Doorstep Astronomy: Mercury in the Morning

During these next three weeks we will be presented with an excellent opportunity to view Mercury in the early morning dawn sky. Mercury is called an “inferior planet” because its orbit is nearer to the sun than the Earth’s. Therefore, it always appears from our vantage point to be in the same general direction as the sun…

In the pre-Christian era, this planet actually had two names, as it was not realized it could alternately appear on one side of the sun and then the other. Mercury was called Mercury when in the evening sky, but was known as Apollo when it appeared in the morning. It is said that Pythagoras, about the fifth century B.C., pointed out that they were one and the same.

Mercury rises before the sun all of this month and is surprisingly easy to see from now through Nov. 5. All you have to do is just look low above the eastern horizon during morning twilight, from about 30 to 45 minutes before sunrise for a bright yellowish-orange “star.”

Mercury will be at its greatest western elongation, 18 degrees to the west of the sun, on Oct. 22, rising as dawn breaks, and making this Mercury’s best morning apparition of 2004. Mercury, like Venus, appears to go through phases like the moon. Shortly after passing inferior conjunction on Oct. 6, Mercury was just a slender crescent. Currently, it appears about one-third illuminated, but the amount of its surface illuminated by the sun will continue to increase in the days to come. So although it will begin to turn back toward the sun’s vicinity after Oct. 22, it will continue to brighten steadily, which should help keep it in easy view over the following couple of weeks.

Helping to aid in identifying Mercury will be a lovely crescent moon. Early on the morning of Oct. 26, at about an hour before sunrise, you’ll find the moon low in the east-southeast sky and Mercury will appear as a bright star-like object well below and to the moon’s left.

The article has plenty of detail, history, science and common sense suggestions for watching. Enjoy this special opportunity to see one of our downhill neighbors.

New hints on the origins of life – from old experiments


The box of original samples

A classic experiment exploring the origin of life has, more than a half-century later, yielded new results.

In 1953, Stanley L. Miller, then a graduate student of Harold C. Urey at the University of Chicago, put ammonia, methane and hydrogen — the gases believed to be in early Earth’s atmosphere — along with water in a sealed flask and applied electrical sparks to simulate the effects of lightning. A week later, amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, were generated out of the simple molecules.

Enshrined in high school textbooks, the Miller-Urey experiment raised expectations that scientists could unravel the origins of life with simple chemistry experiments.

After Dr. Miller’s death in May last year, Dr. Jeffrey L. Bada of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, who had been one of Dr. Miller’s graduate students, discovered cardboard boxes containing hundreds of vials of dried residues collected from the experiments conducted in 1953 and 1954.

“It just opens our eyes,” Dr. Bada said. “It’s still revealing new things. What else is there that we haven’t found out from this experiment..?”

Although scientists no longer think that the early atmosphere resembled the gases Dr. Miller used, the gases released by volcanic eruptions do have similar properties. The scientists hypothesize that the sparks split apart water molecules in the steam, enabling a wider range of chemical reactions to take place.

“My take on this is you want to consider everything,” Dr. Bada said. “If you can have a homegrown synthesis, perhaps by this mechanism we’ve described here, complemented by stuff falling from space, well, you’ve got a really rich inventory of compounds to work with and set the stage for the origin of life.”

I remember news of Miller’s experiments as if it were yesterday. Exciting discussions. Fending off superstitious dolts who feared this work as the anti-Christ.

A couple of friends ended up as micro-biologists because of Miller’s inspiration.

As these willows grow, pollution shrinks


Photo by Colleen White, Watertown Daily Times

At the sprawling Fort Drum military installation in New York, 23,000 willow plants are cleaning up the site of a 164,000-gallon plume of fuel that has been spreading underground for more than 50 years.

Energy for the cleanup is provided by the sun, negating the need to construct a treatment plant that would have cost up to $8 million.

The trees are part of an aggressive cleanup strategy to remediate groundwater contamination caused by fuel that leaked from the tank farm along Fort Drum’s “Gasoline Alley.” The military installation, home to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division — Light Infantry, covers more than 107,000 acres. This year, the base is marking its 100th year as a military training site.

No one knows exactly when the leaks began — perhaps as early as World War II — but they were discovered in 1988, when the petroleum, which had been spreading underground for many years, began to foul small creeks on the base…

Dr. Christopher Nowak and his colleagues began with a small pilot plot, which expanded over the years to 2 acres. He has experimented with some 30 varieties of willow trees and shrubs to see which ones grow best.

As a silviculturist, Nowak’s specialty is the care and tending of tree communities. Part of the challenge in this case was finding a way for the willows to grow in the contaminated soil. He settled on planting boxes, bottomless wooden frames filled with soil that contained enough nutrients for the young plants to establish themselves before the roots reached soil that was soggy with petroleum-laced water…

He said monitoring efforts indicate that the contaminant concentrations are lower than they were before the willows were planted.

Ain’t nothing like some good news for a change. Especially on a military reservation.

You do not want to be a slacker under Sharia law


Public caning in Indonesia

A father took his 20-year old son to an Islamic court in northern Nigeria for idleness, asking that he be sent to prison for refusing to engage in productive activities.

“He is not listening to words and he is bringing shame to my family. I am tired of his nefarious deeds. Please put this boy in prison so that I can be free,” Sama’ila Tahir, a market trader in the northeastern town of Bauchi, was quoted as saying…

The court sentenced the son to six months in prison and 30 strokes of the cane — which were immediately administered on the premises — for being disobedient to his parents.

That’s got to sting!

The world wants change. Do Americans notice?

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So, after eight years of Blair and Brown toadying up to Bush, 65% of Brits want Barack Obama to win the presidential election, according to the Guardian’s international poll published today, and only 15% are rooting for the McCain/Palin ticket – and one suspects that some of those would be voting for the racist BNP given half a chance, not least when the numbers indicate that Obama is only supported by the 54% of the lowest socio-economic class, whose neglect by New Labour has left many of them clutching at racist straws.

In every country, opinions of the US have declined to record levels over George Bush’s two terms as president. One can understand why 75% of the French would think so, but what do you make of the Swiss, 86% of whom think so, even though not even the Republicans boycotted Helvetian cheese or cuckoo clocks..?

Except in times of war, when American foreign policy happens to the citizenry rather than to others, it is often assumed that presidential politics is all local. In fact, the president, as head of state, symbolises their country, and it is important for Americans how he (or, heaven help us at this present juncture, she) represents them…

And for its part, the rest of the world will little note nor long remember what the candidates said in the debates, here. But it will never forget what the electorate does on November 4.

There are few nations more insular and parochial than citizens of the United States. I don’t feel like wandering through the history, cause-and-effect relationships, right now. Hopefully, there are few wandering through here hypocrites enough to deny the fact.

I do wonder if globalization and the inevitable growth of worldwide communications between scientists, writers and other creative types, some small pool of politicians – will begin to filter down through the tangled web of television and websites surrounding us? Will that bring understanding or resentment as Americans realize other folks on this planet have opinions they feel are valid?

Creativity gets you in trouble just about every time – in Kentucky

Winchester police say William Poole, 18, was taken into custody Tuesday morning. Investigators say they discovered materials at Poole’s home that outline possible acts of violence aimed at students, teachers, and police.

Poole told LEX 18 that the whole incident is a big misunderstanding. He claims that what his grandparents found in his journal and turned into police was a short story he wrote for English class.

“My story is based on fiction,” said Poole, who faces a second-degree felony terrorist threatening charge. “It’s a fake story. I made it up. I’ve been working on one of my short stories, (and) the short story they found was about zombies. Yes, it did say a high school. It was about a high school over ran by zombies.”

Even so, police say the nature of the story makes it a felony. “Anytime you make any threat or possess matter involving a school or function it’s a felony in the state of Kentucky,” said Winchester Police detective Steven Caudill.

A judge raised Poole’s bond from one to five thousand dollars after prosecutors requested it, citing the seriousness of the charge.

We already know Kentucky is run by nutballs. The kid should disavow his grandparents. Or write stories about schools captured by angels.

Thanks, Mr. Justin

Cellphone towers to nowhere – for John McCain


AT&T cell tower truck

Verizon and AT&T have both located temporary cell sites near presidential-candidate John McCain’s Arizona ranch, to better connect the good Senator, his supporters and security staff.

The news comes from the Washington Post, which established that Cindy McCain, the senator’s wife, offered some land on the ranch to Verizon early last year in the hope that it would put a cell there. Verizon got pretty far with that request, but ended up deciding the planning requirements were too onerous, and the return on investment too nebulous.

But come June the operator was wheeling in a temporary base station to provide coverage, apparently responding to a request from the security services.

In July AT&T noticed, and figured it’d better get in there too, so brought in its own temporary base station. So both networks now provide superb coverage to the McCain ranch…

None of this would matter if McCain wasn’t so closely involved with both Verizon, AT&T, and US regulator the FCC. Five of his campaign officials have worked as lobbyists for Verizon, and Verizon employees have stumped up $155K to help fund the campaign as well as $1.3m raised by the chief executive and company lobbyists. AT&T is even more McCain-centric, with the executive vice president raising $2.3m with the help of AT&T lobbyists, and staff chucking $325K of their own money into the pot.

McCain himself is member of the Senate commerce committee, which oversees the FCC.

But, then – since John McCain is a “maverick” I guess we can trust that he’s not influenced in the least by the butt-kissing treatment he’s getting from AT&T and Verizon. Eh?

No brain tumors; but, your mobile phone may cause a rash

People who use their mobile phones for long periods could develop an allergic skin rash, say health experts.

The British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) said people may develop rashes on their cheek or ear due to the nickel contained in some mobile phones.

The issue came to light after several reports of patients with unexplained skin disorders. Experts found that the reaction was caused by nickel in the casing or on the buttons of some mobile phones.

BAD said doctors and the public should be aware of the risk, with cases estimated to be on the rise. People with a known reaction to nickel – a metal also used in jewellery – are thought to be most at risk.

It’s officially called “mobile-phone dermatitus”.

International sting shuts down fraudster website

A two-year undercover FBI sting operation targeting online fraudsters has netted 56 arrests and prevented millions of dollars in economic losses.

The FBI said it had infiltrated online “carder” forums hosted on the DarkMarket.ws Web site, which was widely used by online scammers to buy and sell stolen credit card numbers, other financial information, and even the devices used to make fake banking cards. Before it was shut down earlier this month, the Web site had registered more than 2,500 members.

The FBI ran its sting in cooperation with the U.K.’s Serious Organized Crime Agency and authorities in Turkey and Germany. “The arrests this week in the U.K. are a good demonstration of the coordination taking place today between the FBI, the Serious Organized Crime Agency… and other law enforcement agencies around the globe.”

In addition to the 56 arrests, the sting helped the FBI seize compromised accounts and prevent the loss of about $70 million in fraud, the FBI said. It has also generated new leads that are being tracked down by international law enforcement…

Although Dark Market was thought to have been administered by a criminal going by the name Master Splyntr, German Public Radio reported on Monday that the FBI had been running a sting operation on the site since late 2006, and that Master Splyntr was actually an FBI agent named J. Keith Mularski.

Hah!