16 August, 2009

(A Poor Excuse for) Sunday Sensational Science

Mea culpas are in order, my darlings. I meant to have a spiffy article on Meteor Crater put together in honor of the Perseid Meteor Showers. That, obviously, did not happen, as you're reading my sorry excuses instead.

It's been a bad week. It started with Aunty Flow, who allowed me just enough energy and respite from the pain to keep up with normal posting, but no more. It finished with The Stench.

I have been battling The Stench since Thursday. It's consumed the majority of my attention. It's prevented me from getting a proper night's sleep for days. It has sent me to the store repeatedly for anti-Stench items, such as Glade's Febreeze ripoff (damn you, Target, for being out of the real thing!).

That's right. I bought a memory foam mattress topper. And the smell is everything you've been warned about and more. It resembles gasoline crossed with the toxic goo that created the Joker. It is, above all, pervasive.

I've tried airing the damned thing out on the porch, but in Seattle, you can only leave things outside so long before the damp destroys them. I've tried covering it with layers upon layers of thick, heavy blankets. I've tried dryer sheets. I've tried blasting it with fans. I'm finally reduced to a waterproof mattress protector, which worked for a few hours. But The Stench is now starting to penetrate even that, along with the thick mattress pad, the blankets, and about ten thousand dryer sheets.

It's terribly distracting, and combined with the social life I developed over the weekend, has led me to punk off Sunday Science until it's too late for anything complicated.

You may ask why I've not chucked the memory foam mattress topper into the nearest dumpster. Three reasons. One, the thing's hideously expensive and nearly impossible to return. Two, The Stench is not long for this world - memory foam loses its odor in a few days to a few weeks. Three, once The Stench is gone, bliss will be mine all mine. The topper's not quite a Tempurpedic, but it's damned comfortable. Far better than the ancient feather mattress I've been using.

It will all be worth it in the end. But if you decide to buy one of these things, make sure it can have a room of its own for a few weeks. And buy it in a season when you can have the windows open.

But enough of The Stench. Let's talk my social life, which involved some science. Our local skeptics group decided to meet on a Saturday for all us poor bastards who can't make it to the meeting on Tuesday nights. We were discussing the Apollo moon landing, and the idiots who to this day believe it's a hoax.

We watched a "documentary" called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon. My darlings, grab your local skeptics and pirate a copy forthwith. It's hilarious. It starts out with Bible quote after Bible quote. It continues with a discuss of the Tower of Babel and the Titanic (which, it's implied, God hisownself sank). It has a musical interlude with a bunch of rockets blowing up, followed by a smorgasboard of arguments from incredulity, logical fallacies, spectacular ignorance of basic physics and photography, and arguments from the Kennedy assassination. Even Godwin's there in spirit. If you could stick posts from the DIsco Institute, Answers in Genesis, and other such luminaries of dumbfuckery into a blender with Expelled and Ray Comfort's banana video, puree on high for two minutes, and then turn the resulting blend into a DVD, it would emerge as something very like this "documentary."

There's only one way to follow that up: the Mythbusters Moon Hoax special. You can view clips here. Or just get your local skeptics together - there's nothing quite like a room full of very smart, very skeptical, and very knowledgeable people taking these myths apart one by one.

The only thing missing was a video of Buzz Aldrin punching the moon hoax moron in the nose.

So, anyway, that's what's keeping you from getting an honest-to-goodness Sunday Sensational Science this week. But there's a little science for you - I've got some follow-up to Kepler's launch.

First off, the thing works - it really works!

And that’s what the news is from Kepler. As a test of its abilities, it observed the star known as HAT-P-7, which is known to have a roughly Jupiter-sized world orbiting it every 2.2 days. This planet, called HAT-P-7b, is far too close to the star to be seen directly, but every time it passes in front of the star, the light we see drops. Here’s what Kepler saw after observing this system for 10 days:

Kepler observations of HAT-P-7B

The top plot shows the data as the planet circles the star. The big dip is due to the planet blocking a fraction of the star’s light. The depth of that dip tells us how much of the star was blocked, and therefore the size of the planet. But look along the plot a little bit to the right: see that fainter dip (right under the i in "Magnification")? What’s that?

The bottom plot is the same thing but zoomed in to see more detail. That second dip is a lot more obvious. It’s not another planet blocking starlight, which is what you might first guess. It’s actually the light from the planet being blocked by the star!

The planet is reflecting light from the star, just like the Moon reflects sunlight, allowing us to see it. When the planet passes behind the star, we don’t see that light anymore, so the total light from the system drops a wee bit. It’s not much, and totally impossible to see from the ground, but Kepler was able to spot it. And that’s critical, because it turns out this dip is about the same thing we’d expect to see if a planet the size of the Earth were to pass in front of the star. In other words, the drop in light from a giant planet going behind its star is about the same as we’d expect from a smaller planet passing in front of the star.

The fact that Kepler spied this dip at all means that, if somewhere out there an Earthlike world is orbiting a star, Kepler will be able to detect it!


And, as Darksyde noted last week, it even managed to detect its first exoplanet atmosphere:
NASA's new exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope has detected the atmosphere of a known giant gas planet, demonstrating the telescope's extraordinary scientific capabilities. The discovery will be published Friday in the journal Science.

"As NASA's first exoplanets mission, Kepler has made a dramatic entrance on the planet-hunting scene," said Jon Morse, director of the Science Mission Directorate's Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Detecting this planet's atmosphere in just the first 10 days of data is only a taste of things to come. The planet hunt is on!"
Good hunting, Kep!


george.w said...

I look forward to the day we somehow confirm life on other planets, to poke holes in that sense of being the center of the universe.

Maybe your next week's science post should be on the chemistry of memory foam?

RickU said...

I'm just thankful that The Stench wasn't associated w/ Aunty Flow.