Happy Independence Day! Tomorrow is Aphelion Day, when the Earth is furthest from the Sun at just over 94.5 million miles.
The extreme heat wave in the Pacific Northwest a few days ago clearly shows that the distance between the earth and the sun is not the reason for the seasons. Unfortunately, it is very likely that heat waves like the one we had last week will be more frequent.
We can handle very hot days here in the Central Valley because most of our homes and businesses have air conditioning (while electricity is still running), but most places in the Pacific Northwest don’t have air conditioning.
When my wife came home from a trip to the east late at night, she pointed to a bright star in the southeast and asked if it was Venus. Reasonable guess because the star is very bright, but Venus is now our “evening star”, visible deep in the west shortly after sunset.
The bright star we saw at almost 1 a.m. is Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, but because of its great distance from us, it appears weaker than Venus. A large brownish-yellow waning domed moon also appeared just above the horizon, one day from the third quarter.
The moon tonight will be a waning crescent so the moon won’t wash away any of the fireworks. The moon will be in the new moon phase on Friday and the first quarter will take place on July 17th. That said, there are some nice shots of a waxing crescent moon next to bright Venus in the evening next week.
July 11th will be especially great because Venus is right next to Mars (about a thumb’s breadth at arm’s length to the right of Mars). A little further to the right is a thin waxing crescent moon. All three may just barely fit in the same field of view of your binoculars.
The following night, July 12, Venus is only a little finger away from Mars, but the moon does not fit into the field of view of the binoculars.
My last trip included a night in Washington, DC, and one place we visited was the International Spy Museum. The various tour websites say it takes people an hour or two to get through, but it took my wife and I more than four hours just to do the first floor and we had to rush through the second floor to give us time Had to grab a quick bite to eat before heading to the airport. We read all the signs in museums.
One of the messages from the ISM was to draw reasonable conclusions from incomplete data and not know the full context of your data, a context that can radically change the meaning of the data.
It made me think of all the media hype surrounding the recent report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on UFOs (also referred to in the report as “unidentified aerial phenomena”). There have been over 140 sightings referenced in the report since 2004, all but one that the experts called in by the US government cannot explain.
This media noise is of course due to the fact that many people are very willing to make a big logical leap from the “unidentified flying object” to immediately identify it as an alien alien spaceship without considering more prosaic explanations.
The saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” means that the burden of proof rests on those who make claims about alien alien spaceships. You have to prove that the UFO cannot be anything but an alien alien spaceship. (For more information on this burden of proof, do a Google search for “Sagan Invisible Dragon”.)
People from all demographic categories have seen UFOs, but it is people from the United States who report the vast majority of sightings. The reasons most of the sightings reported are from those in the US is because of our very strong individualistic culture, which focuses on individual experience and expertise; our distrust of the federal government (often for very good reasons); and people here believe we live in a country with a technology that is superior to any other country. People in other countries who see a UFO are more likely to attribute it to new US war technology than to an alien spaceship. Context makes a big difference in how data is interpreted.
While as a skeptic of UFOs as extraterrestrial extraterrestrial spaceships I don’t have to disprove the hypothesis, I’ll point you to a nice one-sided guide to extraterrestrial UFOs published by Andrew Fraknoi bit.ly/ufoskeptic and Mick West’s investigation into the Navy videos of the strange phenomena that have featured in the media several times (see Fraknoi’s list for the links). Spoilers: The videos that are making the rounds in the media can be explained by definitely mundane and boring things, including camera optics artifacts.
Contributing columnist Nick Strobel is the director of the William M. Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College and the author of the award-winning website AstronomyNotes.com.