28 May 2013

When Planets Don't Collide; An Unwilling Passenger's Tale

There’s a whole lot of talk about how bad science education is in the United States and how vast is the ignorance of science. I keep finding anecdotal evidence that the people saying these things are right.

How can anybody let pass appallingly obvious inaccuracies and trust that things “just work” even though they have no clue how?

A couple days ago, there was a news report about a triple planetary conjunction in Western sky near the horizon right after sunset early this week. A conjunction occurs when planets appear near each other in the sky. Conjunctions have long been noticed by mankind.  I have heard some conjecture over the years that what is now called the “Star of Bethlehem” was really a planetary conjunction seen as a portent by astronomers/astrologers in Southwest Asia.

Triple conjunctions are somewhat unusual. Generally, they occur only every 3 to 5 years. This one consists of an alignment of Mercury, Venus and Jupiter.

The news accounts note that “Normally, Venus and Jupiter are tens of millions of miles apart.” Full stop.  What’s the obvious conclusion? Well, it’s that at the time of a conjunction, they are not tens of millions of miles apart. Shouldn't that be obvious? There they are in the sky, right next to each other.

Lord, preserve us from such fatuous thinking.

In a "clockwork universe” model, planets' orbits are fairly stable near-circular ellipses. They are far enough apart that the gravity of one planet has little impact on the orbit of another.

That’s a good thing.

If the orbits were close together, gravity would change the orbits of both planets. And if they could get close to each other, then they could get close to us, and that’s a real bad thing.

Given our distance from the sun and with the makeup of the Earth's atmosphere, this planet can have lots of liquid water. Life evolved into these conditions. (Life could have been directed to evolve into these conditions – same thing.)  We need liquid water.  If Earth’s orbit changed, we would quickly go to a place too hot or too cold for liquid water.  That is, we would die.

So, stable orbits are a good thing.

When allegedly intelligent people say that planets actually get close together, we're not dealing with some little pedantic faux pax.  We're dealing with dumb.

In truth, conjunctions occur because planets line up. They look close together. They are still “tens of millions of miles” apart.

Visually, this week's conjunction looks like this from above the orbital plane:

See?  Jupiter is still WAY the heck out there.

Oh well life goes on without our knowing stuff like that. 

Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes claiming ignorance of the heliocentric Copernican model of the solar system. 
[Dr. Watson is narrating.]  His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
“But the Solar System!,” I protested.
“What of the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

I always liked Sherlock Holmes, but his endorsement of selective ignorance is the dumbest thing that character ever said.

I remember reacting with a sort of cringing chuckle the first time I saw Star Wars. Han Solo bragged that the Millennium Falcon was fast. She was the ship “that made the Kessel run in 12 parsecs!” 

Please, please tell me you know that "parsec" is a unit of distance, not time.

Science explains things. I'm adding something electrical to the car. I have had to fiddle with wiring.  Tonight, I cut a wire, expecting to find two leads. There’s only one. Dummy me. I should have known. That explains what that black wire way over there is for. At least I can figure it out now and solder and shrinkwrap the right things.  I’m not a real good shot. I still know to aim higher at greater distances. The reason? Objects fall at the same speed, no matter what the horizontal velocity. I wear a seatbelt. The reason?  Conservation of momentum is a bitch.

Ignorance in science is one of the things draining our strength and capability as a people. Is it any wonder that Asians are manufacturing nearly all of our advanced products? 

Who thinks that’s good for America?

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