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.

Thank you from the future

Being a professor at Caltech, I get to dress up in a gown and funny hood one morning every June and sit on stage, watch hundreds of new Doctors and Masters and Bachelors go by and listen to a commencement speaker impart words of wisdom on the graduates. One June, a few years ago, I even got to be one of those commencement speakers. I spoke at the graduation ceremony for Cal State LA in their football stadium, with 20,000 people in the audience – a personal record that I suspect will never be exceeded – and my image projected, rock star style, on multiple giant screens around the stadium. I had a few butterflies in my stomach that morning. But I managed to give a speech that I ended up liking. It went something like this:
First, I’d like to thank President Rosser for inviting me to be here to share this morning with you. I’d like to thank all of the students for inviting me, too, except that I can see all of you down there discretely picking up your programs and flipping through saying “um, who exactly is this guy again and why is he here?” So let me help you out with those two because really if you ask your neighbor he or she probably won’t know either, but that’s OK.
Who am I? You got the quick intro: astronomer, professor at that much smaller university about 5 miles north of here, discoverer of the 10th planet or perhaps destroyer of the 9th planet depending on who you talk to. And I guess those are the official qualifications for why I’m here talking to you today. But let me tell you how I would actually introduce myself if we met out in the parking lot. I’d probably ask where you were from and I’d say “oh I’m your neighbor; my house is about 10 miles up the road that way.” And then I would probably tell you that I teach geology classes to large groups of Caltech freshmen many of whom seem to have never been outside during the daytime before I take them and make them look at the world around them. And then I would start talking about my wife and our 11 month old daughter and you’d have to find a way to get me to shut up because, you know, you need to be somewhere by dinner time and I might keep talking for weeks.
OK. So that’s who I am. The next question is: why am I here? The goal of a commencement speech is to give you a seed of advice at this precise turning point in your life – some seed that is going to implant in you and grow and help steer you as you commence on your new life. It’s a powerful idea that that I could do that, that I could transfer a little bit of wisdom from me to you to help steer through all of the cross currents and distractions of real life to finally get to your ultimate goal. Now that would be seriously influential.
But I’ve got bad news for you, though. I’ve got no advice to tell you how to get along in life. No little words of wisdom. No seeds to plant. As my wife will attest, I barely know how to get along in life myself, and if I had any seeds I probably set them down somewhere in the other room and now I can’t remember where I put them even though I just had them a second ago. I can’t really give you any advice on how to get to the future because the most important thing that you will realize – which you probably already realize since you have made it this far -- is that really you just have to figure it all out on your own. OK maybe that even counted as advice, but if that’s all you get after all of those years of classes and driving and rearranging schedules to get here on time then you should really ask for your money back. No, really, I’ve got no advice to give, unless, of course, you wanna run off and find planets, then I’m definitely your guy. But otherwise? Nothing really.
So I thought: what can I do? No advice to give, but I’m supposed to talk for ten minutes I can just try to be funny for a few more minutes then we can get on with the serious business of whooping and hollering as all 3600 of you walk across the stage. Then I remembered what my wife told me: scientists are not funny people. Why do you think they put them all in the far back of the stadium there? Not funny at all. Don’t even try.
So I’m going to go out on a limb and try to do something that is a lot harder than trying to be funny, which is trying to be serious. I do have something I want to tell you, which is maybe better – or at least more rare – than advice. I want to tell you thank you. Thank you for everything that you’ve done to be sitting right there right now. But really this is not from me, I really want to tell you thank you from the future. And you might think that I am uniquely qualified to talk about the future since I’m an astronomer and all, but, um, really, being an astronomer has very little to do with predicting the future. That’s an ASTROLOGER. They’re the ones that get paid better. But people do get confused all the time.
So it’s not that I am an astronomer and thus know the future, no, I think that the one qualification maybe I have for talking about the future really is my 11 month old daughter. Some of you down here – and certainly many of you out there – know what having a child does to you: you immediately start projecting to the world of the distant future, but you also start thinking a lot about the past and your own parents.
So before I start talking to much about the past, first let me ask: How many of you are in the first generation of your family to go to college? (At Cal State LA first generation college students make up the majority of the population.) This thanks goes to you, but the rest of you need to listen to because it will be your job to pass this thanks on to the right person in your own family.
So first, let me admit: I’m not one of you. I’m in the second generation to go to college.
My father grew up in a small Missouri cotton farming town along the Mississippi River. My mother grew up in a small Illinois manufacturing town along the Mississippi River Neither of their parents had gone to high school in their little river towns. My mother’s family came from recent German immigrants and ran a series of grocery stores in town. My father’s family came from all over – Ireland, France, Nebraska, Pennsylvania – before settling down along the river and opening a small business repairing the newly invented TV sets. By the end of the 1950s with college opportunities beginning to expand around the country they both set off to do something no one in their family had never done: go to college. My mother traveled down the river to the big town of St. Louis; my father went up the river to the big town of St. Louis; and they both arrived at St. Louis University with little idea of what was in store for the next 4 (or 40) years
My mother and father both went to college in the 60s and so in my family there really wasn’t much question of college vs. no college. It was simply a where (in Alabama the choice was usually based on whether you were a fan of the University of Alabama or the Auburn University football team). But things were different for my parents. My father grew up in a small cotton farming town along the Mississippi. My mother grew up in a manufacturing town further north along the Mississippi populated by German immigrants.
And, so, in case you haven’t figured this part out yet, my parents are you.
And if my parents are you, I am your children.
You are my parents. I am your children. Your children, though, will never quite understand this well enough to thank you for all that you did. So I’m going to thank you instead.
I’ve got a second thank you that I need to say this morning. It’s not really for you, so I’m only going to give it to you so that you can pass it on. And this is the thanks for the parents and the siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins and everyone else who is here supporting you today and who has been supporting you through all of this. Those people – all of you out there – are like my grandparents pushing their children from opposite ends of the Mississippi River in the same direction towards their own goals. The funeral for my grandmother – the last of my living grandparents – was just this last Monday in that little Mississippi River town. Until I sat down to think about what I was going to say this morning to you it never really occurred to me to think very hard about all that she had gone through that allowed me to be where I am today. It certainly never occurred to me to tell her thanks. But she deserves the same thanks that I just extended to you. I wish this one could be from me to her, but I’ll have to settle for from the future to all of you. For your parents out there, your grandchildren – present and future – thank you for all of the things that you did that will make their lives better, even though they won’t really know most of them.
Once you start thanking people it actually gets kind of addictive. Particularly when you are actually doing the thanking for someone else in the future. I’ve thanked you from your children and from your grandchildren, but I’ve got one more that is a little closer to home for me. I think a lot about my daughter these days and I think a lot about the future that she is going to have. In maybe 21 years or so – let’s say June of 2027 -- she could be sitting down right there where you are now. What will the world be like then? I sometimes think the bad thoughts: with 20 more years of global warming will LA be a place that we can live? Will the WORLD be a place we can live? Will the top speed on the freeways be 10 MPH? Will some psychopath figure out how to get a nuclear device into LA before Jack Bauer can stop him? But you think the good thoughts, too: in 20 more years maybe people will have learned to be nicer and more understanding. For the most part, though, most of these things are going to be imposed on us all from the outside and there will be little we can do. [sorry; this is a commencement speech faux pas. I’m not supposed to admit to you that much of what happens in the world you can do little about. Ok, for the record everything is possible you can be anything you want to be and completely change the world and we all believe in you to do anything. OK? OK. Now back to the real world]. OK, no, but really most of the thoughts that I have when I think about what the world will be like in my daughter’s future involve things that few of us – no matter how influential Time magazine says we are – can do much about. They are just the fabric of life, the collective interactions of the millions of people living out their lives at the same time in our community. And I can’t tell the future, so as much as I try to use the Tarot cards they issue you with the astronomy degree to predict what is going to happen, I really have absolutely no clue whatsoever. But there is one thing that I know – one part of my daughter’s life and future – that will be a constant no matter which of these things – good or bad – comes about. That one part will be you. You are the future fabric of this community of Los Angeles. You know, somewhere out there might be my daughter’s mayor – and by now you gotta trust that I don’t mean that in the cheesy commencement speech “you can be anything” kind of way – I mean that in the very literal “somewhere out there might be my daughter’s mayor or maybe city council member or Senator or whatever” way. Really. It actually seems pretty likely doesn’t it? Somewhere out there might be the high school English teacher that inspires my daughter to go write the great American novel. Somewhere out there might be her older next door neighbor who feeds her cats when she is out of town. Somewhere out there might be the parents of her husband. [If so we will need to talk right after this ceremony is over]. Somewhere might be the owner of the first company she ever works for. Somewhere might be the doctor who delivers my own daughter’s own daughter. Big parts of the fabric of her life, of the fabric of this city are sitting right here.
So, as her father, I’d like to thank you. It will never occur to her to thank you for anything since you’re the fabric and people tend to take fabric for granted, but I’ll thank you from the future for making and being the city and community of her future.
And, OK, I have one request. Really just one thing for you to remember to do when you leave here today. (And, of course, don’t forget what I said before about thanking those people who are here for you today). I still really don’t have meaningful advice, but I do have this one request. You guys are the Los Angeles of my daughter’s future, the fabric of her life in this community. And I just ask that you be nice to her. And to look out for her. It’s not too much to ask of you is it? Just to be nice to someone? Like she’s your own daughter, or your baby sister, or your favorite niece? And I meant to bring with me a big poster board picture of what she looks like so you could know who you were promising to look out for and be nice to, but I got up way too early this morning – astronomers aren’t traditionally morning people – so I just plain forgot. No baby pictures for you, so you really don’t have any way of knowing what she looks like – although you probably wouldn’t go wrong by looking for someone who looks an awful lot like me but is a good bit shorter and much much much cuter– but still, you’ll never know for sure which one of the toddlers then kids then teens then adults that she is, so really I guess the only safe way to honor my request to be nice to my daughter is just to be nice to everyone. And look out for them. You are the future of everyone’s community of Los Angeles and I want you to look out for everyone. It will make the Los Angeles of all of our futures a better place to be.

Sony Pictures and the end of the world

Based on all the email inquiries that I’ve been getting lately, it seems pretty clear that the world is going to end in 2012, and it is at least partially my fault.
The email inquiries are, of course, generally misguided: the world is not going to end in 2012, and whether it does or doesn’t has little to do with me.
For years I’ve been getting these emails, asking if Eris, the biggest of the dwarf planets, and something that actually does exists, is somehow related to Nibiru, a made-up planet allegedly known to the Sumerians that, in fact, does not actually exist. The main reason for the confusion is that both the real Eris and the mythical Nibiru have extremely elliptical orbits. The non-existent Nibiru does things that the real Eris can never do, however: in 2012 this made-up planet is supposed to swing close by the earth and, well, destroy life as we know it. Bummer.
I try to respond to most of the email that I get from people who are generally interested in understanding more about the universe around them, but I tend to simply ignore inquires about 2012 or Nibiru or Sumerians. People interested in this type of pseudo-science tend to be uninterested in understanding the scientific reasoning which shows that those beliefs are unfounded. But lately I have been getting an ever-increasing amount of this email along with frequent phone calls from 2012 people. What is different this time is that these people sound truly worried. One voice mail I received said “I’ve got kids; this really scares the hell out of me. Is there something I should be doing? Is this real?” He left an email address. Slightly shaken at his tone, I wrote back saying that, no, this is one of those crazy internet hoaxes and that I’ve got a four year old myself and my biggest worry for 2012 is what she is going to be like as a seven year old. He wrote back relieved. Weird, I thought. This didn’t seem like typical pseudo-science wackiness. This guy was inherently skeptical about the 2012 claims, and was happy when someone with a ring of authority told him there was nothing to it, but, still something had made him worried enough that he had tracked down some astronomer he had never met and called him to reassure him about the safety of his family.
What gives?
Curious about why some people are more than usually worried about this sort of stuff, I actually read a piece of spam I got this week from something called the “Institute for Human Continuity.” It seemed ever so slightly more slick than usual:
As the Communications Director of the Institute for Human Continuity, I'd like to thank you for taking an active role in preparing yourself for 2012. Please note your ticket is only valid for one person. Therefore, we strongly suggest that you encourage your friends and family to register for lottery numbers at TheIHC.com.
The IHC has uncovered evidence indicating that the disasters of 2012 are both real and unavoidable. We believe with 94% certainty that exactly four years from today, cataclysmic events will devastate our planet and many who inhabit it. December 21, 2012 cannot be ignored.
Though the future is uncertain, there are several things we can and must do to prepare. You have already begun by entering the IHC lottery and visiting our website. In the coming weeks, I will be hosting an online discussion during which I will answer your questions and provide additional knowledge on how you can continue to prepare. You may submit your written questions to me via twitter and email. We will also be accepting video questions and will have more details for you in the coming weeks.
I look forward to receiving your questions and working together to ensure that the end is just the beginning.

Dr. Sorën Ulfert, PhD
Communications Director
The Institute for Human Continuity
Twitter: sorenulfert
Curious, I decided to check out the web page linked above. As I ran my mouse over the link, though, my eye was momentarily caught by the real address that popped up at the bottom of my browser:
Sony Pictures?
OK, now I was really intrigued.
Check out the web site yourself. It’s got press releases, an “education” section all about Planet X, a history of the IHC, and a list of the Ph.D.-heavy staff. Some even wear bow ties. And, hey, you can participate in a poll! (“Which sport would you like to see reestablished first after 2012?” I vote for stock car racing, though basketball and football might be doing better so far.) You are encouraged to sign up for a lottery to see if perhaps, by the grace of the IHC, you will survive the cataclysm. But your chances are limited, and the number of slots is almost full. Best act quickly, you are told. An odometer showing how many people have already signed up for their chance to live continuously increases in the upper right corner of the web site (8,422,601, as of this moment). Most of these people, sadly, are destined to die.
On occasion – usually late at night at a telescope trying to stay awake -- I amuse myself by going to similar apocalyptic sites. They all have a similar look and feel, sort of like the web equivalent of a typewritten piece of paper that has been Xeroxed dozens of times. It’s clear that they’re kooky just by looking at them.
This one is different. It is slick. It is professional. There is no obvious sign anywhere that this is the work of kooks.
And then, if you look ever so closely, you might note at the bottom that all of this is copyright 2009 by Sony Pictures. And you might see a link to the “2012 Movie Experience.” But you’d be forgiven if you missed these, what with the end of the world happening and all.
So the entire web site and spam that I received that directed me here is an advertisement. Except that it never says that. It purports to be a real site from real scientists with real concerns about the end of the world, but, in the end, it just wants to make a buck by having you go to what is likely to be a crummy movie.
If the spam email had tried to scare me about the end of the world and then directed me to a web site which turned out to simply advertise the movie, that would have been distasteful. But what is the right word for a spam email that tries to scare me to go to a web site which then tries to scare me even more and doesn’t even admit to being simply an ad for a movie. Well beyond distasteful. Disgusting? Outrageous? Putrid? Reprehensible?
Am I overreacting? It’s just a movie, right? And a witty viral ad campaign, right? At some point they will break the silence and say “Surprise! The world is not ending! This is just a movie! Aren’t we clever?” And we’ll all be so happy that we’ll decide the best way to celebrate is to go see a movie. Any movie except one from Sony Pictures.
Maybe at that point I’ll quit getting phone calls from people who are scared for the continued existence of their families. Or maybe not. Maybe this fear-mongering ad campaign is not the reason I’ve gotten so many more scared phone calls and email messages lately. Sadly, though, if it is the fault of the ad campaign, Sony Pictures would presumably be pleased.

Homeward bound

I’m on my way home today from a quick trip a third of the way around the world to use a telescope.
Astronomers are, of necessity, vagabonds. Sometimes the thing that you want to look at in the sky is only viewable from the southern hemisphere, so down to Chile you go. Sometimes the thing is so faint that only the biggest telescopes around are worthwhile, so it’s off to Hawaii. What’s rare, though, is to spend 24 hours flying from Los Angeles all the way to the Canary Islands – a group of high volcanic crags off the coast of Africa with a latitude almost identical to that of southern California – to use a telescope smaller than the one that is just a three hour drive from my house.
When, after a day of travel, I got to La Palma, the island whose highest peak is strewn with telescopes, and I stepped outside into the dark dark night sky, I was greeted with exactly the same sky that I see in Los Angeles. OK, there were many many more stars, but they were all in their right places, and nothing was there that I couldn’t have seen from home.
So why spend all of that time to travel to a telescope smaller than my local one when all of the same sights were visible? Because when it was night time in the Canary Islands the sun was still high overhead in southern California. And the thing I was hoping to see only happened right then. If I had stayed home and waited eight hours to look later I would have seen nothing.
Here is what I hoped to see: that night the funny oblong fast spinning dwarf planet Haumea was passing directly in front of one of its satellites (Namaka is its name). If I could determine precisely when it happened and how long it lasted I could learn many things about Haumea (its size and crazy shape, maybe also its interior structure) and also about Namaka (how big it is, how much it is being tugged around by the other satellite, Hi’iaka). But all of this was happening so far away that the only way I could tell when Namaka disappeared behind Haumea was that the total amount of light coming from Haumea should dip by about 1%, So at the telescope I spent two entire nights doing nothing but staring at Haumea and measuring precisely how bright it was every two minutes. For comparison, I also checked a couple of stars nearby at the same time. If they stayed steady while Haumea dipped in brightness I would know I was in business.
It all sounds so simple.
In reality, though, stars never stay the same all night long. They get brighter as they get higher in the sky and fainter as they drop. Even on the clearest nights they fluctuate due to changing atmospheric conditions. Seeing this tiny drop in brightness of Haumea in the face of all of this intrinsic variability is a tough task.
But I tried.
After two nights at the telescope I am leaving with my laptop filled with pictures of the sky and my hopes high. Did we see it? Did we detect this tiny dip which told us that Namaka disappeared? I think so. I have a plane ride from London to Los Angeles tomorrow to look at the data more closely and convince myself what might or might not be there. But I think so.
If we didn’t detect anything it’s bad news. Perhaps our predictions are off, or it’s just too small of a blip for us to ever really see. But if we did detect it then our work is really just begun. Turning that little blip in the sky into concrete information about Haumea and Namaka will take a lot longer than tomorrow’s plane ride. There will be many more such trips around the world to be in precisely the right place when it happens again. There will be detailed computer models of the exact time and depth and duration of the blips. There will be confusion and ambiguity. But that is all in the future. For now I have the simple pleasure of long uninterrupted plane ride where I can stare and poke at the data, catch up on some reading, and think about these dwarf planets. And at the end I get to pick up my daughter from school and she’ll ask “Daddy daddy daddy did you see any stars?” and I’ll tell her that I did, but that the stars here at home are always the very best ones in the sky.