Friday, July 31, 2009

Keeping Time

I always assumed that our clock time that we live by has been around for hundreds of years. Well, I found out it’s more like just over a hundred years.

Until the 1800’s, every village in the United States lived in its own time zone with all of the clocks synchronized to the solar noon. With the advent of trains this created mayhem trying to keep on a schedule. For years watches were made that could tell both the local time and “railway time.” It wasn’t until 1883 that American railway companies forced the adoption of national standardized time zones.

One second used to be defined as 1/86,400 the length of a day, but Earth’s rotation isn’t completely reliable. Tidal friction from the Sun and Moon slows our planet and increases the length of a day by 3 milliseconds per century. This means that during the time of the dinosaurs a day was just 23 hours long.

Weather also changes the day. During El NiƱo events, strong winds can slow the rotation of the Earth by a fraction of a millisecond every 24 hours. To keep time in sync with the Earth’s slowing rotation, a “leap second” is added every few years. The last time a “leap second” was added was on New Year’s Eve of 2009.

The world’s most accurate clock is at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado. It measures vibrations of a single atom of mercury. In a billion years it will not lose one second.

Daylight savings time was started by Ben Franklin. He spent a lot of time in France and realized that their later nights and sleeping in in the mornings used more resources, namely candles. Daylight savings times was implemented to utilize more daylight hours and conserve resources. The amount of money saved since it started is incalculable. Today, the Department of Energy estimates that electricity demand drops by 0.5 percent during Daylight Savings Time and save the equivalent of almost 3 million barrels of oil daily.

Interesting Facts: According to quantum theory, the shortest moment of time that can exist is known as Planck time, or 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 second • Einstein showed that gravity makes time run more slowly, thus airplane passengers, flying where Earth’s pull is weaker, age a few extra nanoseconds each flight

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Astronomical Unit (AU)

I have to say, I don’t think I’ve heard the term “Astronomical Unit” before. I do use the word “astronomical” when referring to big things, so I thought I’d do a little research. I anticipated there would be some correlation between the two.

Astronomical — of or relating to astronomy, extremely large

An Astronomical Unit is approximately the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun. It is used to indicate distances within our solar system.

The recent (suspected) comet that hit Jupiter is thought to be from a part of the solar system known as the Oort Cloud that sits well beyond Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. This region of space spans a zone between 1,000 and 20,000 AU away from the Sun.

Here is the formal definition that makes my brain hurt. The radius of an unperturbed circular orbit a massless body would revolve about the sun in 2*(pi)/k days (i.e. 365.2568983... days), where k is defined as the Gaussian constant exactly equal to 0.01720209895. Since an AU is based on radius of a circular orbit, one AU is actually slightly less than the average distance between the Earth and Sun. (I’m guessing this is because the Earth does not orbit in a perfect circle, rather an oval where the Sun is not exactly in the middle. See my blog on Perihelion, Aphelion and Precession.)

History of Earth/Sun Distance — In the late 1500’s Tycho Brahe estimated the distance at 5 million miles. The early 1600’s Johannes Kepler estimated 15 million miles. In the late 1600’s Giovanni Cassini estimated 87 million miles by observing Mars and estimating our distance from that planet and then was able to determine the Earth to Sun distance. Pretty close for so long ago. Funny that I cannot find who was able to determine the current distance–will keep looking.

So what is Earth’s distance from the Sun? 93 million miles, or 1 Astronomical Unit. Wow. What an astronomical distance!

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.

Monday, July 27, 2009


With the recent anniversary of the first manned lunar landing 40 years ago and the final spacewalk on the International Space Station today, I thought some astronaut and Moon knowledge would be appropriate.

There are three kinds of astronauts aboard the U.S. Space Shuttles: Pilot or Commander – Heads the mission and controls the spacecraft, Mission Specialist – Crew members who carry out specific jobs, such as performing experiments or going on spacewalks and Payload Specialist – Scientists and other on-board guests who are not NASA astronauts.

There are three kinds of spacecraft: Unmanned ProbesArtificial Satellites and Manned Spacecraft.

Interesting Facts:
  • The very first astronauts were jet pilots.
  • Astronauts need to be fit and have 20/20 eyesight.
  • Weightlessness makes astronauts grow an inch or so during a long mission.
  • Astronauts need to be between 5’4” and 6’4”.
  • The word “astronaut” comes from the Greek words meaning sailor among the stars.
  • “Cosmonaut” is a member of the Russian space program.
  • The first woman in space was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.
  • The first man in space was cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961.
  • Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard was the first American in space just 23 days after Yuri Gagarin.
  • The first human to step outside a spacecraft was cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in 1965.
  • Three months later, astronaut Edward White II made the first spacewalk for the U.S.
  • Soviet probe Lunar 9 was the first moon landing in 1966.
  • Apollo 8 was the first to orbit the Moon in 1968.
  • Neil Armstrong was the first human to step foot on the moon, following behind him was Buzz Aldrin in 1969.
  • E.V.A. (Extra-Vehicular Activity) is the technical name for going outside a spacecraft.
  • The first spacewalkers were tied to their spacecraft by life-support cables.
  • Astronauts have brought back 838 pounds of Moon rock.
  • A mirror was left on the Moon to reflect a laser beam to measure the Moon’s distance from Earth.
  • The laser measurements show that, on average, the Moon is 233,806 miles from Earth.
  • Temperatures vary from 243°F at noon to -260°F at night on the Moon.
  • The gloves of Apollo 11 astronauts had tiny lights built into the fingertips.
  • Spacesuits are officially called E.M.U.s (Extra-Vehicular Mobility Units.)
  • The cost of a spacesuit is around $11 million, of which 70% is for the backpack and controls.
  • Laika, a dog, was the first living creature in space aboard the Soviet’s Sputnik 2.
  • Carbon dioxide that crews breathe out is absorbed by pellets of lithium hydroxide.
  • The U.S. space shuttle reaches speeds of 18,650 mph.
Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bad or Badly

I never use the word “badly” when speaking as I’m just not sure what the correct usage is. I would say, “I feel bad about...” but always wondered if I should really be saying “badly” instead. Well, here is the general explanation.

Bad is an adjective that modifies a noun. Adjectives follow linking verbs.
Badly is an adverb that modifies a verb. Adverbs modify action verbs.

If you say, “I feel bad,” you are using the word “bad” as as adjective meaning of poor quality. If you say, “I feel badly,” you are using the word “badly” as an adverb meaning in an unsuccessful way. In essence, you are saying that your fingers are not feeling things correctly.

Badly can also mean to a great or serious degree, so you could say, “I wanted a new car so badly” and it would be correct. So then, why is it not correct to say, “I feel badly,” because you are trying to imply to a serious degree?

The general rule is with most verbs it is correct to use the adverb “badly.” Linking verbs such as feel, smell, and am are the exception to the rule and in this case you would use “bad.” To determine if it is a linking verb or an action verb, replace the verb with “is.” If it still makes sense with the word “is,” it’s a linking verb. If not, it’s an action verb.

She feels bad.
She is bad.
(In this sentence “feels” is a linking verb because it still makes sense.)

She feels badly.
She is badly.
(In this sentence “feels” is an action verb because it no longer makes sense.)

A few other linking verbs are:
State of being — taste, look, appear, grow, seem and become
Forms of to be  is, are, was, were, being and been.

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A and An

I have forgotten the vast majority of what I learned about grammar. (Past participle, correlative conjunction, absolute adjective–sound familiar?) One thing I recently read is that you have to go with your gut. If it doesn’t sound right or it feels a bit off, it is. A few days ago I was working on a cover letter (job searching is no fun) and I put “an” before a word that started with “H” and Microsoft Word said it needed to be “a”. So, I did a little research. Turns out, my gut instinct was right.

The proper usage for “a” or “an” is not whether it comes before a word starting with a consonant or vowel, it’s whether it comes before a word that sounds like a consonant or vowel.

For Example:

An hour (hour sounds like the vowel “o”)
A hiker (hiker sounds like like the consonant “h”)

An only child (only sounds like the vowel “o”)
A one-horse race (one sounds like the consonant “w”)

An MBA (MBA sounds like the vowel “e”)
A mechanic (mechanic sounds like the consonant “m”)

So it’s the sound of the word, not just the first letter. I have to say, I totally do not remember ever learning the rule that way, but it’s way easier to remember.

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Naming Pluto

I think many of us who grew up with the knowledge that Pluto was the ninth planet are a bit sad at its demotion to dwarf planet. But the story behind its name is way cool–and it has nothing to do with the Disney dog. Well, not exactly.

On March 14, 1930, the frozen and lonely Planet-X orbiting in the far reaches of our solar system got its name from a British girl. 11-year-old Venetia Burney was having breakfast when her grandfather read aloud from the newspaper about the new planet. He wondered what it would be called. After a pause, Venetia replied, “Why not call it Pluto?” Pluto was a Roman God of the underworld and Venetia thought it fit very well with the other planetary names.

Venetia’s grandfather, Falconer Madan, was a librarian who was friends with many astronomers. He dropped a note to astronomer Herbert Hall Turner who then cabled the idea to astronomers at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Percival Lowell founded the observatory and formed the efforts that discovered Pluto 14 years after his death. Venetia was not familiar with Percival Lowell, but the astronomers who were thinking of names found Pluto to be fitting because of the coincidence of the first two letters being “PL”. The name was official in May of 1930.

It has been a persistent notion over the years that the planet was named after the Disney character. But in fact, it was the other way around. 

Venetia Burney Phair died in April of 2009 at the age of 90. She proves that girls rock–even at 11.

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The XYZ Affair

I was reading a (children’s) book on the Presidents and ran across The XYZ Affair on the John Adams page. It sounded so contemporary and intriguing, like it could be the title of the next James Bond movie.

John Adams, the country’s first Vice President, beat Thomas Jefferson in the 1796 race for President. As our 2nd President, Adams held the same beliefs as George Washington in his desire to keep the U.S. neutral in the war between France and Britain. However, American shipping was suffering as a result of the fighting. After the French attacked U.S. ships in 1797, Adams sent diplomats to France to negotiate a commercial agreement to protect U.S. shipping and for peace talks.

Three French agents suggested America pay a bribe of $250,000 to Talleyrand, the French Foreign Minister, and a $10 million loan to France as a prelude to negotiations. In April 1798, the scheme of the three French agents (referred to as X, Y and Z in the diplomatic correspondence) was made public and the scandal became known as The XYZ Affair. There was public outcry and many Americans were very angry and wanted war with France. 

There was a period of undeclared naval warfare between France and the United States, but a formal war was avoided. In 1800 Adams sent more diplomats to France and this time they were successful and a peace treaty was signed. Adams ran for President again that year but lost to Thomas Jefferson.

Interesting Facts: John Adams established the U.S. Navy and ordered the first warships to be built • Thomas Jefferson was Adams’ Vice President • Fierce rivals after Adams lost his re-election to Jefferson, they became close friends as time passed • Adams died on July 4, 1826, just hours after Jefferson died • Thomas Jefferson was George Washington’s Secretary of State and wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Space Junk

Last night was another episode of The Universe and the topic was Space Junk. I have only recently heard about space junk, but it makes sense–wherever we go we produce debris. But space debris is in a category all on its own because it does come back home. That puts a whole new spin on our concept of meteors.

There are approximately 750,000 objects of debris larger than a centimeter orbiting the Earth at 17,500–28,000 miles per hour. There are an estimated 250,000+ additional objects that are too small to be detected. Space surveillance can only monitor 13,000 of these objects. Space junk consists of things like old satellites, space probes, rocket bodies, rubbish bags from the Mir Space Station, tools and even paint chips and drops of chemicals.

Space debris poses a threat to the International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope, shuttles and satellites. The tinniest piece can put a hole in an astronaut’s suit or the exterior of a shuttle. Even NASA needs to access the locations of the debris before they launch. And the more debris produced, the higher the risk is for a catastrophic event, in space or here on Earth.

All space junk eventually falls back to Earth as its orbital speed slows from atmospheric drag and the effects of our gravity bring it down. Much of it will burn up in the atmosphere but some of it does survive and strikes the Earth. Most of it lands in the oceans since the Earth is 70% water. What does hit land is generally unoccupied as 99.9% of the Earth is not occupied by a person at any given time (hard to imagine). There is one woman from Oklahoma who is the only known person to ever be hit by space junk (she was not injured).

Around 50–200 “larger” pieces of space debris return to Earth every year. Over the past 40 years, about 12 million pounds of space junk have survived re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Interesting Facts: In 1965, Gemini 4 astronaut Edward White lost a glove which stayed in orbit for a month. The oldest debris still in orbit is the US satellite Vanguard I launched in 1958, which worked for only six years. Experts calculate that debris will strike one of the 900 active satellites every two or three years.

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Andromeda (M31)

I was watching one of my favorite shows on History International last night called The Universe. The topic was galaxies and it so happens Andromeda is the closest to the Milky Way and the furthest object we can see without assistance.

The first recorded observation of Andromeda was in the year 905 by a Persian astronomer. Charles Messier created the Catalogue of Nebulae and Star Clusters (1771-1784) and entered the object as the 31st item. The name M31 is referred to as the object's Messier number in which the M is followed by his catalogue number. He theorized the object was a nebula (cloud of gas and dust) and it wasn't until 1923 that American astronomer Edwin Hubble measured the distance to M31 and showed that it was a distant galaxy.

This is the coolest fact. The spiral galaxy of Andromeda is the furthest object in the universe that can be seen with the naked eye. It is 2.5 million light-years from Earth (light travels at 186,000 miles per second). Andromeda is believed to have between 300 billion and 400 billion Suns. It's diameter of about 200,000 light-years makes it appear five times larger than the full Moon in our sky.

Andromeda and the Milky Way are moving toward each other at about 75 miles per second. The two galaxies will eventually collide and form a single, giant elliptical galaxy. The process will start in about 2 billion years and completely merge by about 5 billion years from now. The black holes at the center of the two galaxies will combine to form a single, supermassive black hole potentially forming a quasar. Computer models suggest that our Sun and solar system will survive but will likely be thrown into the distant outer halo of the new combined galaxy.

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I.