Sunday, May 27, 2018

Alan Bean (1932 - 2018)

He's not even famous enough to trend on Facebook, but he's one of only 12 in our species to have walked on the moon. Alan was probably one of the most "human" and least "macho" of the astronauts: While all of other the astronauts jockeyed to be first on the moon, Alan didn't care what number he'd be, so long as he got there. While the majority of the astronauts seemed to live their lives fearlessly, Alan was quite up front about his fears: I know in some interview, he talked about how on the windows of the Lunar Module, it was 1/4 inch of glass separating life from death at all times. And while the other astronauts spent what little free time they did working on cars and hunting and fishing, Alan liked painting, and he continued to do so throughout his post-Apollo life.

While some may read that and paint him in some "less" of a light than the other astronauts, he was anything but incompetent. He was a test pilot, logging over 7,100 hours in a profession that doesn't forgive error. He was the fourth person to walk on the moon in the Ocean of Storms, in Apollo 12 under his test pilot instructor, Pete Conrad, no less. He, Pete, and Dick Gordon (all deceased, now) were probably the most tightly-knit crew of all that went to the moon, having all been friends beforehand. He also co-saved the mission of Apollo 12. When lightning rode the spacecraft’s contrail all the way up and down to Earth, all onboard electronics scrambled, causing them to fly blind. A (now-famous) flight controller named John Aaron issued a command to "try SCE to auxiliary". Astronauts train for a lot of situations, but nobody trained for that, let alone knew anything about this so-called “SCE” switch. But Alan did: He found it, flipped it, telemetry was restored, and they went to the moon.

Alan went on later to command Skylab 3, which set a world record at the time for 59 days in space. He also served as backup commander of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which famously involved the US meeting up with its formal space-rival, Russia, for the first time.

Rest in peace, Captain.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

New rocket launch, new coast

Old wounds 

Very few launches I’ve been to have been without some heavy amount of doubt as to whether the bird I’ve been hunting would actually take flight. Just two weekends ago, I was in California to watch a rocket launch to Mars, but although the rocket left the pad at the first possible day and moment that it could (each day for a month had a launch window a few hours long, but it didn’t need all that time), the ground was socked in with fog, and in a very tense battle against time, I made an about-face from the area and headed for the hills, arriving at a good spot only two minutes before liftoff. In my video, I’m still walking away from my car, dodging traffic as the orange fireball traveled southward across the night sky.

Fast forward two weeks later, now. An Antares 230 rocket remains poised on Pad 0A at Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia – the biggest rocket that flies out of there. The only other time I’d been here was to witness a tiny rocket shoot into a sub-orbital flight to deploy artificial clouds in the sky. Amazing as it was, it scrubbed ten times, only launching on lucky number 11. I live on the East Coast, but a pain-in-the-ass 5-6-hour drive from the facility. Excluding the days when it clearly was going to scrub for a weather, I drove down there a LOT. So many times that I’ve lost count, but probably seven of the eleven attempts, enduring a flat tire on the way that once scrubbed me and sent me home.  For me, seeing that launch became less about seeing the launch than saying “curse you” to fate, who clearly didn’t want me there.

"Eh, the hell with it"

So it was no surprise to me when the perfect launch time – Sunday morning (drive down Saturday night, drive back up Sunday morning, keep a few hours of your weekend intact) – came and went due to torrential rains. The launch had been scrubbed for Monday morning, with a friend’s friend on the inside saying mission planners were even eyeing a Tuesday launch. Even better, Weather Underground was calling for a 65% cloud cover over the area. My friend said I’d probably get a better view of the launch staying home.

Oh, and another thing: This thing was going to the International Space Station. I won’t sugar coat it: all things being equal, I’d rather see a launch going anywhere but to one of our orbiting satellites. A rocket headed to the ISS can’t just go at any time: It takes fuel to get into orbit, and it takes fuel to catch up to a satellite in space. When chasing something going 17,000 miles per hour, you don’t have a lot of leeway on when you can launch. NASA gives 10-minute launch windows for ISS launches, and they actually aim for the sweet spot, 5 minutes in, effectively creating 5-minute launch windows. During that time, there better not be anything wrong with the rocket: No leaky valves, broken fuel pumps, strange readings or other such tomfoolery. But there also better be good weather: No lightning nearby, and certain clouds are a no-no. Also, no stray boats or airplanes downrange of the rocket. They don’t want people in the area when things go boom. (And yes, this rocket has gone boom in the past.)

Ehh, the hell with it, I thought. I’ll go.

To borrow from the millennials, I have extreme FOMO (fear of missing out) when it comes to these things. I will never forgive myself for being so discouraged by freezing my face off at Kennedy Space Center one winter night (by night, I mean 4:00 am), having a scrub called, and booking a flight home that same day, only to watch space shuttle STS-129 launch the next night. I could’ve stayed, but I was so worn and jaded from multiple launch attempts of STS-127 that I thought it couldn’t possibly go off the following day…and it did.

Packed up the car with a rollaboard filled with one night’s change of clothes, and hit the road on Sunday night, with an augmented plan: because of the predicted cloud cover around the launch site, I would do something similar to Vandenberg: I’d watch from about 40 miles away. Cape May, NJ, the end of the Garden State Parkway, with an unobstructed ocean view down to the Delmarva Peninsula, would be my night’s target. I wouldn’t hear any sound from the launch (I think – I did hear sound 20 miles away from the Mars mission, so who knows), but I’d get a better view of the arc in the sky from the launch that I wouldn’t benefit from by being close. Also, it shaves a good two hours off the drive each way, which is no small deal when driving through the night.

The bad weather dilemma

Nearing the Atlantic City Expressway, an interesting update came from the website SpaceflightNow:
The launch weather officer at Wallops just briefed the Antares team, and the outlook remains favorable for liftoff at 4:39:07 a.m. EDT (0839:07 GMT).The forecast has improved somewhat over the last day, with meteorologists now predicting a 75 percent probability of favorable weather at launch time.A cold front is expected to pass through the Wallops Island region around launch time, bringing a slight chance of showers to the area.But most of the precipitation should be away from Wallops at 4:39 a.m., with a few clouds at 6,500 feet, a few cloud at 10,000 feet, and a broken cloud deck at 25,000 feet in the forecast.
This was a real dilemma: I made a decision not to head to Wallops specifically because the weather was gonna suck down there. If I went down there and the weather started trending badly, the 12-hour drive would be a dud. I decided to shot the moon; with launch at 4:45 am, the GPS time to Wallops at 4:05 hours, and it being five minutes past midnight, this decision had to be made immediately. And, it was going to be another nail-biter like last time. With no room for error, there was a reasonable chance we wouldn’t make it there on time.

I was to drive a few more miles, then take the Atlantic City Expressway westbound to the New Jersey Turnpike, then proceed from there as usual. The whole thing would add another hour to the trip. But oh, how strange:  Some recent construction on the Garden State Parkway resulted in exit numbers being switched.  I almost ended up in Atlantic City rather than Philadelphia!  With four hours of driving and little room for error, this was not needed right now.

The launch

The rest of the trip was uneventful, and ignoring requests from my stomach and bladder, I even made up some time.  Got into position about 30 minutes before launch, and surprisingly was the first one there!  (If this were Kennedy Space Center, people would have been in position 6 hours before that!)

Camera all set...5, 4, 3, 2, wouldn't record!  Not sure what happened, but I could not get it to turn on!

Well, I captured this a few seconds after lift-off:

And one bonus feature of it being a night launch, I was able to catch the second stage, too:

Am I sad that I didn't catch the whole thing?  Of course.  But a lot of people haven't seen a launch.  I've been so fortunate to have seen so many.  It's a privilege, and I'll never forget that.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

A Cinco de Mayo Launch to Mars, Part 2

I may have risen to consciousness twice during that long flight to LA.  Which is just fine, because last night, I drove from LAX to Ventura, CA, slept in a hotel for less time than it took me to drive to Ventura, and then hit the road at 1:00 am for the 4:05 am launch window for the Mars InSight lander from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

We knew what we were getting into

The weatherheads had predicted for days that this would be a foggy night, but usually in those same breaths, someone would say that launch would proceed as planned, anyway:  There were other ways to see through the fog.  But what that meant is that tonight would not be a slam dunk:  In fact, it might be anything but, because many-a-website would tell you the optimal places to see a Vandenberg launch, but none tells you what to do when fog tops 700 feet in the sky.

I love driving up the 101 in SoCal (when it's not on fire).  Emerging out of the mountains from the 405, viewing the vista ahead, the ocean, the fields, the distant mountains...too bad you get almost none of that at night.  Sometimes, it's hard even to know that you're driving right up on the coast.  Enter CA-154:  A long, windy road up a steep mountain and through the Los Padres National Forest.  (A few weeks before I got there, two cars smashed into each other, each traveling at highway speeds.)  After traveling upstairs forever, when you start to wonder if you should worry about air traffic scraping the sunroof, you begin the inevitable long descent into Santa Barbara wine country, where admittedly, I've spent many a delicious day at various points in the past.

My dad was with me in the car.  (He didn't want me to fall asleep behind the wheel.  Also, he's a space nut like me.)  On this night, the descent down the hill required a descent into the fog.  It was at this point that we realized that there was a good chance we weren't going to see anything at all, but my dad was all too optimistic for me and urged me forward.  So I pulled over on the road in the middle of some farmer's crop and asked my dad to get out of the car and count all the stars he could see.  "Zero", he said.  With a 4:05 am scheduled launch, and at 3:10 am, in the middle of a vegetable field just inches from Vandenberg, we made the painful decision to U-turn, backs to the action and headed, full steam, away from the site that would soon be bathed in surreal-bright sodium orange from the booster rocket in 55 minutes.

The misguided trip that had us turn back and head almost
halfway home.

First thought was to head out to the coast toward Gaviota, but that attempt was met with fog.  So we boogied on up to CA-154 for the mountain top.  Unfortunately, it is an exceedingly long journey to the top, and painful when you know that a rocket launch is imminent and 10 minutes away.  Make that 9 minutes, 8....


3:58 am, 3:59, 4:00....  My dad pressured me to pull over every minute so he could setup shop with his camera, but the problem was, we were on the wrong side of the mountain.  Eventually, I caved at 4:01 am, stopping at a scenic overlook that couldn't have more trees in the direction of the launch.  Sheeyit!

Hit the road again...4:02 am, 4:03....  Finally, at 4:03 am, we reached the top of the hill, parked, and scrambled out of the car.  4:04 am....

Launch time

No time for a tripod.  Oh, and we didn't know really where to look, either.  But shortly, a corner of the sky started oranging up.  With camera in hand and rolling, I was still dodging traffic coming down the mountain.  Oops!  Also, my dad and I had an agreement not to talk while it happened, but if you scroll to the beginning of my video (which I've set to start at 0:01), you'll hear me politely telling him to STFU.  :)

What started as a menacing, orange circle quickly grew a tail and glided at approximately airplane-apparent speed, across the night's pitch.  Eventually the tail disappeared as the booster gave way, and the rocket crept closer and closer to orbit before finally disappearing, hundreds of miles away.

Rumble, rumble....

Forgive the video -- I didn't have time for a tripod, and in the first minute, I was still dodging traffic (that you can hear in the video) while trying to get up the hill and keep the rocket in frame (that last part I did with mixed success).

Unfortunately, the coolest part of the launch happened after I turned the video off:  A low, continuous rumbling starting coming in, vaguely from the direction of Vandenberg.  At three minutes away, that's ( 1225 km/hr speed of sound at sea level × ( 1 hr / 60 mins ) × 3 mins ) = 61 km/38 mi away!  Not bad for turning around 50 minutes before that.

Closing thoughts

My favorite launch certainly can't be one seen from 61 km away.  And this definitely was not my favorite.  But there was my first Vandenberg.  ...but on the other hand, there will be more Vandenbergs, and surely one or two launches in the future where I can actually see the launch pad!  But what made this really special was that this payload is headed to Mars!  Mars!!  It's May right now and I'm busy making summer plans.  This thing, faster than anything terrestrially bound, will be (hopefully) touching own on the Red Planet two days before they light the Rockefeller Christmas tree.  And that journey is only that "short" when the planets are close together!

The world is a cool place.  Most people take for granted that we can do things as extraordinary as this.  I hope I never lose the childlike wonder and curiosity that make things like this so special.

Friday, May 4, 2018

A Cinco de Mayo Launch to Mars, Part 1

I've been to...gosh, I've seen so many launches that I don't even know how many I've seen.  Approximately 8 shuttle launches, Ares 1-X, the Orion capsule test, a couple of Falcon 9s, Wallops Island's sounding rocket.  But I'm on my way to my first launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Why Launch in Florida or California?

Since we're on the topic of California, have you ever thought about why the US launches rockets from where we do?  Not many people think about this.  Florida's arguably the lightning capital of America:  You go down there in the heat of summer and you can pretty much set your watch by the afternoon thunderstorms.  (Apollo 12, the one after the famous Neil and Buzz landing, got struck by lightning on the way up.)  I can't even begin to tell you how many scrubbed launches I've been to in Florida due to weather.  So why launch from there?

Well, for one thing, ideally, you want to launch from a coast*.  Rockets are essentially controlled bombs, and sometimes, rockets are uncontrolled bombs.  And when they go out of control, you don't want their shrapnel landing on populated areas.  Or even un-populated areas, for that matter:  A lot of unmanned rockets contain small nuclear fission reactors on them because fission power is powerful and lightweight and perfect for exploring the solar system when no humans are around.  (Did you watch or read The Martian?  Recall when Mark Watney dug up the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator to heat his martian buggy and jokingly "cited" from the astronauts' manual:  "Lesson #1:  Never dig up the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.")  You don't want bomb-scattered radioactive material landing on land.

* Note:  Russia doesn't really have the option to launch from a coast, so they launch over a huge patch of nothingness land.

Another consideration when launching a rocket:  The Earth's rotation gives you free speed.  Earth rotates from east to west, and if you launch from west to east, you're going against its rotation, therefore picking up that rotational velocity for free.  If you stand at the South Pole, you're barely rotating at all.  But if you move to the equator, you're now at the fastest point of rotation.  So, the closer to the equator you launch, the faster you fly.  Hence, Florida.

So why California?  Well, we already know that California has a big coastline, so there's one reason.  But Vandenberg allows for something else:  You can launch rockets into polar orbits, ie. orbits where you fly over the North and South Poles.  The International Space Station flies at an orbital inclination of 51.6° with respect to the equator.  (The "why" of that is a really cool story but too long for this already-long post.)  So if you point your space shuttle at 51.6° northeast when you launch, your rocket will never get past 51.6° North or South latitude.  If you want a polar orbit, you must launch due North or South.  Satellites that survey the entire Earth get polar orbits.  Some spy satellites get polar orbits.  So that's why we use Vandenberg:  You can fly a rocket due south over water into a polar orbit.

Mars InSight Lander

The launch I saw is called the Mars InSight Lander.  As its name suggests, it's not a spy satellite:  It's headed to Mars as I write this blog post.  So it didn't really need a polar orbit.  But the reason why it launched from Vandenberg is because the launch manifest is too crowded at Kennedy Space Center right now.  This rocket has about a month's worth of launch windows to try to get to Mars, and if it doesn't go up before June, we'd have to wait another 26 months for Mars and Earth to align themselves to make a good launch.  (In fact, it was supposed to go up in 2016, but oops:  One of the instruments wasn't holding a vacuum in cold tests, so it was postponed until now.)  You want an un-crowded launch manifest so you can do this as many times as it takes to get off the ground.

InSight is different than the other robots we're sending to Mars.  Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity are all rovers acting as geologists, taking soil samples and analyzing them.  InSight is more of a seismic geologist:  It's measuring earthmarsquakes to determine what kind of plate tectonic activity there is, if any, drilling 16 feet into the Martian soil to understand the temperature of Mars's interior, and measuring the "wobble" of Mars's north pole to make infererences about the planet's core.  These measurements will not only help tell the tale of Mars's birth, but our own.

My Own Journey

Tonight, I'm flying out to Los Angeles, renting a car, driving two hours to a hotel, sleeping for less time than my drive, and then headed out into the foggy night to find Vandenberg, setup a camera, and hopefully capture the launch of this one-time event.

I've been to so many scrubbed launches that I just have to accept them as the cost of doing business.  But in this case, because I haven't taken any time off from work for this, I only have two shots for this to work:  tomorrow and Sunday.  May good fortune by on our side.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Aaron Sorkin at The West Wing Weekly

I'm no connoisseur of television, but The West Wing is the best-written, best directed, best-acted, best-scored, best-lit drama I've ever seen.  A sad sentiment shared by many of my fellow "wing nuts" is that there will probably never be a show on television like this.  Beside the fact that Aaron Sorkin is a once-in-a-generation screenwriting mind, this show is also simply too smart for today's studios.

So when the podcast The West Wing Weekly decided to do a taping in New York, of course I jumped at the opportunity to go.  (And believe it or not, I kicked myself a little bit for signing up to sing in Carnegie Hall rather than attend the taping in Boston, too.  ...yeah, I may be a nut bar.)

I'm probably embargoed from talking too much about the live taping I went to.  But I wanted to write a quick note about the ending:  This is a picture of host (and actor) Joshua Malina (who played Will Bailey on the series), screenwriter and living god Aaron Sorkin, and Emily Procter (who played the beautiful Republican Ainsley Hayes).  We're missing co-host Hrishikesh Hirway, who is obscured by a head and a large hat on the left side.

Dear reader, I don't know if you like (or liked) this TV show.  Although it's been off the air for over a decade, it remains my favorite TV show of all time.  I sadly doubt that there will ever be another West Wing.

This photo, below, shows Aaron Sorkin reacting to a read-out of fan letters, all telling about how the show has touched them deeply.  Honestly, the lump in my throat was so large, I wouldn't have been able to read these stories.  As Aaron finally said, when it was over, "I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight."

Aaron Sorkin reacting to fan letters
Aaron Sorkin reacting to fan letters
Thank you, Aaron, for all you did.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Practice, practice, practice...and then Carnegie Hall

I haven't sung in an organized group since college.  But I still keep (some of) my chops in order through joining my mom's church choir as a ringer during Christmas and Easter, doing numerous Handel's Messiah sing-throughs during the holiday season, and blasting through oratorios, requiems (I feel like the plural of "requiems" should be "requiae" or something), and opera choruses during summer sings with various choral groups.

I've performed [Mozart's Requiem] twice as a chorister and once in an orchestra, so Lazy Ted was happy not to have to do too much work.  I was wrong about that, but in a good way.

Rehearsal peeves (AKA, "I'm an arrogant bastard")

It's rare that I get to rehearse a piece, these days, and I kind of like that.  With my fast-paced [read:  harried] life, I don't have time to rehearse often, so I don't belong to a group.  And even if I did, most choral rehearsals repeat things ad nauseam as people learn the notes before being told the same things choir directors always hammer into you:  Enunciate your consonants, drop your diphthongs, follow the dynamics, be mindful of your phrasing and colors, keep your eyes out of the music.  And everything else is determined by the quirkiness of your conductor and what they want to do with the piece.  So, learning a choral piece means getting the notes down and then anticipating all of these things that have been drilled into you throughout the ages.

If you've been a choral singer for a long time, these things should be second nature to you, and yet, we still spend a lot of time reviewing them in rehearsal.  So when my mom's choir got an invitation to sing Mozart's Requiem with a bunch of other choruses at Carnegie Hall, I was pumped:  One combined rehearsal on Friday, one on Saturday, a quick one followed by a sound check on Sunday morning, and then the concert on Sunday afternoon.   Come into Friday's rehearsal thoroughly prepared. They were only sending five people from the group, and I asked if I could tag along.  Sure enough, I was let in.  And because we were only a group of five, we learned it on our own.

Nacho mama's requiem

I was also pumped because this was Mozart's Requiem:  I've performed it twice as a chorister and once in an orchestra, so Lazy Ted was happy not to have to do too much work.  I was wrong about that, but in a good way.  Ironically, Mozart died before finishing his requiem. The "standard" version we all know was finished by Mozart's student, Franz Xavier Sussmayr, who apparently lacked much in the way of compositional nuance.  In more plain terms, he sucked.  (He completed the work because Mozart's widow wanted the commission money.)  A lot of music scholars have pulled apart the Mozart Requiem, saying this doesn't sound like Mozart and that doesn't sound like Mozart.  So Robert D. Levin, musicologist, concert pianist, and Harvard music professor, did something about it:  He finished the requiem on his own terms.

The new rewrite is as meticulous as it is audacious (would you touch a 200-year-old piece?):  musical kinks got massaged out, lines extended, fugues added, and in one case, what was once a two-measure "Amen" got its own movement.  And it was also hard:  I dare say that every note added to the piece made it more difficult.

Two pages from the Robert D. Levin Mozart Requiem vocal
score.  The amazing thing about this picture is that not one
note, here, is in the original Sussmayr edition.
So, rehearsing it actually turned out to be a challenging, yet rewarding experience.

I was actually very nervous about showing up to rehearsal on Friday:  The piece is difficult and we were to be singing this in Carnegie Hall.  As it turned out, the other groups were high school and college-level choruses.  Nothing to worry about:  Some groups were quite good; some were very, very meh.  I didn't invite anyone to come.

The concert

Sure enough, I'm glad I didn't.  We actually had quite a nice dress rehearsal and sound check, and the conductor's advice was brilliant:  "Don't change a thing".  Well, sure enough, the high schooler next to me who never once wrote down a single conductor's note (not that it would have mattered, anyway -- you couldn't hear him while standing next to him) all of a sudden started paying attention.  The bass section rushed its way through many passages, even throwing me off.  At the end of the day, it wasn't my finest hour.

Backstage at Carnegie Hall
Backstage hallway at Carnegie Hall.
But that being said, Carnegie Hall, y'all!  I'm still glad I went.  And while this was my second time performing at Carnegie, it was my first time performing on-stage.  Last time, many moons ago, I was part of an off-stage chorus for Verdi's Requiem.  We sat and sang from the balcony.

So...yeah, it was imperfection at its finest.  A cacophony of hormonal singing and a lot of forgetting everything that was taught in the past three days because...Carnegie Hall, y'all!

That being said, would I do it again?  In the words of Sarah Palin, "You betcha!"

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Tiangong 1 satellite

This morning, I got up early to watch the Chinese satellite Tiangong 1 whiz by. (If you've been reading the news, Tiangong 1 is expected to burn up and crash to the Earth this weekend.)

And "whiz by", it did. It was "apparently" traveling 2-3 times faster than you'd see an airplane (or the International Space Station) fly over the night sky, which is to be expected because it's about 2¼ times lower in altitude than the ISS is right now, but traveling at approximately the same speed.

With the full moon, I didn't think I'd see it, nor capture it on my camera. But here it is: very little motion blur. Just a slightly long exposure with the ISO set to 800 (although in the photo I'm posting, I've jacked up the contrast a ton so you don't have to download the image to see it). In the center you'll see two "stars"; the one to the upper-left is actually Saturn and the one to the lower-right is Mars. Just to the left of Saturn, spaced approximately the same, is a much dimmer "star", and that is Tiangong 1, whizzing by in one of its last orbits ever.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Everything you ever wanted to know about black holes...and then some

[Teditor's Note:  I originally wrote this for Facebook and included a bunch of pictures in it.  Unfortunately, I own none of the rights to the pictures so I really don't feel comfortable posting them in a public blog.  (Too bad, some of them were bad-ass!)  So instead, I have to present a cut-and-dry account of black holes and hope that you, dear reader, make it to the end without needing caffeine pills.  Good luck!]

In honor of Stephen Hawking’s death, I wanted to do a write-up on black holes because this is the primary area of research he’s known for.  And while I think many people know a little bit about black holes, a) a lot of people get the details wrong, and b) they’re so much more amazing than you might realize.  Black holes are one of those topics that sucks me in (no pun intended...I swear!) and illustrates first-hand how truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

No joke, though:  This is going to be a loooong post.  And without any pictures, if this stuff ain't interesting to you, you're probably not going to make it to the end.  But if you maintain an open mind and can get fascinated that everything I'm talking about describes the universe we live in, then hopefully you'll get the same thrill from reading this as I did from writing it.

I’m going to be semi-scientific in the way that I write this.  Meaning, for example, that I may say two things “weigh” the same, even though in space I should be talking about mass.  But at the same time, I’m not going to dumb down a topic, either.

Also, in order to explain some things, I’m going to have to go into some back story first (although I think/hope they’ll be all interesting!).  You know that expression, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”?  (Isaac Newton)  A lot of giants have led us to where we are today in our understanding of these most exotic objects.

Black holes are not

Before we delve into what black holes are, it’s important to dispel some popular ideas first.
  • Black holes are not giant vacuums that suck up everything in existence.  If you were to remove our sun and replace it with a black hole that weighed the same, nothing would happen.  ...well, that’s not entirely true.  We’d all freeze, but we wouldn’t all be sucked up into it; Earth and the rest of our solar system would continue to swirl around the black hole until the universe died.  That’s because black holes operate on gravity; the same gravity that governs our sun, Earth, the solar system, and the apple that dropped on Newton’s head.  There’s nothing exotic about the gravity on the outside of a black hole.  There is exoticism about its size, though:  While our current laws of physics don’t prohibit a black hole the mass of our sun; there is currently no known mechanism to produce one that weighed that little.  But if we could find a black hole the mass of the sun, it would only be a couple of kilometers across (!!!!).
  • Black holes are not close by. Someone once asked me if there are any black holes in our solar system.  Nope.  Certainly not of any reasonable size...and again, there is no known method by which black holes get to be small (with one caveat*), but if there were, we would’ve detected it probably 200+ years ago because it would affect the orbit of our planets.
    Aside: In 1846, two astronomers used math to predict Neptune.  If Pluto is not a planet, then Neptune is the only planet that can’t be seen with the naked eye; nobody thought it existed until the math -- based on the wobble of Uranus’s orbit -- predicted not only its existence, but where it should be in the sky.  On September 23 of that year, a third astronomer pointed a telescope right where the math had predicted it would be, and there it was!  With that said, if a black hole were floating out somewhere in the solar system, our ancestors would have known about it.* Caveat: There is a theoretical object, “micro” black holes. But they would’ve only existed in the early universe and disappeared nearly instantly after creation.
  • Black holes are not black. If you were to look at one with your own eyes, it might appear black.  But, in fact, black holes are constantly radiating stuff out into space, even when they’re not “eating” anything.  More on this later.
  • Black holes are not forever.  More also on this later!

What are black holes and how do they form?

Most people know that a black hole is a region of space where so much gravity exists that not even light can escape it.  (Wait a sec...a second ago, I said black holes radiate is that possible if nothing can escape?  Patience!)  Consider that thought, for a moment.  Black holes are the densest things in the universe.  The second-densest thing is called a neutron star, so named because it's made of neutrons (scientists aren't always the creative type with names).  Neutron stars can weigh up to 3x the weight of the sun while being a little wider than Manhattan is long.

You can imagine that anything that dense would have some intense gravity, and you’d be right.  A common thing you hear is that a sugar cube’s worth of neutron star material would have the same weight as Mt. Everest.  (Others have said it would be the mass equivalent of squeezing every human on Earth into a sugar cube. But I like the Everest comparison better because: a) The size of humanity changes over time, and yes, Everest does, too, but at a much slower rate.  And b) That’s morbid.)  If you were to try putting that sugar cube in your coffee, it would fall straight through the Earth and leave an enormous crater in its wake.  But don’t worry about falling in, for you would have certainly died in the massive megaton bomb-equivalent energy release that would have followed.

You could definitely not walk on a neutron star:  Assuming you tried to land on one, your atoms would be crushed into the surface at a third the speed of light, probably causing some nuclear fusion on the way.  Ultimately, you might end up as a molecule-thick oil slick on the surface of said neutron star.

Now, just remember that a black hole is much worse than that!

What are stars and how do they form?

Before we further define black holes, it’s important to know how they form.  As they form from star collapse, it’s important to know what stars actually are.  So we need to go back to school a little bit.

The universe is filled with gas.  What’s the simplest molecule out there?  (Remember back to the upper-left corner of your periodic table.)  It’s hydrogen!  When the Big Bang occurred and the universe cooled, hydrogen gas (and some helium) condensed everywhere.  In space, hydrogen coalesces because gravity attracts it together.  As it coalesces, it gets more massive and therefore gravitationally stronger, thereby attracting more and more hydrogen.  The more hydrogen in one space, the more the atoms get squeezed together.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

You can put two hydrogen molecules together, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to join together and become one.  Remember bar magnets?  Like repels like: positive repels positive, negative repels negative.  When you smoosh two stable molecules like hydrogen together, their negatively-charged electron clouds (remember: electrons are negative; protons are positive) repel each other.  With enough pressure, though, the molecules can slip past each other’s electron clouds.  And if the nuclei get close enough to each other, the strong nuclear force takes over and attracts protons and neutrons to protons and neutrons, creating a new atom or molecule (recall from your science classes that the number of protons in an atom determines what that element is).  Put enough pressure on hydrogen, and it fuses into helium.  When that happens, the molecule reaches a lower-energy state and ejects 0.7% of its mass as energy according to a little-known equation from Einstein, E = mc².  “c” is the speed of light, which is a big number.  Squaring it makes it immensely bigger.  Multiply m (that 0.7% of mass lost) by c² and you have a huge amount of energy.  Imagine this energy release happening all over the place, and a star is born.

[Note:  I’ve oversimplified this process.  In reality, hydrogen fusion actually happens in three steps, and because I'm not a physicist, I haven't memorized those three steps, nor do I care to, anytime soon.  It doesn’t matter for this, though.  The point is, hydrogen collapses under its own gravity, fuses, and releases energy.  Boom!  Literally.]

Aside:  Nuclear fusion is the holy grail of energy production, today.  Every nuclear reactor you know of (in 2018 when this was written) is a fission reactor, which relies on the radioactive decay of certain elements to heat water to create steam to run turbines.  It's a completely different technology than nuclear fusion.  Why is nuclear fusion so amazing?  E = mc².  A little tiny mass creates a whole lot of energy.  No more massive freight trains filled with coal going into the power plants, no more massive freight trains taking radioactive waste out to Nevada for underground storage.

That’s not the whole picture, though. When hydrogen crushes together and nuclear fusion ignites, the released energy creates an outward force. So now you’ve got gravity trying to crush everything inward, and you have the “E” from all that E = mc² fusion pushing its way out of the star. Eventually, the two of these find some balance and the star remains a certain size for billions of years until the star starts to run out of fuel.

Star death = black holes (sometimes)

A star runs out of fuel because it's busy fusing of its fuel into something else.  So stars start out as mostly hydrogen and spend most of their lives fusing hydrogen into helium.  After a while, when there's little hydrogen left to push the star outward, the core of the star collapses.  In this collapse, it's now hot enough that helium starts pushing together, and it fuses into carbon.  This does not go on forever:  A star the size of the sun can't go any further than carbon because it simply doesn't weigh enough for another core collapse to crush carbon to cause fusion.

You may already know this, but our sun will not produce a black hole when it dies.  It also won't produce a supernova, either:  That's because the fusion cycle stops with carbon.  (Our sun will one day turn into a white dwarf, but that's a story for another day.)  But, heavier stars (meaning, about 8x the mass of our sun) keep going, and carbon fuses into neon, magnesium, and sodium.  Eventually, it gets hot enough that neon fuses into oxygen and more magnesium.  Hotter still, and in stars 10x greater than our sun, the oxygen fuses into sulfur and silicon.  Even hotter still, and silicon fuses into eight different elements, one of which is iron.

Iron is a whole other beast, but before I get to that, I want to point out that each one of these cycles takes a drastically shorter amount of time than the cycle before it.  Recall that I said earlier that a star spends most of its life (millions to billions of years) turning hydrogen into helium.  Oxygen fusion lasts only months, and when the core collapses, it sends a shockwave that takes about a day to pass through the star, and when it does, it actually speeds up the silicon fusing.  Silicon fusion lasts one day, and no matter how big the star, that silicon-burning day is the last day of that star's life.

Silicon fusion produces iron, and iron is no bueno for stars.  Once iron starts getting made, the star has seconds (!!!) to live.  Every process before this has created something with energy.  But iron takes energy from the environs.  And as a metal, it also steals electrons.  Prior to this, electrons have actually helped to prop up the core because negatives repel negatives.  With the energy and electrons gone, the star collapses on itself in a fraction of a second (!!!!).

Now, if the star is "small" enough (20x the mass of the sun or less), the collapse produces one of those lovely aforementioned neutron stars.  The neutron stars prop themselves up because of something called "neutron degeneracy pressure", which for our purposes, simply means that it's a pressure that makes it extremely difficult to collapse any furter.

However, if the star is even larger than 20x, it now has enough energy to overcome the degeneracy pressure and produces a black hole.  (Warning:  over-simplification in the next sentence.)  Either way, the collapse of the star is so violent that it produces a shockwave and a later explosion that sends all the star material (that's still collapsing inward at this point) outward into the universe with dozens of times more energy than our sun will produce in its lifetime (!!!!!):  A type-II supernova is born.  It shines for days, or even weeks, and during that small period of time, it outshines whatever galaxy it sits in.  In 2016, astronomers observed a supernova explosion that happened 10 billion light years away!  Remember:  That supernova came from one single star.  And to give you an idea of how far that is, the universe as we know it is 13.8 billion years old.  So the light from that supernova had been traveling for most of the existence of the universe before some of its photons hit an astronomer's telescope one day (!!!!!!).

Aside:  The first few moments of a supernova explosion are so hot that they allow fusion of the heaviest elements we know of.  The "boom" sends those heavy elements through the universe at near-light speed.  This is the only way we know that elements are made.  What does this mean for you?  It means most of what we see on Earth was once created in the fiery crucibles of supernovae.

What can black do for you?

The type of black hole we've been talking about is called a "stellar mass" black hole, and it's called that for obvious reasons:  It's not that far off from the mass of a star.  If that black hole has food (ie, matter) to "eat", it grows in size.  Once it gets past a few dozen or so stellar masses, it's now called an "intermediate mass" black hole.  (Strangely, no one's ever detected one.)  At the 10,000-stellar mass size, it now becomes a "supermassive" black hole.

Why do we care about sizes?  Because every galaxy we've ever studied has shown to have a supermassive black hole in it, including our own, and there's a good possibility that they are somehow involved in the formation of our own galaxies.

Also, different sizes will do different things to you before or while they inevitably kill you.  (Yay!)  A smaller black hole still has enormous strength, but it has something larger black holes don't have:  tidal forces.  What this means is that if you were to fall head- or feet-first into a black hole, the force at one end could be millions of times stronger than at the other end, turning you into a miles-long strand of spaghetti.  The literal scientific term for this is "spaghettification".

Regardless the size of the black hole, one thing will always happen to you:  As you fall in, anyone looking at you would see you get slower and slower and never actually fall into the black hole, or past the so-called "event horizon" (actually, that was an oversimplification:  as you get closer to the black hole, the light waves bouncing off of you get stretched, themselves, turning you red until you disappear into infrared and further out of human vision -- so they actually won't even see you not into the fall into the black hole).  (Whaaat?!)  More back story:  There's a little-known theory called Einstein's theory of general relativity.  Pages and pages can be written about it, and if you feel like reading about these things (and I say this with no sense of sarcasm), go check out Wikipedia.  But what we're going to steal from it is the idea that as you get closer to another mass, time actually slows down for anyone watching you.  (To you, nothing changes.)  If this is an ordinary mass like another person or even a planet, not much noticeable is going to happen.  But if you get close to something like a neutron star or a black hole, that's where things get funky.

Once you fall into the black hole, nobody knows what happens there.  Why?  We don't have physics to describe what happens there.  General relativity very well describes the macro world we see.  Quantum mechanics describes the nano world we don't see.  But you can't use either one to describe the other world:  In the world of quantum mechanics, things are much, much weirder than you'd ever expect (or understand, for that matter).  In a black hole, when things get infinitely small and infinitely dense, neither fully applies, and the two theories are so disparate that they can't be unified (again, going back to my point that you can't apply one theory in the other theory's world).  To understand what happens in a black hole will also help us to understand what happened during the Big Bang, when all of the universe existed in a similar space of infinite density.

Where Stephen Hawking fits in

In the "Black holes are not" section, I said that black holes are not actually black.  That might seem crazy, because as we all know, light and everything else can't escape from black holes.

That is all true, but if something were "born" from outside the event horizon, it could still escape because it's not yet past the event horizon.  Quantum mechanics posits that pairs of tiny, subatomic particles -- one with positive mass and one with negative (yes, negative) mass pop into existence out of nowhere and annihilate each other nearly instantly.  If you've never heard of this before, I'm sure you're calling "bullshit" right now, and that's understandable.  Recall that earlier, I said that the world of quantum mechanics makes no sense to us.  Tada!  But this has been proven with experimentation:  There is an experiment wherein you put two non-charged plates nanometers apart, so close together that virtual particles cannot appear between the two plates.  However, they can appear on the outside of the plates, and sure enough when they do, they produce a positive pressure that pushes the two plates together.

Hawking wondered, what would happen if a pair of particles were to be born right outside of a black hole?  The positive energy particle would have enough energy to escape, however the negative energy particle wouldn't and it would fall in.  The stream of virtual particles leaving the black hole is called "Hawking radiation" (so you see, black holes are not entirely black).  Amazingly, this would actually make the black hole lighter, and any inactive ("non-eating") black hole is actually slowly evaporating itself away over the eons as these negative mass virtual particles fall in until one day, they explode themselves out of existence.  (Hence, my earlier bullet point that black holes are not forever.)

But wait, there's more!  One of the un-violatable laws of the universe is that information is never destroyed.  By "information", we mean the position and full set of properties of every particle in the universe (spin, charge, temperature, velocity, what it likes to eat for breakfast, etc).  With all of this wealth of information, you should be able to reverse all the properties and run the universe backwards in time.  But if black holes simply disappear into the ether, that information is lost, creating the Information Paradox.  We don't yet have an answer for this, though we do have leading theories.


If you're not a physics enthusiast and you're reading this, first, congratulations!  This was some pretty dense material.  I hope I made it at least a little bit interesting with my terrible sense of humor.  But I also hope that it was interesting enough, on its own, to withstand the length of this blog post.

If you're new to physics, it's easy to read this with a lot of skepticism.  Just the quantum mechanics alone is enough to make you cry "bullshit".  For me, it's taken me years to amass and also absorb the information necessary just to write this blog post.  Be assured, though, that these ideas aren't simply tossed around and accepted.  The great thing about science is that when you publish a paper in a scientific journal, your scientific rivals get to look at it and poke at it and pull it apart.  Donald Trump may do the best to hide the truth from...well, everyone, but in science, there is no hiding.  Science doesn't care how famous you are or how much money you make or how popular you are.  In fact, in the stories of black holes, there was a very famous fight between Stephen Hawking and another physicist, Leonard Susskind, over the information paradox (Wikipedia humorously calls this "the black hole war").  Einstein was famously wrong when developing his theory of general relativity; he added what's called a "cosmological constant" to introduce a force to counter-act gravity in his equations because gravity would cause the universe to collapse, and as we "all know", the universe is static and unchanging.  Wrong!!!  As it turns out, the universe is far from static:  In fact, it's expanding faster and faster.  When this was discovered, Einstein called his cosmological constant his "greatest blunder".

So, there are two points to make:  1) Everything I've said in this blog post has either been demonstrated through observational evidence, or in the absence of evidence, simply hasn't been disproven, yet.  2) Tomorrow, some paradigm-shifting information or breakthrough could surface, causing us to re-think much of this.  But nonetheless, any observational evidence we've seen would still need to be explained in one way or the other.

What we know, and what we still don't know about black holes makes them one of the most fascinating objects to study.  They not only stretch one's body to infinity; they also stretch our human capacity to think, reason, and understand.  And I can't wait what else we have to learn from them in the future.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

On Stephen Hawking

I saw Stephen Hawking in college. He gave a basic physics lecture to the audience, although at the time I didn't know as much as I do now so it was pretty cool stuff then.

It was painstaking watching him answer questions from the audience. Took forever for him to get out his answers, but even then he was funny and charismatic and darned if he didn't captivate all of us.

The world owes so much to him. Einstein may have predicted black holes, but it was Stephen who gave us Hawking radiation (who would've guessed that Stephen Hawking would've discovered Hawking radiation?).

It's too bad he didn't survive to see quantum mechanics and general relativity married.

The world is a lesser place without him, although I'll take solace knowing that matter/energy is neither created nor destroyed.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

John Young (1930 - 2018)

Most of you probably don't know who he is.  He's more than a parkway in Orlando; he's one of the most badass people ever to have been to space.

The most times anyone has ridden a space shuttle to orbit has been six times, a record held by only two people.  John Young launched into space six times, but aboard three different launch vehicles:  twice on Gemini, twice on Apollo, and twice on the space shuttle, four times in which he was the mission commander.

He went to the moon twice: once to orbit it, the second time to walk on it.  On his second flight, his crewmate Charlie Duke said his heart rate was 144 bpm at launch.  John Young's was just 70 (!!!).  John first heard that the space shuttle was approved by Congress while walking on the surface of the moon.  He later went on to command the first space shuttle, and then commanded it again on STS-9.

There are people who have been in space longer than he has, but nobody has launched more times on more types of hardware.  And that's before you remember that he's one of 12 people to walk on the moon, and only one of three people to go to the moon twice.  There is no astronaut I idolize more than John Young.

Godspeed, Captain.