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Episode 131 - Clip Show #3: Blood Moons, Ceres' Bright Spots, MESSENGER's Death, and Funding in Science Follow-Up

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Recap: A lot of small threads are discussed in this episodes: The latest lunar eclipse and its relation to the Blood Moons phenomenon, the bright spots on Ceres and conspiracies surrounding them, MESSENGER's crash landing into Mercury, and a follow-up to the Pamela Gay interview about funding in science. Also in this episode is my - and listeners' - tribute to Leonard Nimoy.

Q&A: During Feedback, I addressed a lot of peoples' questions about recent reports that NASA has invented a "Warp Drive."

One Feedback today is about a story that’s been making the rounds and several of you have sent it to me in e-mail, on Facebook, on Twitter, and several smoke signals that I think got lost over the Rocky Mountains. And that is whether NASA created a warp drive, so-called after the Warp Drive created by Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek.

Let’s start with the NASA link that many are going to, including the IFL Science site. It states, very clearly: “There are many ‘absurd’ theories that have become reality over the years of scientific research. But for the near future, warp drive remains a dream.”

So, right out of the bat, we have to ask how this story is being written and what’s real and what’s hype. As with anything like this that would seem to shatter several laws of physics, Be Skeptical. Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence. Remember what happened with the CERN’s LHC and faster-than-light neutrinos? Turned out to be a lose cable.

The second issue is that this seemed like old hyped news. And, confirmed that to me, that tests run last summer and announced in July 2014 were the same, and they relate to an apparatus called an “EM Drive.” The idea is basic and conventional enough: EM microwave cavities might allow the direct conversion of electrical energy to thrust without needing any propellent. The bulk of the cost of launching any mission today is usually the fuel and the fuel for the fuel and the fuel for the fuel for the fuel and so on.

But, the EM Drive’s basic concept violates the Law of Conservation of Momentum, meaning that if you have momentum in a system and apply no external force, even though an individual object in that system may change its momentum, the sum of the momentum in the system can’t change. Think of a billiard table, where one ball hits a stationary ball. Though both now move, the total momentum doesn’t change (excluding things like friction).

So, while the concept is simple, it right away has a high bar for showing whether it can work.

The latest news is that when NASA was testing this setup, they measured that the time for SOME beams of light shot into the chamber travelled faster than light, or put another way, that the distance they travelled was less than the distance of the device in our space.

With that said, this appears to come from one website. It is not peer-reviewed, and I haven’t even been able to find reports from the alleged scientists involved. All derivative sources in the last week of April have cited the website post and that’s it.

This has not been proven. It has not been replicated. There could still be many sources of error, and many people who have read this and are better at engineering than I have pointed out that the claimed signal is still within the level of the noise of the experiment. Even if this one experiment proves true, it still must be replicated by other independent people.

And at this point, we don’t even know if the initial reports are accurate. So, no, NASA has not created a Warp Drive.

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Episode Summary

Topic 1: Blood Moons

The first topic for this episode is about the lunar eclipse last month, the third eclipse of this tetrad. I discussed this in an entire episode, #85, but to refresh your memory on the terms I just used, a lunar eclipse these days has been scarily termed “blood moon” by the media for purposes of scaremongering because the moon will turn red, for they picked up on the scary conspiracies promoted by two religious people in particular. A tetrad is a series of four total lunar eclipses that occur six months apart. We get eclipses six months apart because of how celestial mechanics works, but it’s relatively rare that we get four total lunar eclipses in a row.

This has become “A Thing” recently when Mark Biltz found out that the tetrad that started in April 2014 has total eclipses that all happen on Jewish holidays, and then he retrodicted, cherry-picked, and fudged important events in Jewish history to claim that something bad is going to happen to Israel as signaled by this tetrad.

There’s really nothing new to report on this conspiracy and doomsday promotion … other than political infighting over which pastor originated this idea, but something I found interesting is that this last lunar eclipse, in April 2015, may not have been a total lunar eclipse. This of course is being ignored by prophecy people, but I think it’s worth discussing because I personally found it fascinating and learned some stuff myself.

First off, a lunar eclipse is when the moon goes into Earth’s shadow cast by the sun. If you’re on the moon and can still see PART of the sun, then you’re in partial eclipse, and we would say that you are in Earth’s penumbra or penumbral shadow. If the entire sun is blocked from your location on the moon, then you are in Earth’s umbra, or the umbral shadow. From Earth, parts of the moon in the umbral shadow look very, very dark red, while parts in the penumbral shadow still look bright, over a factor of 1000 brighter than the parts in total eclipse, but still only about 10% as bright as when not eclipsed at all.

Just like on Earth when we get a solar eclipse, different parts of the moon will see different amounts of the sun at different times as the eclipse progresses. Unlike a solar eclipse on Earth, because Earth is so much larger than the moon, the entire lunar surface can be within Earth’s umbra and that’s when we will see a total lunar eclipse. The moon will appear various shades of red because the only light that reaches it is bent around Earth by Earth’s atmosphere, which screens out shorter, bluer wavelengths of light.

April 2015’s total lunar eclipse was expected to be the shortest total lunar eclipse of the century with only 5 minutes spent by the entire moon in Earth’s umbral shadow.

What NASA and pretty much everyone else does when they make eclipse tables and their graphics and movies to show what will happen, is they assume Earth is a sphere. Therefore, when calculating Earth’s shadow, extended to the moon, they assume the shadow cast is a perfect circle. And that’s how they got 5 minutes in total eclipse, or “totality."

But, Earth is not a perfect sphere. It’s an oblate spheroid, somewhat pear-shaped, with 21 km (13 miles) difference between the polar and equatorial radius, and generally fatter in the southern hemisphere than the northern. And then it has various topography variations, too, that go from 4 km below the polar radius to 7 km above the equatorial radius. And the atmosphere is not a perfectly spherical envelope or envelope of uniform thickness: it can get inflated over warm areas and contract over cold areas, and extended by a particularly strong solar wind or other things.

What this all gets to is that the assumption of a sphere is wrong. It gets you really close, to within about 0.3-0.4%. But when you’re at that edge — such as predicting totality of only 5 minutes — close might not be good enough.

And with that tucked in the back of your mind, another generalization is that lunar eclipses are visible at the same time in the same amount from any location on Earth that can see the moon. That’s not entirely correct, either. As discussed in Episode 124 on the distance ladder, there are parallax effects: Due to differences in where we are on the planet, we will see something slightly different.

Again, this generalization usually works and is a minuscule effect that really no one’s going to notice. Except in cases where you’re really close to that edge.

So, when I got up at 2AM and spent an hour getting all my gear set up, and then three hours slowly watching the moon and photographing it as it approached the Colorado Rockies and finally get to totality … it never got to totality. There was a small sliver that remained incredibly bright relative to the rest of the eclipsed moon!

Surprisingly - though possibly because it was 7:00AM when I finally went to bed - I didn’t think much of it. I’ve seen total lunar eclipses with a significant gradient in brightness across the moon’s surface, and somehow I brushed that off. Then I saw a Universe Today article questioning whether the lunar eclipse was really a total lunar eclipse, and it got into the points that I raised over the last ten minutes.

I then posted to the Facebook page for the podcast and [another listener] posted one of his photos taken from California at the moment of greatest eclipse. His showed a much smaller sliver than mine due to parallax, but he also got no true totality.

And so, there are a few lessons from this. First is the science one: Physicists assume cows are spherical. This was a concept made popular in Lawrence Kraus’s book, “Fear of Physics,” but it holds true: Even when we know that reality is complicated, we often use simpler models because they let us get very close to reality, and so long as we recognize that they are simplifications and know when they break down and we can’t use them, we’re fine. This was a case where the cow was not a sphere.

Second is the prophecy one. Clearly, since this was not a true total lunar eclipse, it’s not a true tetrad, and therefore God’s thrown us a curve ball or “Hail Mary” and we’re safe for another few decades.

Topic #2: Ceres’ Bright Spots

The second topic for this catch-up clip show is about the Dwarf Planet, Ceres, and its mysterious bright spots. By way of very brief history, Ceres has been observed by ground-based and space-based telescopes for many years, and we have known that it has had at least a few areas that are much brighter than others.

As the Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres in March of 2015 and inserted itself into orbit, during approach it captured images of some of those bright spots, including two at roughly - ¡GASP! - 19.5° North latitude. The internet was all a-flutter and a-twitter about what those bright spots could possibly be, with most scientific speculation being that they are caused by ice in some form.

And then, Dawn went into a very wide, very slow orbit, and over the next many weeks and months it will be lowering that orbit into a survey orbit and then a stable High-Altitude Mapping Orbit, or “HAMO,” that begins in August of this year. This was planned for months if not over a year because two of its reaction wheels that help keep the craft stable failed. Thus, not only could they not enter HAMO more quickly without risking the spacecraft, they also couldn’t take as many images on approach as planned because that required turning the spacecraft. So it was known that we would get approach images and then it would be over a month while Dawn was on the night side of Ceres in its very slow and high orbit that we would get ZERO new images.

But, never let public mission plans and reality stop a good - or bad - conspiracy.

With all the hype in the week or two leading up to orbit insertion about those bright spots, everyone on the conspiracy sites was wondering why we hadn’t seen any new images. NASA and ESA must be hiding them! How could it possibly have been over a month with NOTHING new?!

… … …

There’s really not much else to say about this point. I will say that during this time, the team worked very hard on calibrating other instruments, and so both the color approach images and the thermal map came out while Dawn was over the night side of Ceres. All because those were released during that time, that does not mean they were collected during that time, and thermal and color data take A LOT more work to properly calibrate than a basic black-and-white image. We have the same issues with New Horizons and so it was just announced this past week that the black-and-white images will be released automatically to the public when we get them, but the others will not.

NOT helping the issue was that just two weeks ago, NASA stupidly (in my opinion) launched a web page asking the public what they think the bright spots are. You could vote for a volcanic origin, geysers, rock, ice, salt deposit which actually looks like a dog turd, or “Other.”

You can probably hear the derision dripping from my voice. I think this was a stupid move for two reasons. First, it’s the same thing that the International Astronomical Union did with Pluto in 2006, it gives the impression that scientists vote on science. That’s not true. Second, it gives a ridiculously free leg up to conspiracists who can further use it to say pretty much anything they were saying already, but now apparently validated. For example, they can claim that it shows NASA doesn’t know what it is so they’re asking the public but they refuse to consider aliens which is what it is. Or, if it turns out to be what got the most votes, then clearly NASA is just giving into popular demand and is hiding the true nature of these.

And as a side note, if I were really a paid shill for NASA, would I really be talking about something they did like this? Though, then again, I suppose I could’ve been TOLD to say this so it seems like I’m not a paid shill … and thus goes the conspiracy mindset: Evidence for the conspiracy is evidence for the conspiracy, and evidence against the conspiracy is still evidence for the conspiracy.

Topic #3: MESSENGER’s Death

Speaking of spacecraft, in the news at the time I’m releasing this episode is MESSENGER and its demise on the surface of Mercury. I haven’t really seen any conspiracy related to this yet - and I have looked - but I expect that if there is any that develops, it will be along the line of the spacecraft still being active, it’s just hidden now and taken over by the Secret Space Program for their own purposes. This basic claim tends to follow the either timely or untimely demise of any space craft.

Which is surprising because in most conspiracy peoples’ versions of the Secret Space Program, they are far beyond the public space program in terms of technology so could just teleport to a place with people and do a heck of a lot more than a NASA spacecraft could do.

What’s really gone on is the same thing that happened to Venus Express a few months ago: It ran out of fuel. Knowing this around a planet that doesn’t have an atmosphere made it a lot easier to predict the orbit decay and time the crash landing.

You might be wondering though why you need fuel to maintain an orbit, since orbits are supposed to be stable. Glad you were wondering, a reader of the podcast wondered the same thing when I posted to Facebook about this on Thursday. As non-listener nor -reader James explained, it’s a three-body problem because Mercury is so close to the sun. The sun perturbed the orbit of MESSENGER such that it was constantly trying to either rip the craft out of orbit or crash it to the surface. Therefore, it needed to expend fuel A LOT to maintain its highly elliptical orbit.

MESSENGER returned a lot of amazing data about a planet we hadn’t visited in nearly 40 years. Analysis has dramatically improved our understanding of Mercury, and it will continue to do so for many years to come. On a personal note, I use the data myself in two of my research projects, and the last bits up to the time of its demise should be released by the end of 2015, following the 6-month proprietary period, though it might be a bit later depending on the specific schedule.

Topic #4: Funding in Science, Follow-Up from Episode #126

The final topic for this episode’s main segment is a follow-up from Episode #126, the interview with Pamela Gay about funding in science. I neglected to do this follow-up in Feedback in the last several episodes because I wanted the Comet Hale-Bopp series to be more stand-alone and not interrupted, and last episode was an interview and I didn’t want to detract from that guest.

This was triggered by an e-mail I got from a listener who had some severe critiques about the content of the interview. One point was that Pamela implied that there has been a large reduction in non-defense-related research in the US in the past few decades. He sent a graph produced by the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) that shows, in 2014 dollars, this is not the case. While there was a large increase in defense relative to other Federal research during the Bush years, that non-defense research declined only slightly, and continued to decline under the Obama administration, though it’s still above what it was in 2000.

Another point the listener questioned is the trend of scientists leaving the US due to poor funding here and better funding elsewhere. I can’t speak to that with any numbers, all I have are anecdotes, so I can neither back up the listener nor support what Pamela stated there other than with my own anecdotes. As Rebecca Watson stated many years ago in a very memorable quote: The plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence."

A third point raised was the focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. The listener stated, “If anything we are focusing too much on it. Way too much.” He then linked to an article in The Atlantic that I’ve put in the shownotes about it.

On this point, I disagree, and the article doesn’t exactly support his point. I think that we do need to focus on these more “sciencey” subjects if we want to stay or regain - depending on your viewpoint - our competitiveness on the world stage in science and technology, but I think where some organizations go wrong is to (a) emphasize it to the detriment of other necessary subjects, and (b) emphasize it without knowing what they’re doing and so they do it very poorly. And I actually think that’s what The Atlantic article was saying.

By way of example on the latter point, I had a very fun job during the summer of 2002 when I was a mole. The institution that someone I knew worked at had implemented a division just because other similar institutions had it. The person in charge had no idea what he was doing. There was no real point to the division. It just was there and did some stuff because similar places had it. My job was to work there for three months and report back on the uselessness not only of the division but of the leadership. And I did. The same thing goes for STEM in some places: Unless you actually have a purpose for doing it, and you know what you’re doing, just saying, “Oh, we need to focus more on STEM so everyone takes double math next year!” is just stupid.

By way of example for the first point, there are only so many hours in the school day, and there is only so long that childrens’ attention spans will last. Therefore, if you cut out something like art, or gym, or history, in favor of inserting a STEM-related required class, then you are by definition getting rid of subjects that may be just as important, only not to STEM. For example, if you put as a 12th grade required class Engineering Principles, and that replaces US Government, then students graduating may be great at engineering basics and may want to pursue that as a career, but they won’t have any idea how the US political system works. Which leads to its own problems.

I think this is an issue, but it’s one better left to people who study education and societal trends rather than I who just run a podcast. I think this is still an area that definitely has no good solution yet.

Beyond the listener’s feedback, I wanted to continue this discussion about funding from more personal experience. I’m not looking for pity or anything, I chose this career and the stress with finding funding that accompanies it, but I want to give you more context and a better understanding of what the United States’ planetary science community specifically faces, and the same thing is generalizable to many areas of basic science research.

Last year, there was a massive reorganization of the omnibus NASA program that most of us get most of our funding from, called “Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences,” or “ROSES” for short. ROSES is everything except institutes and missions. If you want to analyze spacecraft data, that’s ROSES. Study the sun, stars, galaxies, that’s ROSES. Numerical simulations of planet formation, that’s ROSES. Within the planetary section, which is Appendix C, as I said there was a massive reorganization which usually means they combine programs to hide that they have less money, which was also the case.

ROSES C now includes four core programs plus several very specific data analysis programs. Those four core programs are called Emerging Worlds, Solar System Workings, Habitable Worlds, and Exobiology. Then there are what we call the “DAPs” which stands for “Data Analysis Programs,” such as MDAP which is the Mars Data Analysis Program.

Because of the reorganization, a lot of people found that the work they normally would propose to several different programs fell solely into one program. So instead of having, say, three due dates spread over 7 months, they had the same due date for all three proposals. Most people I knew were applying for SSW, the Solar System Workings, which included any sort of comparative planetology or anything that didn’t fit in the DAPs about specific bodies. The due date was July 25, and over 500 proposals were submitted. 384 remained in the program because some were shuffled to others since it was the first year for the reorganization. It was January (6 months later) before anyone heard any preliminary results, and in January, all but 87 proposals were rejected. Three weeks later, 55 were accepted, for an acceptance rate of 14%. That was above average.

This year, because so many people applied to SSW, and they had such a hard time finding reviewers, everyone THIS year has to submit effectively a notice of intent to propose on June 1. Then, they’ll be told if they’re in Group 1 or Group 2. Group 1 will have a deadline of September 10, 2015, while Group 2 will have a deadline of February 25, 2016. It’s apparently random to which group you’ll be assigned. You’re told that the money, if your proposal is selected, would arrive 1 year after the deadline. That means that half of the people who submit a notice that they’ll be proposing in June 1, 2015, may not see money until March 2017, and they have based on this year a 14% of being funded.

How do you plan for that? If you’re working with an undergraduate, a graduate student, a post-doc, or even trying to figure out if you yourself has enough money so that you’re employed over the next year, the schedule for SSW now means it could be 20 months before you get any funding.

It’s true that this may not be a gigantic issue for a faculty member at a university. Their salaries are usually covered for at least 9 months out of the year. But anyone who is soft money - meaning that they have no guaranteed salary, it is only what they can bring in, such as myself or Pamela - are left in limbo. If you have a family to support, a mortgage, enjoy eating on a regular basis, you don’t have savings, or a colleague who got lucky one year and has some extra money you can work off, you may leave the field. I have several friends who are at this point. In fact, if I hadn’t been one of the 55 whose SSW was funded this past year, I would be looking for a different career now.

So there is a real calendar problem and a real brain-drain problem. Yes, the US is well ahead of the bulk of the rest of the world in terms of scientists, but funding situations like these do not bode well for retaining them. It might not be as big an issue of everyone leaving the US, but definitely leaving science.

But there are further issues. What happens if you have a grant, or someone else has a grant that you’re working on, and you change institutions? If it’s your grant, you have to make a very strong case to your institution to let go of the money. The grant is made to your institution, not to you. Your old institution has to decide that it doesn’t want someone else there to do the work and let you take it with you.

Let’s say they do that. But, your new institution has a higher overhead rate. This is the money they take off the top for things like rent, electricity, computer support, and other things. Now, there is less money for you. You can’t spend as much time on it, or at least, you can’t bill as many hours to it. But if you don’t do the work, you won’t complete the proposal and that will ruin your chances of future funding.

Or, let’s say that you’re a co-investigator on a project and you move institutions. To get that money to you, the principle investigator’s institution will now charge a flat fee and/or a percentage fee to transfer the money to you. Just to write a check. Meaning that there’s less money for you to get salary meaning you can’t charge as many hours.

So in these two situations, your percentage employment has gone down because money is being taken out. You can’t charge as much time. You still have to do the work, otherwise, it won’t get done and it will be a failure.

All three of these have happened to me. I was at the University of Colorado as a soft-money researcher and I was recently hired by Southwest Research Institute (“SwRI”), also as soft-money. I was a Co-I on a grant that was at SwRI, and a Co-I on a grant that was at CU, and PI on a grant that was made to CU.

Fortunately, CU transferred the grant I was PI on with no issues. But, while I was a contractor at SwRI, I cost less than half of what I do as an employee because of overhead. Meaning that I can charge less than half as much time to that grant that I was Co-I on that was already at SwRI. For the CU one, to get the money at SwRI, CU charged a flat fee that effectively reduced the time I could charge by 25%, and this was on top of the cut that NASA made when awarding the proposal in the first place.

And so, for these two projects, I have to work about twice as much as I can charge to make sure that the work gets done. And that’s baring any unforeseen hiccups that take more time to sort out, which have happened in the CU project. Fortunately, at least for this year I don’t have the issue of this bringing me below 100% full-time, but next year it may. This is similar to the point that Pamela made during the interview in episode #126 about how Illinois asked people to document how much they worked, and when they started to put down the real numbers — which was far above a normal 40-hour work week — they were told they had to bring them back down to 40 hours on paper.

This is probably a lot more information than you ever wanted to know, but I think it’s important to understand more about the real-life impacts of budget cuts for science funding in specific programs in the US and elsewhere. Yes, it is a choice to go into this kind of field. And, the coveted faculty positions in academia don’t have quite this issue except as it relates to having money to support students to bring in the next generation of research scientists. But, when grant selection rates hover near 10%, and realities of funding cycles and how much everything costs now but may change come into play, many people choose to leave the field.

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