Science and magic

When I was a child, my father took me up on the roof of the chicken coop on our small New Jersey farm to watch Sputnik whiz by.   I couldn’t believe that it was so small and so fast.  It was, to be honest, a little anti-climactic to my 10 year old mind.  Still, I was amazed by the concept that something could be put on a rocket and sent into space for us to see.  It was like magic.  Science often seems magical.  In her essay, “Retrograde Beliefs” in the Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Kristen Dombek, an essayist and teacher at Princeton, writes about this connection.

Magical beliefs include astrology.

On Jan. 21, at 10:54 a.m. Eastern Time, Mercury will begin its first pass by Earth of the new year. For about three weeks, it will appear to move backward across our sky and will, according to astrologers, disrupt technology, communication and human concord. Facebook and Twitter will clog with reports of appointments missed, important email sent to the spam folder, wars between nations, cars crashed and iPhones dropped in toilets, all followed by some version of the hashtag “#mercuryretrograde.” Advice from astrology blogs will arrive in unison: Back up your computer, expect miscommunications, don’t make agreements or important decisions and don’t sign contracts — and hide.

The sun and plants.  Arrow points to Mercury.

The sun and plants. Arrow points to Mercury.

There is, of course a scientific explanation for Mercury’s movements.

The story of Mercury is a cautionary tale too, about thinking there is a connection between how things work on Earth and how they work in the heavens. Every time Mercury orbits the sun, it ends up a bit ahead of where it began, so that the planet traces in space not a steady ellipsis but a pattern of flower petals. Called precession, some of this jumping ahead is explainable by Newton’s laws. But some isn’t. The difference between where Mercury should end up, according to the law of gravity that works on Earth, and where it actually ends up, is minuscule — 43 arc seconds per century — but it was enough to puzzle astronomers for years, even leading to speculation about a phantom planet, Vulcan, that might influence Mercury’s orbit.

What it took, in the end, to explain Mercury’s precession was Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity; Mercury flies close enough to the sun that it travels through a part of space-time so bent by the sun’s mass that the planet is dragged a bit farther along each time. The fact that things work so differently in space than they do on Earth, not to mention at the quantum level, has physicists conjuring ideas even stranger than any malevolent planet — string theory, multiple universes — to connect it all together again.

The really scary thing about astrology, however, is not that so many will be worried about their technology as well as their lives, but that

The belief that the movements of celestial bodies govern our lives is more popular in the United States than it has been in two decades, according to a recent National Science Foundation report. In a 2012 survey, a third of Americans viewed astrology as “sort of scientific” and another 10 percent as “very scientific.” Belief is most prevalent among 18-to-24-year-olds but has markedly increased among 35-to-44-year-olds in recent years. To put this in perspective: More Americans believe in astrology, or “sort of” believe in astrology, than believe that climate change is influenced by the burning of fossil fuels.

Think of that.  More Americans believe in astrology than believe there is a human element to climate change!  This is part of the current trend to distrust science and facts.  Everything is magic.  The moon landings and most certainly the recent landing on a comet were staged.  There can’t be climate change because winters are so cold.  The increase in the number of earthquakes in places where there is fracking is just a coincidence.  We have forgotten about facts because it is more convenient to ignore them when they don’t fit a particular belief system.

Like Kristen Dombek, I love Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”.  Dombek writes

There was something about this story that married a love of quantum physics and astrophysical theory to a witchy sense of cosmic magic; it sent me not away from science, but toward it, suggesting that my relentless research, in my parents’ library and in the woods and streams of our farm, might matter, even though I was a girl.

I am not a scientist, but I read science articles, follow space exploration, and think that mapping the brain is fascinating.  Real science that discovers facts is even more magical than all those science deniers could ever imagine.  All they need to do is look.

Illustration: 3horoscopes.com

Talking full moon

I woke up about 4:30 this morning with the moon shining through my window.  I hadn’t expected to see it as it had been cloudy when I went to bed.  This was an important full moon for several reasons.  First there was a partial penumbral eclipse and second, it was the smallest full moon of the year.

This full moon is called the Beaver moon by some native Americans and is also known as the Frosty moon.  This from the Washington Post

The U.S. Naval Observatory’s Geoff Chester offers the reasoning behind the name: “[The] name comes from Native American skylore reminding trappers to set their final traps for the season before the beaver ponds freeze up for the winter,” Chester writes.

Chester notes this moon is sometimes also referred to as the “Frosty Moon.”

So what is a penumbral eclipse anyway?  EarthSky explains

What can you expect to see during the November 28, 2012 penumbral lunar eclipse?  First, here’s what you will not see.  You won’t see a dark bite taken out of the moon by Earth’s shadow.  And you won’t see the moon turn blood red as during a total eclipse of the moon.  A penumbral eclipse is more subtle than either of these.  At the central part of the eclipse, you’ll see a dusky shading covering about 90% of the moon’s face.  By the way, that brilliant planet near tonight’s moon is the king planet Jupiter. The moon and Jupiter will be even closer together tomorrow night.

So, before you set your alarm clocks, consider yourself forewarned.  A penumbral lunar eclipse is not nearly as stark and obvious as an umbral eclipse of the moon. During an umbral lunar eclipse, the moon passes through the umbra– the Earth’s dark, cone-shaped shadow. During a penumbral eclipse, the moon passes through the light penumbral shadow surrounding the umbra. (See feature diagram at top.) Your best chance of noticing any penumbral shadow on the moon’s surface is at mid-eclipse (greatest eclipse) in a dark sky not obscured by dusk or dawn.

But the eclipse was not visible in Boston so all I saw was the smallest full moon of the year.  This was the smallest and least bright because the moon was at apogee or at the furthest point from the earth.  It might have been the smallest and least bright but it was still enough to wake me up.

This photograph is by Duke Marsh and was posted on EarthSky today.  The little dot at 10 o’clock is Jupiter.