Archive for July, 2009

Published by Diana on 22 Jul 2009

Not quite as good as being there… but good, nonetheless

A few videos of the total solar eclipse in Japan and India yesterday:

Japanese eclipse video

BBC News video on the eclipse

Published by Diana on 19 Jul 2009

It was forty years ago this week…

I can’t forget waking up in the middle of the night, July of 1969, to watch Neil Armstrong descend the ladder of the lunar ladder and put his enormous moon boots onto the surface of the moon. In the years since, it’s taken on a aura of inevitability–we all know the journey was successful, and we’ve all seen the rocks they bought back–but at the time:

  • We didn’t know how deep the dust would be, and scientists were afraid that they would sink into the lunar surface.
  • We didn’t know if something might go wrong and the astronauts would be stranded on the moon, and, with the whole world watching–especially with the Soviet Union, our arch-enemy, watching, die an agonizing death from starvation or worse, explosive decompression.
  • We just didn’t know what would happen.

We all know now what DID happen: the six Apollo trips to the moon were successful–they were successful even in the days when a computer meant massive hardware that filled entire rooms (you know all those people in the room in the videos–that’s what they’re doing, operating the massive computers needed, computers that would now be replaced by a single PC that costs around $1000). They were successful. Politically, it was a huge coup. America amazed everyone. We did it–we did what was seen as impossible. We did something no one has done since, including us.

And for a few hours, the entire country watched, and instead of being angry, or divided, or worried, we were thrilled and proud.

In 1972, the Apollo 17 astronauts took this photo, called the Blue Marble:

Apollo 17: the Blue Marble

Apollo 17: the Blue Marble

And this is what NASA said about it at the time:

View of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon. This translunar coast photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea area to the Antarctica south polar ice cap. This is the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap. Note the heavy cloud cover in the Southern Hemisphere. Almost the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible. The Arabian Peninsula can be seen at the northeastern edge of Africa. The large island off the coast of Africa is the Malagasy Republic. The Asian mainland is on the horizon toward the northeast.

In 2008, NASA decided it was time to being its new imaging technology to bear to create a new Blue Marble photo of the earth. Using data from numerous photos, they created this image:

NASA in 2008: the Blue Marble

NASA in 2008: the Blue Marble

One of the first photos of the earth from space changed history. The Apollo 8 astronauts took this photo of the earth rising over the surface of the moon on December 24, 1968:

nasa-earthrise

This photo (and others like it) started the environmental movement of the late 60s and early 70s–the first Earth Day. The photo instantly sparked changes in attitudes toward the environment. Suddenly, we all knew that we had only one earth, small and fragile, and in need of our care.

Published by Diana on 18 Jul 2009

Lightbulbs

In the never-ending quest to reduce our electricity bill and our overall carbon footprint, my husband and I have used compact fluorescent bulbs and high-output halogen bulbs for quite some time. We like the natural color of the halogen bulbs, and since most of the time we use dimmer switches, they last a very long time. A 50 watt bulb has a life expectancy of about 3500 hours of light.

But household lighting uses 12% of our electricity bill (according to this source: Wikipedia: Energy use in the US), so imagine my delight when I discovered this new lightbulb: Ushio’s New LED bulbwhich uses 4 watts to produce the same light at a 50 watt bulb. It even has a life expectancy of 50000 hours. It costs five times as much, lasts more than ten times as long (meaning fewer trips up and down ladders), and uses one-tenth of the electricity. I’ve been trying to calculate how much money you’d save over the course of the bulb’s life, and it’s a lot. First off, there’s half the cost of the bulbs (so, $30), and then one-tenth the electricity use. 50,000 hours at 50 watts (2500 kW) would cost another $30 or so (average US cost is $11/kW hour), so one tenth of that is $3. So each bulb would save you $60.

Imagine if EVERYONE switched to these bulbs! One-tenth the bulbs in landfills, one-tenth the electricity use. And $60 more in your pocket for every single bulb you replaced.

Published by Diana on 12 Jul 2009

Humans and Whales

In the mid-70s, the United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, because the numbers of whales were declining all around the world. Whales were routinely hunted for food, for whale oil, for sport, and scientists were afraid they were going extinct. As time passed, a whale watching industry developed. The New York Times reports on human-whale interactions in this article:
Watching Whales Watching Us.

A small excerpt from the article:
“I read before my journey to Baja of what happens to people when they come in contact with a whale, how they tend to go, literally and figuratively, a bit overboard: nearly tipping over boats for a passing touch; spontaneously breaking into song; crying out in ecstasy; or just flat-out crying.”

Whales are enormous animals; their sheer size can be startling. When I was scuba-diving some years ago and we were lucky enough to encounter a juvenile humpback whale, it took me several moments before I could be sure what I was seeing. A thirty foot animal, especially one that is watching you as carefully as you are watching it, is huge and scary–and fascinating. The memory seared itself into my brain, and I can still see that young whale anytime I want, just by closing my eyes and remembering.