A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Procrastination season

On occasion, my day job is going to interfere with finding the time to write these columns. For an astronomer, there are things like Jupiter season and the seasons of the moon, but there is also proposal season. And proposal season starts now.
For almost every telescope that I ever use I have to write a proposal convincing another group of astronomers that the project that I have in mind is worthy. Depending on the telescope involved and precisely when you want to use that telescope, the competition to be one of the people selected ranges from moderate to extreme. The proposal that is current occupying my time is one to use the Hubble Space Telescope. Even after 16 years in space, the Hubble is still one of the most sought after telescopes around. One of the reasons it continues to be so good is that every few years the Space Shuttle goes to the Hubble, fixes anything that may have broken, and installs newer more modern cameras. The last of these Shuttle refurbishments is slated to take place this summer, and afterward the Hubble will be equipped with the last ultimate cameras to scan the cosmos.
I am salivating to use these new cameras, and so are most of the other astronomers around. Who gets to use them and who doesn't will all be decided on the basis of proposals being written right now. Only about one in five will have a proposal accepted. I want to be one of them.
How to do it? How do you write a proposal that will be accepted? It's probably not unlike many other businesses. You need two key things: a great idea and a great sales pitch. Scientists often forget about the sales pitch part. After all, a strong scientific idea should be able to stand on its own, right? No chance. I have seen proposals with solid scientific ideas presented poorly, and they rarely even get looked at twice. Occasionally I've seen it the other way around: great sales pitch for a mediocre idea. To their credit, I think that scientists rarely fall for that, either. You really need both.
For the proposal I am currently working on I think I have a great idea to work with. I hope to do a large scale survey to understand the different types of objects in the region of space beyond Neptune. The proposal nicely builds on years of preliminary work we've done with telescopes here on earth, and it uses the Hubble study many more of these objects which are too faint to see from the earth.
It's a good scientific project. There are things that we know we will find, but there is also much room for unanticipated discovery.
But it's going to need a good sales pitch. Just like in every other profession, there are specialities that are trendy and those that are not. In astronomy, distant galaxies and supernovae and the earliest phases of the universe are trendy. Our solar system -- even the distant edge of our solar system -- is decidedly not. It's too small; it's too close; it's too specific. Why worry about the details of what happened in one insignificant corner of one insignificant galaxy when instead you could be studying the formation of the universe itself? I think there are good answers to this question. I think that without studying the details we will never know if our more general ideas are correct. And I think that the significance of our corner of the galaxy is vastly increased by the fact that is our corner.
But will I be able to sell it? I cannot predict, but decision will be announced on June 15th. Stay tuned. In the meantime, do not be surprised if proposal season takes its toll on these pages. But don't give up all hope. As can be seen even right now, writing these pages fullfills one important need without which no proposal could ever be completed: procrastination.

Jupiter years

I saw Jupiter this morning for the first time this year. It was sitting low in the pre-dawn southeastern sky, just above where the tea pot that is Sagittarius should have been if the sun were not already making most of the night sky disappear. It made me think back to 1996, when I had just moved to southern California to start work at Caltech, to 1984, when I had just moved to New Jersey – a state which I had never before even visited – to go to college, and to 1972 when I was a seven year old listening to the sounds of the Saturn V rocket being tested across town.
The first time I see Jupiter for the year always takes me back in these twelve year leaps because Jupiter takes twelve years to go around the sun and thus return to appearing in the same constellation – this time Sagittarius – once again. So in thinking back to 1996 I am thinking about where I was a Jupiter year ago. And, unlike earth years, Jupiter years are long enough that, for me at least, a Jupiter year always takes me back to a place in my life when everything was totally different from today. It’s also hard not to think a Jupiter year forward in time. The year 2020 seems a long way off, but it is really only a year away.
For the last few months, Jupiter has been up in the sky during the daytime and couldn’t be seen, but, as the earth has moved around the sun and the seasons have turned, the constellations that could be seen at night have slowly shifted until Jupiter made its first appearance in the morning twilight sky before the rising sun extinguished it. Something that appears in the early morning sky will, a few months later, appear in the midnight sky, a few months later in the evening sky, and a month after that be setting with the setting sun to appear again in the morning half a year later. When I first see Jupiter in the early morning I always think that “Jupiter season” is just starting. When I was younger I would be likely to get my first glimpse of Jupiter for the year in the early morning after staying up late working or playing. These days I am more likely to first see Jupiter for the year in the pre-dawn sky on my way to the airport to catch an early flight. Such are the seasons of a life.
While I was in graduate school in Berkeley the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation was Io, the volcanically active moon of Jupiter. During this part of my life, Jupiter season meant it was time to get to serious work. My dissertation involved spending many months at the telescope during Jupiter season watching Io and its volcanoes and its atmosphere and trying to disentangle what was causing what to do what and how. The first appearance of Jupiter in the early morning sky was always a visceral jolt that I needed to be ready for the season to come.
The winter and spring of 1991 – 1992 were to be the most intensive Jupiter season of all for me and were going to be the culmination of my study of Io and the main basis for my Ph.D. dissertation. The summer before the observations were to begin, however, Jupiter season was far from my mind. My uncle had just been casually killed for the few hundred dollars he carried into a bar one night, and soon thereafter my ailing grandfather slipped, fell, and died. I flew to Colorado to drive with my brother to the funeral in New Madrid, Missouri, on the shore of the Mississippi River. He picked me up at the airport and we drove all afternoon across Colorado and then continued through the night across Kansas talking about family and backpacking trips we had each made that summer. We made Missouri just before the sun was about to rise. Driving east trying to stay awake with my brother finally asleep in the front seat I looked up at the sky and just rising before the rising sun was a bright star sitting just below the feet of the lion in the constellation Leo. It hadn’t been there a year before. It was Jupiter. It was Jupiter season. Regardless of whatever else was to come, Jupiter was in the morning sky and its season was on the way.
Twelve years after my grandfather’s funeral Jupiter would have spun all the way around the sky and been back at Leo’s feet again: a Jupiter year. But my father didn’t make another Jupiter year. Eight years later we were all back in New Madrid, Missouri for my father’s funeral. I had driven from my sister’s house in North Carolina to Missouri this time, my brother and I in my father’s pickup, my sister and family in the minivan behind, and, driving through the day and even into the night we never saw any planets.
Friends of my father from around the county and around the country came to the funeral and we decided to have a story-telling and rum-and-coke (the drink of choice on the small trawling boat that my father lived on the last few years of his life) drinking session late into the night. We heard stories of sailing trips, late night driving to Florida interrupted by stopping to refurbish the brakes on the side of the Interstate, childhood stories of driving across fields plowing down fence posts, but the story that I remember best came from a friend who had worked with my father in the Apollo days in Huntsville, Alabama. He said that he and my father had talked recently and had spent much of the time reminiscing about that amazing but short period between 1969 and 1972 when they worked designing and constructing the computers that controlled the Saturn V rockets as they hurled men into space and onward to the moon. They had been thirty year old young men with wives and families at home and they had gone to work and figured out how to get the job done and they had sent a man to the moon.
It’s been 3 Jupiter years since the last man left the moon, and not quite 1 Jupiter year since my father’s funeral. In another Jupiter year I will be exactly the age that my father was when he was first diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed him. I hope, though, that I am given the chance to see Jupiter round the sky a few more times before the end.

Science? You betcha.

I’d been thinking a lot about bets recently.
One evening a while back I was working late in my office on the Caltech campus, and I decided to take a break by dropping into a lecture by a Caltech economist (why not? I didn’t know anything about economics. No better time to learn) who had described experiments they had been performing demonstrating the efficiency of markets at collecting, analyzing, and making decisions based on diffusive knowledge. The specific example that still sticks in my head more than a decade after I heard this single lecture was the real-life case of a computer manufacturer trying to predict next month’s price of computers and printers. Several people in the company were supposed to be experts at these predictions, but they rarely got the right answer. The experiment that the Caltech economist ran involved letting everyone at the company who had any sort of knowledge about any part of the process participate in a predictive market, where they could buy “shares” in a certain price point, or essentially bet on what the price next month was going to be. If they were wrong, all of the shares that they bought were worthless, but if they were right they could win big. This was simple betting, but with a twist. The market price of the “shares” somehow reflected all of individual thoughts and hopes and speculations of what the price would be. No one thought that a computer was going to cost twenty dollars, so you could buy shares of “twenty dollars” for next to nothing. Of course, they were pretty much guaranteed to be worth absolutely nothing, which is less than next to nothing, so you would lose money. As you got closer to the price that most people thought the computers were going to be next month the cost of the shares rose.
All of this experimentation could be considered an interesting exercise except for one astounding point: the economists found that the market was better at forecasting the future price than the “experts” were. Somehow all of the individuals were able to exchange and synthesize information simply by buying and selling shares of prices and all of this information exchange led to better predictions than anyone else was able to make.
As I sat and listened to this that evening at Caltech I was shocked and astounded and excited. Scientists had always thought they had a monopoly on the best way to predict things (“the scientific method”) and yet here was a totally non-scientific method that seemed to lead to truth in a pretty clear way. It was a strange truth: not one proved with postulates and experiments, but one simply deemed the most likely.
Before getting too carried away with these ideas, though, I also learned at that lecture that markets aren’t perfect predictors and that the economists could run similar experiments where, with a few simple tweaks, they could make market bubbles and other odd effects. This fact would come as no surprise to anyone who has read a newspaper in the last few months.
I walked back to my office that night with my head trying to reconcile science and markets. OK, so perhaps this market approach couldn’t lead to truth in quite the way that the scientific method could, but maybe there was still a place for it. What about scientific markets for things that can’t quite be proven beyond sufficient doubt but that most scientists would be willing to bet a lot on. The first thing that came to mind was climate change. To most earth scientists, the only arguments about climate change are precisely how strong an affect it will be in different places. But somehow, because of the complexities of the questions, the public frequently sees the disagreement over the uncertainties rather than the fundamental agreements. Clearly, this was a place where a market could work. What about betting on the magnitude of climate change? Buying shares of the average temperature rise by 2050?
While this was all fun speculation, it also seemed obvious that given that the people were confused by the science, they were just as likely to be confused by scientists buying shares in a future temperature market. Clearly this was interesting, but going nowhere. But what about just using the ideas amongst scientists? If I could get all of the astronomers around to buy into a market on whether or not earthlike planets would ever been found around other stars, for example, I would have an effective way of collecting all of the disparate information that everyone had and coming up with the best prediction based on all of the data.
But then I realized that the idea could be taken one step further. Scientists could engage in what amounts to insider trading in markets! If I really believed, for example, that the climate was warming, and that, for the most part, the rest of the world was not dealing rationally with that fact, I should buy land somewhere in central Canada where it is right now too cold for most people and then I should reap the incredible returns when the land prices skyrocket because people can no longer live in Los Angeles anymore (as crazy as this sounds, I know one scientists who independently came to the same conclusion and bought himself some [currently] chilly property in Minnesota). A market does exist for climate change speculation, only it is a bit more indirect than simply betting on temperatures.
As a mere professor, I don’t have the financial means to follow up on my late night thoughts, but the ideas still continue to percolate in my head. I remain convinced there must be a way to figure out something about which you were certain but which was not generally understood and then use that knowledge to hit it big.
It is a testament to my general lack of financial thoughtfulness that after all of this interesting speculation and pondering about bets and markets and scientific insider trading that the best I ever came up with for my own personal attempt to hit it big with a piece of scientific speculation was a bet made in 2000 that someone would find a tenth planet before January 1st, 2005, with the winner of the bet to receive five bottles of champagne. Perhaps it is also a testament to my happiness at drinking champagne.
I think, though, my five-bottle-of-champagne market tells you that scientific markets, in the end, won’t work. I think that the best scientists are more motivated by being the one to discover and prove the truth than by being the one to guess correctly at the truth and profit off of it. Even though I am exceedingly certain that the world will be warmer fifty years from now I would still rather figure out a way to demonstrate the fact convincingly (or better: prevent it) than go buy Canadian land. And for those years between 2000 and 2005, when no tenth planet was in sight, I was not busy considering the financial plight of the loss of five bottles of champagne, but rather I was searching the sky, night after night, in the hope that when the champagne was drunk, it would be drunk in honor of the new planet I had found.

I do not ♥ pseudo-science

You might think that my self-confessed love of astrology (see last week’s column), would mean that I love as well any and all other space-related mystical undertakings. Ancient civilizations cavorting with space aliens? Faces on Mars? Magnetically powerful hidden planets? Why not? You could make some of the same arguments that I made in favor of astrology. The people who talk about these sorts of things are interested in the sky and what is out there. They are seeking to make meaning out of patterns to see in the world. Isn’t that what I do? What is not to love?
In the days following the demotion of Pluto my email inbox filled to capacity daily with notes from people all over the world. People quibbled over the new definition of the word planet, suggested new approaches to thinking about planets, asked details about the discoveries that led to the new definition, suggested names for some of the newly discovered objects, and, occasionally, told me what a bad bad person I was for having killed Pluto. The amount of email was staggering. Though it took me a couple of months, I eventually responded to almost every email that I received. The only ones that I did not bother to take the time to respond to were those that I classified as pseudo-science. It was not worth it. I do not ♥ pseudo-science.
What is pseudo-science? I think of it as an attempt to understand or describe the physical world while ignoring (or misunderstanding) the incredibly powerful methods humans have stumbled upon over the past few centuries that have allowed us to comprehend and build upon the world around us. What are these incredibly powerful methods? Generally we lump them all together under the heading of the “scientific method”. My definition of what the scientific method is goes something like this: come up with the simplest explanation that is consistent with everything about reality that you know, and discard or modify this explanation when you find out it is no longer consistent.
The reasons that this scientific method works so well are twofold. First, the method gains invaluable leverage because of the amazing power of feedback. Feedback is used to get closer to the right answer, which is much better than having to know the right answer from the beginning. Feedback is a powerful thing. Imagine getting into a car you’ve never driven before and being required to navigate a tree-lined obstacle course. You could do it, even though you don’t initially know the details of how hard to press the gas pedal to go a particular speed or how far to turn the steering wheel to turn a certain angle. You could do it because you just use the feedback to correct your foot or your hands if you go too fast or start to veer off the road. Having no feedback, on the other hand, is like being asked to do the same course blindfolded. You have to know how to do everything precisely correctly ahead of time. You have to know that this gentle curve requires just a push of the wheel while the sharp turn requires cranking the steering wheel all the way over. Chances are you’d finally take the blindfold off when you ran into a tree.
Almost everything that we do well we do by feedback. Try this experiment. Close your eyes, put your arms out in front of you, and try to touch your pinkies precisely together at their tips. You’ll probably get close, but without the visual feedback your body doesn’t even know how to find other parts of itself. Harnessing the incredible power of feedback is a good way to help understand reality. Give up feedback and you only have two choices: do everything perfectly or crash into trees.
But feedback by itself is not enough to keep the scientific method working. Feedback will allow you to stay centered on the road, but it will not tell you which of the many different routes is the right one to take. The second reason that the scientific method works so well is that it also provides the roadmap for where to go. Any phenomenon seen in the physical universe has an infinite number of possible explanations, but, according to the scientific method, when in doubt, you should always assume that the simplest explanation that still fits all of the observations is correct. The practical beauty of making this assumption is that of the infinite possibilities there is more or less one simplest explanation, so you know precisely which route to take. The more subtle beauty of making this assumption is that, frequently, it actually seems to work, or at least work well enough.
The fact that the simplest explanation comes close to working is more profound than anyone ever gives it credit for. It is the sign that we live in a physically orderly universe. There is no reason to have guessed that from the beginning. It is easy to imagine, instead, that we might have come into existence in a universe where the capricious gods were to blame for natural phenomenon and that prediction and understanding were impossible, or, alternatively, that the laws governing natural phenomena simply changed from day to day or minute to minute with no fixed schedule. In a universe like that, making the assumption that the simplest explanation is correct might get you nowhere. Science and the scientific method developed not because they are obviously the correct thing to do but because they worked.
We live in a profoundly orderly universe. I am currently 32,000 feet above Oklahoma, riding inside of a contraption that was put together by many many decisions made on the basis of the assumption that the simplest explanation about a phenomenon was the correct one. If the scientific method didn’t work I would currently be falling Icarus-like to the ground.
So what about pseudo-science? Previously, I described it as an attempt to explain physical reality without using what I have argued is the incredibly powerful scientific method. But before I go on, let me digress one more moment to talk a little more of astrology, since I think that, in the end, my tolerance of astrology helps to explain my aversion to pseudo-science.
Most scientists would probably throw astrology in with the pseudo-science, so what do I think is the difference? Astrology, at least as I think about it, talks about humans and their interactions and thoughts and dreams. Astrology deals with the interior rather than exterior world. While science seems to be good for understanding the physical exterior world, I think the inner world is a no-man’s-land. Astrologers? Psychologists? Self-help gurus? As far as I know, astrologers understand people and their condition as well as anyone else. And I like them better, because they like stars, but I will admit a certain prejudice there. I read somewhere an astrologer classifying herself as someone who practices one of the intuitive arts, and that sounds about right to me.
Even the relatively trite pop-astrology of daily horoscopes tends to stay away from exterior reality. How can you object to “For whatever reason, the universe sees fit to reward you.” Or “Smooth sailing is assured as you spread your wings.” I got a fortune cookie after dinner last night. It said “You are attached to home and yearn for your family.” I smiled. I was 3000 miles from home and waking up the next morning at 2am to catch an eyelid-achingly-early flight so I could be home in time to have lunch with my wife and pick up our daughter after work. It was a good thing that I picked up the right cookie.
Pseudo-science, on the other hand, does not deal with emotions and thoughts and feelings. Like real science, it attempts to describe physical reality. Aliens did visit the Mayans. You could have met them yourself if you were there. There is a face on Mars. You could go and walk on it and post the video on YouTube. But pseudo-science deals with objective reality more through the methods of the intuitive arts than the methods of science. And that is where it goes wrong. In the intuitive arts you are allowed – indeed required – to get a feeling that something is true and then spin a reality out of it. This intuitive spinning is one of the best ways of describing and trying to understand the malleable human consciousness, but it falls flat when trying to describe exterior reality. Religion is the ultimate intuitive art, but when the Catholic Church insisted, based on its intuition or on the intuition of those who wrote the Bible millennia ago, that the earth is literally the stationary center of the universe it is pretty easy to see that the intuitive approach to physical reality gets you nowhere but the inquisition.
The most common pseudo-scientific email that I get these days consists of questions about the relationship of things I have discovered in the outer solar system to the planet Niburu, known to the Babylonions. I will admit to not knowing much about what the people writing are talking about, but here is what I can gather from the emails: the Babylonians allegedly had the inside scoop that there were 12 planets, because they were they knew they we were actually somehow created by aliens from this 12th planet. OK. Most alarmingly, this 12th planet is on a very elongated orbit that usually keeps it quite far from the earth, but, on the occasional times it swings by, the strong magnetic field of Niburu somehow flips the magnetic field of the earth, causing massive destruction.
This tale originated from the writings of one person translating Babylonian text, as far as I can gather from the emails I get. I read the emails, but I never respond. So let me, now, respond, by examining this tale as a scientist. First, let’s figure out what is actually known. As far as I can tell the only part of the tale that is known to be true is that someone wrote these fairly astounding things. Given the choice between believing such incredible things and coming up with a simpler explanation – the man was insane, fraudulent, or delusional – the simple explanation seems quite palatable. But let’s take another step and believe the allegation that the Babylonians talked about 12 planets. A complicated explanation is that aliens came and told them about it. Why not try another equally complicated explanation, like, for example, the Babylonians had the ability to transport around the solar system and saw the planet for themselves. Or they could travel in time and knew that we knew all of these planets. Or that at the time of the Babylonians there were planets that we don’t yet know but those planets had laser beacons on their surface so they could easily be seen without telescope. The list is endless. Let’s try, instead, a simple one: they – like other primitive civilizations – had a mythology that did not adequately describe the physical universe.
My objections above are all to the part of the scientific method where you chose the simplest explanation, but the Mayan planet followers seem to violate a more fundamental rule. They don’t accept feedback. Even if you make the mistake of not finding the simplest example, feedback will still eventually do its magic. The Babylonian planet hypothesis is unnecessarily complicated, but if we were to accept it as a viable hypothesis we would still have to ask: does it work? And I would have to say no it does not, and let me count the ways. First, if this planet were out there as described we would simply have seen it by now. We haven’t. Being the person who has been doing the looking, I find this argument particularly compelling. Second, if the planet had the orbit that is ascribed to it, it would only last for about a million years before it came too close to Jupiter and got ejected out of the solar system. Third, we know enough about magnetic fields that we can quickly calculate that if, against all odds, the planet really did exist, a swing by would do absolutely nothing to the earth’s magnetic field. Fourth,…… I could go on and on, but it is too late, the car is wrapped firmly around the tree with the foot still pressing the gas pedal to the ground. Feedback would have helped.
How about the pictures take that appear to show a face on Mars? Complicated explanations: built by aliens, put there by ancient terrestrial civilizations capable of space flight, an actual living creature/ Simple explanation: if you look at enough random pictures you will find a pattern that looks unusual. The simplest way to see which of these was correct was to take pictures from different angles with different lighting. No face appeared. Complicated explanations: NASA can’t be trusted and is covering up the existence of the face, the face knew we were looking so hid, the new pictures really does show the face but you have to know how to look just right. The simple explanation: the face was a trick of light and shadow. The pseudo-scientists were wrong about the face on Mars. Physical reality is not terribly amenable to the intuitive arts.
Being wrong is not shameful (good thing, or I would have had to hide away and quit astronomy many years ago), but being wrong and refusing to look at and seriously consider the contrary evidence gets you nowhere in your quest to understand reality. To my (incomplete) knowledge, none of the advocates of the face on Mars is willing to accept the simplest explanation, even in light of quite strong new evidence. If they won’t bother to consider the possibility that their original explanation is wrong, having a discussion with them is simply a waste of time. You might as well try to convince someone that they don’t really feel the emotions that have just passionately explained to you.
So I don’t answer the emails from pseudo-scientists. You are allowed to think that my reaction is extreme, given that I answered email of almost every other type of flavor. But I hope you give me dispensation on this one. As a scientist, I have a particularly hard time with people who reject the use and conclusion of science for the things that science is particularly well suited for.
Not everything needs to be about science or about physical reality. The joy that I feel as my airplane gets closer and closer to the city where my wife and daughter are waiting is more about song or more about poetry than about physical objective scientific reality. But as the wheels of the plane touch the ground I am going to say a silent thanks to the scientists who rejected 20 different chemical formulae before finding one that works just right for making the vinyl for the tires that are going to quickly bring me to a stop and allow me to step safely, once again, on the ground.