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There’s all kinds of fake news these days. There is even fake news about fake news. There has pretty much always been fake news about science, even before we used the word science.

Imagine all those ancient people wondering about lunar and solar eclipses. How many of them did eye damage by staring up at a solar eclipse? Were the gods or a God punishing us by taking away the Sun, and further punishing those who dared to look at it? Did they pray the Sun would return and rejoice when it did return?

In July 2015, an article online claimed that NASA had confirmed that the Earth will experience 15 days of total darkness between November 15 and November 29, 2015. Supposedly, this had not occurred in over one million years.

Of course, it was fake news. The original story seems to have come from a fake news website Newswatch33 (no link to it here which would only increase its search ranking).

The story is evergreen and came back as happening in November 2016 as that date approached the following year, and I saw it this week as a link in some Facebook feeds as an event for November 2017. I suspect the eclipse publicity brought this “November Blackout” story back and social media will give it some life again. Any number of legitimate news, science or debunking websites will tell you it’s completely fake.

And yet some people believe it. Wouldn’t you think that if  NASA knew that the world will remain in complete darkness for 15 day it would have been covered by the real media and not just by your friends on social media?

The “explanation” of this supposed event was that it would occur because of  another astronomical event between Venus and Jupiter. It was explained that during the conjunction between Venus and Jupiter on October 26, light from Venus would cause gases in Jupiter to heat up and those gasses will cause a large amount of hydrogen to be released into space. The gases will reach the Sun and trigger a massive explosion on the surface of the star, heating it to 9,000 degrees Kelvin. The heat of the explosion would then cause the Sun to emit a blue color. The dull blue color will last for 15 days during which the Earth will be thrown into darkness.”

This bullshit jumps off from the term “conjunctions,” which are real but mostly just visual phenomena. Conjunction, in astronomy, is an apparent close meeting or passing of two or more celestial bodies. It is hardly a rare thing. The Moon is in conjunction with the Sun every month at the phase of New Moon, when it moves between the Earth and Sun and the side turned toward the Earth is dark. That two things in the sky look closer together from our point of view on Earth does not mean that they are in fact close together.

Are Jupiter and Venus ever in conjunction? Yes, and when that happens they can still be over 800 million km apart. (For perspective, the Sun and the Earth are about 150 million km apart.)

Jupiter doesn’t affect the Sun. At about 778 million km from the Sun,  Jupiter could swap places with Venus or Jupiter could disappear and the Sun would go on shining normally.

I suppose we Earthlings would like to believe that amazing things can happen. Add to that the pretty poor understanding of basic science (especially of things astronomical) that most people have retained (oh, it was taught to you in school), and these ridiculous stories more easily gain traction. It’s not that fake news didn’t make its way around a town, country or the world a thousand years ago. Surely, it did – but slowly. Since the rise in popularity of the Internet and social media sharing, hoaxes and fake news has proliferated at an incredibly fast rate.

One of the other big fake science stories is the  “Mars Hoax” which pops up every August online since 2003. That year, a historically close approach of the Red Planet to Earth actually did occur. But it has become an annual event online and the closeness has grown so that the headline or link will say that on some particular night in August, Mars will appear as big as the full moon. Totally untrue. That didn’t even happen in 2003. It will never happen.

This year there was a new fake story to start the year saying that on January 4, 2017 it would be “Zero Gravity Day”  when people on Earth would be able to experience weightlessness if they jumped into the air at a specific moment that day. How many people believed that one? I don’t have that number, but I suspect it is not zero.

That particular story sent me back to childhood and listening to the humorist Jean Shepherd on the radio. At least once, he tried to get listeners to jump as high as they could on his command to test a theory that if we removed enough weight from the Earth all at once, we could tip the planet. We knew it was Shep yanking our chain, but I did jump on his command just for the heck of it.

I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago about fake news and I said that, of course, everyone knows that headlines from The Onion or The Borowitz Report are quite deliberately fake and satiric. My friend didn’t know that and didn’t think he had ever seen any of those stories. As someone on Facebook and Twitter, I’m sure he has seen them. I hope he didn’t believe any of them.

Sure, Andy Borowitz is published by The New Yorker, a very legitimate and respected magazine, but his Borowitz Report web page says right at the top “Satire from the Borowitz Report. Not the news.” But you don’t see that tagline disclaimer when someone posts a link to one of his stories. You see “Trump Says Sun Equally to Blame for Blocking the Moon,” and think that since President Trump has said so many ridiculous things lately that it might actually be true. It is getting harder to be ridiculous these days.

The Onion‘s headlines tend to be a bit easier to spot as satire – “‘My Work Here Is Done,’ Smiles Contented Bannon Before Bursting Into Millions Of Spores,” for example – but I’m sure there are people who read them (and pass them on) sometimes as real news.  SAD – as our President might comment about this in a tweet.

 

 

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It is now a month until the total solar eclipse of 2017 (on August 21) when the Moon will completely block the sun. This rare event will be visible across the United States, though there is an actual line it will travel across the U.S.

Have you already seen a total solar eclipse? Probably not. Though some have occurred in the past 100 years, if you lived in the U.S. they were either not visible or only in a few locations. The last one was in 1991.  There are many kinds of eclipses – total , partial, annular etc.  I have written here about other solar and lunar eclipses. To witness a total solar eclipse means to see your piece of the world in darkness during daytime and feel the temperature dramatically drop.

The media is calling this the Great American Total Solar Eclipse (which sounds like a ride at an amusement park) but it will darken skies all the way from Oregon to South Carolina. The path of totality is about 70 miles (113 kilometers) wide. Don’t plan on driving along the path to follow the eclipse. It will move at about 1500 mph.

You may have seen stories in the media about the event and about towns that are planning celebrations  –  and booking accommodations, selling t-shirts, eye protection etc.  If you are in the path of totality, then you will need eye protection, and any viewers should use protection.

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun, thereby totally or partially obscuring the image of the Sun for a viewer on Earth. A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon’s apparent diameter is larger than the Sun, blocking all direct sunlight, turning day into darkness.

Totality always occurs in a narrow path across the surface of the Earth for that portion of the planet in daylight.

In my neighborhood, there will not be totality but it will be 73% blocked. It will begin at 1:22 pm, peak at 2:44 pm and end at 4 pm.

Imagine the fear and confusion any eclipse must have created to the ancients. A total solar eclipse would be the most frightening of all eclipse.

John Fiske wrote back in 1872 in his book Myth and Myth-Makers that:

…the myth of Hercules and Cacus, the fundamental idea is the victory of the solar god over the robber who steals the light. Now whether the robber carries off the light in the evening when Indra has gone to sleep, or boldly rears his black form against the sky during the daytime, causing darkness to spread over the earth, would make little difference to the framers of the myth. To a chicken a solar eclipse is the same thing as nightfall, and he goes to roost accordingly. Why, then, should the primitive thinker have made a distinction between the darkening of the sky caused by black clouds and that caused by the rotation of the earth? He had no more conception of the scientific explanation of these phenomena than the chicken has of the scientific explanation of an eclipse. For him it was enough to know that the solar radiance was stolen, in the one case as in the other, and to suspect that the same demon was to blame for both robberies…

The Summer Solstice for 2017 in the Northern Hemisphere happened here at 12:24 AM EDT today, Wednesday, June 21.  Did you miss it?

I was still awake, but I didn’t feel anything odd. Due to those manmade time zones, it happened yesterday Tuesday, June 20, at 9:24 PM on the other coast. And it is only the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.

In any case, the Sun reached its northernmost point from the equator.

Solstice is from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop). It did seem to earlier observers that the Sun appeared to stop at this time and then again to announce the winter solstitium.

In ancient Egypt, this solstice marked the start of the new year. They watched for the rising of the star Sirius which occurs around this time and it coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile River.

The halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice was on May 1. That day is known as May Day or Beltane and it marked the beginning of summer for the ancient Celts. It was a day for dance and song to celebrate that the sown fields were starting to sprout.

This is the day with the most hours of sunlight during the whole year – even if it is rainy and cloudy where you are reading this. Here in Paradelle, dawn broke today at 3:18 A.M., the Sun rose at 5:25 A.M. and it won’t set until 8:32 P.M. giving us 15:06 hours of sunlight.

If we were on Mercury, which has practically no tilt relative to the plane of its orbit, we wouldn’t experience any true seasons. Bummer. If we were on Uranus, which is tilted by almost 98 degrees, the seasons would last 21 years. Also a bummer.

If I lived in Sweden, it would be traditional to celebrate this day by eating the first strawberries of the season. Since we just passed the Strawberry Full Moon, and since strawberries never go out of season in Paradelle in this age of supply chain eternal summer, I’ll have some strawberries myself today.

 

One of my daily web stops is EarthSky which reminded me that this is one of the few times of the year that clock time and sun time agree. As someone who has a sundial in the garden since childhood, I do pay attention to that shadowy movement.

When the midday sun climbs highest today, if you have a sundial, it will read 12 noon and your local clock will also read 12 noon.

I have always had a sundial in my garden. It keeps me in touch with the movement of the Sun during the day and during the seasons.

Of course that pesky daylight savings time game we play might make your clock say 1 pm today when the sundial says noon. It’s all so confusing.

Your local clock time is standard clock time, as long as you live on the meridian that governs your time zone. Denver and Philadelphia, for example, are on the meridian for their respective time zones. East of the time zone line, then your local time runs ahead of standard time and west of the time zone line, local time lags behind standard time.

The sundial and clock only agree four times a year: on or near April 15, June 15, September 1 and December 25.

My simple sundial shows a shadow from its style onto a surface marked with lines indicating the hours of the day. The style is the time-telling edge of the gnomon, the straight edge. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadow-edge aligns with hour-lines.

There are plenty of sundials available to you at a wide variety of prices and complexities. Sundials that directly measure the sun’s hour/angle must have that edge parallel to the axis of the Earth’s rotation to tell the correct time throughout the year. My simple one needs some adjustments during the year and I do play with time and move it to match my clock time every once and awhile.

Isaac Newton had a pretty interesting variation on the sundial. He used a small mirror placed on the sill of a south-facing window. The mirror would cast a single spot of light on the ceiling and, depending on the geographical latitude and time of year, the light-spot on the ceiling was pretty accurate to the markings he made.

I think it’s a good idea to pay attention to the cycles in our lives, both natural and man-made. They are very much a part of us, whether we pass attention to them or not.

Copernicus Armillary

I would not mind having a Copernicus Armillary (above) in my home, though I suspect my wife would not think it appropriate to our decor – and might not appreciate me paying $3000 for it. It is an astronomical instrument that would have been found in libraries and laboratories of the past. But I did find some online for less than a hundred dollars so maybe…

This post first appeared on One-Page Schoolhouse

Whether it feels or looks like spring or like winter outside your home today, spring is officially here. It slipped under my pillow while I was still asleep this morning at 6:28 am ET here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Our ancestors my not have understood what was happening to our planet from a celestial viewpoint, but they were more careful observers of the world around them and definitely marked today as something significant. Ancient observers built devices, buildings and places like Stonehenge to measure and mark changes in the Sun’s movements. Of course, that was what they thought was happening – that the Sun was moving closer or further from Earth. They may have been wrong on that part, but they were able to mark that today was midway between the sun’s lowest path across the sky in winter and highest path across the sky in summer.

Though we visualize an equinox as occurring on the imaginary dome of Earth’s sky, it is a very real point on Earth’s orbit that is halfway between the two extremes of the sun’s path in your sky. “Your sky” because though the equinox occurs at the same time for all of us. The seasons are based on whether you are in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

One thing you can observe easily at each equinox (no Stonehenge required) is that the sun rises due east and sets due west from where you live. An equinox happens when the ecliptic – or sun’s path – intersects the celestial equator, that imaginary line above Earth’s equator.

Go outside around sunset and sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to local landmarks. You can then use those landmarks to find those cardinal directions in the months ahead and observe how the sunrise and sunset points move southward or northward. I showed my young sons this many years ago by crudely tracking the sunrise moving from window to window during the year from the vantage point of our East-facing family room. It was a pretty interesting lesson in science.

Today the sun is on the celestial equator. It may be springlike outside or it may still seem like winter, but the new season has arrived.

 

 

sun500nc

The year just started but just a moment ago (22:49 Universal Time, 5:49 p.m. EST) Earth reached its closest point to the Sun for this year. We are at Earth’s perihelion (Greek peri “near” + helios “sun”).

Nothing extraordinary about this. Earth is closest to the sun every year in early January. This is isn’t why we moved into winter in the Northern Hemisphere. That is from the tilt of the planet, not the distance. In fact, we will be farthest away from the sun in early July, during our summer.

How much closer? About 3 million miles (5 million kilometers) closer. Big numbers but relatively not a big change in distance. Still, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to acknowledge the big star’s presence today. It’s already dark here in Paradelle, but the Sun is out there keeping us alive even on these wintry and cloudy days. Thanks, Helios!

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