Stargazing 05/05

The night sky in early May.

Going more philosophical than the usual column, although it is about the science process, let's look at the Flat Earth idea.

A student asked me why it was now getting so much traction and I told him that 1) it’s easy to lock into a position and screen out contrary views with today’s social media (I wrote a Community Voices piece about that); and 2) for the Flat Earth people, they have to see it for themselves. They don’t trust science experts.

To that second point, rather than trying to debunk all believers' claims, let’s use their reasoning in something else. I could say that New Zealand and India don’t exist because I haven’t seen them myself. Other people say those places exist and have shown me pictures. Maybe I can agree that those places exist because the people I’ve talked to include good friends, work colleagues and my parents. But Antarctica doesn’t exist because no one I trust has been there.

That's what it ultimately comes down to: Who do you trust to bring you information about things you haven’t seen yourself? The Flat Earth leaders say we shouldn’t trust anyone and not to believe experts in our research and education institutions because they’re all in on the conspiracy of a spherical Earth. I scratch my head and wonder then, why should I trust the Flat Earth leader?

My computer uses results from quantum mechanics theory to work. No one has seen an electron. Electricity exists but how do we know that that spark is made by electrons and the exchange of photons between them? That same quantum mechanics theory also talks about electrons tunneling through solid matter. Nuclear fusion in the sun and stars works via quantum tunneling and so does alpha decay.

However, doesn’t quantum tunneling seem a bit much to swallow? I haven't seen anything do that, so it can't be right. No one has see a piece of matter go through a wall, so it can't be right. However, the predictions of quantum mechanics theory have been proven correct over and over again and we have developed devices such as the scanning tunneling microscope and flash drives that use quantum tunneling to work. Quantum computers will also use quantum tunneling. I guess I’ll have to accept that quantum tunneling and the other bizarre stuff in sub-atomic realm is possible.

When I look at the planets and the sun through a telescope, I see that they are spherical because gravity crushes things into the most compact shape possible in 3D space: a sphere. A flat Earth with as much mass as we see it has would also compress itself into a sphere. Gravity simply would not allow a flat Earth to exist. The night-day boundary on the moon is a curve just as it would be if the moon is a sphere. Small asteroids aren’t round because they don’t have enough gravity to overcome the material strength of the rock they’re made of. Earth is big, asteroids are not and besides, there aren’t any flat asteroids out there anyway.

Although what I’ve written won’t convince a true believer — because I’m part of the conspiracy — I do hope that most readers will see that science is a human endeavor relying on the experiences of many people to build up the picture of how the universe works. No one person can figure it out all by him/herself. Even Einstein relied on the advice of his doctor for medical issues, for example.

In other news

On spherical Mars, the Mars InSight lander team has made its first confirmation of a mars quake. The seismic tremor was a too weak to probe Mars’ interior. Hopefully, stronger ones will happen. Three other possible tremors were seen in the first couple of months but the jiggling of the seismometer could have been due to winds or thermal flexing of the equipment. The small number of tremors so far tells us that Mars is less active than hoped. See mars.nasa.gov/insight for updates.

On the larger scale, a team led by Adam Riess using the Hubble Space Telescope has shown that the universe is definitely expanding faster now than expected from observations of the afterglow of the Big Bang. The new result seems to show a third stage in dark energy’s push on the universe. More details at nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2019/mystery-of-the-universe-s-expansion-rate-widens-with-new-hubble-data.

May 11 is the free public star party at Barnes & Noble with the Kern Astronomical Society. See kernastro.org for details.

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