Florida

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Aquarius the Water Bearer

Over the next few weeks we'll focus on three hard-to-find, but interesting zodiac constellations. First up: Aquarius the Water Bearer.

According to Greek mythology, Aquarius represents a teenager named Ganymede, Prince of Troy. Once upon a time, The Head Honcho, The Big Cheese, Zeus, was thirsty. Despite all of his mighty powers, Zeus liked to be served by both gods and mortals. And since he was forever thirsty he decided to employ Ganymede to be his full-time water bearer. Instead of sending a formal invitation to join the staff on Mt. Olympus, Zeus sent down his pet eagle to snatch the boy up off the streets of Troy. Ganymede goes from a prince, to a servant, to almost god-like as a constellation. What an up and down story. Ganymede is also the name of Jupiter's moons (the largest in the solar system).

Aquarius is tough to imagine but easy to find. Just look to the left of Jupiter at night and that's where his stars lie. Good luck picturing a young man pouring water to the southern horizon.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Big Week in Astronomy

I'm taking one week off from mythology to talk about the big week Astronomy had in the news last week.

1) A new, gigantically huge and diffuse ring was discovered around Saturn. Astronomers with the Spitzer Space Telescope discovered this ring by detecting its heat (just barely hotter than absolute zero). The ring ranges from 3.7 to 7.4 million miles from the planet technically making it the largest thing in the solar system. See:

2) President Obama held the first ever Star Party on the White House lawn. Dozens of amateur astronomers brought telescopes to the White House and the first family saw Jupiter and other objects through the telescopes. The President delivered a great speech on the importance of science. Hopefully this will be the first of many such Star Parties.

3) Our attempt to blow up the Moon did not work out. The LCROSS mission slammed a rocket into the south pole of the Moon to see what water might come up. Although the event was not seen from Earth as expected, astronomers are still poring over the data and expect to share their findings soon. See: It wasn't nearly as destructive as when the evil Chairface Chippendale tried to write his name on the Moon in an animated episode of the Tick.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Capricornus the Sea Goat

Continuing our tour through the summer zodiac we come to constellation Capricornus. This creature is alleged to have the body of a goat and the tail of a fish. Um, okay? How's that?

Once upon a time (in Greek mythology), an almost omnipotent monster named Typhon terrorized the gods. All ran in fear before him. A tiny, minor god named Pan had a great ability to turn himself into animals. He often used this as a defense when he had to avoid household chores and unwanted visitors. One day Pan was standing waist deep in the Nile River when the monstrous footsteps of Typhon rippled the water around him. In a panic, Pan immediately changed shape to fool the approaching behemoth. Unfortunately he didn't fully think out his shape-changing and the part of his body above the water turned into a goat, the part under the water turned into a fish. Luckily for Pan, the mighty Typhon didn't even notice.

In one version of the story, Pan later plays the hero. Typhon actually first defeats Zeus and cuts off his hands and feet. A witness to this event, Pan lets out the shrillest, girlie-est shriek which made even the mighty Typhon recoil. This distracted the monster from finishing off Zeus. Hermes comes to rescue the dismembered Zeus who recovers in a cave. When Zeus is back to 100% again he throws lightning bolts at the monster and finally hurls Mt. Etna down to crush old Typhon. Sometimes Mt. Etna still smokes revealing the monster still trapped within.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

My Visit to the Lick Observatory

In December I visited the Lick Observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton (just outside San Jose, California). It was quite an adventure. Earlier in the week it snowed and park rangers closed the road. Luckily I used my credentials as an astronomer and was granted permission to drive to the top. It was a curvy and icy drive but I finally made it to the top.

There I met staff astronomer Thomas Lowe who showed me around and even let me "drive" the huge 36" refractor or. The telescope was made in 1888, is 57 feet long, and weighs over 25,000 pounds. But I could still move it with one hand! One of the best parts of the visit was the floor of the big dome room. With the flip of a switch, the entire floor raised up to the level of the telescope. No need for ladders or stairs, just move the floor up and down.

I also saw the more modern telescopes - a lot of research is still being done there today. In fact many astronomers live up on the mountain (which is about a 45 minute drive to anywhere). Around 1906 one of the Cincinnati Observatory's former directors worked at the Lick Observatory and I tried to imagine his journey. How did he get there? How long did it take? In the 1900s they also had a school on the mountain for the sons and daughters of the astronomers. What an interesting place to grow up - and what a view!