Science Questions, Anybody? (#1)


I want to try out something new. Up until now, for every post on this blog, I have chosen a topic and written about it in the hopes that you’re curious about it.

This time, I want to know what you are curious about.

You’re welcome to ask any question about science. No matter what it is, I will do my best to answer it. If I don’t immediately know the answer, I’ll research it. And remember—there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.

Just leave your question in the comments below. If you’re not a WordPress user, you’ll need to enter your name and email address, but I’m the only person who will ever see your email.

I will answer every question that’s asked. Depending on how many there are, I’ll either answer them all in a post coming up soon, or I’ll answer one in each of a series of posts to be published over the next few days.

If you think you know the answer to your question but aren’t quite sure, you’re still welcome to ask it—and even let me know what you think the answer is! I’ll make sure to point out what you’re right about when I answer your question.

I’ll also reproduce the question and credit you (the name you use in the comment form) for asking it. Then I’ll answer your question in detail. If anything’s still not clear afterwards, you are welcome to comment again or email me.

All answers will be archived on my “Myth & Science” page, underneath the “Science Answers” drop-down menu.

I’ll keep comments open for a few weeks. But if you miss out on this first “Science Questions, Anybody?”, don’t worry about it. I’ll do this again sometime soon.

Questions, anyone?

Evidence vs. Belief


I remember something my ninth grade advanced biology teacher told our class. It was essentially a story about an invisible dragon.

Now why, you ask, would a biology teacher teach us about an invisible dragon?

Her message had nothing to do with the dragon, and everything to do with the lengths one of the story’s characters went to in order to disprove the dragon’s existence. Her intention was to help her students distinguish between evidence and belief.

On a broader level, her intention was to show us the difference between science and religion. See, back when I was in eighth and ninth grade, there seemed to be a lot of controversy in schools surrounding science and religion.

Teachers of students that age felt the need to preempt their entire class with a disclaimer—that students were still free to believe whatever they believed, no matter what science the class taught.

Most teachers just made a general announcement on the first day. But my biology teacher told us this story about a dragon—and it continues to impact me to this day.

It goes like this: Continue reading

The True Brightness of Stars


Have you ever looked up at the night sky and noticed that while relatively bright stars outline the constellations, there are numerous other stars that are almost too faint to see with the naked eye?

If you ever noticed this, you probably guessed that the brighter stars are literally brighter, and the fainter stars truly are fainter. Or maybe you guessed that they don’t vary in brightness that much, but fainter stars are much farther away.

But that’s not really true…or, at least, it’s not the whole answer.

So what’s the real reason why some stars appear to be brighter than others—and how can we tell how bright they really are? Continue reading

Stars and Proper Motion


Recognize this constellation?

Well, at the time stamp of about 2000 AD (CE), I think you will. It’s one of the most famous constellations in the night sky.

Well, technically, it’s not a constellation at all.

It’s an asterism—a commonly recognized grouping of stars that isn’t actually official as a constellation. There are tons of asterisms that you no doubt recognize…the Summer Triangle, the Great Square of Pegasus, the Big Dipper.

That’s right. That mess of stars up there that keeps changing for some reason…that’s the oft-recognized Big Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Major.

So why the heck are the stars moving? Continue reading

Distances Between Stars


When you look up into the sky on a clear night away from the glare of the city, you see trillions upon trillions of stars.

Thousands of years ago, the classical astronomers saw the same thing you do today—except perhaps a little different, due to the ever-changing cosmos. And, like you, they weren’t satisfied with just looking. They wanted to know what was out there.

For hundreds of years, they developed model after model to explain why the stars seemed to orbit the Earth and why certain objects in the sky—which they named planetsseemed to wander backwards from time to time.

Tycho Brahe, an astronomer known mainly for what he got wrong, dismissed the idea of the Earth orbiting the sun because he could detect no parallax between the stars.

If he had been able to measure parallax, he might have realized that the universe was much larger than any of his fellow classical astronomers imagined.

So what is parallax…and how can it help us measure the distances between stars? Continue reading

Solar Weather


When you hear the word “weather,” you probably think of clouds and lightning bolts and rainstorms. Maybe, if you live in particularly high elevation or latitude, you think snowstorms or even blizzards.

We humans are used to these weather patterns. They’re the norm here on Earth. But would you be surprised to hear that the sun has weather of its own?

The sun doesn’t have clouds. Electricity doesn’t crackle through its atmosphere and build up as lightning. Its surface sits comfortably at about 5800 K, which is 9980°F and 5526°C—so it doesn’t even get close to cold enough for rain or snow.

So what kind of weather does the sun have? Continue reading

The Sun’s Magnetic Show

galileo sunspot rotation

Do you recognize the name Galileo Galilei?

Galileo was the classical astronomer who made the drawing above. I have little idea what his writing actually says—it’s in Latin—but it’s clear enough what this early diagram is all about.

It’s a drawing of his observations of the sun.

And it’s proof, discovered way back in Galileo’s time but not accepted until much later, that the sun actually rotates.

How do we know that? Continue reading

Spots on the Sun


Have you ever looked at the sun, and seen something like this?

Now, before you decide to look at it right now and see what you see, it’s my responsibility as an amateur astronomer to remind you of the safety risks. Focusing your eyes on the sun is dangerous—there’s a reason our eyes automatically flinch away.

How dangerous, you ask? Dangerous enough to burn and even scar your retinas, permanently damaging or even destroying your vision.

Yes, I’m serious.

Now, all this is not to turn you off solar observing entirely. There are safe—and cheap—ways to look at the sun, and see its spots.

But what exactly are sunspots?

Continue reading

The Solar Neutrino


Ever heard of a neutrino?

Well, I guess now you have. But what exactly is a neutrino?

Don’t worry, they’re not harmful. They’re passing through you this very second and you’ll never notice them, not in your whole life. They’ll never hurt you because they just don’t interact with matter—including you—in the way you’d expect.

I’ll bet now you’re wondering where they even come from.

Well, as the diagram illustrates, they come from the sun. They’re kind of a side-effect of the nuclear reaction that powers the sun, and they radiate out from the sun in droves. But that’s not even the coolest bit.

We know how many neutrinos should come from the sun if our theories about its power generation are right. So if we can count them, we can prove those theories correct.

That’s when we encounter a bit of a problem. We can’t actually detect neutrinos.

So how the heck do we count them? Continue reading

Energy Flow from the Sun’s Core

wind and water.jpg

Ask any climate scientist how we should power our world without fossil fuels, and they’re bound to tell you about wind and solar power.

You might be surprised to know that both of these come from the sun. Solar panels collect the sun’s energy directly, but we wouldn’t even have wind if not for the sun.

Why? Because in order to move, you need energy. And not just you. I’m talking about every speck of material on Planet Earth that shifts an inch. It’s because it has energy.

That energy can come from a lot of places. Earth is still a dynamic world with a hot interior, but it’s not hot enough to sustain all the life and other movement on its surface. A lot of our planet’s energy comes from the sun.

But here’s the big question. How the heck does it get here? Continue reading