I’m Studying For The Eclipse

The small “D” shaped area where the maximum annular eclipse will be seen is so remote, even for Antarctica, it’s predicted no one will watch it live! No one!

I’m studying up. I’ll be hosting a webcast covering the eclipse late Monday evening on slooh.com.


Annular_solar_eclipse_April_29_2014An eclipse takes place late Monday night, my time. That’s early Tuesday morning back on the East Coast.

Academic. Neither place will see it.

The eclipse takes place Tuesday afternoon in Australia. They get a little touch of this annular eclipse.

Annular eclipses occur when the Moon is relatively close to the Earth. That makes it smaller in the sky than the Sun, allowing a small ring of the Sun to remain visible.

As eclipses go, this one just barely makes it.

Much of Antarctica and Australia will see part of the Sun blocked. SolarEclipse2014Apr29AOnly in a tiny region of Antarctica will see the full annular eclipse. There it happens with the Sun on the horizon for just 49 seconds!

The small “D” shaped area where the maximum annular eclipse will be seen is so remote, even for Antarctica, it’s predicted no one will watch it live! No one!

I’m studying up. I’ll be hosting a webcast covering the eclipse late Monday evening on slooh.com. We should have access to live video from Australia where, in some spots, over half the Sun will be blotted out temporarily.

It’s a good chance to rustle up a little scientific curiosity.

High Def At My Desk

I’m at my desk this Sunday evening and not away at dinner because of strong wind and rain moving through Connecticut.

Say what you will about my job, there are some benefits. While the radar loops in a monitor to my right, I’m watching the Sunday night football game on NBC in HDTV. That’s right, somehow I’ve been blessed with an HDTV set at my desk! It’s an LG 20LS7D, which I assume means it’s a 20″ screen.

Football in HD is amazing, but not 100% what I expected. There are lots of compression artifacts whenever there is motion. You can especially see it where there is high contrast.

By compression artifacts, I mean slight video distortion where an approximation of the actual picture replaces the full fledged version. If you play with JPG images, you’ve probably seen something similar.

It’s possible this degradation of the picture isn’t the TVs fault or the fault of HDTV in general. I’m getting this via an unencrypted feed on Comcast. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were taking what they get from the local broadcaster and compressing it a little more to save on precious bandwidth.

Whatever it is, HDTV ends up as M(edium)DTV.

That being said, the picture seems sharp because of the astounding contrast. The blacks are blacker and whites whiter than what I’m used to seeing on TV. That brilliance makes the picture jump out at you.

To your eye, high contrast implies high resolution, even when high resolution isn’t there. Programs like Photoshop create this effect with a filter called ‘unsharp mask.’

I’ve been surprised to see the programming on our local PBS station. They seem to be running a full HDTV feed (still with artifacts) which differs from the PBS programs being run on their standard definition channel.

I spent a good 45 minutes watching this PBS feed a few evenings ago, staring at penguins and seals on South Georgia Island, not far from Antarctica.

Someone who walked by my desk said he’d pretty much watch anything in HD. I think I understand.

I’m not ready to bite the bullet and go HD at home. A set large enough for our family room is still prohibitively expensive for the amount of use it would get.

After seeing this presentation, I’m glad to say we’re not in HD at work yet. I’m not sure my trowel-like application of makeup would serve me well. The world is a better place with a slightly fuzzy Geoff.

ALH84001 – No Life After All

Back when I was hosting Inside Space, this was one of my most interesting shoots. I took a day off from work in Connecticut, hopped a Continental flight to Houston and headed to NASA in Clear Lake. Instead of the usual visit to see ‘manned spaceflight’ experts (NASA JSC’s expertise), we went to see Dr. David McKay in his well equipped laboratory.

There, hidden inside a ‘glove box’ was ALH84001 – a Martian meteorite found in the Allan Hills of Antarctica.

Because part of the ice sheet in the hills melts back every year, and the ground has been scraped clean over the millennial, any rock found must have come from outer space. Scientists just pick them up from the round, as if they were picking berries.

That afternoon in Houston, I got to stick my hand into the gloves and picked up a sample. It was pretty heady stuff, especially since Dr. McKay thought this meteorite contained telltale signs of life on Mars!

There’s an AP story today, and the conventional wisdom isn’t quite as positive as it was then.

After 10 years, few believe life on Mars

I feel bad for McKay, who was a genuinely nice guy and obviously dedicated scientist. But that’s not the reason I’m writing this.

On that day in Houston, I discovered when scientists talk about life on distant planets, they’re using a different definition of life than you or I might use. Even if McKay had been totally right about what was inside ALH84001, to me his discovery was more chemistry than life, and I said that to him there in Houston (not that my personal opinion was at all important to the greater scientific community).

When I think of life, I think of something more complex than what was thought to be in the meteorite. The idea was, ALH84001 had “fossils of ancient Martian microbes, or maybe traces of them, preserved in the cracks and pore spaces.”

From Wikipedia:

A microorganism or microbe is an organism that is microscopic (too small to be visible to the naked eye). Microorganisms are often described as single-celled, or unicellular organisms; however, some unicellular protists are visible to the naked eye, and some multicellular species are microscopic. The study of microorganisms is called microbiology.

I was very disappointed. When I heard life, I wanted something more substantial. Maybe some day, but not this day.

I was back home in Connecticut later that same evening.

March Of The Penguins

Helaine and I have just returned from the movies where we saw March of the Penguins. It is a French documentary on the life cycle of the Emperor Penguin, which lives in and around Antarctica.

To say this movie is beautifully shot is an understatement. Antarctica and penguins are both quite photogenic. But just shooting it had to be unbelievably difficult.

Early on in the movie Morgan Freeman, the narrator, throws out some numbers relating to wind and temperature. The exact figures really don’t matter, because all you’ll say will be, “Oh my God!”

What the penguins have to do to exist is tough enough – but they’ve evolved for this. The crew that shot the film was not.

Much of the wintertime footage was shot in howling winds and blowing snow. As far as I can see, the severity of the weather was actually played down. You could have accentuated the environment’s wrath, but instead, natural sound was kept to a minimum.

Still, the crew had to spend hours at a time in the wide open. Even when they functioned, how did they get the equipment to follow along?

Spending time, watching the habits of Emperor Penguins, is something I had never done before. They are worthy of a movie. There is compassion and fidelity in the world’s harshest place.

Life On Mars

I was sitting at my desk when the Instant Messenger window opened up. It was Dave Brody. He had been our executive producer at SciFi when I hosted Inside Space.

Dave was excited about an announcement that had been made and exclusively reported by space.com, where he now works:

Washington — A pair of NASA scientists told a group of space officials at a private meeting here Sunday that they have found strong evidence that life may exist today on Mars, hidden away in caves and sustained by pockets of water.

Here’s the full space.com story if you’re interested. Dave and I have been through similar announcements before; specifically the Allen Hills Meteorite ALH84001&#185.

It is because of Dave that I actually got to hold that meteorite, safely sealed in a controlled environment, through a port in my rubber gloved hands

It would be astounding if life were actually found today, living on Mars. But hold on. To quote George Harrison, “What Is Life?” What these scientists consider life and what you and I probably think of when we hear the word are totally different.

I typed something like that back to Dave, who replied with his best read on what the first extraterrestrial life discovered might be. “Pond scum. Extremeophile&#178 Pond Scum.”

When scientists start talking about extraterrestrial life, they’re not talking about ET! They’re thinking about forms of life that I consider more chemistry that biology.

Still, Dave has a very important point that applies… even to the most rudimentary forms of life. “If it has our DNA, it means “they is us” (as Pogo once said).”

He’s right. I guess, that changes everything.

&#185 – From Wikipedia – A 4500-million-year-old meteorite found in the Allen Hills of Antarctica (ALH84001). Ejection from Mars seems to have taken place about 16 million years ago. Arrival on Earth was about 13000 years ago. Cracks in the rock appear to have filled with carbonate materials between 4000 and 3600 million years ago. Evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have been identified with the levels increasing away from the surface. Other antarctic meteorites do not contain PAHs. Earthly contamination should presumably be highest at the surface. Several minerals in the crack fill are deposited in phases, specifically, iron deposited as magnetite, that are claimed to be typical of biodepositation on Earth. There are also small ovoid and tubular structures that might possibly be nanobacteria fossils in carbonate material in crack fills (investigators McKay, Gibson, Thomas-Keprta, Zare). Micropaleontologist Schopf, who described several important terrestrial bacterial assemblages, examined ALH84001 and opined that the structures are too small to be Earthly bacteria and don’t look especially like lifeforms to him. The size of the objects is consistent with Earthly “nanobacteria”, but the existence of nanobacteria itself is controversial.

&#178 – Extremeophile seems to be an alternate spelling for extremophile.

An extremophile is an organism, usually unicellular, which thrives in or requires “extreme” conditions. The definition of “extreme” is anthropocentric, of course. To the organism itself its environment is completely normal. Non-extremophilic organisms are called mesophiles.

What Is Life?

The two NASA robots continue to poke around on the surface of Mars. We are explorers – even robotically. The difference between these explorers and a Columbus type explorer is what they’re looking for.

Back in the 15th Century, man was looking for a shortcut to goods he could use. If the trips were successful, spices, gold and other treasures would come back on a triumphant return. At the moment, nothing’s coming back from Mars.

Today’s explorers have a somewhat more ethereal goal. We’re looking for signs of life, the origins of life, the origins of our universe. It’s heady stuff. It’s exploration in the abstract. Unlike the 15th Century, there may be no practical payoff.

Today the AP reported; “Mars rover Opportunity has found evidence that the Red Planet was once wet enough for life to exist there, but the robot has not found any direct traces of living organisms, NASA scientists announced Tuesday.

Of course, the next step will be to look for signs of life. But (with apologies to George Harrison) what is life? It’s not a stupid question. If you’re thinking people, insects, plants, you’re way up the ladder from where scientists will look. In fact they will be looking for incredibly simple forms of life – forms so simple, that to me, it’s difficult to separate life from simple chemistry.

A few years ago I went to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to look at ALH84001, the Allen Hills meteorite. Some scientists believe this chunk of Mars, which through an unbelievable confluence of events ended up on Earth, holds fossilized evidence of Martian life. But the fossils are so simple, the life so rudimentary, that most lay people would yawn and turn away. That’s how I feel about its fossils – though the story of how it got to Earth and how why scientists know to go to Antarctica to find meteorites is more than a little fascinating.

Over the next few months, NASA will probably use the results of this incredible engineering triumph to try and fund more missions, and people will start talking about searching for life. Just remember, it might not mean what you first thought.