A Blog for the Curious and the Scientifically Perplexed

This is the story of a great journey that started with a great thought. One day in 1895 a boy looked into a mirror and wondered what the universe would look like if he could travel on a beam of light. That sixteen year old boy was Albert Einstein and that one thought started him on the road to discover his Theory of Relativity. The great man has been reinvented as Albert 2.0 to come back and blog about a journey through space on a beam of light and explain the science behind everything from atoms, blackholes to global warming. If you've just joined and want to start at the beginning use the index on the left. If you're bored try these links below just for fun.


Saturday, July 28, 2007

Naming the planets, a story stranger than the Sopranos

“Where do all these names come from, like Neptune, Pluto and Charon?”

Most of the planets and moons are named after ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. Pluto was the king of the underworld or Hell and Charon was, and perhaps still is, the boatman who ferried dead bodies across the river Styx in Greek mythology to bring them into the underworld.

“I thought you said Pluto was discovered in 1930, so why was it named after a 2,500 year old Greek god?”

The Greek hell was cold and dark, rather than hot and that pretty well describes this part of the solar system. The other reason is that he was one of the last of the Titans not to have a planet named after him, so it seemed only fair. Charon was only discovered in 1978, but astronomers like to keep the traditions going.

“Who were the Titans?”

The Titans were a family of ancient Greek and Roman gods and outer five planets are named after them, Pluto, Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter. The family squabbles of the Titans would stretch the belief of the most hardened soap opera fan. In the ancient myths Uranus was the father of this clan. Worried about what the rest of his family were plotting, he hid his children in a cave. His wife, guided by her maternal instincts, let the youngest, Saturn, free who of course immediately attacked his dad Uranus. He then promptly claimed the throne and married his sister. Knowing what children of gods can do he decided to swallow his newborn children rather than take any risks. Saturn’s wife, like her mother decided to protect the youngest. This spared child was called Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans. He bided his time, grew big and strong and returned as leader of the Olympians to take his father on. So he came back, killed Saturn his father and cut his brothers Neptune and Pluto from their father's body where they had been ever since being swallowed shortly after birth. Jupiter gave his brothers jobs to keep them busy. Neptune got the sea and Pluto got the not so great job of governor of hell. After this they all lived happily ever after until Christianity came along.

“Wow, mixed up family. What about the rest of the planets are they part of this story?”

The family saga of the outer planets is maintained even here. Mars, Venus and Mercury are all children of Jupiter in the myths. That just leaves Earth which was where the Romans and Greeks lived so couldn't really be named after a god.

“So they must have known these planets existed back in the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

They knew the planets that you can see by looking up in the sky were different from stars but they had no idea they were solid round planets out in space.

“How did they know they were different?”

They could tell they were different because they moved across the sky whereas all the other stars stayed in fixed patterns. This is where the word planet comes from. The greeks called them planetai which means wanderers. They also learnt that these planets didn't wander anywhere but in definite patterns within a belt of stars called the Zodiac.

“The thing that astrologers go on about?”

The very same. Astrology is bunkum and the ancient Greek view of how the planets moved was pretty odd too even if it did provide an explanation for how these wandering planets could move among the stars. The Greek universe was centred on the Earth and had everything else revolving around it in perfect circles. Aristotle set this particular ball rolling with 55 spheres made from a perfect transparent substance that moved all the planets around. A bit later another Greek astronomer-philosopher, Ptolemy, fine tuned this clockwork universe and his ideas were considered to be the way the universe was for well over a thousand years. Ptolemy placed the Earth at the centre of the universe. But I'm being a bit unfair on the early Greeks, not all of them got it wrong.

“It doesn’t sound like they got much right to me.”

At around the same time as Aristotle, Aristarchus suggested that the sun was at the centre of the universe, but like the better theories of light around at the time, this was largely ignored and later swept carefully under the scholastic carpets of European monasteries. This was at a time when men were either killing each other or copying out pages from of ancient books over and over again back in the dark ages. Then came the renaissance in the 1500’s and some very clever people who were not afraid to stick their necks out a bit, even at the risk of getting them cut off.

“What was wrong with thinking the earth moved around the sun?”

Nothing at all, apart from the curious fact that the Christian Church at the time was supporting the theories developed by an ancient pagan civilisation. Perhaps this was because this theory gave the most important position in the universe to the Earth and since the church was on Earth that seemed appropriate to the leaders of the Church at the time.

“Since the bible says God made the universe, shouldn't heaven be at the centre?”

People have been burned at the stake for less heretical suggestions. Remember what happened to Anaxagoras after he suggested his hot rock idea for the Sun back at the start of this journey.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

To be or not to be, is that a planet I see before me?

“So how much further is there to go?”

We’re almost there, only 4 billion miles to go.

“Another 4 billion miles?”

But the good news is that it will only take us 7 hours.

“That’s not so bad then.”

Just long enough for a good look at these planets. Where we are now is just at the edge of the solar system. This very cold and very dark place is a bit like the Oort cloud in that it was invented before it was seen. Just a year after Jan Oort named his cloud in 1951, Gerard Kuiper proposed there should be lots of small planets or bits of rubble on the edge of the solar system.

“This is a different lot of rubble to the Oort cloud?”

This is much closer to the sun than the Oort cloud. The other difference is that no-one, well no human, has ever seen the Oort cloud but just a few years ago in 1992 the first object was spotted with powerful telescopes in just the place that the Kuiper belt was meant to be.

“What was it called?”


“That’s a bit of a boring name isn’t it?”

Things in space seem to get either strange names or boring names made up of letters and numbers. Astronomers think there are up 70,000 more of these things flying around out here and a few have been given proper but odd names, like Quaoar (which has a boring name - 2002 LM60) and Varuna. Sedna is the most remote object in the solar system ever seen by telescope and seems to be going around the sun between the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, almost 4 billion miles from the Sun.

“So are these objects really planets?”

No they’re too tiny, much smaller than the earth’s moon so they aren’t proper planets. The big ones are sometimes called planetoids, the medium to small ones planetesimals and the tiny ones asteroids. The first proper planet in the solar system is Pluto, though some people starting saying that it was too small to be a planet as it is only two third’s the size of the earths moon.

“So how can you tell the difference between a moon and a planet?”

Moons are little planets but they are in orbit around a proper planet rather than around the sun.

“So even though Pluto is smaller than the Earth’s moon, Pluto is a planet and the moon is just a moon?”

Well Pluto’s been called a planet since it was first discovered in 1930 but that has just changed. Astronomers have come up with a rather complicated way of deciding if a planet really is a planet. In 2006 the International Astronomical Union decided that to be called a 'planet' you have to go around the Sun, being round (or nearly round) and have 'cleared the neighbourhood' around your orbit. They decided poor Pluto has met only two of these conditions. As it crosses the orbit of the next planet Neptune it hasn’t cleared its neighbourhood, so it is now officially a dwarf planet.

“And Neptune is a planet even though Pluto crosses its orbit? That’s not fair.”

I totally agree. It isn’t fair at all, but I don’t think we heard the end of this planet story just yet. I’m sure the International Astronomical Union might change their minds again. In the mean time Pluto has been given a number 134340.

“What if a dwarf planet had a moon going around it, what would that be called?”

Well they still can still call that a moon because no one has defined that yet but technically both would be dwarf planets. That’s just what Pluto has. Look there’s Pluto over there.

“There’s two of them or am I seeing double?”

The bigger one’s Pluto and the smaller one is Charon its moon which isn’t much smaller than Pluto. There are two other much smaller moons too, Hydra and Nix. We've got a much better view than they get from earth. Even the Hubble space telescope pictures of Pluto are fuzzy, but you can still see Charon. A space probe was launched in 2006, the New Horizons probe, but that won't reach Pluto until 2015.

“Nine years just to reach Pluto?”

It is a still long way away, on average 4 billion miles from the sun or about 5 light hours. Plutelings, if they existed, would have a slightly different view of the sun to earthlings. Firstly at minus 213oC in broad daylight sunbathing takes on a different complexion. Also the sun looks about 40 times bigger on earth than on Pluto, so rather than a nice golden disc the sun will look more like a bright point of light. The size of the sun as seen on Pluto actually changes during the Pluton year, about 248 earth years, almost doubling in size in what I suppose you would call the Pluton summer.

“How can the sun get bigger?”

The sun doesn't but Pluto has a very eccentric orbit so that it changes from being 2.8 billion miles from the sun to a very chilly 4.6 billion miles. A sun 2.8 billion miles away looks bigger than the same sun 4.6 billion miles away. This eccentricity helped it to sneak inside the orbit of Neptune in 1979, so for a few years it wasn’t the most distant planet. This was a short lived change in the solar system’s natural order; after February 1999 it was back to being the most distant planet for another 220 years or so.

“Not quite.”


“Well, you just said in 2006 Pluto became a dwarf planet so Neptune will always be the most distant planet from now on.”

You really are getting the hang of this space stuff you know.