Science Questions, Anybody? (#2)

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Most of the time, when I publish posts on this blog, I choose a topic and write about it in the hopes that you’re curious about it. But I also want to know what you are curious about—always.

I want to call your attention to the “Got Questions?” link up in the menu.

This link will take you to a page that invites you to submit a question. Anything about science, anything you’re curious about, just type it out and hit “Submit!” My door is always open, so to speak—that page will always be available.

I’ll still send out posts like this one asking for your questions. But I want you to know that you never have to wait to ask a question. Science is all about being inquisitive, and you should never have to wait for me to prompt you. But you can, if you want 😉

Anyway, this is another “Science Questions” post—you’re welcome to ask whatever you want in the comments below. I’ll address your questions in the order they’re submitted and let you know when the post is published.

And please, by all means head over to my “Got Questions?” page. I want to know what you’re curious about. I want to answer your questions. Most of all, I want this blog to be a place where you feel free to wonder. A curious mind is a healthy thing!

Remember, everyone—there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. I promise to answer anything you ask to the best of my ability.

Questions, anyone?

What Causes the Lunar Phases?

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We see it almost every night of our lives. For thousands of years, the greatest philosophers and astronomers alike have watched its face change and wondered why.

Step outside and observe the moon every day for a month and you will notice something fascinating. Over the course of the entire month, the moon will go through an entire cycle of phases—no more, no less.

But why?

The phases of the moon are something I’ve talked about before, but I wanted to spend some time on a few common misconceptions this time around and show you the truth behind the lunar phases. Continue reading

Science Questions, Anybody? (#1)

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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?

Update 5/11/18: You can now submit questions through the form on my “Got Questions?” page up in the menu. The guidelines are the same: anything you’re curious about, I’ll answer. There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. I look forward to hearing from you!

Evidence vs. Belief

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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

Star Stuff & Cecilia Payne

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If this quote really is from Cecilia Payne, then she had the right idea—at least for a female astronomer in the 1920s. Women in science back then faced an uphill battle to get recognized for any discoveries they made, and Payne was no different.

What’s so special about Payne, you might ask? Well, she wasn’t just one of the many “unsung heroes” of modern science. She was the one who figured out what stars are made of.

Yeah, that’s right. She sent a probe to the sun, collected a jar of star stuff, and brought it back to her laboratory…

Um, no, not really. It wasn’t that easy.

In fact, it was very difficult. She had far too many roadblocks than were fair. But she wasn’t out for money or recognition. She was just in it for the science. And science was what she got…

Continue reading

The Atomic Spectrum

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Astronomers know that if white light passes through a prism and is bent, it’s separated out into its component colors—the colors of the rainbow.

Astronomers also know that when light interacts with atoms, the building blocks of the universe, the atoms absorb photons of light and reemit them—but in a different direction.

Put these two bits of knowledge together, and astronomers now have everything they need to understand spectra (the plural for spectrum).

spectrum is something I’ve covered in previous posts. In astronomy, it means the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation spread out so we can analyze them individually. And it’s an astronomer’s most valuable tool.

So, what exactly is a spectrum, and how can we use it to analyze radiation from space and learn more about the universe? Continue reading

Atoms and Radiation

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Everything we know about space comes from radiation.

Now wait just a moment here. That statement explains how astronomy is such a successful field of science—it’s based entirely on the information we can glean from radiation, after all. But how does that make sense?

I mean, it’s one thing to study radiation. It’s quite another thing to study matter, the “stuff” in the universe. How does one have anything to do with the other?

Well…that’s where atoms come in. Radiation does, in fact, have a lot to do with the “stuff” it comes from. And if it weren’t for that basic principle, astronomy as a science wouldn’t work.

Thankfully for astronomers, it does. So what’s the secret, then? What does radiation have to do with matter? Continue reading

The Hubble Space Telescope

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The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most famous telescopes in the world.

Oops, excuse me—one of the most famous telescopes built.

Hubble, after all, is certainly not in this world. Unless you call the universe the “world,” it’s about as far from being in this world as you can get. It’s in space.

Hubble isn’t that different from an ordinary, ground telescope. It’s only as big as a bus. There are bigger optical telescopes. Its mirror is 2.4 m across—hardly an achievement by modern-day standards.

Palomar Observatory, which was the biggest telescope in the world when it was built, has better optics than Hubble, meaning its images are a bit crisper.

But that doesn’t keep astronomers from continuing to use Hubble. In fact, if you want to use Hubble, you have to get in line—it hardly has time to complete all the projects astronomers ask of it, even observing the night sky 24/7.

So why is Hubble so useful? Continue reading

Radio Astronomy: Advantages

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Whoa…what’s this thing?

It’s a radio telescope, the largest in the world. It’s so huge that a normal support system can’t support its weight. So it’s basically suspended between three mountaintops. It’s 300 m across, which is 1000 feet. It’s huge.

This is the kind of construction endeavor that radio astronomers must try if they want to get much detail from radio waves. The radio wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum are really, really weak. You need huge telescopes to collect enough.

But, as ever, astronomers face the same basic problem: money.

Huge telescopes are expensive. It’s unfortunate for astronomers, but true—just think of the cost of labor of basically burying a whole valley under a radio dish.

So why bother? Continue reading

Radio Astronomy: Limitations

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Astronomy is a labor of love, and radio astronomy is no different.

As I covered in my last post, radio astronomy deals with the longest wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum (a spectrum that includes visible light). Radio waves are not sound waves. They’re radiation just like visible light, infrared, and ultraviolet.

I’ll prove to you that radio waves can’t be sound waves. We get them from space—that’s why there’s such a thing as radio astronomy. But there’s no sound in space. Why? Sound requires something to pass through, and space is a vacuum.

So, we’ve established that radio waves are just another form of electromagnetic radiation. And astronomers love to collect any form of electromagnetic radiation. We can’t touch the stars ourselves, so it’s our only chance at learning about the cosmos.

Why? Because just about everything in the sky emits electromagnetic radiation.

Everything except black holes and a couple other things…but those are topics for another day.

But electromagnetic radiation isn’t easy to collect. And radio waves are especially hard. Continue reading