Monday, June 20, 2016

When the full moon meets the summer solstice

It's one of these days when you would want to grab your 'fellow' journalists, shake them and shout: look at the numbers, st*pid! Countless web stories tell us that today (20 June 2016) full moon and summer solstice fall on the same day and that this is super-rare and thus newsworthy. Alas a simple check of the actual times tells you that full moon was at 11:03 UTC and solstice will be at 22:34 UTC - which is already on 21 June in all of Asia and most of Europe. So much for the coinciding dates which are true mostly for the Americas but simply do not exist for the majority of humanity.

So one has to ignore absolute dates and just go after the time difference to figure out - if one so desires - whether the 11 1/2 hours time difference today is a rarity. A table full moon times and a solstice & equinox calculator allow for a quick check: In 1910 there was a 12 1/2 hour difference (June 22/20 vs. 7 UTC), in 1929 a 6 hour difference (June 22/4 vs. 21/22 UTC), in 1948 a 40 minute difference (June 21/12 UTC), in 1967 a 2 1/2 hour difference (June 22/5 vs. 3 UTC), in 1986 an 11 hour difference (June 22/4 vs. 21/16 UTC) and in 1997 a 13 hour difference (June 20/19 vs. 21/8 UTC). Oh, and there was 2005 with a 22 hour difference (June 22/4 vs. 21/6 UTC): In Chicago e.g. solstice was at 1:46 a.m. CDT and full moon at 11:15 p.m. CDT - on the same day, 21 June (though in subsequent nights).

So this year's half-day difference isn't so rare at all: We had comparably close pairs of full moons and equinoxes in 1997 and 1986 and much closer pairs in 1967 and especially 1948. It is particularly obnoxious that the 1997 case - a mere one Metonic cycle ago - is flatly ignored in the "reporting" today. The reason, though, is obvious and casts a sharp light on how media mechanisms work: since full moon was 5 hours before midnight UTC while solstice was 8 hours after midnight UTC the pair appeared on two different dates also in most of the U.S. and so wasn't "important" (and the scanty 2005 case was overlooked, too). In contrast to the current 'sensation'. Sigh ...

Friday, June 17, 2016

Professional astronomer lets the crowd fund her science

A few hours ago a bold astronomical crowd-funding campaign succeeded when over USD 100,000 were pledged to support an intense photometry campaign for a single star. This raises public involvement in professional science to a new level but it raises some questions, too. Normally a professional astronomer who believes to have found a promising observing project applies for telescope time at a professional observatory which costs nothing - but getting enough time (or time at all) is not guaranteed. Alternatively a dedicated instrument could be built for which funding would be obtained via a grant from a funding organization if the latter deems it a worthy project - or, as it is possible these days, observing time could be bought from a private telescope network. Again the usual approach would be to try to get a grant to obtain the needed cash.

But in this case the astronomer didn't expect to be lucky either way - and instead asked the public at large to fund the telescope time buy. That this worked out so well in the end was due to the enormous hype that had been building (or built deliberately) around the star in question, which is the famous KIC 8462852, of course, with its erratic dips in brightness discovered by the Kepler satellite (and citizen scientists looking at its lightcurves). Its behavior is not fully explained, but some comet debris clouds are the likely culprit - and yet this star has been firmly associated the potential 'alien megastructures' in the public mind. Without these wild speculations - not exactly supported by the scientists in question but not actively discouraged either and rehashed in the media again and again - and also an added layer of drama about historical data and a long-term brightness trend or lack thereof the crowd-funding would have hardly raised a dime.

So there, the pay-per-view telescope network will soon monitor KIC 8462852 with high cadence and enough photometric precision to catch further dimmings (some of which were so strong that no Kepler would have been needed to detect them) - if any occur in the bought time interval, of course. In the best of all worlds, the dimmings (for which amateurs with their own telescopes are on the look-out as well) will return in time and display some property not seen in the Kepler data which will lead to a viable explanation. Equally likely is that nothing happens, the money is gone and a null result remains which wouldn't constrain modelmaking much. KIC 8462852 as 'star of mystery' for the public at large is a unique case in the history of astronomy so far: whether such a let's-all-fund-my-science-pet-project approach could - and should - be applied to other astronomical problems is anything but clear. The outcome and aftermath of the observing run will certainly shape opinions eventually: both amongst astronomers and the public asked to pay.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Involuntary data journalism ...

This doesn't happen - fortunately! - too often: while preparing a "simple" popular article about a paper making headlines already some real scientific detective work ensued that led to fundamental new insights and a revision of some conclusions of said paper ... The topic were the new light pollution atlas and the associated claims - pimped further by the media - that most of this planet was so bright by now that no sensible sky observations were possible anymore, esp. for Europeans and Americans.

Obviously nonsense, so what went wrong? In a first step the unfortunate mix of three different measures for the night sky brightness in the paper - absolute full, absolute artificial increment and relative increment - had to be cleared up which was trivial compared to mastering the formulae to convert between the three different absolute methods in use. That done the paper's key contents could be condensed into this master table which was then - crucially - amended with my own SQM measurements in two Dark Sky Places in Germany and on Rhodes in the past two years.

Since I had been present during these measurements I knew what actual sky appearance they meant - and that finally connected the numbers in my table and in the paper's main table and graphics with the real sky. It turned out that the paper's authors had been way too demanding in what a non-light polluted sky had to be like (and they had also been a bit too conservative re. the visibility of the Milky Way). Using my own experience and their - calibrated better than ever - numbers the article could finally be written after several hours of quite exciting "data journalism" and practical math. You're welcome!