The snake-oil salesmen of “earthquake prediction”

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Earthquake weather

Earthquake predictions are going viral online — and spreading dangerous conspiracies along the way.

For Inverse:

In 1990, an eccentric Texan named Iben Browning appeared on the national stage with a dramatic prediction: On December 2 or 3 of that year, a major earthquake would hit the New Madrid fault in southwestern Missouri.

Professional earthquake scientists mostly declined to even give the prediction any attention, and — to their total lack of surprise — Dec. 3, 1990 came and went without a tremor. Nevertheless, Browning’s prediction sent a number of people into a panic, who built “Browning bunkers” and brought news crews to the small town of New Madrid (pronounced in a typically American fashion as “MAD-rid”). The non-event even inspired a 1993 song from the southern Illinois alternative country band Uncle Tupelo.

On its face, predicting an earthquake in New Madrid doesn’t seem too far-fetched. On Dec. 16, 1811, a tremor struck the town large enough to change the course of the Mississippi River and create the illusion of making the water flow backward. The young city of St. Louis was heavily damaged, and New Madrid itself was essentially destroyed. The New Madrid region even experienced a magnitude 4.7 quake in September 1990, which lent a little credibility to Browning’s claim in the public eye. The area has around 200 low-magnitude quakes annually, and disaster-preparedness experts are concerned that infrastructure is not robust enough to handle larger events.

But knowing earthquakes have happened at a particular site and are likely to happen again in the future is not the same thing as being able to predict them. Browning based his “forecast” on weather patterns and other phenomena, but never fully revealed his methodology for others to evaluate. (His primary motivation may in fact have been selling videocassettes explaining his theories to a panicked population.)

[Read the rest at Inverse]

Space is for everyone, except if you don’t fit the gender binary

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NASA’s Embarrassing Pronouns Fumble

Employees are frustrated and mad that a pilot program meant to foster inclusivity was abruptly ended.

for Slate:

The gesture from the leadership at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland was simple: as of a few weeks ago, employees could add their pronouns to their official identification for meetings. On calls and chats, the information would appear alongside their names and internal ID number. The addition of a formal field for pronouns was a show of support to gender minorities and their allies.

But it didn’t last. On Monday of this week, representatives from NASA Headquarters called a meeting to abruptly end the new features in their system, which they said had been rolled out as part of a pilot program. Officials told Goddard employees who attended the meeting that they hadn’t determined if including pronouns was appropriate in a professional context, and needed to consider broader impacts of displaying the pronouns, an explanation that left many feeling frustrated.

Read the rest at Slate

Sizing up the weirdest objects in the universe

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How big is a neutron star?

Astrophysicists are combining multiple methods to reveal the secrets of some of the weirdest objects in the universe.

For Symmetry Magazine:

Neutron stars are arguably the strangest objects in the cosmos. Born from the deaths of massive stars, they combine strong gravity with temperatures and densities higher than anything we can make in the lab.

While we’ve known about neutron stars for the better part of a century, astrophysicists still aren’t entirely sure how large they are. That uncertainty is related to two other unanswered questions: What’s in the middle of neutron stars, and how massive can they grow?

[read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

Cold War treaties aren’t sufficient for the era of asteroid mining

Why did I, a physics/astronomy journalist, write about asteroids for a deep-sea mining trade magazine? Read on! Oh yes, and pledge to my book of science comics with Maki Naro, Who Owns an Asteroid?

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

The World Is Not Ready for Asteroid Mining, But It Needs To Be

For Deep Sea Mining Observer:

Nothing is less “deep sea” than an asteroid, yet parallels exist between these two domains, particularly when it comes to resource extraction. Asteroids are debris left over from the formation of the Solar System roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Due to our shared origin, Earth and asteroids contain the same basic materials: water, carbon compounds,  metals, and so forth. The “metals and so forth” part has drawn the interest of nations and private companies, since many asteroids are potentially rich in gold, platinum, and rare-earth elements. Astronomers have identified 957,798 asteroids as of December 2019, of which about 10,000 are known to orbit close enough to our planet to be classified as near-Earth objects — with some reachable by spacecraft.

With no biosphere, ecosystem services, or local stakeholders, extracting materials from asteroids carries few of the environmental concerns present in terrestrial or ocean mining on Earth.

Both the deep ocean and outer space are governed by international law, with much of said law constructed during the Cold War. Interested parties often bring a certain Wild West mentality to resource extraction in both instances. However, space law lags behind terrestrial laws on a number of fronts, and recent moves by individual nations and companies should be seen as a wake-up call.

[read the rest at DSM Observer…]

Weird discrepancy in cosmic measurements has cosmologists puzzled

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The growing crisis in cosmology

For The Week:

How rapidly is the universe expanding?

Since Edwin Hubble first discovered in 1929 that galaxies are getting farther apart over time, allowing scientists to trace the evolution of the universe back to an initial Big Bang, astronomers have struggled to measure the exact rate of this expansion. In particular, astronomers want to determine a number called the Hubble parameter, a measurement of how fast the cosmos is expanding as we speak. The Hubble parameter tells us the age of the universe, so measuring it was a major goal for many astronomers in the latter half of the 20th century.

The problem, however, is that measuring the Hubble parameter is, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite difficult. There are multiple methods for doing so, and modern observatories are coming up with different numbers depending on which method they use. It seems the number obtained based on the appearance of the universe shortly after the Big Bang is significantly smaller than the number obtained when looking at measurements involving objects closer by.

[Read the rest at The Week]

The future of transportation will (probably) not include teleportation

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Why We’ll (Probably) Never Be Able to Teleport

For Curiosity:

For many of us, teleportation would be the absolute best way to travel. Imagine just stepping into a transporter and being able to go thousands of miles in nearly an instant. It’s a staple in “Star Trek” and other science fiction, and a form of it even shows up in “Harry Potter.” In the real world, unfortunately, human teleportation may never be achievable. The reasons for that come from fundamental physics.

[Read the rest at Curiosity.com…]

In awe of the size of this black hole. Absolute unit.

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How Big (or Small) Can a Black Hole Get?

For Curiosity:

The biggest astronomy story of 2019 arguably was the first-ever image of a black hole, captured by a world-spanning observatory made up of dozens of telescopes. One big reason this achievement was so astounding is because black holes are relatively tiny compared to their mass: this black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, but in overall size, it’s comparable to the size of the solar system. So what sets the size of a black hole, and how big — or small — can they get? And what does the size of a black hole even mean?

[Read the rest at Curiosity.com]

If the world stopped turning

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What If Earth Stopped Turning?

For Curiosity:

Earth is spinning on its axis, completing one rotation every 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds. That spin brings us day and night, makes stars appear to rise and set, and contributes to the general habitability of our planet. Rotation plays a role in the tides, along with the circulation of the atmosphere and oceans. So what would happen if Earth stopped rotating? Don’t worry about “how” or “why”; just think about the end result. The consequences tell us a lot about how our planet functions — as well as other worlds in the galaxy.

[Read the rest at Curiosity.com…]

The world … er, the universe is flat!

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What’s the Shape of the Universe? A New Study Is Sparking Debate

For Curiosity:

What is the shape of the universe? The universe is everything that we can observe, so we can’t stand outside it to see if it’s shaped like a ball or a potato chip or something else entirely. That doesn’t mean cosmologists aren’t trying to figure it out, though. It’s an important question, though it forces us to expand our ways of thinking about shape. As it turns out, the answer to the question relates to what the universe is made of and how it began. The issue got some public attention recently when three cosmologists claimed the universe curls back on itself, which contradicts many other observations. So who’s right?

[Read the rest at Curiosity.com …]

Gravitational waves and climate change

Since early 2018, I’ve contributed multiple articles to Mercury, the membership magazine for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP). These articles are only available in full to members of ASP, but recently Mercury has put extensive previews for certain articles up on the website as enticement to join. One of those articles is my piece about the GRACE Follow-On mission, which is simultaneously a project that measures the effects of climate change and is a testbed for the upcoming LISA gravitational-wave observatory.

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The Gravity of Climate Change

For Mercury:

Orbiting spacecraft are an essential tool for mapping worlds in the Solar System, providing information about everything from landforms to magnetic fields. Repeated monitoring helps scientists measure variations in a planet as the seasons change. That’s particularly true for the planet we know best, and one that is experiencing the biggest variations of all the worlds in the Solar System: Earth.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission consists of twin space probes designed to measure Earth’s gravity to high resolution. That measurement is important for geology—seismic activity and other substantial shifts in Earth’s crust—but also for tracking shifts in water and ice around the world. Those variations help researchers measure the melting of polar ice, along with more subtle phenomena like the depletion of aquifers in western North America and India, for example.

In addition to its essential work measuring ice melting and climate change, GRACE-FO will test a vital component of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), the planned space-based gravitational wave observatory that will continue the work of LIGO and its Earth-based observatories.

[Read the rest of the preview in Mercury]