Christmas card from the far side of Saturn

JISHOU, HUNAN — NASA/JPL has released a gorgeous image of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft while in the planet’s shadow. Cassini was about 500,000 miles (800,000 km) away from Saturn at the time. Its cameras took separate images using violet, red and infrared filters, and those images were combined to make this one. Two of Saturn’s moons, Tethys and Enceladus, are visible as little dots on the lower left section of the image.

More origins details

JISHOU, HUNAN — The amateur sleuths tracking down the origins of the Wheatons have uncovered another intriguing detail — the likely origin of the surname. DNA tests of several members of our FamilyTreeDNA surname group have shown there are at least four unrelated family lines sharing the same surname from Devon, England. That in itself is no big surprise. Surnames are a relatively new thing in European culture, dating from the late Middle Ages. Before surnames became common, people went by their given names and perhaps their hometown or occupation, “John, the smith,” “Mary, from Edinburgh” and so on. In the Scandinavian countries, the custom was to use one’s father’s name (patronymic) as a second name: Brita Persdotter “Brita, daughter of Peter,” for example. This custom fell out of fashion in Sweden in the 19th century, but Icelanders still name themselves this way. (Apparently, the Reykjavik phone book is alphabetized by first names for this reason.) It seems that the four Devon Wheaton branches took the surname from a location in Devon, a tiny hamlet named Wheaton. On modern maps, the name is now Whiddon. If you follow this link, you can see a very old farmhouse there called Lower ...

RIP Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012)

JISHOU, HUNAN — There are many people about my age who can remember being glued to the TV set on July 21, 1969, as the networks (we watched Walter Cronkite on CBS in my house) covered the first manned landing on the Moon. I can remember that July night when Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the lunar lander and became the first man on the Moon. It was a moment of elation for me, and millions of others, because walking on the Moon seemed to be such a fantastic goal at the time — almost like the science fiction movies and TV shows then available. But we did it. Armstrong died yesterday after a heart operation at age 82. I won’t go into his life here, because the big media guys have already done a superb job. He was a farm boy from Ohio who learned how to fly airplanes (and be an engineer — a Purdue graduate, go Boilermakers!) and ultimately ended up as an NASA astronaut. By chance, he became the first human to walk on another world. May we, as a nation, continue to dream big dreams, and then make them happen. It would be ...

Chinese TV news steals from Hollywood astronaut movie for news report 1

Chinese TV news steals from Hollywood astronaut movie for news report
JISHOU, HUNAN — Well, I started by writing a straight update on the latest Chinese space mission, now humming along nicely, thank you, when I stumbled upon yet another video copypasta by the state TV service, CCTV. In the midst of a CCTV news report, I caught a glimpse of scenes from what I think is a Hollywood movie. Here’s a couple of screencaps to show what I mean. Those two astronauts are not Chinese, and anyway, Shenzhou 9 has three astronauts, including China’s first woman in space. And the switches are in … English? CCTV News has done this kind of shameless uncredited cribbing (a national pastime here) before. Last year, eagle-eyed viewers realized a video clip of a fighter jet being blown up by a Chinese plane had actually come from the movie, Top Gun. Watch this report and see if you can identify the movie. It looks familiar, but I can’t place it. OK, now on with my report, now in progress… JISHOU, HUNAN — China is mighty proud of its three astronauts, two men and one woman, now orbiting 220 miles around Earth. CCTV International devoted nearly 40 minutes to a live feed of the automated ...

Holst’s ‘The Planets’ would be a whole lot longer today

xkcd has an eye-opening graphic this week showing how many planets have been discovered. If you click on the image, it will open a full-size version of the cartoon. It was not so long ago that exoplanets (planets outside our own solar system) were hypothetical. That is, astronomers assumed other star systems could include planets, but there was no observational evidence. Technology has progressed to the point now that finding extrasolar planets is a walk in the park. Finding Earth-sized planets is more of a challenge, but at least we know they likely exist. Getting there, however … not so easy.

Aye, I be from Devon*

JISHOU, HUNAN — After years of wondering, I now know where all of my family originated in Europe. The last piece, the Wheaton line, fell into place just as I was going to bed last night. Based on DNA results, my branch of the Wheatons apparently hails from Brixham, Devon, England, a picturesque seaport town that is home to a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, The Golden Hind. Drake, who circumnavigated the globe, was from Tavistock, Devon. For the record, the other ancestral homelands in my family are in Sweden: Jämtland in the north, Östergötland, in the south and Gotland, an island in the Baltic. Those locations I was able to establish years ago by the time honored method of plowing through archives in the provincial capitals, after searching through family records and jogging my uncles’ memories. But tracing the origins of the Wheatons had proved to be an insurmountable problem, because the paper trail runs out around 1740. It was a complete mystery, that is, until I got an email last night from the coordinator of a DNA surname project, who told me my DNA results match those of a gentleman in England. He can trace his ancestors ...

China sends first female astronaut on space mission

JISHOU, HUNAN –While the USA is busy retiring the remaining Space Shuttles, China is busy building up its human space flight program by leaps and bounds. This afternoon, it launched its first woman taikonaut and two male colleagues on a two-week-long test of an orbiting space module. Former fighter pilot Liu Yang 刘洋, 33, was recruited into China’s space program just two years ago. Her mission comes exactly 49 years after the launch of Valentina Tereshkova (now 75) of the former Soviet Union, who was the first woman in space and the first civilian. America’s first woman in space, Sally Ride (now 61), orbited in the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983. Shenzhou 9 blasted off from China’s launch facility in the Gobi Desert on schedule at 6:37 pm local time. The launch was broadcast live on national TV, a sign of China’s confidence in its space program. (Of course, following the American, Russian and European space programs does give them an edge.) The three astronauts will test docking procedures with a test module, the 10.5 meter long Tiangong, and spend a about two weeks in Tiangong before coming back to the surface. Tiangong 1 (天宫 Heavenly Palace) was put in ...

Transit of Venus 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — The planet Venus passed in front of the Sun today, but clouds here kept us from seeing it. This event happens only twice every century; the last was in 2004, and the next will be in another 105 years. Guess I’ll need to live to be 161 years old. This photo was taken in Hong Kong, using a camera with a special filter. (Source: Wikipedia) Astronomers of the 18th century used the 1769 transit to measure the distance of the Earth to the Sun, which enabled them to calculate the distances to the other planets known at the time. In the 1600s, a young British astronomer, Jeremiah Horrocks, calculated when future transits would happen and was the first astronomer (at the age of 21) to predict the 1639 transit. Interestingly, Horrocks was born just two years after Johannes Kepler published his revolutionary model of the solar system. Kepler himself, relying on inaccurate observation tables of Venus, had predicted a near-miss transit of Venus. Horrocks also determined that the Moon orbits in an ellipse around the Earth, as Kepler’s laws would predict.

Fisking Conservapedia: A paragon of lazy scholarship

JISHOU, HUNAN — For the last few posts, I have been critiquing just one entry in the bizarro-world online encyclopedia called Conservapedia, where relativity is liberal claptrap and physical science is just politics with a different name. Now, I want to address an even deeper issue: Con-pedia’s sloppy scholarship. No self-respecting teacher accepts even Wikipedia as a primary source in a term paper, but Wikipedia’s scholarship shines compared to Con-pedia’s reliance on proof by assertion and shaky, non-scholarly reference materials. I will use the present entry under examination, E=mc2, as a prime example. In the first four paragraphs previously fisked, there have been four notes. The first was to a strange footnote about how E=mc2 only works when metric units are used. No outside reference is mentioned. The second is to a likewise odd statement that “Many leading scientists (including Lord Rutherford and Princeton Physics Professor Robert Dicke) rejected the Theory of Relativity,” which to some extent was true in, say, 1905, but not so much now. This note has links to Con-pedia articles about Dicke and relativity. Note three follows the weird statement that the equation is “liberal claptrap,” and offers no basis in fact for the allegation. It ...

Fisking Conservapedia: ‘Nothing of value’, for sure

JISHOU, HUNAN — After a suitable recovery period, and some time devoted to my day job, I am returning to the cognitive black hole that is Conservapedia’s explication of the equation E=mc2. My paragraph-by-paragraph fisking is, alas, necessary, since the entry is so wrong on a fractal level. The closer you look, the wrongness continues to even finer levels. The entry begins by claiming E=mc2 is meaningless, liberal claptrap, and an attempt to unify matter and light. (It isn’t, and doesn’t.) Then, the principal author, Con-pedia founder Andy Schlafly, veers into the murky realm of Biblical Scientific Foreknowledge in an attempt to show that E=mc2 is simply impossawobble. In the third paragraph, Con-pedia completely mangles the definitions of mass and energy, which any engineering graduate like Andy Schlafly should have internalized just to pass Physics 103/104 (or whatever freshman course EE majors had to take at Princeton), and shows a pretty weak understanding of even basic physics. (Advice to Con-pedia writers: one should at least brush up enough on basic physics so as not to look like a complete blithering idiot.) The fourth paragraph is the focus of this latest installment. It states, with jaw-dropping conviction: For more than a ...

Fisking Conservapedia: Failing Physics 101

JISHOU, HUNAN — This is the third installment of my critique of Conservapedia’s blatantly stupid entry on E=mc2. In the previous posts, I fisked the entry’s opening paragraph, which calls the famous equation “liberal claptrap“, and looked into the entry’s reliance on some nonsense called Biblical Scientific Foreknowledge (a Conservapedia exclusive!), which supposedly shows that E=mc2 is just plain impossible. Eppur si muove. Up to this point, it is already clear that the principal author of the entry, Andy Schlafly (the mastermind of Conservapedia), really has no idea what he is talking about. High school students could have done a better job. While few sensible people would consider Con-pedia a reliable source of anything useful, other than a chuckle or two, some naive, overly religious homeschoolers (or politicians!) might indeed be using Con-pedia as a credible resource. It is far from it. Instead of a straightforward, factual, accurate explanation of a physical law, Con-pedia instead gets the physics all wrong, falsely claims only liberal politics ensures the equation’s persistence, and conflates religious belief with scientific discovery. Multiple levels of fail. So, let’s see what else the entry gets wrong. Paragraph 3 says: Mass is a measure of an object’s inertia, ...

Fisking Conservapedia: Biblical Scientific Foreknowledge

JISHOU, HUNAN — I began my commentary on Conservapedia’s ludicrous entry on E=mc2 by fisking its opening paragraph. Beginning with the false premise that the equation “purports to relate all matter to light,” the entry then introduces the principle of “Biblical Scientific Foreknowledge” and how BSF makes it clear that any unification theory is doomed to fail. As I explained in the last post, E=mc2 does not purport to relate all matter to light — in fact, light does come from matter — but it suggests that matter and energy are essentially the same thing. The author of the Conservapedia entry, Andy Schlafly, clearly does not understand this basic fact of physics. I’m not sure he really understands Scriptural analysis, either, as we shall see. Paragraph 2 of the E=mc2 entry goes like this: Biblical Scientific Foreknowledge predicts that a unified theory of all the laws of physics is impossible, because light and matter were created at different times, in different ways, as described in the Book of Genesis. Before I analyze this statement, which incidentally is offered with no further explanation, I need to introduce some terms. Cherry picking: selecting only that evidence which apparently supports one’s argument, while ...
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