Tag Archives: astronomy

Moments Before the Eclipse

An eclipse is far and away the most powerful and stunning of all the celestial phenomena.  Seeing the sun’s corona is a life-changing experience.  But in the seconds leading up to totality, there will be plenty more to see… if you know where to look.  In anticipation on the August 21st solar eclipse, I sat down with Mark Bender – filmmaker, eclipse chaser, and director of our original series, Eclipse Across America – and asked what advice he would give to our readers before the event.

Mark Bender, Eclipse Chaser

Train your eyes for darkness

It may sound crazy, but if you are looking to heighten the experience even more, blindfold yourself for an hour before totality.  Remember, the totality only lasts for just over 2 minutes.  It would take your eyes more than that to really adjust to the darkness.  Think of walking into a dark movie theater: at first, you can’t see a thing, but as your eyes adjust, the steps and seats become more clear.  Imagine having your eyes fully adjusted to darkness for the entire time of totality.  What you see will be even more stunning!

Look out for shadow bands

Right before totality, some very lucky eclipse watchers may see the shadow bands.  I thought they were just a myth, until I got lucky one time.  Right before a total eclipse, little snake-like shadows from the moon crossing the sun appear to be slithering and shimmering across the ground.  But they are so faint, the contrast has to be just right to see them.  Some people will lay down a large white sheet to try to catch sight of them.  In 2015, I saw the eclipse in Svalbard, Norway, just 800 miles from the North Pole.  I was standing on a landscape covered with ice – just like an enormous white sheet.  And there they were!  It’s all about being at the right place at the right time.

Keep an eye on the forecast

Some of the biggest surprises are often weather-related.  During the eclipse of 1999, I was watching in Cornwall, England.  It was a completely overcast and rainy day.  Leading up to the eclipse, you couldn’t see the sun at all.  Three minutes before totality, the sun started to peak though, and with one minute to go, clouds dissipated and the entire sky opened up.  We lucked out, but the best was yet to come.  Even though the rain had stopped, there was still so much water vapor in the air.  When the sun eclipsed, the corona was full of tiny rainbows!  Imaging seeing the stunning corona in full color!  I have never seen that since, but anything is possible.  You just don’t know how it will play out.

Stay aware of wild animals

Animals in the wild take their behavioral cues from the Sun and the Moon, and the eclipse will affect that for sure.  Watching the 2012 annular eclipse in West Texas, wolves started howling as darkness fell…and I won’t admit to joining in!  Just remember, if they think it is nightfall, then you’re a visitor in their space until the Sun re-emerges.

It may get emotional

Above all, I am most fascinated by human behavior during a total eclipse.  Tears, shouts of joy, stunned silence, experienced astronomers and scientists stuttering with a total loss of words.  There is truly no way to describe it.

 

Watch the Eclipse Across America series trailer here:

All four episodes of Eclipse Across America are available now in Ultra HD 4K, only on CuriosityStream.

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Beyond the Black Disk

On August 21st, 2017, the United States will be treated to an event that hasn’t been seen in 99 years: a coast to coast total solar eclipse.  By that night, photographs of the blackened sun and its extraordinary corona will fill the Internet, but for those looking for something a little different, there are more eclipse day wonders to look out for ‘beyond the black disk.’

Enter our exclusive, original 4-part series, Eclipse Across America In anticipation of the once-in-a-lifetime event, our film crew teamed up with leading eclipse chasers, astronomers, and NASA scientists to travel and explore the path of the August eclipse.  What they returned with is a preview of the different eclipse phenomena that
will be on display that day and an inside look at how scientists are using this event to help us understand not only our home star, but the countless others in our Universe.

Inside an approximately 70-mile wide track stretching from Oregon to South Carolina (known as the path of totality), millions of lucky people will have a chance to witness the fully-eclipsed sun and its corona glowing around its edge.  This view of the sun’s outer atmosphere is truly one of a kind in our Solar System, making this August’s eclipse a “can’t miss” event for citizen scientists and astronomers alike.  But in the seconds leading up to the corona coming out, there will be plenty more to see… if you know where to look.

The experience of a total solar eclipse is really the experience of being in the shadow of the moon.  As serene as those moments of totality may appear, this shadow is actually traveling more than 1000 mph!  That motion may be difficult to sense from ground-level, but from a high point within the path of totality–a mountaintop, a butte, or even a hill with a clear, wide view of its surroundings–you will have a chance to look down and witness that shadow racing across the surface…weather permitting, of course!

As that shadow speeds toward you on the ground, the so-called ‘diamond ring’ phenomenon will be revealed up in the sky.  The moon’s cratered surface yields a bumpy, uneven silhouette so when it passes in front of the sun on August 21st there will be a moment when one final beam of light finds its way through one of these imperfections on the moon’s edge.  From Earth, this beam will glow like a sparkling gem on
the edge of a dimly lit ring.  But even this tiny fraction of the sun’s light will be far too bright to observe with bare eyes.  Make sure you’re still wearing your eclipse glasses for this one.

While the diamond ring will only be visible from inside the path of totality, Baily’s beads will be best experienced just along the edge of that path.  One example–at the Gateway Arch, in St. Louis, Missouri, the alignment between the observer, the moon, and the sun will be ever so slightly shifted off center.  Looking up from the base of the Arch, the moon will cover more than 99.95% of the sun’s surface, and similar to the diamond ring effect, trickles of light will find their way through the moon’s canyons and imperfections.  But instead of a single gem of light, the result here will be the appearance of a luminous, beaded edge that you will be able to see through your eclipse glasses far longer than anyone stationed near the center of the path of totality.

And then, for those in the path of totality, comes the corona.  It will be stunning, guaranteed.  Even seasoned eclipse chasers don’t always have the words to describe the power of the experience. Will you?

 

Watch the Eclipse Across America series trailer here:

 

All four episodes of Eclipse Across America are available now in Ultra HD 4K, only on CuriosityStream.

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Destination: Jupiter + The Year of the Rooster

February 2nd will mark one of NASA’s Juno space probe’s closest flybys to Jupiter.  We are celebrating by sharing what we’ve learned along the way since Juno first set out to Jupiter with a newly released episode in our original series Destination: Jupiter!  Then, travel to China during the peak of this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations with our newly curated content collection, China.  It’s a busy week for curious minds and we’ve got you covered with content spanning the globe and the Universe.

Destination: Jupiter

Seven months since the Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter on July 4th, 2016, the mission has started to lift the veil on the largest and most mysterious planet in our solar system.  Since its initial approach, the craft has been on a 53-day orbit around the gas giant.  Thus far, there have been three close flybys in August, October, and December of 2016.  During that time, Juno has flown a mere 2600 miles above the Jovian clouds, employing eight cutting-edge space exploration instruments to collect images and peer below the thick atmosphere of the planet, hoping to reveal its inner most secrets.

As the next flyby approaches on February 2nd, the Juno team will be tasked with making an unexpected and critical trajectory decision, impacting the future of the carefully-planned mission.  Review what has been uncovered so far in Mission Update, the second episode in our exclusive, original Destination: Jupiter series, and learn how you can become an active participant in the Juno Mission to Jupiter!

 

Chinese New Year

The most anticipated global event in China’s calendar is in full swing, when people take to the streets to ring in another year.  Unlike the festivities of many countries, which always take place at midnight between December 31 and January 1, Chinese New Year is a moveable festivity.  This year, the celebration began on January 27 (New Year’s Eve) and continue for around two weeks (ending on February 2) and the year will last until February 15, 2018.  This year is the “Year of the Rooster” – those born in 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993 and 2005 are known as Roosters.

To honor the occasion, we have created a new content collection, full of our most fascinating and informative documentaries about China.  The collection contains 11 programs and spans over 12 hours, guaranteeing that you can become an expert on all things China by the time this year’s New Year celebrations come to a close.

Find the collection in its entirety here.  Happy New Year!

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Journey Into Deep Time With The Experts

Deep Time History is available now in ultra HD 4K, HD and standard definition on CuriosityStream.  The exclusive, original 3-part documentary series offers captivating insight into the links between astronomy, deep time geologic events and human civilization. The host of the series is Dr. Jonathan Markley, a renown Big History expert, and a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton.  We sat down with Dr. Markley and he shared his thoughts on the series.

I’m really excited about the new Deep Time History project on CuriosityStream.  It’s a series that zooms out to take a bigger view of history as we know it. It’s an approach that people like myself have been promoting for years in the Big History movement. It’s a way of viewing history that really grabs you, and it has been growing steadily over the last decade. I’ve just left the International Big History Association conference in Amsterdam where I heard about some really exciting developments.  And, I was able to share the news of the release of CuriosityStream’s exclusive, new series.

I’ll give you just one example from episode 2 – Deep Time History: The Age of Discovery. Take pepper… It seems like something really ordinary, but what is it? Where did it come from? I know I was pretty amazed the first time I realized that pepper has a single source in southern India and just a few hundred years ago, that was still the only place you could get it. It was a big deal in helping build our globalized world, and it played a major role in the age of discovery, as ancient cultures struggled to find a way to get such far off exotic spices as, you guessed it, common ordinary black pepper! And the reason behind it all started as far back as the formation of the moon.


Later on in episode 2, watch for the scene with the modern meal and the salt and pepper packets, bringing this incredible story to life today.  By the way, that was the very last scene we filmed. When it was done I couldn’t believe it was all over.

One of the most fun location shoots we did was at the steam engine museum in Oceanside, California.  The directors were filming all sorts of historical recreations that day so I got to meet Thomas Newcomen, the man who first invented the steam pump, and a young Henry Ford (ok, I got to meet the actors portraying these giants in history!) They had an incredible working steam tractor that was straight out of the history books.

BigEngineHost

I also got to climb into the middle of one of the steam engines. It was kind of scary, but how often are you allowed to get that close to working exhibits at a museum?

I’ve done a bit of on camera television work before but never as a host and narrator, so I learned something new every step of the way.  The director, Doug Cohen, would give me great suggestions to do a scene in a certain way, and after seeing the finished product I had to tell him, “Now I know what you meant!” I never realized just how many people are needed to put a massive effort like this together.  There were usually at least ten other people involved when we filmed on location. I can’t even begin to describe how much I learned from everyone involved in this important documentary production — cameras, sound, wardrobe advisor, producer, writer, lighting, make up, etc., etc., etc.

I hope you’ll watch each episode, be inspired by your own sense of curiosity, and come to a greater understanding of how the history of the cosmos, Earth, life and humanity all come together in Deep Time History.

Watch the trailer below and watch all three full episodes here:



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“Einstein Would Be Beaming…”

It’s a stunning breakthrough in physics, proving once again that Albert Einstein was right. Scientists have announced they’ve detected gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space and time that Einstein predicted 100 years ago.  And the proof was captured in audio form, so we can now actually listen in on the sounds of the universe, hearing two black holes collide more than a billion light years from Earth.

Dr. Sean Carroll is a physicist and a professor at Cal Tech, who describes himself as a theorist who thinks about the fundamental laws of nature, especially as they connect to cosmology.  And, Dr. Carroll is a 2016 Curiosity Retreat Luminary.  He wants to make sure we all truly understand the magnitude of this new discovery.

The following was originally published on Dr. Carroll’s blog, PreposterousUniverse.

ONCE upon a time, there lived a man who was fascinated by the phenomenon of gravity. In his mind he imagined experiments in rocket ships and elevators, eventually concluding that gravity isn’t a conventional “force” at all — it’s a manifestation of the curvature of spacetime. He threw himself into the study of differential geometry, the abstruse mathematics of arbitrarily curved manifolds. At the end of his investigations he had a new way of thinking about space and time, culminating in a marvelous equation that quantified how gravity responds to matter and energy in the universe.

Not being one to rest on his laurels, this man worked out a number of consequences of his new theory.  One was that changes in gravity didn’t spread instantly throughout the universe; they traveled at the speed of light, in the form of gravitational waves.  In later years he would change his mind about this prediction, only to later change it back. Eventually more and more scientists became convinced that this prediction was valid, and worth testing. They launched a spectacularly ambitious program to build a technological marvel of an observatory that would be sensitive to the faint traces left by a passing gravitational wave. Eventually, a century after the prediction was made — a press conference was called.

Chances are that everyone reading this blog post has heard that LIGO, the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Observatory, officially announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves. Two black holes, caught in a close orbit, gradually lost energy and spiraled toward each other as they emitted gravitational waves, which zipped through space at the speed of light before eventually being detected by our observatories here on Earth. Plenty of other places will give you details on this specific discovery, or tutorials on the nature of gravitational waves, including in user-friendly comic/video form.

 

What I want to do here is to make sure, in case there was any danger, that nobody loses sight of the extraordinary magnitude of what has been accomplished here. We’ve become a bit blasé about such things: physics makes a prediction, it comes true, yay. But we shouldn’t take it for granted; successes like this reveal something profound about the core nature of reality.

Some guy scribbles down some symbols in an esoteric mixture of Latin, Greek, and mathematical notation. Scribbles originating in his tiny, squishy human brain. (Here are what some of those scribbles look like, in my own incredibly sloppy handwriting.) Other people (notably Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever, and Kip Thorne), on the basis of taking those scribbles extremely seriously, launch a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of decades. They concoct an audacious scheme to shoot laser beams at mirrors to look for modulated displacements of less than a millionth of a billionth of a centimeter — smaller than the diameter of an atomic nucleus. Meanwhile other people looked at the sky and tried to figure out what kind of signals they might be able to see, for example from the death spiral of black holes a billion light-years away. You know, black holes: universal regions of death where, again according to elaborate theoretical calculations, the curvature of spacetime has become so pronounced that anything entering can never possibly escape. And still other people built the lasers and the mirrors and the kilometers-long evacuated tubes and the interferometers and the electronics and the hydraulic actuators and so much more, all because they believed in those equations. And then they ran LIGO (and other related observatories) for several years, then took it apart and upgraded to Advanced LIGO, finally reaching a sensitivity where you would expect to see real gravitational waves if all that fancy theorizing was on the right track.

And there they were. On the frikkin’ money.

ligo-signal

Our universe is mind-bogglingly vast, complex, and subtle. It is also fantastically, indisputably knowable.

I got a hard time a few years ago for predicting that we would detect gravitational waves within five years. And indeed, the track record of such predictions has been somewhat spotty. Outside Kip Thorne’s office you can find this record of a lost bet — after he predicted that we would see them before 1988. (!)

kip-bet-1

 

But this time around I was pretty confident. The existence of overly-optimistic predictions in the past doesn’t invalidate the much-better predictions we can make with vastly updated knowledge. Advanced LIGO represents the first time when we would have been more surprised not to see gravitational waves than to have seen them. And I believed in those equations.

I don’t want to be complacent about it, however. The fact that Einstein’s prediction has turned out to be right is an enormously strong testimony to the power of science in general, and physics in particular, to describe our natural world. Einstein didn’t know about black holes; he didn’t even know about lasers, although it was his work that laid the theoretical foundations for both ideas. He was working at a level of abstraction that reached as far as he could (at the time) to the fundamental basis of things, how our universe works at the deepest of levels. And his theoretical insights were sufficiently powerful and predictive that we could be confident in testing them a century later. This seemingly effortless insight that physics gives us into the behavior of the universe far away and under utterly unfamiliar conditions should never cease to be a source of wonder.

We’re nowhere near done yet, of course. We have never observed the universe in gravitational waves before, so we can’t tell for sure what we will see, but plausible estimates predict between one-half and several hundred events per year. Hopefully, the success of LIGO will invigorate interest in other ways of looking for gravitational waves, including at very different wavelengths. Here’s a plot focusing on three regimes: LIGO and its cousins on the right, the proposed space-based observatory LISA in the middle, and pulsar-timing arrays (using neutron stars throughout the galaxy as a giant gravitational-wave detector) on the left. Colorful boxes are predicted sources; solid lines are the sensitivities of different experiments. Gravitational-wave astrophysics has just begun; asking us what we will find is like walking up to Galileo and asking him what else you could discover with telescopes other than moons around Jupiter.

grav-wave-detectors-sources

For me, the decade of the 2010’s opened with five big targets in particle physics/gravitation/cosmology:

  1. Discover the Higgs boson.
  2. Directly detect gravitational waves.
  3. Directly observe dark matter.
  4. Find evidence of inflation (e.g. tensor modes) in the CMB.
  5. Discover a particle not in the Standard Model.

The decade is about half over, and we’ve done two of them! Keep up the good work, observers and experimentalists, and the 2010’s will go down as a truly historic decade in physics.

This blog was originally published at PreposterousUniverse.com.

You can explore more about the origins of the universe on CuriosityStream.  Our 2 part series, The Ultimate Formula, details the journey as physicists search for a blueprint of the universe in the form of a single mathematical formula.  And, go inside Monster Black Holesin an episode from our Cosmic Front series.

And, our original, short form series A Curious World explores the reality of black holes:

 

 

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