“Upgrading” old photos

I have literally thousands of old photos in the form of slides, prints and even some negatives, many of which I haven’t even seen in decades, that I am trying to digitize for better display and secure storage. For scanning prints I use the scanner on my old HP Deskjet printer, and for slides I purchased a relatively inexpensive Magnasonic FS50 slide scanner. However, the old computer adage holds true that “garbage in, garbage out,” meaning that the digitized form is no better than the original. In fact, the digitized scans will often reveal previously unnoticed flaws in the  original, as well as sometimes introducing new problems such as dust specs and dead pixels (dark or light spots not on the original image).

Fortunately, there are free options out there, whether on Windows or your iOs or Android phone. I work exclusively on Windows, and while I have several photo editing apps, the one I use most and that I consider the best is Faststone Image Viewer (http://www.faststone.org). It has a number of built in editing functions to correct lighting, color, contrast and other issues. This is sometimes enough, but when there are serious dust specs, scratches or stains, I have Magix Photo Designer 7 (does not appear to be available any longer on the Magix site, but you may be able to find it elsewhere), also free. Although not automatic, it can  aid in removing unwanted objects, as well as a number of other improvements. Most of the time this is good enough for my purposes.

Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases in which the original has deteriorated or was poorly lit or too grainy, there are options involving artificial intelligence (AI) that can give you some results are quite remarkable, almost as if you re-shot the scene with a much better camera under better lighting and conditions. One of these options is from Topaz Labs (https://www.topazlabs.com/) and which gives quite remarkable results… for a price. I didn’t want to buy and clog up my computer with more software I would have only occasional use for, so I looked around at several online services that will provide similar results for free. The best I have found is Picwish (https://picwish.com/photo-enhancer).

To illustrate Picwish’s ability, I chose a favorite photo, scanned from a small (3″ by 5″) print. The original shown above, of my wife Marlene and our dog Tsuki, is fairly low resolution and certainly limited in sharpness, although it looks OK to the eye. When you look at it up close, the grain and blurriness is obvious.

"Original" image,cropped and color adjusted onlyThis is from the original scan, although I worked on color balance and contrast in the Faststone Image Viewer. Unfortunately it could do little to improve sharpness or remove grain or “noise” in the image. So I decided to upload it to Picwish to see what it could do, with the results below.

The first is a crop of the original, showing Marlene’s face. And the second is a similar crop from the Picwish result. I was quite impressed.

Click on each image to enlarge.

Image revised through PicwishPicwish — nor any commercially available software — will not work the miracles you see on TV detective shows where they enlarge and sharpen images so you can read a person’s postage stamp tattoo at 100 yards in the dark, or a license plate from space, but sometimes it often seems miraculous.

I should point out two notes, however. The first is that sometimes Picwish (and I presume other software) can get a bit aggressive, turning the photo a bit cartoonish. Just be sure that you keep an original. The second is that on some photos, Picwish tends to square off the bottom of teeth, making them too flat. This does not happen with all files, and I have not yet found a way to fix it.

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Why I am not a “believer”

Sun_on_WaterI was raised in a fundamentalist Christian atmosphere and was taught that every word in the Bible is literally and immutably true. I tried, very hard, to believe and be a good Christian. But I could never “feel” the things others were professing, and I could not simply accept assurances from others that something was true just because it was written in an ancient book and they “felt it in their heart.”

Then, probably around the time I was in high school, I began to become acutely aware of the many contradictions and inconsistencies. For example, in Genesis (32:30), Jacob claims that he has seen God “face to face,” and in John (1:18), the author claims that no one has seen God at any time. There are instances of extreme violence and retribution, even against children and domestic animals, not just sanctioned but ordered by God. (See, for instance, the Book of Joshua). The bottom line is that my sense of logic and fairness and truth could no longer allow me to be religious, and by the time I was in college I no longer considered myself a Christian. I preferred not to believe in God at all than to worship a deity who be so volatile, illogical and cruel.

British actor/humorist Stephen Fry gets very serious when asked his views on God, and I pretty much share the views although I would generally not state them so starkly. When asked by the host of an Irish TV show (reported in Time, YouTube and elsewhere) what he would say to God should he ever find himself standing at the Pearly Gates, Fry said:

“I’d say, Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.

“Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”

I should say that I do not consider myself an atheist, at least not by my definition; and that I do not wish to cast stones at anyone who wishes to keep their faith as long as they don’t try to force it on anyone else or otherwise cause harm. Nor should you think that I am denying the compassionate and caring personality of Jesus, or the many humane and loving words attributed to him, and I do not wish to be disrespectful, but I do not believe in his divinity.

Rather, I am an agnostic, meaning that I don’t know whether there is any form of god. I certainly do not believe in the traditional deities of any religion, and I see absolutely no evidence that there is a loving heavenly presence that watches over us and answers prayers. But I recognize that my knowledge is limited and I cannot completely rule out the existence of some being who may have created the Universe, but otherwise treats it with utter indifference. I believe the Universe is governed by the Laws of Physics, but they had to come from somewhere, right? However, even that poses some problems, and I suspect that life’s central mystery will remain just  that, a mystery. I think that any answer we could come up with would never be totally satisfactory, because we can always ask, “why is that so?”

I have come to believe, as did Carl Sagan, that “Better by far to embrace the hard truth, than a reassuring fable.”   Carl Sagan.

The “hard truth” of course is that there is no benevolent heavenly presence that watches over us and answers payers. The question of how people prefer to believe in fantasy rather than to live in truth (at least in my opinion) has followed me through the years, while reality has only strengthened my admiration for the mystery of life. Some years ago another problem with the biblical (and likely that with other religious beliefs) idea of God occurred to me, a logical conundrum.

The Bible clearly claims that God is omniscient, all-knowing. He knows every detail of the past, present and future. (See, for example, Isaiah 46:10 and Colossians 1:16). Now, if God knows the future and every aspect of it, that means that the future is essentially set in stone and cannot be changed. God, it is claimed, is unchangeable, so the future must be unchangeable because God does not change. Philosophically, it is a kind of determinist future. If the future is pre-determined, then there is no such thing as “free will.” We may think we have free will, it is just an illusion, since every future act is predetermined and unchangeable.

OK, since there is no free will, humans are ultimately not responsible for their own actions, whether they elect to “accept” Jesus and be “saved” or not. Those who are not saved, and hence will spend eternity in the fiery horror of hell, were effectively chosen to suffer by God at the beginning of time… chosen to suffer eternally through no choice of their own. God would be not just indifferent to suffering, but the author of it. And this applies not just to humans, but to the pain and suffering of every living being. The supposedly loving and merciful God has pre-ordained it. But I cannot believe that.

I cannot believe in, much less worship, a deity who uses his (or her or whatever) creations in such a callous and shabby way. Thus I do not believe that God, in the traditional Christian sense, exists at all. I do not blame such a being (or “non-being” as it were)  for natural disasters and every other bad thing that happens, despite assurances that “God has a plan and all will be revealed when we get to Heaven.”

Yeah no.

[Updated June 5, 2022]

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The SunBurn Index

DSCF0618August 31, 2021

About 30 years ago I became interested in the topic of solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation as it relates to sunburn and skin cancer. My training is in physics and astronomy, not medicine or dermatology, but since my father had a form of skin cancer, likely caused by sun exposure early in life, it was of interest to me. Inspired by an article in Sky & Telescope magazine, I wrote a small computer program, dubbed “The SunBurn Index,” which gained some minor traction on the fledgling online computer service, CompuServe. This attempted to show those times during the day when solar ultraviolet radiation was the most intense, and provide some guidance for outdoor activities. To be honest, I never made a penny off it, and since it was written in an old variety of Microsoft DOS Basic language, it won’t even run on modern computers. Since that time, governmental agencies and others have developed and offered a number of similar data sources.

However, earlier this year my doctor noted some spots on my arm and behind my ears that he said were suspicious and subsequently referred me to a dermatologist. The latter confirmed that these were pre-cancerous spots and that I needed to protect myself carefully from sun exposure. As a fair-skinned person who always sun burned easily and who had experienced a few very bad sunburns as a child, this caught my attention.

sunburnindex1My old SunBurn Index program came to mind. With the other sources of information freely available, I have to admit that I really did not need it, but I thought it would be a fun project to revive and revise The SunBurn Index. Instead of trying to port my old DOS program to a more modern version, I decided to convert the idea into a spreadsheet anyone can use. Once again, I am not a medical practitioner or physician, and I am open to any and all reasonable suggestions, but I do know a little physics and a little about the Sun’s position in the sky.

I started with basic data about where the Sun is in the sky, and how its altitude above the horizon affects the amount of solar ultraviolet light reaches the surface. The first version cannibalized a spreadsheet made freely available by NOAA/ESRL (https://gml.noaa.gov/grad/solcalc/calcdetails.html), but I subsequently replaced it with my own coding of standard astronomical algorithms. Then I modified this to represent the generalized UV Index as suggested by Brian L. Diffey in an article referenced by the United States Library of Medicine (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6025391/#).

NewSunBurnIndexAny errors are mine, but again, this is not medical advice and should not be taken as such. I do not take any legal responsibility for any result of following any aspect of this presentation or data. You need to consult your physician or qualified medical professional.

That said, a full determination of the Ultra Violet Index (UVI) depends on a number of factors, but the main consideration is the height of the Sun above the horizon. The height above the horizon is a factor that can be calculated beforehand, whereas several of the other factors are more difficult, depending on only partially predictable circumstances. The Sun’s height above the horizon (measured in degrees) determines the base intensity of the ultraviolet radiation, while the other factors moderate the intensity (they usually reduce intensity, but in some cases can increase it). A full cloud cover, which this spreadsheet does not consider, can reduce UV intensity, whereas increasing altitude above sea level can increase it.

Among the various factors that modify the amount of solar ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface of the Earth, thus affecting the level of concern over exposure, include:

    Latitude of the observer. This not only affects the overall height of the Sun, but also is a consideration in the level and effect of the Ozone Layer as well as atmospheric depth and density.
     The Ozone Layer. The Ozone Layer comprises a rarefied collection of naturally occurring molecules of O3 or Ozone, high in the atmosphere, which absorbs solar UV radiation and is the primary natural shield against the Sun’s harmful effects. This fluctuates over time and latitude. It must be measured by satellite and ground-based observations and cannot be predicted with complete reliability in advance.
     Cloud cover. A common misconception is that there is no danger of sunburn (and in the long term, skin cancer) under cloudy skies. While thick cloud cover does offer a significant level of protection (up to 70% reduction of UV), thin or patchy clouds offer little.
     Aerosols. Tiny particles of dust or smoke in the air both reflect and absorb solar UV radiation, but are a less effective shield than a thick cloud cover. Some studies indicate that under certain conditions, such aerosols can contribute to localized thinning of the Ozone Layer, thus increasing exposure danger.
     Elevation above sea level. More solar UV radiation can reach the ground at higher elevations because there is less atmosphere through which it must pass. In effect it is less filtered and more gets through to the ground. Increasing elevation increases UV intensity by rates as high as 10-11% per 1000 meters (about 3300 feet). Thus UV intensity at Denver is about 16% higher than a sea level location at the same latitude (say, Wilmington, DE or Chico, CA, which are at roughly the same latitude but nearly at sea level). The UV basically has an additional mile of atmosphere through which to pass, and in which to be attenuated, in Wilmington or Chico, than in Denver, so levels are normally slightly less in the “Mile High” city.
     Surface reflectivity. Oddly, it is sometimes as easy to get a sunburn in mid-winter as in mid-summer, if there is snow on the ground. Snow reflects much of the incoming solar UV radiation, often contributing to sunburns on faces and other exposed skin.

Predicting an exact level of solar UV radiation is difficult, due to variable and localized factors, and cannot be done far in advance. In addition, skin reaction to solar UV radiation varies from individual to individual. Some people are more susceptible to the adverse affects than others. However, everyone is subject to the affects of solar UV radiation. Studies have shown that tans and dark skin types may offer some minor and temporary protection to sunburn, but provide little if any protection from the cumulative effect in the skin that can cause skin cancer.

EPASunBurnScaleThe bottom line is that everyone should take precautions when exposed to sunlight. Fortunately, experts at the EPA and the National Institutes of Health have come up with a formula based on generalized conditions, a modification of which is used in the revised SunBurn Index. Keep in mind that this is for generalized conditions and average skin response. If you are fair-skinned and/or otherwise prone to sunburn, you should take prudent precautions with all Sun exposure, even at times listed as “low” UVI Index.

You are welcome to download the SunBurn Index spreadsheet, but please keep in mind that it is not offered as medical advice and no commercial use or further distribution is allowed without previous consent. The “coding,” for lack of a better word, may be a bit sloppy, but it works.

Larry Sessions

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical doctor, nor should anything in this article be construed as medical advice. I strongly suggest that you consult your medical practitioner for practices and procedures related to solar exposure.


The SunBurn Index spreadsheet (xlsx) link: https://bit.ly/3t4rqYL
(Please download it and use it on your computer rather than atempting to use it online)






Note that The SunBurn Index spreadsheet file is in Excel XLSX format. However, it was developed on Planmaker from Softmaker. This is fully compatible with Excel, but there may be some slight formatting differences in other software.

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Review of Probable Impossibilities by Alan Lightman

ProbableProbable Impossibilities is a short book (183 pages) in small hardback format, but it contains a wealth of intriguing ponderables. It won’t teach you Quantum Physics or any deep mathematics, but it offers historical highlights and philosophical musings about some of the extremes of existence, small to large, old to new and more. It is one of those rare books that I purchased without reading it first from the library, or indeed even thumbing through it. I was not disappointed.

Much like his earlier work, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, this is “light” reading about heavy subjects. In 17 chapters ranging from “What Came Before the Big Bang” (sorry, no real answer here, as likely none will ever be had) to “On Nothingness” (what does “nothing” really mean?) to “Immortality,” “Miracles” and “Is Life Special.” The point is that this is not in any way a technical science book, but rather the personal musings of a theoretical physicist turned novelist and essayist. In a sense, it is a book about what life really is all about. Again, there aren’t any firm answers here to the biggest of questions, but Lightman’s personal insights and contemplations are fascinating and perhaps even comforting as they probe ideas that may never be possible to confirm, and questions that may never be fully answered.

I could not help but feel that much of this book was very familiar, no doubt due in large measure to the similarity to topics covered in Searching for Stars… and Lightman’s appealing writing style. On further consideration, however, I did find that one chapter, “Atoms,” was in fact lifted from the Searching for Stars book, and several of the other chapters had previously appeared in various publications. This was not a hindrance, however, as I had not read any of the other publications (as far as I remember).

Overall I will give it a 5 out of 5, and look forward to a continuation of this series of essays.


Feb 09, 2021 | 208 Pages | 5-1/2 x 7-1/2 | ISBN 9781524749019

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Let Us Not Praise Infamous Men

Robert_Edward_LeeThe other morning on one of the talk shows they were discussing how some — particularly certain white Southerners — admired Confederate military leaders. Someone even mentioned that they grew up thinking that Robert E. Lee was not just a great man, but perhaps the greatest human being that ever lived.

That got my attention. It made me think about growing up in racially segregated Little Rock Arkansas in the 50s and 60s. As I recall from six decades ago, we were taught that the North was trying to take over the South, to tell Southerners what to do, to interfere with virtually all aspects of life. It was kind of like the fake news of the government coming to take your guns today. Precious little was said about slavery, so consequently I grew up considering that the Civil War happened because horrible Northerners wanted to come down and take over the South, not because of the despicable practice of slavery.

Do not recall general Lee being made out to be a superhero — or maybe I was just not paying attention — but I do recall an old movie I watched (I cannot recall what it was) that portrayed the general in a sympathetic light. I recall a scene in which he rode slowly through an army camp, obviously sad over Confederate losses, but sitting tall in the saddle with a dignified air. One bedraggled soldier, feeling that the general looked hungry, rushed up with his plate of peas and handed it to him. As I recall, general Lee took it, nodded and maybe thanked him for the kindness, and then rode on slowly. After he had passed, the soldier looked up and said, “I just regret that I never gave the general a knife to eat them peas with.” That has always stuck with me, partly because of the humor but also in the portrayal of Lee as a good and compassionate man dearly loved an admired by his soldiers.

I’m not sure what kind of man Lee was, nor what his exact beliefs were about slavery, but he led a revolt to preserve it and that tells me all I need to know. He does not deserve to be revered, nor does anyone who supports the bigotry the southern Confederacy embodied.

REL_ElementaryMy point is that were primed to feel sympathy toward the Confederate military and hatred for Northerners. Confederate leaders were honored. Even my elementary school, from grade 2 through 6, was “Robert E. Lee Elementary,” but I am not sure I ever even made the association at the time. The building, erected in 1906 and now listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, still stands although the name apparently has been removed. Today it is a community services building. (https://bit.ly/3fHoqwA)

I attended school here before integration, so there were no blacks, but we were segregated by gender on the playground. The view you see here is the East side of the building with the girls playground. Boys got the more barren, sand and rock covered West side. Interestingly enough, I attended part of first grade in California, where I suspect there were some black kids (although I don’t remember for sure) and there was no separation of boys and girls.

Having left Little Rock in 1976, and having experiences with a good many Northerners now, I have lost my distrust of them, as well as any sympathy or admiration I had for general Lee or Confederate military leaders. Which is certainly not to say that I admire the Civil War Northern generals, either (consider Sherman, for example), but I know that the South was very, very wrong. In a way it reminds me of the situation today, in which Southerners have allowed the rich and powerful (big plantation slave owners back then, any variety of wealthy conservatives, religious leaders and their political minions today) to deceive them into believing so many lies.

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Bigger than you imagine

silhouette-of-man-standing-on-rock-formation-during-sunsetInspired by a quotation from J.B.S. Haldane, I would like to say that the Universe is not only bigger than we suppose, but bigger than we can suppose. Or perhaps I should say that it is bigger than we can fully comprehend.

The Universe is big. Really, really big. Frankly, it is hard to imagine how big it is, which is why so many people have little idea of its true size. I have been teaching astronomy in one form or another for 50 years, and I remain amazed at the difficult-to-comprehend distances involved. In this time I have learned that there are many, many misconceptions about space and the Universe, but probably the most common are misconceptions about size and distance.

I think a lot of students get very limited — if not downright incorrect — instruction on this in school, and then never pursue it any future, leaving that erroneous information embedded into their brains.

Not to mention the misleading graphics often found in elementary textbooks and educational material. Here is a section of a poster I had as a child on my wall long ago. It wildly distorts the distance. It makes the planets look as if they are right next to each other, when in fact they are separated by thousands of times their own diameters. For example, on average, Jupiter is separated from Earth by more than 5,000 times its own diameter!map-of-solar-system2

To be fair, though, distances and sizes on a poster like this must be distorted to be seen. If you plotted the solar system out to Neptune on a 3-foot poster in proper scale, nothing could even be seen except perhaps a tiny dot for the Sun. We see them in the real sky because they are glowing against a black background.map-of-solar-system3

Anyway, I’ve used many analogies to try and illustrate the topic of scale in the Universe. First off, imagine a hydrogen atom, which consists of a tiny positive proton and a negative electron. A hydrogen atom, which usually exists as part of a molecule rather than alone, is so small that it would take roughly 1.7 billion billion billion to equal an average human. The diameter of a hydrogen atom is about one picometer, which is one ten millionth of a millimeter, far too small to be seen even the best optical microscope.

Now, what if I told you that the Earth compares to the known Universe as a single hydrogen atom compares to a human? Pretty amazing, huh? Well, it’s absolutely wrong. The Universe is actually much, much bigger than that. (See note about the size of the Universe below.)

Actually, the Earth compares to the known Universe, roughly as a hydrogen atom compares not to a human, not to the entire planet Earth, but to the Sun!

The Sun is 109 times the diameter of Earth and in volume is more than a million times larger. So the Earth compares to the known Universe as a single hydrogen atom compares to the Sun. But that is just a rough comparison. Actually, the known Universe is about 43% larger. Let that sink in.

If you wish to check it yourself, here’s the data.


These figures are rounded a bit, but you should be able to see clearly that the two ratios are in the same order of magnitude (signified by the E+19, which means 10 to the 19th power!).

Within the uncertainties inherent in the data and assumptions, the ratios are essentially the same. I assume a diameter of the known universe to be twice the light time distance to the observable boundary, which makes it 27.6 light years across, or about 2.6 times 10^29 millimeters. Truth is, the Universe is actually much larger than this, and perhaps even infinite, as explained in the note below.

So indeed, the Universe is really, really big. It is so big, in fact that the only way that any of use can begin to comprehend is through a little math.


To make this more palatable, I have made some simplifications that really do not affect the overall validity of the piece. There is a good bit of variation in the way words are used, but I have used the term “known” or “observable” Universe to refer to that part of the Universe that extends out to 13.8 billion light years in all directions. That distance, 13.8 billion light years, is the light time limitation of radiation that left near the time of the Big Bang. We can directly observe objects near that boundary, but only as they were that far back in time. So I have considered that distance as the boundary, and the known universe to be sphere of 13.8 billion light years, centered on Earth.

I did this for simplicity. However, it poses two non-trivial problems. First off, everything we can detect near that 13.8 billion light year boundary was moving away from us at that time, so consequently, even though we can observe it only as it was 13.8 billion years ago (Because of the restriction of the Speed of Light), it is actually much farther away now. In fact, most current estimates are that it is about 46 billion light years away, and hence the “known” Universe is at least 37 times the size (volume) larger.

You might think that this violates Relativity and the restriction of the speed of light. But it doesn’t. Those restrictions do not apply to space itself. The dimensions of space can increase much faster than the speed of light and Einstein would be just fine with that.

The second problem is that we tend to imagine the Universe as a big sphere. That is because the limit of our vision, the “cosmic horizon” is at the same distance all around us. Imagine being at the center of a basketball, where the inside edges of the balloon are all at a set distance (around 4.7 inches!) all around. You would think that the Universe is spherical because that would be how it would appear to you. You could not see beyond it, but that would not mean the there was nothing beyond it, or necessarily that whatever lay beyond your observable Universe was spherical.

Furthermore, by definition, the Universe is “everything.” In order to properly define the shape of the Universe, you would have to get outside it. But because anywhere you could go would still be inside the Universe — it’s everything, you know — that would be impossible.


Top Photo: Creative Commons Zero – CC0 http://bit.ly/2HpvnQK

J.B.S. Haldane reference: http://bit.ly/39znfsT

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Aliens, aliens everywhere, but not a one to see

Is there Life — or to be more specific — Intelligent Life elsewhere in the Universe? I don’t know, but I strongly suspect — I believe — that there is. I have no direct evidence of it, but there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence.

I might also ask, is there a black, hand-sized rock in the shape of a frog within 500 km of Olympus Mons on Mars? I believe that there is, perhaps a large number of such rocks. It is just that we know from direct observation through probes such as the Viking landers and various rovers including Curiosity, that there are many, many rocks that size on Mars. Just random processes over billions of years could easily shape them into the appearance of a frog.

But I don’t have any direct evidence. Neither do we have any direct evidence of for Life in the Universe. We know that the chemicals for life (as we know it), including water, oxygen and more complex molecules such as amino acids (building blocks for proteins) are widely distributed and abundant.

Just as you are likely to find a frog-shaped rock on Mars if you have a large enough collection of rocks to search through, it’s likely – in my opinion — that we will discover intelligent life in the Universe if we look long enough and far enough.

Current estimates are that there are at least 20,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (2 times 1022) stars in the observable Universe. Let’s say that only one is a million of those stars has a planet on which life as we know it is even possible. Of those stars, let’s say that only one in a million actually harbors some kind of life. Then lets say that only one in a million of these stars has developed an intelligent form of life. That means that there would be 20,000 planets with advanced intelligent life in the Universe.

But if those intelligent live forms were more or less evenly distributed in the Universe, they would be millions and millions of light years apart. Given the restrictions imposed by Einstein’s Relativity (which after more that 100 years has passed every test), communications not to mention direct contact would be essentially impossible.

Just the abundance of life-building materials and the mind-blowing size of the Universe make it next to certain that there is intelligent life out there, perhaps many, many species on many, many planets in many, many galaxies. But again, we have no direct evidence.

Given that life is probably widespread, the difficulties in us discovering it boil down essentially to size and distance. Most people really don’t realize how mind-numbingly big the Universe is.

How do you compare the Earth to the Universe? To give you an idea, consider a single atom. More than a trillion atoms could fit on the head of a pin. A “trillion” is a million times a million! Now compare an atom to a human body. No, wait! Compare that single atom to the entire planet Earth. No, wait! Compare that single atom to the Sun. Yes, comparing the Earth to the Universe is roughly the same as comparing a single atom to the Sun. The Sun is roughly one million times the volume of the Earth. So I think you can see that the Universe is a very, very, very big place. (How did I come to that comparison? Watch for the next blog entry.)

So even if there are thousands or millions or even billions of advanced civilizations in the Universe, they would be separated, on the average, by almost unimaginable distances.

What if they are “nearby” and actively “listening” for our signals? Even if they are within 100 light years — the rough distance at which any other intelligence could pick up our radio transmissions — it still represents a relatively small number of stars capable of being home to an advanced civilization.

The point is simply that given the truly enormous size of the Universe and the difficulty of travel and even communications imposed by the Theory of Relativity, it remains unlikely that aliens have ever visited Earth. Combine that with the complete lack of valid evidence, and you can understand why science rejects the claims of UFOs as alien spacecraft. Anything that does not violate the Laws of Physics is possible, but that does not make it likely.


1. NASA image of the Helix Nebula, https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/spitzer/20190827/4-helix-640×596.jpg

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The Betelgeuse Nebula

PIA16885_hiresDue to its recent dimming and apparent change in physical size, there has been speculation that the red supergiant star Betelgeuse may be on the verge of exploding in a supernova. If that were to occur – and it really is a question of when not if – it will likely become visible in the daytime sky for a few weeks, and may shine brighter than the Full Moon at night. It could happen before I finish writing this sentence, or it could be 100,000 or even a million years in the future. Any of that is “soon” in astronomical terms. We just do not know. To be honest, I don’t really expect it in my lifetime, but who knows? It certainly prompts some speculation.

Some observers  (not I) have claimed to be able to discern the visible disk of Jupiter with the unaided human eye. At closet approach, Jupiter spans about 50 seconds of arc. I have never made this observation myself this but I do not challenge the claim. It would be just on the verge of discernability.

So, my question is, when Betelgeuse goes supernova, how long after the explosion would a nebula likely be large enough to be just visible to the unaided human eye from Earth, at least by observers of exceptional ability?

I made a few quick, simplistic calculations that ignore a number of potentially important factors, using comparison values for just one other supernova. So don’t hold me to this… they’re just guesses.

In the case of Betelgeuse, you have to make some assumptions since we do not know some basic facts with certainty. Because of its particular characteristics, it is difficult to determine the exact distance. Estimates range from about 400 to about 800 light years for the distance to Betelgeuse. I will assume 640 light years, a commonly cited figure.

Assuming also that the supernova is a type II, how big would that nebula need to be to be seen as such by the human eye?

To find the diameter of an object of 60 arc seconds (1 arc minute, just slightly larger than Jupiter at its largest apparent size from Earth) at the distance of Betelgeuse, use the small angle formula.

Angle/206265 = d/D
d = (Angle/206265) * D

where Angle is in seconds of arc, 206265 is the number of arc seconds in a Radian, d is the actual size (diameter) and D is the distance, with both d and D in the same units. Here we use arc seconds for angle and Astronomical Units (AU) for distance. So if D is the distance to the object (Betelgeuse, 640 light years (ly) or about 40473241 AU) and the angle is 60 arc seconds, the diameter of the object (nebula) would be

d = (60/206265) * 40473241 AU = 11773 AU

Assuming a Solar System (SS) diameter out to Pluto of 80 AU, we have 11773/80 = 147. Thus the nebula would need to be about 150 times the diameter of the SS.

So according to my very crude and tentative calculations, a sufficiently illuminated distended object would need to be roughly 150 times the current diameter of the Solar System out to Pluto, to subtend an angle of about 60 seconds (1 minute) of arc.

But how long would this take? According to published information on type II SN1987A (https://file.scirp.org/pdf/IJAA_2012123110412746.pdf), that object expanded to about .39 parsecs (pc) or about 80442 AU in less than 25 years. Given the expansion rate of SN1987A, which may or may not be typical, that would imply to me that it would take only a few years to get to 150 Solar System (SS) diameters (.06 pc if taken out to the orbit of Pluto). However, I have no idea how long any distended nebula would be overshadowed by the brilliance of the central supernova.

1) The image is a modification of an uncredited artist’s conception from JPL/NASA found on this page:
”Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech”

2) Type II supernovae involve the explosion of a single supergiant star. Other types (famously the Type Ia) involve the interaction of an old white dwarf star with a companion star.

3) Others would consider the SS as extending only to the orbit of the last known major planet, Neptune, while others consider it extending to the largest known TNO (“Trans Neptunian Object”) or KBO (“Kuiper Belt Object”) or to the Oort cloud or the Heliopause or some other preferred boundary. I chose the more traditional orbit of Pluto out of convenience.

4) Please feel free to correct me if you see an error, false assumption or other problem.

Posted in astronomy, nature, night sky, science, space | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Family: Right Wing Bastardization of Biblical Teachings



This is a bit different from what I normally post here, and if it offends, I apologize. However, I think it needs to be considered.

Watching just the first two episodes of “The Family” on Netflix, two Biblical references struck with me with a kind of “Ah ha!” feeling. It was an epiphany or a  mini-revelation if you will. I Realized that this kind of thinking may be why Trump supporters so easily dismiss outrageous, vile, hateful, racist and anti-American behavior. They think that they can use biblical stories as precedent and justify it as “God’s will” as long as it gets them what they want.

But let me state that “The Family” is based on a book of the same name by Jeff Sharlet. It is supposedly his own personal experience, about in fact could be no more than a new conspiracy theory. Judge for yourself. The show on Netflix is here: http://bit.ly/2ToNqMa

The first Biblical reference that concerned me was Psalms 137, verse 9, which in the King James Version of the Bible, reads: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

This refers, according to the commentators (Matthew Henry et al) basically to the wish of captive Jews in Babylon as something they prophesied or wished to happen to their captors — in this particular case, the children of their captors. To many of the commentators, this is justified as an expression of “God’s will.” Or God’s “righteous revenge” if you will.

No matter how I look at this, it seems intolerant, arrogant and hateful — hardly things I would like to associate with a loving God.

The other refers to David and Bathsheba (see 2 Samuel in the Old Testament). Just to make it short, Jewish king David (the same David who killed the giant Goliath) lusted after another man’s wife (Bathsheba), with whom he subsequently commits adultery (resulting in pregnancy). He then orders Bathsheba’s husband into battle specifically so he will be killed (he is). Later, he takes Bathsheba as his wife (apparently the favorite of his many wives, and the mother of famously wise Solomon). Despite his great sin and the blood on his hands, David repented and gained back favor from the Lord. He was said, in fact, to be an ancestor of Jesus.

In any event, although David is revered in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, his story to me is dripping with violence, intolerance, racism and callousness. And yet he repented, so all is forgiven.

Actually, the idea of being unconditionally forgiven if you are contrite (and in the case of Christianity, accepting Christ as your savior) is, of course, very tolerant and appealing. However, some simply take it too far. In my younger years, I heard preachers say effectively that you could live a life of evil as long as you repented after each vile act. Some even gave the impression that sincerity — specifically, a lack thereof — was not important as long as you went through the motions. Repentance became an empty ritual, which nonetheless unfailingly dismissed a multitude of vile deeds. It was like a murderer confessing his regret and remorse and being told, “Go and sin no more” — over and over and over again.

This has long bothered me, and doubtless is in part why I am not a believer anymore. It says, in effect, that you can do anything you want — any evil or illegal or immoral thing — and all you have to say those magic words and all will be well. It justifies anything!

Although the emphasis with the Family seems to be on Jesus (they promote “Jesus,” a book of just Jesus’s saying and a concept called “Jesus plus nothing), the teachings seem to emphasize some of the more violent and questionable sections of the Old Testament.

All you biblical scholars out there are welcome to correct me if you feel that I am wrong, but this appears to say that violence, murder, even genocide, is perfectly OK if done under the aegis of “God’s will.” Anyone can say some act or proposed act is “God’s will” and if he (or she) can get enough people to follow, any manner of evil can ensue.

This goes a long way in explaining — to me at least — how Trump got elected and how his supporters (in Congress and elsewhere) can glibly dismiss his foul deeds and shortcomings, as well as their own. They can claim it is “God’s will,” using biblical precedent. And in the end, if things go badly for them, they can just say, “I repent.”

Of course, thoughtful and sincere Christians, with whom I have no argument, can argue that this is not the message to take away here. But it is a matter of interpretation, which is exactly my point. It is, I fear, what is going on in Washington and elsewhere these days. (For the record, I don’t think it actually factors into Trump’s 5th grade thinking — I don’t think he gives a flying rip one way or another as long as he gets what he wants.)

Every American, and especially those who claim to be Christian, Jewish or Islamic, who does not speak out about this, is complicit in the result, in my opinion.

Posted in clear thinking, deceit, Politics, religion, stupidity, truth | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Formula 1 (race) is going to Asia’s dog meat capital. Insist they help end the horror. Please sign this letter.

Shared via Formula 1 (race) is going to Asia’s dog meat capital. Insist they help end the horror. Please sign this letter.

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