Michelle Bachmann can hear God, why can’t you?

Michelle Bachmann can hear God so clearly in her head, she wonders why everyone else isn’t listening:

“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

God is speaking through moderate earthquakes and category 1 hurricanes? And not only that, God is saying via those mild events that We the People should unquestioningly do exactly what Michelle Bachmann has been saying we should do as part of her GOP primary campaign? Bachmann reporting God affirming that Bachmann was right all along. … How incredibly convenient, not to mention transparent and laughable.

I guess the idea of God as a control freak is nothing new. But one would think a being which can create quasars and butterflies by sheer force of will would be able to speak with a clearer voice, instead of being drowned out by the statistical noises afforded by routine wind and rain.

The Gospel of Rick Perry

I’m so conflicted. He’s such a ridiculous character by the standards of the oval office it’s hard not to have fun with him. And of course one never knows how much of Rick Perry’s rhetoric to take seriously and what is mere political stagecraft. Maybe he’s not an arrogant, ignorant clown who got lucky. But if he believes even half of it we could be in for a very bad ride. Here we have a nice article about how Perry the rural farmer is actually a millionaire (No surprise) and became one while he was in office, again not a shock:

Since his first race for office more than a quarter-century ago, Gov. Rick Perry has emphasized his roots as a rural farmer. Yet Perry’s bank account no longer reflects those humble beginnings as his bottom line has soared in recent years, records show, thanks largely to a handful of real estate deals that critics allege were achieved through the presidential candidates’ political connections. In just about every campaign Perry has run since 1989, allegations of his using his position for financial gain have come up.

The article above by the Miami-herald is well worth reading. It introduces readers to the major financial and political events in Perry’s career, some of which may come under intense scrutiny in the months ahead. It’s going to be awesome sauce.

States assessing damage after Irene

After the storm, a dog swims through flood waters along the FDR Drive in Manhattan's East River Park in New York City. Photo by David Shankbone

Irene has wound down to a disorganized rain blob leaving behind sections of New England in much better shape than she could have. The storm has passed, and nothing left to do but clean up. The LA Times has a nice photo collectionof storm damage and had this to say:

The main New York power company, Consolidated Edison, didn’t have to go through with a plan to cut electricity to lower Manhattan to protect its equipment. Engineers had worried that salty seawater would damage the wiring. And two pillars of the neighborhood came through the storm just fine: The New York Stock Exchange said it would be open for business on Monday, and the Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center site didn’t lose a single tree.

There is flooding and some power outages all the way through Vermont, but it could have been worse. Then again you can say that about practically every hurricane. One funny thing though, a buddy of mine who works in DC was sounding a little smug about dealing with an earthquake and a hurricane in the same week. Comparing this to a serious earthquake or major hurricane would be like my fellow Texans comparing one of our one-inch snow flurries with a major nor’easter. Don’t get cocky.

Loaded dice and loaded guns

Who you gonna believe, those silly NASA scientists and your lying eyes, or the divine Rick Perry?

Last Saturday I had the chance to visit with Dr Jeff Masters of the superb WeatherUnderground on the Daily Kos radio show (If you’ve never read Jeff’s harrowing account of flying into category 5 Hurricane Hugo and suffering an engine fire, almost forcing a crash water landing inside the eye, check it out). Hosts Armando and David Waldman joined in, and most of the conversation centered on hurricanes. Not surprising, Irene was bearing down on the eastern seaboard. It was informative, so much so we hope to have some more science guests on in the near future. And as luck would have it, I managed to hog the mic and ask Masters a couple of non Irene specific questions.

The first of these was on behalf of my friends and family in Texas: was there any end in sight to the record drought plaguing the Lone Star State? Masters answered without hesitation, saying there was nothing in the data suggesting any break, and this late in the season, odds were good the only relief to Texas and neighboring states will come with the change of seasons. This was disappointing, perhaps Rick Perry should pray harder, much harder. We haven’t had rain in 6 months, and it was officially 112 in Austin on Sunday. It would almost be worth having to put up with Perry smugly strutting around like God’s personal water bearer just to put an end to the late summer misery.

The other question was could a greater frequency in tropical cyclones like Irene, along with record droughts and floods, be examples of what atmospheric scientists call the loaded dice of Climate Change? I actually apologized for some reason when asking it. I wish there was a transcript, but working purely from memory, Masters’ reply was something along the lines of “That’s a perfectly legitimate question.” And went on to say essentially, absolutely, we’ll know more after the data is in and crunched. But cyclones and droughts could be examples of loading the dice, and some of them probably are.

We have to wonder, what the future holds? The effects of climate change have barely begun, there’s enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to drive a warming cycle for at least centuries, if not millennia. The one thing working in our favor is the big fat reservoirs are being affected by peak production limits. Large ones like Ghawar may be at or near decline. There are no other large reservoirs anywhere near the size of the handful which produce about half the world’s oil. So once they started peaking, the price goes up, less oil is burned simply because it’s expensive, and alternative forms of energy become more attractive. It’s a way out, almost like a an escape hatch built into nature.

But there’s plenty of coal left. There’s a big uptick in wanting to frac every last cubic foot of domestic natural gas. Deposits of oil in tar sands and shale, up to now considered too deep or think or dilute to produce economically in volume, are generating intense interest. And that reminds me of what James Hansen said when I spoke with him and reviewed his book Storms of my Grandchildren. After building up the scientific basics of what drives earth’s climate, Hansen wrote in the book (And affirmed to me) that, “After the ice is gone, would Earth proceed to the Venus syndrome, a runaway greenhouse effect that would destroy all life on the planet, perhaps permanently? While that is difficult to say based on present information, I’ve come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty.”

James Webb obit?

The James Webb Space Telescope. Click image for NASA homepage

I don’t see how this thing survives the budget-and-throat cutting mania that has conveniently gripped the political and traditional media class ever since a democrat came into power. And for that I’m conflicted:

“NASA has completed a JWST replan that assumes a revised life-cycle-cost of about $8.7 billion and a launch readiness date of October 2018,” agency spokesman Trent Perrotto said in an Aug. 26 email to Space News. “The $8.7 billion life-cycle-cost includes development, launch, and five years of operations and science costs.”

Translation, it will cost more than $8.7 billion and it won’t be ready until after 2018. That’s just how these deals work. The JWST is a big quantum leap in space telescopes. So was the Hubble of course. But unlike Hubble, JWST is millions of miles distant with electronics and optics far ahead of anything we’ve done to date. If something goes wrong, there won’t be a repair mission for many years, if ever. Other critics have pointed out the price tag, as high as $10 billion dollars, has to come at the expense of a suite of exciting unmanned missions in the works.

But some at NASA are convinced it will be a public relations coup like Hubble. And the science JWST might return if it ever is launched and it does work would be the awesome sauce of awesome sauce.

Hurricane Irene update

Hurricane Irene track from the National Hurricane Center's 5 PM EDT update. Click image for latest

The National Hurricane Center indicates Hurricane Irene is passing the eastern North Carolina and Virginia border and heading back out to sea as a solid Category 1 storm. She has reportedly claimed at least four lives. Delaware, eastern Maryland, and the New Jersey shoreline are now or will soon be feeling the maximum effects of Irene’s 80 mph winds and deceptively powerful storm surge during a new moon high tide. In addition, the system is inundating wide swaths of the region with heavy rain. Via WeatherUnderground:

The latest NWS forecast is calling for a 5 – 8 foot storm surge in New York Harbor, which would easily top the flood walls protecting the south end of Manhattan if the storm surge occurs at high tide. High tide is near 8 am Sunday morning. A research storm surge model run by SUNY Stonybrook predicts that water levels at The Battery at the south end of Manhattan will peak at 2.2 meters above Mean Lower Low Water (MLLW) at high tide Sunday morning …

Even relatively moderate winds, combined with driving rain, can combine to leave behind damage that will have to be repaired quickly. Wind and rain exploit structural weaknesses, shingles loosen, eaves are drenched and start to rot, ceilings mildew. It’ll be a big insurance mess, if you were thinking roof job before the storm, you’ll have to get one soon after. And the same scenario will be played out on a far grander scale in the densely populated urban centers in New York, Connecticut, and up into New Hampshire beginning early tomorrow. Hurricane Agnes in 1972 was also a Cat 1. Agnes did over $2 billion in damage to sections of northeastern Pennesylvania as a tropical storm, and that was in early 70s dollars in a region with comparatively low population density. The storm surge and of this storm will probably more comparable to Hurricane Isabel, the most costly storm of the 2003 Atlantic season. When all is said and done, Irene could theoretically cost more than $10 billion.

There’s been some news footage of people almost playing in the wind and rain — bad idea. This storm may be moderate, but it’s a moderate hurricane. A chunk of two-by-four hitting at 50 mph can snap bones and crack skulls. Broken glass in shallow water can slice feet and tires, tangled power lines can electrocute, jagged pieces of whirling plywood or sheet metal can slash a throat. And it’s the freak accident that usually gets people in a storm like this. I expect we’ll have some examples of full blown Darwin Award winning behavior before this is over. If you’re in the storm, please resist the urge to be among those trying out for a lead role.


Hurricane Irene update

Via the National Hurricane Center Hurricane Irene is near landfall at North Carolina’s outer banks as a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph. Some regions along the east coast will see moderate wind damage. But for now, Irene’s greatest danger to life and proprtery is flooding. Because the system is so large and has been spinning for so long, the surge will be similar to a much stronger storm, possibly as high as 15 feet in some places, and this will happen during a new moon high tide greatly amplifying the effect. Cheseapeake Bay and the entire mid eastern seaboard could experience massive flooding over the next 24 hours. In addition the western edge of this giant system could inundate the entire DC region. Creeks, drainage ditches, and rivers could overflow into urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Use this Wundermap to keep track of how the winds are behaving around the North Carolina coastline. Within the hurricane warning area in North Carolina, storm surge is expected to be 6-11 feet above ground. This is our storm surge forecast map. To see how high the tides are running, NOAA has an excellent page collecting all of the relevant tide gauges.

Irene’s intensity after passing to the east of the bay depends on how much time, if any, the storm’s eye spends over dry land and the effect of predicted wind shear. Sea surface temperatures are plenty warm enough to sustain a hurricane all the way to New Jersey. As of about 8 AM EDT, the NHC forecasts Irene to strike Long Island, NY, as Category 1 beginning early tomorrow morning. The full brunt of the northeast eye wall may pass over parts of Conneticutt or Rhode Island Sunday afternoon, bringing a record storm surge and potential for widespread wind damage to the upper New England coast.

Technology allowing, I’ll be on Daily Kos radio, with special guest Dr. Jeff Masters from the WeatherUnderground, discussing Irene around 11 AM EDT.

Supernova sighted in Pinwheel galaxy

Via the Bad Astronomer we get word a supernova has erupted in the nearby spiral galaxy M101, better know to stargazers as the Pinwheel galaxy. Astrophysicists classify it as a Type 1a supernova, the kind that can occur when a big streamer of hydrogen is deposited on the surface of white dwarf, usually by a helpful companion star that has swelled up into a red-giant as shown above. These things are bright! This is easily seen across 25 million light-years, isn’t that cool? If something like that happened nearby, within a few light-years of earth, we’d literally be in a world of hurt. But it’s still small potatoes compared to a Type II supernova, the physics of those events are even more fascinating, and so incredibly violent.

Stars like our sun shine because of hydrogen fusion deep in the center. The proton-proton fusion cycle will keep medium-sized stars like good old Sol shining for billions of years; really massive stars live only a few million years whereas small red dwarfs can shine for a 100 billion or more! But eventually the hydrogen is all fused, and helium ash dominates the core. For the sun this will result in a short cycle of helium fusion, it will swell into a red-giant and cook earth to a cinder. But the helium runs out fast, and that’s the end of the line for sun-sized stars. The core will shrug off its outer layers in a beautiful display like the Eskimo nebula shown below or the Cat’s Eye nebula linked here.

The Eskimo nebula as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

But stars more massive than our sun have a few tricks left! They’ll burn successively heavier elements, helium nuclei combine to produce carbon and oxygen, which in turn will be fused. The process works its way up the periodic table. The star grows hotter and larger at every stage, the crushing gravity pulling the superheated plasma making up the star’s flesh is balanced by continuous fusion reactions at the core creating enormous temperatures, reaching billions of degrees in some cases, pushing back out.

But the star has a big problem. Light elements fuse and liberate energy, heavy elements like uranium split into lighter ones and also produce energy. So there has to be a break even point in the periodic table and that happens to be iron. When iron fuses, it absorbs energy and that’s a stellar dead-end. When the star starts fusing iron, the core no longer produces heat, it’s actually sucking heat up and compressing dramatically. The core shrinks, incredibly fast. This happens so quickly that the star now has a huge open gap between the outer layers and the tiny, shrunken iron bearing core. That gap won’t stay empty for long. Billions of cubic miles of outer stellar materials now falls, accelerated by intense external pressure above and pulled down by the respectable gravity of that dense metal ball below.

The material crashes violently into the core pushing the mixture to enormous temperatures not seen since the first few minutes after the Big Bang, and it’s still chock full of lighter elements like hydrogen and helium along with heavier stuff, which all fuses like crazy in an atomic orgy. More energy is created in this brief process than our sun will release in its entire life, and that energy has to go somewhere. The star blows to bits in a matter of minutes. It’s during those few moments that elements heavier than iron are produced and shot back into the universe in large quantities. All the gold, silver, lead, and uranium on earth were cooked up by supernova explosions.

And the core left behind? Depending on the mass of the star and the type of supernova, it will usually end up either as a rapidly spinning neutron star or a black-hole a few dozen miles in diameter containing the mass of millions of earths. There is growing evidence that planets can either form in the debris field around the tiny core, or survive the cataclysmic event itself, somehow. See yesterday’s post on the hypothetical diamond planet for one such candidate. Which incidentally has given rise to fun discussions like this one at TPM’s twitter feed:

Diamond planet threatens Earth market. Africa sends astronaut (call him Omaba) to destroy planet. US drafts Newt to stop him … Newt wins battle, claims planet for US, marries Diamond Planet Queen.

The actual physics of Type II supernovas are way more complicated than my simplistic and, in all likelihood flawed, review above implies. Large stars still vary in mass and composition. They spin at different rates and may have off axis magnetic fields doing crazy things. Some have binary companions. That all adds up to distinct Type II subclasses, each with their own variations on the internal physics and enormous diversity in the exquisite nebula created. They’re each also critical in every way to our own existence. Not only are we composed in part of substance liberated and/or created by the violence, the shock wave spreading through interstellar space from a Type II supernova can help collapse nearby gas clouds and kick off a cycle of new star formation. Something like this may have been a key factor in the initial creation of our entire solar system beginning about five billion years ago.

That’s a hell of a creation story. If only it were widely taught in Sunday school.

Hurricane Irene update

Hurricane Irene as of 8 AM EDT via the NHC. Click image for latest forecast

Via the National Hurricane Center, Irene is still tracking toward the outer banks of North Carolina and will likely affect eastern parts of the DC metro region, from Norfolk thru Baltimore. Depending on the precise track, the storm may remain over open water allowing it to remain a powerful tropical cyclone all the way to New Jersey.

Going forward, the eye will probably wobble and every little wiggle may produce a flurry of concern or guarded relief. But it looks like Irene will have an impact on the mid and upper US eastern seaboard no matter what deviations appear at this point. Via Dr. Rob Carver at WeatherUnderground:

To find out if you need to evacuate, please contact your local emergency management office. They will have the latest information. FEMA has information on preparing for hurricanes. FEMA also has a blog describing their response to Irene.

Perhaps the greatest threat to life and property will be the flooding from Irene’s storm surge and considerable rainfall. The NHC has created a Storm Surge Risk interactive map. It is strongly recommend all residents anywhere near the track take a moment and assess their individual risk.

Astronomers discover possible diamond planet

A hypothetical water world with a global ocean hundreds of miles deep. Image courtesy of the Wiki

Astronomers have found many exotic exo-planet since the first Hot Jupiter was inferred in 1995 roasting in a tight orbit around the very sun-like star 51 Pegasus. Since then speculation and some preliminary indication of water worlds, methane planets, gas dwarfs and super earths has become regular fare. Another possible composition dreamed up by planetary scientists is a carbon world, usually presented as a dismal black and sooty planet like the one below.

But carbon forms another stable structure under enough pressure and scientists have found a planet that just might fit that glittering bill:

A hypothetical carbon planet, covered with organic 'soil' over a carbon-diamond crust. Image from the Wiki

In addition, “we are very confident it has a density about 18 times that of water,” said study leader Matthew Bailes, an astronomer at the Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing in Melbourne, Australia. “This means it can’t be made of gases like hydrogen and helium like most stars but [must be made of] heavier elements like carbon and oxygen, making it most likely crystalline in nature, like a diamond.”

The weird object is 4000 light-years away and estimated five times the size of earth. The density is the real giveaway: this object is 18 times heavier than water.

Moreover, it circles a neutron star. Neutron stars are the corpse of massive stars that blew up, leaving a tiny core of degenerate matter weighing thousands to millions of tons per cubic inch often spinning wildly. It’s far from clear exactly how the world ended up orbiting such an unusual partner. One possibility is the original system was a binary and the companion a red-dwarf star which was denuded of its gaseous envelope in the ancient super nova, leaving behind a core of carbon and oxygen (Not sure exactly how that would work, see comment by Amphiox below). Or the object could have grown out of the heavy element rich nebula formed by a large exploding star similar to the way scientists believe traditional planets form out of the material surrounding young stars.

Whatever it is, or however it came to be, I say we call it Diamondus.