Thinking out loud

If we were microscopic and inside a live brain, we’d see a large network of neurons.  From that vantage point, it would be tough for us to understand how what was going on in that network related to the outside world.

Biological neuron schema

This thing helped me balance the checkbook today (Image via Wikipedia)

I wonder if the universe we see from our tiny spec is similar.  Not that we’re inside a big brain, but that the universe isn’t really what it seems to be from where we sit.

(Sorry, too many “How the Universe Works” shows over the holidays).

Let’s go

There’s a new Earth.

It’s only 600 light years away.

Considering our galaxy is about 100,000 light years in diameter, that’s pretty darn close.

But, still large by our technological standards.

Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

100,000 light years

If this planet happens to have spawned or attracted intelligent life that use radio frequencies, like ours, they might start picking up some of our broadcast signals in about 550 years.

The good news is, if its intelligent life started using radio frequencies anywhere near 600 years ago, we might start to receive some of their signals soon.

If we decided to send a probe, with current technology we might be able to get there in about (if my calc’s are right) 10 million years.

Better start brushing up on how to tesseract.

Good news and bad news

Good news…

A super-earth has been found.  It’s about 3.6x bigger than earth and only 35 light years away.

Bad news…

No reason for real estate markets to react.  It’s 35 light years away (that’s small on a universal scale, but a very long way at the speeds we can travel).

More bad news…

If it supports intelligent life that has learned to communicate with radio, like we have, within the last 30 to 35 years, we’d probably be hearing something from them by now.  I think.


Here’s a very nice set of photos from our solar system published at The Atlantic.

For the we-never-went-to-the-moon conspiracists, I always thought we should be able to gain some proof from viewing the remnants left behind like the flag, any space junk and tracks.  Photo 12 is just what I had in mind.  It shows tracks from the rovers and the descent stage booster of the lunar module taken on January 25 of this year.

Of course, I know folks can still claim that photos are not incontrovertible proof in this day of photo editing software, but it’s still neat.

Next, I’d like to see a photo of the flag.

It’s big

In the previous post, I lamented that handling failure wasn’t a lesson that we teach folks very well.

Here’s one way to cope with it.  Remind yourself how big the universe really is.

The Atlas of the Universe can help.  It shows the universe around our Sun at different scales from 12.5 light years to 14 billion light years.

It’s nice to know that the closest star in our relatively crowded galaxy is a mere 4.5 light years away.  That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?  Why not send a probe?  Well Voyager, which moves at a brisk 35,000 miles per hour, would take more than 10,000 years to get there.

The center of our galaxy is roughly 20,000 light years away.  And there are several hundred billion galaxies out there.

Here’s another interesting look at the scale of objects around us.

A star is born

It’s difficult to imagine that this kind of stuff is out there.

Hubble has uncovered delicate filaments of gas and a pocket of young star clusters in the giant object, which is known as Hanny’s Voorwerp (“Hanny’s Object” in Dutch). Hubble’s new photos provide the sharpest view yet of Hanny’s Voorwerp, researchers said, and reveal a star-birthing region in the object.


An Honor

Russ Roberts, economist, blogger, author (among other things) added a new category to Cafe Hayek.  The new category is Dinner Table Economics.  He wrote:

I want to start a new category of posts here called “dinner table economics,” questions involving economics for talking about over the dinner table. I want to top my hat to Seth’s blog, Our Dinner Table that gave me the idea.

I am honored and humbled that my blog gave him the idea to start this new category.  Naturally I think that’s a great idea and I look forward to reading and learning from his posts.

The first topic of that category: a study linking vaccinations to autism.  One of the key studies showing this link may be corrupt.     Roberts writes:

What we talked about at dinner was whether it was a good idea to vaccinate and how would you know whether vaccination had side effects such as autism. This got us into a discussion of  what an experiment is, how reliable is an experiment, the ideas of causation and correlation, sample size, spurious correlation and so on.

Great topic.  Call something a ‘study’ carried out by ‘experts’ and it gains instant credibility with many people.  News anchors seem to love how that rolls of their tongues.  A new study out today in the Journal of such-and-such says that this causes an X% greater chance of that.

Tell people to be skeptical of studies and do some due diligence before drawing a  conclusion and they look at you like you must be thick.  It’s a study.  It was carried out by experts.  It’s peer reviewed. All good stuff, but none of it means it’s right.  Believing it’s right without looking into is faith.

I got early exposure to be skeptical of conclusions drawn on experiments and studies from physicist Richard Feynman’s book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), which I highly recommend.  One of Feynman’s specialties was poking holes in others’ experiments.  If I recall, even in a discipline like physics, conclusions were often polluted by the bias of the experimenters and mistakes.

Back to the vaccination study.  A local TV news story a few years ago featured a child who developed autism soon after receiving his vaccinations.  I’d find such news stories better if the reporter consulted with folks like Mr. Feynman or Mr. Roberts to provide a more complete picture and remind us that one story does not establish cause and effect.

Even the skeptical me can be swayed by a personal story.  Such stories are powerful.  That’s why politicians love to have mascots (thanks for that one Sowell) to call on during speeches.   But, what we don’t realize is that we are often swayed by the exception (HT: Don Boudreax of Cafe Hayek), not the rule. And we might be wrong.