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What those Hubble images are telling us

By this point, we've all seen so many pretty Hubble pictures that we're in danger of pretty-Hubble-picture burnout. We've seen exploding stars galore. We've seen majestic pillars of gas that are spawning new solar systems. We've seen galaxies colliding, galaxies getting ripped apart, galaxies becoming mired in their own ennui. We've seen Mars and Jupiter and Saturn in such stark close-ups that we can detect the cosmetic surgery scars.
We've seen quasars, pulsars, brown dwarfs, exoplanets, globular clusters and assorted nebulosities. It feels as if we've seen it all. Literally. The whole cosmos, soup to nuts. It kind of makes you wonder if we'll run out of new things to discover. Here's a real headline on a November news release from Stanford: "High-precision measurements confirm cosmologists' standard view of the universe." All figured out; everyone go home now.

So, you can just imagine the challenge that NASA's Hubble Space Telescope scientists faced earlier this year. In May, astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis flew to the Hubble and, defying a stuck bolt that nearly derailed the mission, removed an old camera and replaced it with a better one. They fixed two other instruments, even though these things were not designed for orbital maintenance. Crew members installed new gyroscopes and batteries. After five spacewalks and much derring-do, Hubble was, in effect, a brand-new space telescope.

But what to look at next? The Hubble people had to pick targets to demonstrate the revamped telescope's abilities. They would call these images the Early Release Observations, or ERO (at NASA, everything has an abbreviation). They wanted to produce pictures with lots of (their term) Wow Factor.

The rollout came in early September at NASA headquarters in Washington. Big shots showed up, such as the new NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the "Godmother of the Hubble," and all seven astronauts from the Atlantis mission. NASA beamed the news conference around the planet. Two huge flat-screens flashed fancy graphics. After much hoo-ha and throat-clearing, the moment came. The ERO! The journalists pounded out their stories, which all said pretty much the same thing: "Wow."

You see the danger here: Wow can turn into Whatever. The whole enterprise can start to feel a little superficial. It's too easy to get blissed out on the eye candy. We can become a little too star-struck.

So here's our challenge: We'll go back and look once again at these new pictures, but this time we'll probe deeper, think harder and search for any messages in the light that careens into Hubble's mirror. We'll do a deep reading of the cosmic text. And we'll ask the hard question: What is space telling us?

[Click here to keep reading my magazine story "The Wow Factor."]

By Joel Achenbach  |  December 4, 2009; 12:09 PM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Afghanistan: Firm commitments and wiggle room
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How I wish I had something pertinent and insightful to say about this story (except, "Wow. Great story!"). I'm still too dazzled by the pretty-Hubble-pictures to come up with such a thing.

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Here's an interesting image for the day...cover art: 10 Tips Obama Can Take from Tiger.

Posted by: laloomis | December 4, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I never tire of being awed by the Hubble images.

Posted by: Manon1 | December 4, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

The "10 tips Obama can take from Tiger" list sounds like a Letterman list to me. Maybe Letterman would want to revise it slightly to read--10 Tips I Would Readily Give Tiger Having Been in the Same Sandtap Myself.

I do recall Curmuggeon's weighing in with posts (breaking news) on entertainment figure Letterman's extramarital dalliances. Guess it's only fun or funny if you're the one posting it? Funny--a real laff riot, isn't it how the tables don't readily turn?

Posted by: laloomis | December 4, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Obama must have been studying pretty Hubble pictures instead of learning Afghan problems.


Posted by: Braguine | December 4, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Joel. That story made me smile. It made me think, too, but the thinking hasn't coalesced into anything useful yet. I'll wait and see if it does, and in the meantime, I'm still smiling.

Posted by: -bia- | December 4, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Head's up-- Joel's doing a chat on his piece on Monday at noon.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | December 4, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I like wow.

I like finding things to wow over every day.

If I can't find any, it's not the universe' problem, it's mine.

Like Manon1, I always wow over the Hubble pics.

I went so far as to post a Hubble-based video on youtube, I was so wow about them. To Mr. A's point it got only 55 views in 2 months, so I took it down.

Posted by: MsJS | December 4, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse


*laughing really hard* In addition to summit-this and summit-that. Forgot who had the summit list this morning...

Posted by: laloomis | December 4, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

The day I stop going "Wow" over images from Hubble (or Chandra or any other Universe-imaging tool) is the day they chuck what's left of me into the medical school's fridge.

Posted by: Scottynuke | December 4, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Magnificent article, Joel. I read through it pretty quickly, but will go back to savor it. I like that the universe takes the easy way out, and that we're in Sleepyville.

Two clicks - that's how to work those page views.

Posted by: seasea1 | December 4, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I like a wow every day too. I haven't failed to find one yet.

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Brag, guess the word of the day is Baluchistan--brought to us by a NYT op-ed.

Note to Tiger: Your values ARE your actions. Let's hope these Nike kids do NOT grow up to be Tiger Woods. Role model, schmole model.

Posted by: laloomis | December 4, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I marked the passing of Richard Todd because he was an actor I always liked (Disney's Robin Hood) and because he seems to have been quite a person IRL. As a 25 year old captain in the British Airborne forces he parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. Years later he actually portrayed a similar part in Zanuck's "The Longest Day." He played a killer in Hitchcock's "Stage Fright" and I'm a great Hitchcock fan. Although "Stage Fright" is not among his best, Hitchcock did include a remarkable (for the time) long take early in the film where the camera follows Todd from the street into a house and up the stairs. Try to imagine the difficulties involved in creating what you see on the screen, remembering that this was done before steadicams. We start with a street scene with exterior lighting, walk through a door into a house with interior lighting. Now, the whole front of the house has flown out of our way silently and without casting any shadow. Todd closes the door, or seems to anyway, because we see his arm and we hear the door shutting. He ascends the stair and the camera rises to follow (so we know it's on a crane) and we follow him across a balcony and into a room. Great stuff.

This shot is almost exactly reversed by Sir Alfred in "Frenzy" over 20 years later. The serial killer lures an unsuspecting Anna Massey to his flat. We know he's going to strangle her. Hitchcock slowly withdraws to the street, where any sound she makes will be lost in the bustle.

Posted by: kguy1 | December 4, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I never get enough of "wow" myself.

I think it's important to remember no matter how ugly and nasty people can be, that the universe still is beautiful enough to knock your shoes, socks, and knickers off.

Now if we could just develop some magical tape to paste over everybody's mouths so whatever they say comes out as galaxies, nebulae, astronomical butterflies, and stellar jets instead of ugliness, well, world peace would be nigh-- as would be the end of the world.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 4, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

The day I stop going "Wow" over images from Hubble (or Chandra or any other Universe-imaging tool) is the day they chuck what's left of me into the medical school's fridge.

Posted by: Scottynuke | December 4, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

[trying again to post this] *SIGH*

The day I stop going "Wow" over images from Hubble (or Chanrda or any other Universe-imaging tool) is the day they chuck what's left of me into the medical school's fridge.

Posted by: Scottynuke | December 4, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Major connectivity issues here, as you might guess. *SIGHHHHHHHHHH*

Posted by: Scottynuke | December 4, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Wow, sighted people are so easily entertained!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | December 4, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

So what you're trying to tell us, Scotty, is that you are wowed by the Hubble images?

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Another great one, Joel. (yes, long-time lurker, first-time Boodler).

I hope that when it's my turn to go, it looks something like the Butterfly Nebula. But maybe without all the debris. Because that could get messy.

Posted by: j_go | December 4, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Yes, Whacky-- especially when the pictures are really like fingerpainted swirls only with itty itty white specks instead of paint. It's also like seeing bunnies in clouds. Brings out the lazy sky-watching kids in us.

The "Butterfly Nebula" is pseudo-colored with burgundy edges with the central glow being blue-white, so it kind of looks like the dark center is shining flashlights through both wings. The background is dead black, like black velvet, with a few twinkly stars.

The Jet in Carina has a nearly navy blue background with stars shining through that. Near the jet, it actually becomes turquoise.

The Jet itself kind of looks like a big glowing dust cloud from Beep Beep the Roadrunner, only in 3-D. There's a big star shining near the bottom with a pointed X edged by pink, which looks great against the navy blue.

The picture of Omega Centuri looks like mutant Christmas lights in red and blue of all sizes are swarming like bees. Some of the red ones look pretty big and angry to me.

Stephan's Quintet-- well it looks like it'd go well with a classical string quartet. Just three galaxies in a triangle at top, all slanted away from the camera. The top left one is bluish white and kind of looks like a haloed ball, with lots of stars piercing the gauze. The top right one is tan-gold, very wispy and looks to be in the rear- an elliptical halo around a very small center.

The center one is a S spiral galaxy which kind of looks like a white elephant with gold-tan shading rearing its trunk above its head. It has a big star eye, a spiral line where its ear goes, and a big star on its necklace. There's a sideway tear shape of blue, red, and white stars dotting and outlining the elephant's head.

The bottomest one outside of the triangle is just a plain gold-tan circle with a white glow. It's kind of like a candle in the dark. There are fat stars there and there in between to remind you it's a real night sky.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 4, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Yoki, do you know the name of the disease of people who are afraid of those Hubble images?

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | December 4, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Re: the 1:05--seems I recall a late night post about getting both a lube job and wolb (spelled backwards) job at an auto shop not long ago--from this very same poster. Oh, hypocrisy watch! Magical paste indeed!

Beutiful melody here, a Tiger Woods Voicemail Slow Jam Remix (pretty video editing, too):

Posted by: laloomis | December 4, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

No, tell us the name of that disease, 'mudge.

Welcome j_go!

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: curmudgeon6 | December 4, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Something exactly like that, Yoki...

Hey there, j_go!! *Grover waves* :-)

Posted by: Scottynuke | December 4, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

It may be HSD (Hubble Sensitivity Disorder) or maybe nebulaphobia.

Yoki, what's your take?

WackyWeasel: What do you suppose these celestial bodies sound or smell like? (question for the science-abled: does the rest of the universe emit odors?)

Posted by: MsJS | December 4, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, Mudge already wow'ed us w/ answer. I post too slow.

Posted by: MsJS | December 4, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Ah Wilbrod, to interpret the universe through the eyes of an artist, now that's fascinating.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | December 4, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Yoki and Scotty! I fear I won't be able to keep up with y'all but it seemed wrong to just continue lurking.

Did anyone else catch this, on the same day it was announced that NG Adventure is going out of print?

Seems like an interesting endeavour...

Posted by: j_go | December 4, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

The rest of the universe emits odors. Haven't you seen the episode of Futurama with the Smelloscope?

Unfortunately, most of the universe's odors tend to be lethal or, at least, asphyxiating.

Posted by: ScienceTim | December 4, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Heavy Metal, and feels icy hot.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | December 4, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

No Pulsar Disease?

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

The whole house smells like Sirius.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | December 4, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

LOL, shriek. Aka "Wet Dog"

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Hurrah! Sciencey! This is a fine story, Joel, and made me think of the Universe(s) in a different way. And bravo, Wilbrod, for beautifully rendering those visual images into word pictures. You made me see them all over again.

Wow indeed. There is beauty everywhere, every day, if I just remind myself to pay attention.

Howdy j_go. Don't worry about keeping up; none of the rest of us do.

Posted by: Ivansmom | December 4, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Oh, MsJS!! You asked what those celestial bodies smell like. About a year or two ago, we had a long, long discussion on the Boodle about this very subject, mainly centering around the lakes of methane gas on Jupiter's moon, Titan.

Our top resident astronomer person, the estimable SciTim, claims over and over that methane has no smell, and thus there is no odor on Titan. We all love SciTim to death around these parts, so we indulge him his little idiosyncracies. (He likes to go to Hawaii and climb volcanoes so he can stand around up to his knees in snow. Now how wack is that? Everybody else who goes to Hawaii goes to the beach. Not our SciTim. You think I'm kidding? Here's a clip of our SciTim, at Tim is the guy in the red shirt at 53 seconds in (and later), yellow coat at 2:44. Enjoy. This may be the Boodle's alltime favorite YouTube clip.

Meanwhile, the rest of us know that Titan is one smelly moon. And don't even get me started on those gas giants.

Yeah, OK, he does go to the beach, too.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | December 4, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Waiting for the obvious Solar System smell joke, folks.

Please don't disappoint me.


Posted by: -bc- | December 4, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

And tastes like chicken.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | December 4, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

PSA: The world is coming to an end. It is snowing in Houston.

Posted by: Ivansmom | December 4, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

No, no pulsar disease, Yoki. But several astropodiatrists have postulated the existence of planetar warts. And Saturn and Neptune both suffer from tinnitus (constant ringing).

I shall not discuss asteroids.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | December 4, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Seeing the latest Hubble baubles makes the forthcoming terrestrial monster telescopes all the more interesting.

So much for the Mt. Palomar telescope as a symbol of American science.

Closer to earth, a book of the moment is "Plant Microevolution and Conservation in Human-influenced Ecosystems" by David Briggs. It's over 600 pages, the paperback 1.2 kilograms. I should be encouraged that there must be enough customers for such a book for it to have been written and published. He realizes that you if you set up a tree museum (as in Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi"), the plants and animals won't stay the same. Evolution happens. Lately, climate change is happening.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | December 4, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Especially the asteroids originating from impacts on Uranus Mudge.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | December 4, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

There you go bc. All your fault.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | December 4, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for restoring my faith in humanity, s_d.


Posted by: -bc- | December 4, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Now, ya see? I could gone there. But I am a model of classy restraint.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | December 4, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Today, anyway.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | December 4, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

If not rectal health, Mudge.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 4, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

...but I may just lose it:

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | December 4, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

I think the most blatant planetary smell would be ammonia but who knows. It's probably Venus that has the most rotten egg odor. Which reminds me of the time I added way too much gypsum to the homemade beer batch... No, not going there. Not now, anyway.

I suppose if NASA stopped doing any science at all in lieu of just eye candy, that would be bad. But that's not going to happen. I hope NASA doesn't get the wrong idea and underestimate the non-engineer public however. For example, a few weeks ago I was disappointed by the paucity of data from them immediately following the LCROSS impact, and if you listened to NASA you'd think all people wanted was the photo of the impact. No, it was the spectrographic data. "It blowed up real good" is all fine and good, but it was the water analysis data. Which, I notice, still hasn't been completely released.

Posted by: Jumper1 | December 4, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Ok, misread a comment and got a fuzzy mental picture of Mudge as a model *for* classy restraints. I think I'll need brain bleach the Kid informs me that tune cooties are really ear bugs, if so, would a visual be called an eye bug?)
Think I'd better go back to Hubble pictures.

Posted by: km2bar | December 4, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Snowing in Houston? Snow in DC? We're to have an arctic blast in a few days. I predict the global warming deniers will seize on this as evidence that the planet is cooling instead. Everyone, fire up your combustible engines!

Posted by: seasea1 | December 4, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I'd like you all to know that I very rapidly took a shower, put on clean lingerie and made my bed, just in case Ivansmom is correct.

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

The Hubble images are wonderful, and they tell us a lot, but there are limitiations, too.

For example, what about a telescope or some other device that can get information out of that Cosmic Gumbo which constituted the 'verse for the first 400,000 years? Or even an image of that Great Wall of Time from back then?

The WMAP images are cool (ahem), but they're not the same as the enhanced images we've come to know and love from Hubble.

We humans love structures, probably because we're toolmakers by nature.

About the Quintet and chips off the Old Block of All Time - everyObserver's slice of spacetime is their own frame of reference according to Einstein's theory of Special Relativity, isn't it? Yours, mine, and some pleasantly tentacled being 10 billion light years away (presuming that the general laws we know here hold there -- and for all we know they may very well not).


Posted by: -bc- | December 4, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse





Posted by: mortii | December 4, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

I was off baking cookies when you wrote about Titan. Thanks for updating this newbie. Smelly or no, if it doesn't have a great beach, I'm not going there.

bc: You're right. We make our own reality.

Posted by: MsJS | December 4, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

About Special (and not-so Special) Relativity.

Were my daughters (see, a close Relative) to watch a Washington NFL franchise game with me from kickoff to gun, they would likely say that it took a nearly infinite amout of time, practically 'forever.'

I might think, "Is it over *already*? Where did the time go?"

Time can be experiential as well as relative. And sometimes more special than others -- like when I'm cleaning the bathrooms.


Posted by: -bc- | December 4, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

?? mo?

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Hey, did you guys know that OMG mo is spelled the same backwards or forwards?

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | December 4, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Hey I dunno about Uranus, but I have it on very good authority that Mianus has lovely sort of piney/almost seaside kind of aroma.

Oh wait, we're talking interplanetary...

And WackyWeasel, do you mean the Don Felder or Sammy Hagar variety?


Posted by: Scottynuke | December 4, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Mo, we're here for you. Have a cookie.

Posted by: MsJS | December 4, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

*sniff sniff*

Tai Shan!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

well THEY CAN'T HAVE YOU!!!!! they have enough pandas as it is!! they'll have to go over MY DEAD BODY!!!!!!!!

i don't think a cookie is gonna fix this...

Posted by: mortii | December 4, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Mo, just think what a *huge* contribution Tai Shan has to make to his species, once he's outgrown his teen disaffection and angst and achieved his foreordained manly studliness.

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Would I wait days for a sciency kit, which I love, and then go off topic almost immediately to promote my own new posts? Sure, why not?

Posted by: Jumper1 | December 4, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I knew mo wasn't going to handle this very well.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | December 4, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Anybody know where we can get a big Tai Shan cutout and a big "We'll miss you!" banner for the BPH?

Posted by: Scottynuke | December 4, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the paneer post, Jumper. The Paupered chef explains why my paneer effort failed-- drained too early. Now I know.

1/2 gallon of milk and 2 cups yogurt to make 8 oz... hmm.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 4, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Yes, but that 8 oz is pure, concentrated, delicious nutrition

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Wow, dude.

The universe is really big. Really, really big. Bigger than even God can imagine.

And, like, dude, when we see a star, we're really seeing it from millions of years ago. It's like a time machine.

What if there are rock creatures on another planet wondering there is life on our planet but we can't tell they're there because to us they're just rocks?

And what if the whole universe is like a just a speck of dust in the belly button of an even bigger universe?


Posted by: yellojkt | December 4, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Joel said "Size matters." Huh-huh.

Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice.

Pass the brownies, man.

Posted by: yellojkt | December 4, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Setting down a plate of fresh from the oven, home baked (shocking I know - from scatch!), Starbucks Ginger Molasses cookies, enjoy.

Joel really liked the article. This question came to my mind are there constellations we can no longer see because the stars have died, hundreds of thousands of years from now will people view different or altered constellations? Sorry if this is a juvenile questions but regarding space stuff that is about where I am - but honestly curious.

Posted by: dmd3 | December 4, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Another piece of celestial real estate to avoid for olfactory reasons might be Asteroid Pugh.

Posted by: rashomon | December 4, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if the watch is real.

Posted by: rashomon | December 4, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Constellations are a purely human invention, dmd, which means that we are talking about stellar events (measured on intervals of billions of years) happening within the time span of recorded human history (perhaps 5000 years). Personally, I can't see constellations regardless of which stars are there. Of historically recorded constellations, I don't believe that any have had an identified supernova event of any of the principal stars. In fact, I don't think that any of the few hundred (thousand?) named stars has ever gone kaflooey, although some of them (like Algol and Mira) are known to vary significantly in brightness, for different reasons.

Posted by: ScienceTim | December 4, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Ya gotta wonder, if the landscaper could pretty much ask for and get whatever the Salahi's were wearing at their court appearance today as payment, why their attorney let them walk into the hearing wearing anything of value, never mind a P-P watch.

Posted by: MsJS | December 4, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Now that I'm thinking about that story of the Salahis paying a $2000 debt with a watch, I'm flabbergasted. I've been out of work since April, and I could come up with $2000 if a court ordered me to. I guess the rich *are* different.

Posted by: seasea1 | December 4, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse

The other amusing part of that story is that the Salahis got a ticket during the hearing for having an expired inspection sticker on their car. They just can't catch a break.

Posted by: seasea1 | December 4, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Thanks SciTim.

Posted by: dmd3 | December 4, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Back from phys ther -- man, are my hamstrings tight! Very painful stretching. Feeling wobbly in the skeletal department, so I think I'll get some Chinese food delivered (some spicy shrimp, perhaps, in homage to my shrimpy hamstrings, with brown rice to make me believe that I'm eating something healthy).

Mo, I think all of us butterstick lovers should have a good long cry at the BPH.

Time to call in the order.

Posted by: -ftb- | December 4, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

Geez those people are pitiful, he had to give up his watch and then they get a ticket on the way out. Schadenfreude is kicking in big time here. I'm almost giddy.

Just catching up after spending the afternoon taking #2 to doctor for a cortisone shot for her back. Bought cape scallops on the way home, so good, so rare, so expensive, so worth it.

Posted by: badsneakers | December 4, 2009 6:40 PM | Report abuse

I was supposed to go out tonight, but with the conditions on the roads that is just not going to happen. So instead I am concocting some warming Indian-style food, lighting the fire, and listening to the new CD I bought recently. Have a good book.

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 7:02 PM | Report abuse

If you say Schadenfreude you don't need to cuss. Same with Götterdämmerung.

Posted by: Jumper1 | December 4, 2009 7:03 PM | Report abuse

*chirp* *chirp*


Posted by: ScienceTim | December 4, 2009 8:11 PM | Report abuse

Shhh. Monk is on.

Posted by: Curmudgeon5 | December 4, 2009 8:16 PM | Report abuse

I'll play!

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 8:22 PM | Report abuse

It's been a hectic day so it is a delight to see that Joel has written such an excellent article for the WaPo magazine. And it has pretty pictures!

Yes, the temptation to let the pictures become an end in themselves is dangerous. Alas, this happens a lot in science. We forget that the real work starts *after* the observations. But it is a cruel twist of fate that those who analyze data never get the attention of those folks who gather the data. Sure, the data gatherers put out their superficially flashy "quick look" reports and get all the applause. Of course, lots of times they also forget to properly document things which makes it like a billion zillion times harder to do those all-important deep-dive analyses.


This really is outstanding work. To be able to combine great scientific exposition and a clever wit is truly the Achenbach gift. I mean, I laughed out loud at the phrase "they say."

Granted, it works better with italics.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | December 4, 2009 8:36 PM | Report abuse

SciTim, yes there's not much change because of the distances and scales involved.

I like picking out the signposts of the sky so I wondered the same things as dmd did.

1) Human astronomical history is a bit more than 5,000 years if you include mythology.

2) The obliberating effects of light and air pollution means we may not see all the stars in constellations as clearly as in the past. This is obvious.

3) Where you are on Earth and the time of the year makes a difference.

4) The procession of the equinoxes does causes our north pole star to change.

Thurban (in the constellation Draco) was the north pole star in 2000 BC, while now Polaris is.

With enough millennia, solar motion and proper motion of the stars will cause the constellations to distort shape, because most stars in constellations aren't actually together, it's just how we see them.

As Science Tim says, 5,000 years really isn't enough time to change the groupings of stars at all.

But 200,000 years-- how long modern humans have apparently existed-- would be enough for some distortion, maybe even for a couple of supernovae or red giants collapsing.

The nearest stars are going to move more than more distant stars, but that motion is still very slight in modern history. Arcturus (in the constellation Bootes) moved nearly 0.5 degrees in 1800 years.

Its closest approach to our solar system will begin in 4000 years, so it will seem to be moving a bit faster in the sky around then.

... In 100,000 years this star would have moved maybe 27 degrees across the sky (I'm not assuming constant motion relative to us), so the constellation Bootes wouldn't have had the same shape when humans were migrating out of Africa as it has today.

I don't know if this helps or confuses, but that was what I wanted to know.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 4, 2009 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Ah, there was a reason I selected a mere 5000 years -- I made it as liberal as I could without any research effort. Casual Googling indicates that the first stellar catalog (thus identifying specific stars by name and location) is only a tad over 2000 years old, from Hipparchos. But, there were less-complete observations of the sky by the Babylonians and Egyptians and Indian cultures that might have noticed a star disappearing. We can't count the more-like-200,000 year history of Homo Sapiens Sapiens because we wouldn't have documentary evidence that we could interpret unambiguously, or at least with reduced ambiguity.

Posted by: ScienceTim | December 4, 2009 9:12 PM | Report abuse

Hipparchos. Ptooie. A duffer. And no imagination. Possibly the single worst scribe I ever had. Kept breaking off the point of his stylus, and smearing the ink with his sleeve. I can't tell you how many times I had to stop and wait for him to catch up.

"You ready now? Got a new pen, do you? Where were we?" I'd ask him.

He'd sniffle and wipe his nose on his robe (he always seemed to have a cold). "Dat owd ober dere," he say, pointing to a star.

"Proxima Proscipitans," I said, giving him the name.


"C'mon, c'mon. Jeez."

"How do you spell 'proscipitans'?"

So I'd have to spell it out for him. "Got it?"

"Dotay," he'd say. "Dext?"

"That blinking blue one," I'd say. "Zetia Lipitor. The Eye of the Swan."

"Whad swad?"

"That swan," I'd say. "It's a constellation, see? That's the swan's eye there, that one, and those two form the beak. Then there's the arch of the swan's neck. Don't you see it?"

"Doh. Dere's oddy one star dare."

"Yes, yes, I know. But you have to imagine it as the midpoint of a sweeping arch, see?"


"Well, never mind. Then there's the body of the swan, see those size stars in the shape of a swan?"

"It dudit look like a swan. It looks like a duck."

I looked at him, calculating his body weight to determine how much hemlock I needed to make him drink before he died.

"Hipparchos," I said, "whatever made you want to become an astronomer's assistant?"

"Da pay souded gud," he said, "but dobody eber toad me I'd have to work nights."

That was when I really *did* want to kill him.

In the end, we finished the star catalog, and you know what the ungrateful little wretch did? Signed his name to it, not mine.


Posted by: Curmudgeon5 | December 4, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

SciTim, couldn't you model the motions of the visible stars as seen from earth to extrapolate the constellations of 200,000 BC?

Just for the stars in one constellation?

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 4, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

You just made 'by' Friday night, 'mudge.

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 9:46 PM | Report abuse

W_G, sure, the constellations definitely move around and we could model them back to where they were in 200,000BCE. That wouldn't tell us what constellations our exceedingly ancient ancestors imagined them to be. For myself, I can't see diddly-squat in constellations. It's all arbitrary, so there's nothing to tell us how they would have seen them. A more valuable exercise would be to determine whether there are any supernova remnants that are less than 200K years old and that are close enough that the predecessor star could have been seen from Earth with human-like eyeballs. The Crab Nebula is one such, having gone kaflooey in 1054. The previous star was possibly visible, I guess. But it was not recorded as being one of the identified descriptor stars in its constellation -- which is Taurus, not Cancer; the name is based on its appearance to the fellow who named: the Earl of Rosse, about 110 years after it was telescopically discovered.

Posted by: ScienceTim | December 4, 2009 9:49 PM | Report abuse

I don't know. I'd be surprised if our exceedingly ancient ancestors thought abstractly enough to imagine those sorts of patterns (since my daughters' exceedingly ancient mother can't see them even when somebody stands right behind her describing what she should see). Since we've only had perspective for a couple hundred years, and drawing for a couple 10 thousand, 200,000 seems impossibly remote from drawing mind-lines between random-seeming points.

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 9:56 PM | Report abuse

so if the Crab Nebula went kaflooey in 1054, what year did it actually go kaflooey in? I'm assuming of course that 1054 is when we noticed it going kaflooey.

We are having one wicked storm up here. the road from the main highway to my house is almost snowed shut. It is more wind blown snow drifting causing htis than snow fall. I did debate staying in town this evening, but then I wouldn't have had the delicious possibility of getting a snow day.

Posted by: --dr-- | December 4, 2009 10:04 PM | Report abuse

As soon as man was capable of dreaming, he imagined things in the sky. I refuse to contemplate the possibility of anything else.

Science or no science.

Posted by: --dr-- | December 4, 2009 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Do you think the ancients said "Like Wow Dude" everytime they looked at the stars?

Posted by: greenwithenvy | December 4, 2009 10:16 PM | Report abuse

Howdy. This Kit primed my brain to think on a larger scale than usual. Driving home tonight the almost-full moon was rising and looked truly huge, reach-out-and-touch big. When I see the moon like that it really brings home that we live on a planet, that we're not even remotely the only thing in the neighborhood. This particular moon has been unusually intrusive this week; it has kept the dogs up all night. It seems so close, as if it has come down for a snack. I'll be glad when it retreats to its proper place in the universe.

Posted by: Ivansmom | December 4, 2009 10:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad you got home safely dr. It is some fierce out there.

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 10:23 PM | Report abuse

I had something I wanted to say but RD said it better ---

"This really is outstanding work. To be able to combine great scientific exposition and a clever wit is truly the Achenbach gift."

Altho I am not sciency enough to recognize scientific humor, I did read and learn.

Posted by: nellie4 | December 4, 2009 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Yoki, on the other hand, they would have been seeing and sleeping under the stars much more than we did, especially in the tropical zones.

Animals navigate by the stars. I refuse to believe ancient humans couldn't.

They would have memorized the patterns, just like they would have memorized where food sources were in the areas around them.

We had pretty complex geometry even a few thousand years ago and astronomy for most of written time, and stored in our oldest myths.

The stars have helped animals and humans know the passage of the season. This was important information, and would have required some kind of communication or mnemonic to ensure accurate transmission.

Oh, SciTim, I wasn't talking about "conceptual constellations"-- but physical arrangement of the stars in the sky. We have different cultures describing some key constellations in much the same way because they are so visually distinct and separate in the sky.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 4, 2009 10:36 PM | Report abuse

This is not something I'm going to pursue, having said what I have to say about it.

Posted by: Yoki | December 4, 2009 10:38 PM | Report abuse

My suspicion is that in many ways, our distant ancestors had a more complex interior life than we do. Look at how the subtle forms of language fade away -- for instance, English no longer has both familiar and unfamiliar forms of "you", we just have the one form. My speculation is that the increasing complexity of our exterior technological world decreases our interest in maintaining complex language, complex social structures, complex memorized culture.

Or, y'know, I could be totally off-base.

Posted by: ScienceTim | December 4, 2009 10:47 PM | Report abuse

The day to worry is when we lose it/his/her to "they"... wait, that's already happening.

Okay, we're lost the day when we no longer have the "I" first person singular but must always say "we" like editors and monarchs.

We are the borg. Singularity is futile.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 4, 2009 10:58 PM | Report abuse

I vaguely remember listening to Earth & Sky on NPR years ago, and was surprised to learn that the moon looks big when it rises it's because we have objects on the horizon that we can mentally scale and get a sense of relative size. As the moon rises in the sky we lose the comparative perspective, and the moon seems to shrink to its familiar size in the sky overhead. IIRC, there's an experiment that can confirm that the moon's dimensions are constant regardless of it's position in the sky. Thus, the moon looks big due to its proximity to Earth. I did some math to figure out the distance from our ball to the stars/constellations in the NASA pix. One calc ielded a distance of 1.711 x 10 to the 26th miles, or something like that. 171,100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles. Wow. I think I lose perspective over a distance of as little as 300 yards.

Posted by: -jack- | December 4, 2009 11:02 PM | Report abuse

'Sokay Yoki. There were always experts and non-experts for that sort of thing, I suspect. People have different visual strengths.

The best astronomers seem to have lived in the desert, for some reason, probably fewer cloudy nights and thus they could observe patterns better over the years.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 4, 2009 11:03 PM | Report abuse

Jack, the funny thing is that I never really understood why the moon "seems so big" other than in enlarged movie shots.

But then, I live by the eye.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | December 4, 2009 11:06 PM | Report abuse

The experiment is simple, jack. Stick your arm out and hold up your thumb. This provides a handy gauge for angular size that won't change. Holding your thumb out this way, hold your thumb so you can see it next to the Moon at rising. Wait a bit, then do the same thing when the Moon is high in the sky, and you can see that the angular size of the Moon is no different.

Posted by: ScienceTim | December 4, 2009 11:20 PM | Report abuse

*Tim, I'm not sure we have a less complex interior life than our ancestors, but it certainly is different. I think you're right that we don't depend on our minds for rote memorization the way our ancestors did; we have tools and technology to store information, and we've learned how to communicate in ways that would have surely bewildered them.

Our tools and our languages (visual and auditory) have changed, but I don't know that our interior lives are less complex as much as they are different, just as our exteral lives are different but complex as well.


Posted by: -bc- | December 5, 2009 12:52 AM | Report abuse

In an otherwise lacklusteer morning, here's a tale that combines several Boodle themes -- food, law enforcement and mayyyyyyyyyyybe just a hint of schadenfreude:

*trying-not-to-stare-out-the-window-to-see-the-first-flakes-fall Grover waves* :-)

Posted by: Scottynuke | December 5, 2009 6:26 AM | Report abuse

'morning all. That story made me laugh Scotty. Stuffed Chicken à la Colombienne, or is it Péruvienne these days? No tryptophan schock with that baby.

I thoroughly enjoyed Joel's long piece. What a great universe we stumble upon!

Nice cold morning here, the birdbath is frozen solid. That's good for putting up the winter protections and a little less good for putting up the seasonal lightning. Oh well, I'll wear gloves.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | December 5, 2009 7:47 AM | Report abuse

Great story Scotty. I wonder about the thought process that goes into smuggling drugs inside a cooked chicken - nothing strange about bringing cooked poultry onboard, no one will question that!

Drizzly here, leaving soon for P-town, it's better when the weather is bad. We may get 1-3" of snow overnight tonight but inland there will be more. I predict the news will be full of shots of people buying shovels (never understood why so many people don't own shovels) and salt, and news anchors standing out by the highways with measuring sticks in hand. It's New England, it snows here, get used to it!

Posted by: badsneakers | December 5, 2009 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Chilly drizzle here too.

Yesterday, road my bike to IKEA for cheap eats with TBG. Lovely company. We report that yet again, IKEA's holiday stuffs are festive and fun. You can buy black ribbon, should you have a bat-crazed goth in your life. Also, the decorations are white with red hearts-- 'twill double for Valemtimes day in February.

I drove past Moose's blackberry patch on the way. Natch, we thought of FTB who is the Swede-ophile of the blog.

For a huge and giddy laugh, check out the "toothpaste" tubes of roe. We think the shrimp plus roe tube looks best.

US-ians have peanut butter,
Aussies, their beloved Vegemite,
while the Swedies love them their poor man's cavier: Kalle Roe paste.

Posted by: CollegeQuaParkian1 | December 5, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Snowing big flakes here; Great Excitement in the House of c for those under 10 years of age.


Posted by: -bc- | December 5, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

BC -- we have the chilly rain with promise of slush or snow-laced slush.

Not sure if CPBOy's swim meet will happen. If so, we will be at a fully-glassed pool so that we swim in tropical, chlorine mist with floating flakes outside that flicker in the lights.

More on the roe paste options from ABBA foods, the mama mia of the Kalle brand.

Posted by: CollegeQuaParkian1 | December 5, 2009 9:12 AM | Report abuse

Wet sloppy flakes mixed with ice. I hate it when the weather can't make up its mind.

I just learned that Sarah Palin is holding a book signing at the local warehouse store I frequent.

I feel so dirty.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | December 5, 2009 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Cap Weather Gang blog contains boodle-like updates on our snow-rain mix.

Posted by: CollegeQuaParkian1 | December 5, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Looks like rain with a (very) little bit of snow here in the blackberry patch.

Posted by: Moose13 | December 5, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Good morning, you all. Must admit to dropping in on the Weather Gang blog first, to see that cheery bunch's posts. An hour ago our son from Harrisonburg had called to report that they had been having snow for a couple of hours and as we were talking I watched the rain to snow changeover from the warmth of my kitchen.

OH! The first snowfall of the Winter
Soft snow falling on pines and holly
Birds gathered 'round for a good gossip
Munching hulled sunflower seeds
From squirrel proof feeder tray

Posted by: VintageLady | December 5, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

I have Marmite this time, from The British Pantry, near Middleburg.

Posted by: VintageLady | December 5, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

That's a lovely pome,VintageLady. Here it would read, "birds huddling on the perimeter cursing the fat squirrels gossiping around the bird feeder."

Snow in Houston, snow down South, snow up north, snow on the east coast, but no snow here. I'll try to suppress my snow envy and enjoy the cold, bright, sunny, dry day.

Posted by: Ivansmom | December 5, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

The snow is settling in for a nice leisurely visit. I love the way the white snow looks against the green of the pine trees. There is something wonderfully peaceful about it all.

But I don't think I'm the first to note this.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | December 5, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I think I'm suffering from post-illness energy surge. I probably should go vacuum something before it gets dangerous.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | December 5, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

'Morning, Boodle.

Yep, yucky chilly rain, pretty heavy at times, all morning. The rain/snow line has moved north in the last 24 hours. We Suthin Merliners were supposed to get the worst of the snow, but the more recent forecasts say all rain now, and everybody else gets the snow or the mix.

All our Saturday running around is done: landfill, Chik-fil-a, Lowe's, American Hardware, wife's office, Safeway. Going to spend the rest of the morning helping my wife make homemade xmas presents. With luck, I may get some of the afternoon off to write. Man, I was hot last night, wrote 4,400 words, knocked off about 1:30 a.m. Hey, when the muse is sitting on your lap and whispering in your ear, that's what ya gotta do.

Posted by: Curmudgeon5 | December 5, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

When I was a kid in a dark-sky corner of Puerto Rico with frequent power outages, you could see Polaris down toward the horizon, but the sky looked as the Polynesians had seen it--sort of a big cylinder.

We're in what's likely to be the last downpour in a drawn-out event bringing us 2 inches and lots of drizzle. Orchids and resurrection ferns in the oaks are looking happy. People seem to be shopping anyway.

So far, I've passed up Ikea's fish eggs in favor of pickled herring. How did Americans miss out on pickled fish?

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | December 5, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Well, we put pickled capers on them, Dave. And, in the South we are busy pickling our watermelon rind & okra & cucumbers & beets & onionsd and anything else that will hold still (my Dad loved pickled pigs feet)

Posted by: VintageLady | December 5, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Anthropologically that's an interesting question, Dave. A puzzle.

I have two puzzles. First, here's this mushroom growing out of, I think, a rotten piece of the sweet gum tree. Boodle knowledge, anyone?

Second, my sister reported no large wholesale-size,cut-rate priced boxes of dry nonfat milk in the warehouse-type food store, with the membership required. How about other stores such as that?

Posted by: Jumper1 | December 5, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Good morning, Boodle. I'm still snowed in with the local police practically pleading for the populace to stay off the roads. It isn't schadenfreude that I'm glad to have the DC-area Boodlers getting a snow day too.

I love what CquaP called "toothpaste tubes" of condiments that the Europeans (and Scandinavians) employ. When I lived in Switzerland in the late 60s was the first time I saw this. It makes eminent sense. None of the crusty jar-clingers we get in mayonnaise and mustard jars, easy to dispense just the amount one wants, take up less room in the fridge, and preserve many things (think, tomato paste) better once they have been breached than a tin. We should all be so clever.

Posted by: Yoki | December 5, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

I don't think our snow will be anything like your snow, Yoki.

I think we're only getting a couple of inches, at most. But I have not yet read the Capital Weather Gang Blog, so I could be wrong.

I'm pondering what type of cookies to make today. Ginger molasses or maybe chai-spiced. Hhmmmmm.

Posted by: Moose13 | December 5, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

New kit, fyi...

I may add to it thanks to Aircard that allows me to blog on laptop from passenger seat of car during road trip ... Isn't technology grand...

Posted by: joelache | December 5, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Absolutely, Yoki! What I appreciated was the tubed tomato paste. You (well, maybe not *you*) don't often use it, and it's crazy to have to put the contents of a can into another container to store ad infinitum in the fridge. Tubes don't take up much room. I still have two tubes of Kalles Kaviar left in the fridge before it's time to go back and stack up.

Well, CqP, perhaps I am a Swede-o-phile, but that's in addition to being a "phile" of wherever I travel. I am the personification of the old song "Wherever I Hang My Hat Is Home". I'm definitely a sub-Saharan-Africa-phile.

Isn't this snow great???? Even for an après-ski person like me. I was out in it this morning at the farmers market and another place up the Pike and it was just gorgeous, I thought. All those big fat furry flakes. I do enjoy this weather. Of course, now I'm in for the duration, to do some work and prepare for tomorrow's job of starting to make calendars of my Africa pictures for my friends and some clients. I will admit that it's a bit of a pain in the nether-region, but it's only once a year and after I'm done, well, I'm done for another year. It may be time to go back over to replenish the picture vault, but I figure that will be all in good time.

Cya'll later.

Posted by: -ftb- | December 5, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

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