OK, let me be clear: the world is not going to end with any statistically significant probability on December 21st.  However, if you do want to get a rise out of someone go tweet @badastronomer Phil Plait and ask about the photon ring or some other bogus belief in the end of the world.

Now, having said that, it’s never a bad thing to be prepared.  So in a departure from normal posts, today is a series of links to one of my favourite websites, the Art of Manliness.  No, this is not some misogynistic guys-only club, this is actually a website full of information and articles on the lost art of being a ‘man.’  These are things like how dress properly, how to sew a button or sharpen an axe, or any other numbers of things.  They have had several articles on how to prepare for emergencies of all kinds.  A lot of the posts come from the Willow Haven Outdoor School for Survival.

When preparing for an emergency, it’s important to keep a global perspective.  Whether you are just trying to stockpile a few supplies for a bad winter storm or the full-blown zombie apocalypse, it’s important to remember the essential things you will need no matter the emergency.

One thing that is always troublesome to me is that I spend the majority of my waking hours away from my home and wife.  In an emergency, communication could well be lost and just getting home might be difficult.  So to this end, I will link to the first post: How to build a ‘get-home’ bag.  It is also important that everyone in your family has one, and you have ‘rally points’ so that you can all meet up.  Home is a great rally point, but what if you can’t get there?

Now if you are home with your family, but you need to leave–a tsunami warning has sounded, there is a gas leak, relatives are coming–you can build a bug-out bag.  Bug out bags or Get-out-of-Dodge bags or battle boxes–whatever you want to call them–usually contain about 3 days worth of supplies so that you can safely evac a dangerous situation and get yourself settled.  Nothing helps planning for the future than a safe present.  Creek Stewart (the author of most of these) has written an entire book on the subject, but this will get you started.

OK, now a fun one.  The tactical/survival shotgun.  I won’t say much–you just need to read it.

Some other topics: the survival tampon, how to use a broken cell phone to meet 5 basic survival needs, and how to build a small snare.  In addition, choosing a proper survival knife is a good read, and (just because post-apocalypse will have no video games) how to play mumbley peg.

I’m no paranoid doom-sayer, but it never hurts to be prepared.  My only piece of advice if you look into any of these skills is to practice.  Remember, your brain does not work the same in an emergency as it does normally–you need these skills to be second nature.  Anyway, I’ll see you all on the 22nd.

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New life-sustaining planets? Don’t get too excited.

Sorry to be a killjoy, but I dislike misleading article titles, like “Another Earth Just 12 Light-Years Away?” The article, from Science Express yesterday, itself is fine, but just because a planet exists in a star’s habitable zone does not and should not imply another Earth. OK, I’m off my soapbox. Here’s the interesting bits:

τ Ceti (Tau Ceti, or HD10700) is a fairly nondescript star, about half as luminous as our Sun. It’s only about 12 light years away, and can be seen with the naked eye (in the constellation Cetus). Recent research indicates as many as 5 planets orbiting this star with two in the habitable zone. However, these astronomers are seriously pushing the capabilities of their systems to be able to resolve this.

By Cetus_constellation_map.png: Torsten Bronger derivative work: Kxx (Cetus_constellation_map.png) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons.

What I think is more interesting than the potential discovery of the planets themselves is the study done on the characteristics of the noise inherent in these measurements. I won’t go into detail in this particular case, but I certainly appreciate their attention to study properties that people often just assume are stationary and Gaussian. To understand what I’m talking about, it helps to know a little bit about the methods available for detecting planets around other stars.

Detecting Planets–the absolute basics

Exoplanets cannot be detected directly, but rather only by their influence on their sun. There are two basic ways to determine if a planet or planets are orbiting and what their properties may be: (1) look for doppler shifts in the star’s spectrum due to orbital tugging by the planet, and (2) look for [very] faint changes in luminosity due to a planet transiting the face (transit photometry). Both of these methods require extremely high-precision measurements, usually stacked over very long time scales. A very neat demo from our friends at Wolfram Mathworld demonstrates this ‘orbital wobble’ due to the orbiting planet. As perhaps a subset of the Doppler method, astronomers can observe the radial velocity of the star, which will subtly change based on planetary locations. The Doppler method works because the planet isn’t really orbiting the star–the planet and star are mutually orbiting a common center of mass.

τ Ceti

To give you an idea of how small these signals are, the standard deviations on the recorded radial velocities of τ Ceti were about 1.7 m/s. Please appreciate that we’re looking for changes in radial velocity of a star 12 light years away on the order of a few metres per second.

So after some serious Bayesian modelling of data from three observatories, the reasearch group determined that a five-body Keplerian solution is “clearly favoured by the data.” (For those familiar, it was a relative posterior probability of 0.937, versus 0.063 for the next closest and 10e-7 for the next. Moreover, the 0.063 probability solution was also a 5 body solution, but with a 315 day periodicity instead of 168.)

The planets, named HD10700b through HD10700f, orbit their star once every 14, 35, 94, 168, and 642 days (Sols) respectively. The first three are probably incapable of hosting life (too hot), but the last two are thought to be within the star’s habitable zone–where liquid water can exist at the surface.

The Curmudgeon Is Back

OK, now here’s why I don’t like the sensational article titles: the above is all we know. We can estimate that they are rocky and we can estimate their masses, but whether there is water or an atmosphere, or anything else needed for life, we don’t know…yet. Fortunately there are ways to estimate these, but unfortunately because we are looking more or less at the axis of rotation of the system (in other words looking at the solar system from the top instead of the side), current methods of planetary analysis are unlikely to work. This doesn’t mean that people much more clever than me aren’t working on the question though, and I (among many) believe that our first interstellar probe should probably head the 12 light years to τ Ceti. Maybe my grandchildren will get to see the data…

For some further reading:

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The search for extremophiles

Extremophile – n. – A microbe that lives in an environment one thought to be uninhabitable, for example in boiling or freezing water. (Source:

In the not-too-distant past, scientists believed that in some respect, all life was powered by the Sun.  In essence, the Sun was the bottom of the food chain for every organism on Earth.  The sun powered the growth of photosynthesizing organisms which fed larger and larger organisms, and so on.

However, in 1977, Jack Corliss of Oregon State University along with two others (Jerry van Andel and Jack Donnelly) discovered tube worms growing in scalding waters of hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean, far from any trace of sunlight.  These organisms were feeding off the chemicals released by the vents – they were chemosynthesizing.

Since that discovery, the known environments that can host life has absolutely exploded, and life can be found almost anywhere you look on Earth–even some of the most inhospitable places.  To pseudo-quote Jeff Goldblum: “Life uh, uh, uh, finds a way.”

This wide variety of environments of ecosystems on Earth has contributed immensely to the probability that we may discover life of some sort elsewhere in the universe.  An entire field of exobiology (or astrobiology) has erupted, and exobiologists go to extremes on Earth to understand what life needs to survive in extra-terrestrial environments.  While making analogues to Earth-based organisms may be a bit clunky, it’s the best we have.

Now the British Antarctic Survey is taking the search for extremophiles to, well, extremes.  Researchers are drilling through three kilometers of Antarctic Ice to reach a lake (Lake Ellsworth) that has been covered and isolated for at least 100,000 years.  If they can find life in this environment, which is eerily like what we might find on the Jovian moon, Europa, that would be an extremely exciting discovery.  At the same time, if there is no life, that is of significance in and of itself.

The science team is taking great care to ensure they do not contaminate the lake with microbes from the surface, including all manner of sterilisation schemes.  In fact, the project was delayed while the scientific community debated on how best to proceed.  If I recall correctly, a Russian team was intending to do the same thing and was stopped.

In any case, this is a very exciting time for exobiology.  You can watch live updates at — you can bet I will be.  Let’s wish the researchers luck and happy hunting!

For more information:

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The Dozenal System

With yesterday being 12.12.12, I thought I would discuss a numerical base system–the dozenal (or duodecimal) system.

The dozenal system is a base-12 system.  When I first heard about it, I dismissed it as just another base system for digits, which was popular because of the date.  However, there is a rather large contingent of people–scientists, accountants, engineers–that all actually propose that we teach both the decimal (base 10), and the dozenal system.  Again, I dismissed them as crackpots at first, but I was curious enough to read up on the matter, and I have to say that they have a point.

Dozenal Basics

Before we go any further, let’s explore what I mean when I say base 10 or base 12.  Any numerical system must provide some kind of symbolic representation of numbers–it is inconvenient to use tally marks or the like to represent all numbers.  Preferably, there would be a small set of symbols that can be ordered to represent all numbers.  In our familiar decimal system, those are:

0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

In binary, those are simply

0, 1.

For the computer scientists, hexidecimal would be

0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F.

The symbols are arbitrary, but how you group the symbols makes up the number system. There are 10 symbols in base 10.  Once you use those, you start to repeat, combining those symbols, e.g. 13 is one ten, and three ones.  In binary, 11 is one two, and one one, or 3 in the decimal system.  To put it another way, in decimal 13 is

1*10^1 + 3*10^0

and in binary, 11 is

1*2^1 + 1*2^0.

Dozenal is no different.  Instead of 10 symbols, we have 12

0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,χ,ε (the last two pronounced dek and el, respectively).

Here, χ represents 10 in the decimal system, and ε represents 11. Please note that I have used an epsilon to represent el, which isn’t quite right but I don’t have the proper character set on WordPress…

Now that we have the symbols, let’s make some numbers.  Think back to second grade and those hauntingly boring words “we carry the three to the tens column…”  Well it’s the same here, except they are dozens columns.  This makes sense when thinking back to our exponential (the exponents below are in base 10.  Damn this is getting confusing).  In dozenal, the number 10 (pronounced do as in dough) is


or 12 in base 10.  The dozenal number 3χ7 in base 10 exponents is

3*12^2 + 10*12^1 + 7*12^0 = 432 + 120 + 7 = 559,

and going the other direction (exponents now in dozenal)

5*χ^2 + 5*χ^1 + 9*χ^0 = 3*10^2 + χ*10^1 + 7*10^0 = 3χ7.

If you are more word-oriented, try

3 gross and 10 dozens and 7 ones in dozenal is equivalent to 5 hundreds and 5 tens and 9 ones in decimal.  See?  It’s just that easy (yeah right; it hurt my head too).

OK, so those are the absolute basics.  There is more, like how you name the equivalents of tens and hundreds (dozens and grosses and such), but my brain hurts.

Why the heck would we do this?

So now the question is why the devil would you propose such a system?  Proponents argue that it’s simpler to do arithmetic.  Basically, 12 has more factors, so there are more even fractions.  For example, 1/4 of 10 is 2.5.  But 1/4 of 12 is 3 (a whole number).  Same story with thirds and so on.  They have somewhat of a point–bakers operate in dozens, the foot was divided into 12, shillings were 12 pence, etc.  12 is a more natural base, though by virtue of us having 10 fingers, we chose 10.  There are also some useful patterns that pop up in arithmetic that can be used, but I won’t go into those here.

Is this going to catch on?

Well in short, no.  We can’t even go metric in the United States.  A system being useful doesn’t mean it will be adopted–look at Plank Units if you’re not convinced of that.  It is an entertaining exercise though.  Honestly, for my own use, I file this under ‘recreational maths.’

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12.12.12 News

Lots to talk about today, but first I must announce that I am a twit.  That’s right, I made a twitter account.  You can find me on Twitter as @DrAndyKass.  I post tweets and retweets about science news and commentary by scientists.

Second, tomorrow (Thursday, Dec 13) and Friday look to the skies for the Geminid meteor shower.  The new moon is on the 13th so that will improve visibility dramatically.  The shower peaks an hour or two after midnight.  Watching tips can be found here.

Third, get out there today with your camera.  One Day On Earth is collecting user-submitted videos from this day to capture a snapshot of our civilisation.  (I had prepared today’s blog to be about it, but it turned into a meandering, esoteric diatribe and I scrubbed the whole thing.)  Capture some science for posterity’s sake, so we’re not 100% full of videos of teenage girls professing Beiber love.

Fourth, Obamadon?  Really?

Finally, on a more sober note, N. Korea has a successful space launch platform.  They don’t have a viable weapon or delivery system yet, but it’s only a matter of time.  So to make you feel better, here is Kim Jong Un looking at things.

Keep your stick on the ice.

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Passing of Sir Patrick Moore

It is with sadness that we note the passing of Sir Patrick Moore.  Sir Moore, astronomer and friend of science education, passed away at his home at the age of 89, surrounded by “close friends, carers, and his cat, Ptolemy.”

For more information, please visit .

In addition, please enjoy the astronomy show on BBC that Sir Moore hosted for more than 50 years:

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Polymerisation of Hydrogen and Helium

How cool does that sound?

It turns out that may just be what’s happening in the middle of White Dwarf stars, based on emission spectra.  Why is that so crazy?  I’m glad you asked.  Well you just can’t make polymer-like chains of hydrogen and helium on Earth; you need a much much [much^n where n is large] higher magnetic field to produce these interactions, dubbed paramagnetic bonding.  Recent modelling from a group consisting of researchers from Norway and the US has been able to shed some light on the mechanism allowing for these molecules.

Artist's rendition of a Neutron Star.  Photo from

Artist’s rendition of a Neutron Star. Photo from

Earth’s magnetic field is massive.  It protects us from the solar winds.  Without this giant field our atmosphere would likely be just a fraction of the density it is now.  We have a 2000+ kilometre wide core that’s spinning resulting in a dynamo that essentially makes life possible.  OK, so I obviously have a thing for magnetics but get this.

Earth’s field is about 52 microTesla where I live.  Micro as in 10^-6.  The fields in the middle of these White Dwarf stars are ~400,000 Tesla – 4×10^5.  Yeah, that’s 11 orders of magnitude greater.  In Neutron Stars and magnetrons that can be even higher—approximately 10^10 Tesla.  The best we’ve done on Earth is a few hundred Tesla and the generators tear themselves apart nearly instantly.

When we get into magnetic fields this intense, the magnetic interactions become just as important as Coulomb (electrical) interactions.  This means that most of what we know about chemistry on Earth must be completely re-thought for the centres of these stars.

OK, so I also have to admit that my chemistry is piss-poor, and I don’t understand all the implications of paramagnetically-bonded elements.  I will try to relate my rude understanding, and I definitely invite comments and corrections.  Most of my understanding comes from [1] below.

The claims, however, are bold—and according to researcher Mark Hoffman, justified.  This is a totally new bonding mechanism.  Think back to high school chemistry, where we learned about covalent bonding (like what holds ethanol together), and ionic bonding (like what holds table salt together).  (Yes, I am sitting at a bar as I write this.)

Well now we have paramagnetic bonding, where the orbitals of the electrons in the atoms are modified and align with the background field.  This forces atoms to all have an aligned dipole moment, allowing them to bond in a way not unlike Van der Waals forces.

Lange et. al. provides the following schematic:

F1.largeSo, while we can’t observe these interactions directly, their modelling provides the best model so far for how hydrogen and helium can polymerise in the middle of some of the most extreme pseudo-stable environments in the Universe.  That’s pretty cool.

[1] Kai K. Lange et. al., 2012, A paramagnetic bonding mechanism for diatomics in strong magnetic fields, Science, 337, pp 327-331.


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Well hello again.  After an astonishing absence, I’m back.  My apologies–especially to Mr. Shoffner, who I think is the only person who reads these.  This is a very exciting time in research, especially in astronomy, so I had to get back on my game now.

My hiatus began when I was sent to Turkey on assignment with the US Geological Survey.  It was an amazing place (and the reason I got out of the habit of writing here), so I’ll give you the short version.

The US Geological Survey is a partner in the Department of Defense Task Force for Business Stability Operations in Afghanistan.  As part of this partnership, we were tasked with training the Afghanistan Geological Survey in the operation of their equipment and assistance in the interpretation of their collected data.  To this end, we met 8 of their geoscientists in Istanbul, Turkey.  The idea was that we would have a few days of classroom work, and then get on the party bus to Susehri (Sivas Province) and do some field work with Eurasian Minerals.  That was put on hold as our friends at FedEx finally delivered our equipment 11 days late.  But I digress.

Susehri, Turkey

The beautiful and friendly town of Susehri.

Ultimately we made it out to the field site, an achingly beautiful part of Turkey right on the North Anatolian Fault.  The field site was up in the mountains, a terrifying hour drive away.

The view from the field site near Golcuk, Sivas, Turkey.

The view from the field site near Golcuk, Sivas, Turkey.

While there, we performed a variety of geophysical surveys in order to attempt to define the subsurface geometry of a copper deposit in the area.  The terrain and complicated geological regime made this extremely difficult.

Mukhtar and the Geonics EM-47 transient electromagnetic instrument.

Mukhtar and the Geonics EM-47 transient electromagnetic instrument.


Some of the guys working down the hill as the fog rolls in.

That's a lot of equipment to haul around.  That's also a nice hat.

That’s a lot of equipment to haul around. That’s also a nice hat.

Driving towards the North Anatolian Fault.  It's not an easy place to work.

Driving towards the North Anatolian Fault. It’s not an easy place to work.

The copper outcrops were fabulous–spectacular quartz and malachite mineralisation.  Even a bit of silver ore sprinkled in.

Copper mineralisation.

Copper mineralisation.

The best part, however, was not the geophysics or even the beauty of the Anatolian Peninsula.  Rather it was the friendships forged in this time.  I often worry about them–living in Kabul isn’t the easiest, but I still regularly speak to two of the guys, and I hope to see them again.

(L to R) Bakshi, me, Shafiq.

(L to R) Mukhtar, me, Shafiq.

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Venus Transit

The transit of Venus. Image from Culture and Current Affairs via Citizen Scientists’ League.

Tomorrow (June 5) is the transit of Venus. If you have the capability, find a solar viewer (instructions to build one from our friends at CSIRO can be found here), head out a few hours before sunset (in North America), and watch the last transit in your lifetime.

Transit viewing locations (from Wikimedia).

The transit of Venus is when Venus passes directly between the Earth and the sun.  This happens (almost always) in pairs–once, then 8 years later, then not for a few generations.  The last transit was in 2004; the next will be in 2117.

OK, so a black dot moving across the Sun may not be the most interesting of celestial phenomenon, but it is the rarest of predictable phenomena.  According to Wikipedia (I know, I know), the original scientific interest was to determine the distance from the Earth to the Sun:

and from this the size of the Solar System, by employing the parallax method andKepler’s third law. The technique involved making precise observations of the slight difference in the time of either the start or the end of the transit from widely separated points on the Earth’s surface. The distance between the points on the Earth was then used as a baseline to calculate the distance to Venus and the Sun via triangulation.[14]

My plan is to head east with a telescope, a solar filter, and a cooler of beer, and watch something that my great grandchildren will get to see.

If you’re in an area where you can’t see it, or if you have to be inside, you can watch the event here (and other interesting celestial events).  You can also find more interesting transit discussion here.

Happy viewing!*

*don’t forget to protect your eyes!

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Dragon splashdown

I’m a few days late, but:

Not sure where the image credit goes–I saw this on imgur.

Welcome home, Dragon!

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