Einstein and Eddington

EinsteinandeddingtondvdcoverWe had a free week of HBO so we decided to check out a couple of movies. The first was Einstein and Eddington, a BBC/HBO docu-drama about the relationship between Big Al (more appropriately, “Al Who?” at the time) and Cambridge astronomer Arthur Eddington (later Sir Arthur). (Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxVUq7IWyB8) In particular it was about Eddington’s “proof” of General Relativity, which made “Einstein” a household word around the world.

It was an interesting show, and worth the watch, with David Tennant (Eddington) and Andy Serkis (Einstein). Throughout the movie, I could not help but imagine Serkis portraying Robert Downey Jr. portraying Einstein. Serkis, you may know, was the voice of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I was not up on all the historical details to be sure how accurate most of the movie was, but one thing I must note is that the depiction of the 1919 eclipse was for dramatic effect and scientifically abominable. It was noted, accurately, that the eclipse would occur when the Sun was near the star cluster The Hyades, but in the depiction, the event was set in the constellation Scorpius, which is in the opposite part of the sky.

In this screen capture from the film, enhanced a bit for clarity, the grossly  oversized eclipse is shown occurring in the constellation Scorpius with the “Teapot” of Sagittarius to the left. In reality, the 1919 eclipse occurred in a completely different part of the sky, the constellation Taurus.Capture

In addition, the eclipse appeared much too large, and progressed with ridiculous rapidity. In fact, in what was referenced as five minutes before totality, the partial phase hadn’t even started. When it did, the stars were immediately visible, even though in reality the sky is much too bright until the actual period of totality. Clearly the whole sequence, which is actually only a minor segment of the 94 minute file, was directed by someone who had never seen an eclipse. Too bad.

It is good to get scientific concepts out the to public. In fact it is desperately needed. Who cares if there are a few little inaccuracies if the overall picture conveys the positive message of scientific advance? Artistic license is as old as humanity and a legitimate practice in many instances.

But in the depiction of science I think we need to be careful, especially in visual presentations. A real solar eclipse bears little resemblance to what is shown in this film. A real eclipse is a much more drawn out affair, and frankly somewhat boring during the 90 minutes or so of partial eclipse before totality (and then again after). Virtually everything of interest takes place in the few minutes of totality. This was, in fact, intimated in the film, although the circumstances were incorrect.

Although I was not well versed in the historical aspects of the movie, I did question one or two things that did, in fact, turn out to be erroneous. It turns out that there were a number of these historical errors are listed here: http://bit.ly/2uqaWhr

Overall, Einstein and Eddington is worth seeing, but keep in mind that in some ways it is more art than accurate.


P.S. the other film was The Revenant, a dark and depressing film for which I can find no redeeming value. The acting was pretty good, I suppose, but there were glaring inaccuracies  such as filming in the Canadian Rockies (and Argentina) and passing it off as the Great Plains (Nebraska and the Dakotas, home range of the Pawnee and Arikara “Rees”). Even if the action wandered afield a bit, the mountains did not fit any more than in the original “True Grit” film, where Colorado substituted for eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas). One particularly egregious scene appeared to have been shot in a wet Pacific Northwest Coastal rain forest. It is not a film for the squeamish and certainly not if you are looking for something bright and sunny.

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Earth’s Forests are “Diminished Imitations” of “Real” Trees

eyehour_hstI want to be optimistic about humanity — I really do. But it seems like every morning I wake up to a new low in the annals of human stupidity.

Let me make up an example. This may be believed by some people for all I know, but I am just using it here to make a point.

I know of a gas cloud out in space, called MyCn 18, that looks remarkably like a human eye. Therefore, since it looks like an eye, it must be an eye. And since it is this great and magnificent eye in space, it must be the eye of God himself (herself). Do you follow my reasoning here? I’m sure you will agree that this makes sense, right?

Disregard the facts that the rest of God’s body is invisible and presumably He (She?) is a cyclops, or the clear evidence that this is really the end result of a star at the end of its lifetime. No, let’s just ignore the information that reason and astronomical evidence provide, and proclaim that this is the veritable eye of God, just because it looks like what I think it the eye of God should look like. Reasonable, wouldn’t you agree?

lead_960Well, that is essentially the process that has gone on in the mind (I use the word loosely) of a Crimean video producer (Людин Рɣси ) who apparently thinks that the Earth is flat and all our forests are fakes, or at best miniature versions of “real” trees. The evidence? Geological structures around the world that bear a resemblance to giant tree stumps, such as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

Since Devil’s Tower looks like a giant tree stump, it must be a giant tree stump, and as such it serves as clear evidence of the real forests that once covered Earth.  Impeccable logic, as anyone can see.

Yeah, right. While there are perfectly good geological explanations for such structures, supported by solid evidence and reasonable physical processes, some people would prefer to believe their own fantasies, perhaps because their minds are too small to accept reality.

It is just stupefying that even one person would be deranged enough to buy this, but the thought that the video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times and that “thousands” of people are ready to believe this bilge is simply brain numbing. The “concept,” if we are willing to call it such, would be on a par the idea that squirrels are little aliens in disguise who are plotting to take over the world and erect a temple in which to worship the Great Pumpkin. I mean, honestly, this is pure insanity.

Certainly the Internet bears major blame here. We have always had idiots, but the Internet just makes it easier for them to display their stupidity.

Maybe I shouldn’t even mention this or pass it on, because it may thereby reach susceptible warped minds that will believe it. But I trust that anyone reading this is not at risk, and it just fascinates me to know that such morons exist. To be clear, I am referring  to the people who believe this crap, and in particular the flat-earther who made the video, not to Sam Kriss, the author of the article in the Atlantic.

Well here, read it yourself:

To be honest, I have yet to figure out what this has to do with the “concept” of a flat Earth, but it certainly is on par with that kind of warped thinking.

* * *

(By the way, there are a number of gas clouds in space that look at least vaguely like eyes. Most are the product of stellar death, known as “planetary nebulae” because they also look a bit like planets through a telescope. One in particular, usually called the “Helix Nebula,” is also called the “Eye of God” or sometimes, “The Eye of Sauron.”)

(Photo of Devil’s Tower courtesy of the National Park Service.
The Eye of an Hourglass Nebula Credit: R. Sahai and J. Trauger (JPL), WFPC2 Science Team, NASA)

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Lies, extortions and threats

DistressLies, extortions and threats. How long must America endure such blatant and un-American activities from the White House and Congress? What can we do? I’m not sure what it will take.

Some folks think I should just chill. See what happens. Maybe the threat will go away. Maybe there is no threat. It may just be “all blow and no show” they say. Or maybe sticking our heads in the sand will work.

Personally, I say that if you don’t at least express your concern — if only through letters emails, whatever — then you are empowering those who want to tear down our Democracy and replace it completely with an oligarchy of the rich and powerful.

Is this what America has come to?

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"… a ginger cat having a fit in a bowl of tomatoes."

Is this how Mark Twain described a painting of English Artist William Turner?

Slave ship by Willima TurnerBecause I am interested in the Sun, I have been reading  Chasing the Sun, The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life by Richard Cohen. Chapter 24 (“Drawing on the Sun”) relates to the Sun in art, something that normally would not be of great interest to me. I like art, don’t get me wrong, but much of what passes for art certainly does not fit my taste.  I remember once describing a piece of modern art as making me think that someone had thrown dirty dishwater onto a white towel and then framed it.

On the other hand, I do like certain pieces of Impressionism, and I came across a quote that intrigued me in on page 431 of Cohen’s book. It was a description of an unnamed painting by William Turner, who was obsessed with light, especially sunlight,  and color in landscapes. This painting, Cohen writes, was described by Mark Twain as “like a ginger cat having a fit in a bowl of tomatoes.”

As a fan of Twain, it did not take much to conjure up an image in my mind, and the quote gave me the giggles every time I read it. Certainly it sounds like Twain, but Cohen gave no reference for the quotation in his otherwise well documented work. He did not even identify the specific painting, which I now desperately wanted to view myself.

I thought that if I could find the context of the quotation I could determine which of Turner’s paintings it was. At  first I searched Google and came up only repetitions of the supposed quotation, with useless and vague references that were no good at all. Interestingly, many of the instances I found were unattributed repetitions of specifically phrased quotations apparently from other web sites. In other words, they were plagiarized quotations of the quotation.

Next I tried my own small collection of Twain’s work, in paper form, and found nothing. Finally, I decided to search as well as I could among the Twain offerings on the Gutenberg Project (http://www.gutenberg.org/). I never found the exact quotation, but I came pretty darn close in “A Tramp Abroad.”

It referenced a Turner painting, “Slave Ship” and this phrase: “A Boston newspaper reporter went and took a look at the Slave Ship floundering about in that fierce conflagration of reds and yellows, and said it reminded him of a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes.”

That was it. The quotation got mangled a bit, but the image in my mind was the same. So it was not Twain’s quotation per se, but rather his repetition of the words of an anonymous reporter. Still, was there really a “Boston reporter,” or was this fiction, as is much of Twain’s book? I guess we will never know, but at least now I know the painting and the correct quotation.

The painting is not quite as wild and psychedelic as I had imagined, but the description fits it well. Incidentally, just last evening I saw similar coloration in the sunset sky from Denver, although certainly not as busy and intense as in Turner’s painting. In the painting, the actual objects take second place to the mood and lighting. Even the Sun, our mighty day star, was reduced to a bright smudge. It took me a while before I even saw the ship itself, and longer to notice some, shall we say more “sinister” aspects. Take a look for yourself.






From Mark Twain’s “A Tramp Abroad”:

And then there is painting. What a red rag is to a bull, Turner’s “Slave Ship” was to me, before I studied art. Mr. Ruskin is educated in art up to a point where that picture throws him into as mad an ecstasy of pleasure as it used to throw me into one of rage, last year, when I was ignorant. His cultivation enables him—and me, now—to see water in that glaring yellow mud, and natural effects in those lurid explosions of mixed smoke and flame, and crimson sunset glories; it reconciles him—and me, now—to the floating of iron cable-chains and other unfloatable things; it reconciles us to fishes swimming around on top of the mud—I mean the water. The most of the picture is a manifest impossibility—that is to say, a lie; and only rigid cultivation can enable a man to find truth in a lie. But it enabled Mr. Ruskin to do it, and it has enabled me to do it, and I am thankful for it. A Boston newspaper reporter went and took a look at the Slave Ship floundering about in that fierce conflagration of reds and yellows, and said it reminded him of a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes. In my then uneducated state, that went home to my non-cultivation, and I thought here is a man with an unobstructed eye. Mr. Ruskin would have said: This person is an ass. That is what I would say, now.

Months after this was written, I happened into the National Gallery in London, and soon became so fascinated with the Turner pictures that I could hardly get away from the place. I went there often, afterward, meaning to see the rest of the gallery, but the Turner spell was too strong; it could not be shaken off. However, the Turners which attracted me most did not remind me of the Slave Ship.

A Tramp Abroad on Gutenberg.org:
Quote above near the end of Chapter XXIV (24), just search for “tortoise-shell”

The Slave Ship painting by Turner:
J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840). Oil on canvas. 90.8 × 122.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

chasingthesunChasing the Sun by Richard Cohen

Posted in Art, Color, natural history, optical illusion, Painting, Sun, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Do Flat Earth Believers Have a Mental Flaw?

The funny — and very annoying — thing about conspiracy theorists is that they are willing to believe in an intricate and complicated fabrication far more complicated, and far less supported by any reasonable evidence, than is provided by standard scientific interpretation. Here is a brief excerpt from “Are Flat-Earthers Being Serious? | Flat Earth Society” on Livescience.com (click on the name for the full article):

“First, a brief tour of the worldview of a flat-earther: While writing off buckets of concrete evidence that Earth is spherical, they readily accept a laundry list of propositions that some would call ludicrous. The leading flat-earther theory holds that Earth is a disc with the Arctic Circle in the center and Antarctica, a 150-foot-tall wall of ice, around the rim. NASA employees, they say, guard this ice wall to prevent people from climbing over and falling off the disc.

“Earth’s day and night cycle is explained by positing that the sun and moon are spheres measuring 32 miles (51 kilometers) that move in circles 3,000 miles (4,828 km) above the plane of the Earth. (Stars, they say, move in a plane 3,100 miles up.) Like spotlights, these celestial spheres illuminate different portions of the planet in a 24-hour cycle. Flat-earthers believe there must also be an invisible “antimoon” that obscures the moon during lunar eclipses.

“Furthermore, Earth’s gravity is an illusion, they say. Objects do not accelerate downward; instead, the disc of Earth accelerates upward at 32 feet per second squared (9.8 meters per second squared), driven up by a mysterious force called dark energy.”

I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but it is my opinion that someone who fabricates a ridiculous story like this – or simply believes it – has a serious deficit of rationality. That is, they are a little bit crazy. (Maybe a lot crazy.) They can be perfectly reasonable and intelligent about other things, but completely blind to what most of us would consider obvious truths when it comes to their pet irrational belief. I  understand that some Flat Earth proponents may be claiming it just for fun or for the attention, but sadly there are some who believe it sincerely.

Even further exposure to the facts does not typically help because they have built up (again, just my personal opinion) a mental block against any ideas contrary to their beliefs. In fact, I strongly suspect that they interpret in their minds any data related to their belief (pro or con) to make it seem to them to support the idea. This is a form of “confirmational bias.,” In other words, we look for things that confirm our opinion and ignore information contrary to it. According to researchers Jack and Sara Gorman (father/ daughter team), “…people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs. ‘It feels good to ”stick to our guns” even if we are wrong,’ they observe.” (Quoted in “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” by Elizabeth Kolberthttp://ow.ly/IjJe30ccUvJ)

Call it a mental flaw or whatever you want, but to some extent we all exhibit this tendency from time to time, and a percentage of us give into it on a daily basis. But when it distorts reality to the extent that is has with genuine flat-earthers , I personally feel that it should be considered a psychiatric disorder, just from my non-psychiatric, non-professional opinion.

The Earth is an oblate spheroid, and is decidedly not flat on large enough scales. But don’t bother trying to to a flat-earther. Nevertheless, the Earth is shaped like a ball, is not hollow, and although I have never been there, there is overwhelming evidence that Finland really does exist.

(The flat Earth graphic is an unattributed image found online here http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/flat-earth-theory
I make no claim of ownership and will remove at the copyright holder’s request.)

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Finland, the country that doesn’t exist

Finland_The_Baltic_Sea_-_MERIS_-_31_May_2002_node_full_image_2To a certain extent I can understand how rumors get started and how certain conspiracy myths spread. In some cases they start with a modicum of reality and stretch it into shapes that overly distrustful folks and/or those with overly active imaginations can latch onto. Take “chemtrails” for example. We can all see planes flying overhead and the long, white, cloudlike wakes they sometimes leave behind. The passing resemblance to crop dusting planes and the fact that the trails originate in jet-fuel guzzling and stratosphere polluting engines can, I suppose, confuse those with poor reasoning ability.

(Image of Finland and the Baltic Sea courtesy of the European Space Agency, 31 May 2002)

On the other hand, there are some conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific ideas that completely baffle me as to how they survive in this Internet world. “Flat Earth” and “Hollow Earth” myths being among them. The same technology that spreads such garbage should also quite easily provide abundant proof that they are so ridiculously wrong. Or it would seem.

And now there is one I have never heard of before, one that is so absurd I am stunned that it got spread in the first place. It seems that some folks do not believe that the nation of Finland actually exists. Despite a culture that goes back thousands of years, a fully developed and intricate language, and participation in international affairs, Finland apparently is a myth, a fake-state fabricated for political reasons in a collusion between historically unfriendly nations. It is hard to imagine a greater piece of stupidity.

I’ll let Brian Dunning fill you in on the details from his Skeptoid podcast:

And while you are reading, enjoy Finlandia by Sibelius:


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Never to poke your ear with your elbow

New Moon

Simulated image of New Moon in night sky, by famed Asian artist Ai Fuld Yu. (Sorry)

Trying to view the Moon tonight (Monday, March 27, 2017) would be like trying to poke your ear with your elbow — you can’t do it and it would not be very bright if you tried.

You see, the Moon is “new” tonight, meaning that it is in line with the Sun, very similar to the situation that occurs during a solar eclipse. In the case of a solar eclipse, the Moon passes directly in front of our central luminary and blocks out its light.

But in today’s situation, the Moon passes near the Sun, but not directly in front of it. So while the Moon is actually there in the sky, but more than 99% of its illuminated portion is turned away from Earth, and what is left is simply not bright enough to show, given the blinding blaze of the Sun.

“New” simply implies that the Moon will start a new series of phases, which happens every time the Moon passes near the Sun. This takes about a month, and is where we get the word “month,” which originally was “moonth.” Anyway, since there is no Moon in the sky tonight to contribute to the sky glow, it is still a good time to participate in the citizen science project called “Globe at Night.” The March observing period ends on Wednesday, though, so check it out soon:


Although you can’t see the Moon tonight, it will emerge in the westetrn twilight as a thin crescent later in the week. There may be a very slight chance of seeing it tomorrow (Tuesday) evening, Wednesday and Thursday evenings are better bets.

By the way, my reference to poking your elbow into your ear came from my pediatrician when I was very young. I don’t recall ever sticking anything into my ears, but I did have a serious ear problem when I was 8 or 10, and the doctor always reminded me never to put anything into my ears smaller than my elbows.

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