Jul 19 2010 1:40pm

Launchpad Workshop Recap: Four Fun Things About the Universe

As Launchpad continued apace this last week, every day brought new, hilarious and terrifying information about our universe. But sometimes, in the ocean of information, there was an anecdote so beautiful and/or grisly that you just felt the need to share, you know?

Under the cut, four fun things about space, the stars, and you.

1. One of the stars in the Big Dipper is a binary. We’ll start small, with some stargazing. There are several binary stars visible in the night sky (both summer and winter, no matter which hemisphere you live in), but this one doesn’t require a telescope, or even binoculars. You can see it with the naked eye if you live somewhere with moderate or less light pollution. (New Yorkers, good luck.) It’s the second star in the handle. It’s in the above photo, though much harder to see with all that celestial competition. Optometrists of the world, take note.

2. You can survive in space. Apparently, if you are sucked into the unforgiving void of space, you can survive up to two minutes! (Somewhere, the ocean is pouting about it.) Some handy tips: breathe out as early as possible to keep pressure out of your lungs, prepare for a serious case of the bends, and make good use of your time; you have about twenty seconds of consciousness before you pass out, and then you have another minute and a half or so before you suffocate. I recommend retractable tethers! (Or, not diving unprotected into space. That would work, too.)

3. Spaghettification. It’s not just the coolest word in the world. It’s real, and it’s gross. A black hole, as it happens, is too small and dense to actually suck people in. However, the gravitational field surrounding a black hole is so powerful that an object approaching its tidal forces gets stretched violently, because the parts closer to the center of gravity accelerate towards it faster than the parts farther away. What this means is that someone caught in the event horizon of a black hole won’t get sucked in (good news!). It does mean, however, that that person will be stretched out and torn to shreds (bad news).

4. The Scale of Some Planets and Stars. This video literally puts things in perspective, from our moon to some of our bigger stars. Phenomenal cosmic power! (Itty bitty living space.)

Genevieve Valentine nerds out about movies, life, and other things on her blog.

Yonatan Zunger
2. zunger
That's a great video. Too bad it doesn't go on to bigger objects in turn -- the shift in size scale when you go to star systems, intergalactic distances, galaxies and superstructure is even more jarring.

Also, did anyone else see this and start mentally humming "It's a great big universe / and we're all really puny / We're just tiny little specks / About the size of Mickey Rooney?" No? Hrm. Just me, then.
James Davis Nicoll
3. James Davis Nicoll
If you try the vacuum thing, you will soon notice that in vacuum blood can do the absorb O2 thing in reverse surprisingly efficiently, potentially limiting consciousness to the first half-minute or so.

Things I have not see in SF yet:

Epsilon Indi, a K5V star about 11.8 light-years away, has two known companions, Epsilon Indi Ba and Epsilon Indi Bb (Contributions to the Foundation to See Epsilon Indi Ba and Epsilon Indi Bb Get Names That Don't Suck welcome). They are brown dwarfs, among the nearest known, and they orbit their star at at least 1,500 astronomical units. They orbit each other at 2.1 AU. Both are rather warm from internal heat: Ba is about 1300 K and Bb around 850K.

Supernovas seems to have blown a low density chimney
through the galactic disk. The Sun has been traversing the low density area for millions of years, allowing the heliopause to balloon out, providing additional protection from cosmic rays. Depending whose models you believe, we're either currently in the process or just about to being the process of colliding with the higher density Local Fluff (once again, the tragic need for better names in astronomy is highlighted). Potentially this could push the heliopause below 1 AU, leading to an increased cosmic ray flux.

shows this is old news but I haven't seen an SF novel that picks up on it.

Currently a Japanese solar-sail craft called IKAROS is making its way down towards Venus. It is the first interplanetary spacecraft to successfully demonstrate solar-sail technology.

And for scale, the universe:
James Davis Nicoll
4. James Davis Nicoll
The slow and on-going dismemberment of NGC 5466 by the Milky Way has left in NGC 5466's path a long, narrow river of stars called the 45 Degree Tidal Stream. It stretches from Bootes to Ursa Major. We overlooked it before 2006 because it was lost in the glare of the Milky Way.
Soni Pitts
6. sonipitts
Call me pedantic, but in an infinite, edgeless universe (as we seem to exist in) isn't *everything* equally the center of the universe?
James Davis Nicoll
7. doctorwinters
Am I out of touch? I thought the universe was an expanding bubble of finite distance that began at the Big Bang.
James Davis Nicoll
9. wolflahti

I *am* the center of the Universe.

*Everywhere* is the center of the Universe. It's not exactly intuitive, but that's how it works.
Richard Chapling
10. Chappers
Something can be finite and edgeless: think of the surface of a sphere. It has finite area, but there's no "edge" to it that you could reach if confined to it.

In the same way, you couldn't talk about it having one centre, since it looks exactly the same, no matter where you stand on it.

This is the situation we think the Universe is in, in the models that say it is homogeneous (looks about the same, ignoring localized objects like planets, stars, etc.).

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