Super Massive Black Hole Encounter

Super massive black holes are the cement holding galaxies together. Massive is a word fitting extremely large objects – preface it with “super” and you have unimaginable size. Asking anyone to visualize something hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions or billions times larger than our sun is pointless. If a super massive pimple came up in conversation – few in the room would struggle over mental images.  Super massive black holes defy common understanding, they elude definable points of reference. Ridiculous vastness aside, black holes are considered fictional science fiction devices rather than concrete science fact.

Princeton physicist John Wheeler came up with “black hole” in 1967. Albert Einstein surmised their existence as part of his theory of relativity – simply put, when a star “dies” it collapses in on itself, resulting in a core of dense mass. Picture New York city instantly compressed onto a pin head and you have “baby steps” towards visualizing just how dense is dense. If the “remnant core” exceeds three times the star’s mass, gravity screams “oh hell no” – a black hole is born.

Galaxies cluster around the extreme gravitational pull of black holes. The Milky Way galaxy boasts a respectable super massive behemoth over four million times the mass of our sun. Indiscriminate cosmic glue, responsible for galactic rotation, orbits, and sealed fates for anything passing the “event horizon” – a  gravitational point of no return, the threshold of absorption by forces so powerful, not even light can escape.

Astronomers are buzzing over an opportunity to witness a black hole in action. In 2011 German astronomers noticed a gas cloud  oblivious to its ill fated path, speeding up as it neared the event horizon. Recent data indicates part of the cloud has begun “spagettification”, a certified sign of black hole might –  gravity elongates as it pulls towards oblivion. The main body of this cloud is expected to succumb by April.

To actually observe an object, to see how it behaves as it vanishes into mystery – how cool is that?  Ponder a moment capable of catapulting science fiction into fact.

Image via ESO/MPE/M. Schartmann/L. Calçada

Image via ESO/MPE/M.Schartmann/L.Calcada

Organic Milk Discovery

Following a chance encounter with organic milk at his friend’s house, our son urged us to never purchase anything else. Skepticism over discernible difference to justify additional cost  met parental indulgence –  we agreed to try a litre.

One sip was all it took – we will never buy conventional milk again. This was the milk of my youth – exquisite dairy nectar, complex as fine wine, a treat to delight the senses. I had found the exclamation mark, the poster child to define “organic”.

Wading through the organic maze is tricky – as with any trend, marketing gurus skirt, twist and dodge regulations to hitch a ride on organic’s market share. Purchasing organic for ethical reasons isn’t practical – unless you shop exclusively at local farmers markets – this is big business. Organic and natural, red hot buzz words  jostling for shelf space beside “free run” and “free range”. That said – with increased imports of questionable food products from countries like China ( I hadn’t planned to go here but couldn’t live with myself without cautioning – avoid Chinese mushrooms, spinach, garlic, tilapia, apple juice, honey, and vitamins – see link at the end of this post) examining food source and practices isn’t a terrible idea.

To be honest – avoiding Chinese imports crosses my mind long before “organic” becomes a factor.  Organic milk shattered my tidy little world so completely, I’m looking at food with fresh eyes. Goodbye cynicism, so long skeptical mistrust, see ya later “farm to table” eye rolls, have a nice trip “ancient grain” quinoa snickers – organic, you have my undivided attention.

Free range chicken or eggs don’t flutter off pages of idyllic storybook farms. Organic milk doesn’t flow from quaint sunny meadows. Pesticide free fruit and vegetables rarely spring from the fictional valley of the “jolly green giant”. Organic is big business – business on a massive scale.

For milk to be certified organic, cows must eat certified organic feed – sneaking in animal by-products strictly forbidden – antibiotics and milk producing hormones common in conventional milk production, are out of the question. In North America dairy cows must be “treated humanely”, one definition being they have access to open grazing pastures. ( Keep in mind, “free run” chickens need only be given the opportunity to leave industrial barns for a prescribed amount of time each day – a six inch square opening at one end of the facility satisfies the requirement ) Don’t get misty eyed over bovine bliss amid the daisies – organic milk, every bit as industrial as conventional milk production, deal with it and focus on taste.

Concentrate on end results – cows fed unadulterated food, not pumped up on hormones or kept “factory ready” with antibiotics, produce milk exquisite enough to knock me on my ass. Twenty year old Scotch to Moonshine, five year aged cheddar to squeeze cheese – and if that’s not enough – pasteurized at much higher temperatures, it keeps well over a month in your fridge.

As my son said – just try it. If “holy cow” sentiments don’t slap you on the side of the head, I need my taste buds examined.

Regulus Occultation

Regulus is considered the 20th or so brightest star visible from Earth. A measly 77 light years away and part of the constellation Leo – Regulas couldn’t be easier to find. With apologies for the late notice – residents of New York State, Connecticut, New Jersey, Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia ( assuming clear skies prevail ) bundle up around 2 AM for the Regulus occultation.

Shortly before 2 Am head out and find the moon – extend your arms and voila! – Regulus is the brightest object above your right hand, roughly the same height as the moon and certainly the brightest object in that corner of the sky.

Looking southwest, 2 a.m.

Looking southwest (90° to the right of the Moon) around 2 a.m. EDT on the morning of March 20th. Regulus will appear roughly as high as the Moon. It’s the brightest star in the area; you don’t need to know, or see, the constellations! Click image for larger view.
IOTA / Stellarium / Sky & Telescope
At 2:06 AM EDT asteroid 163 Erigone will pass Regulus – completely blacking it out for 14 seconds. An unprecedented asteroid occultation, never witnessed let alone observed by the naked eye in North America.
If nothing else, remember to look up the next clear night to familiarize yourself with a shining star. Dazzle your friends when pointing out constellation Leo, astound them when identifying Regulus , and tuck that nugget of star power under your belt.

Our Little Corner of The Universe

Pondering our place in the universe is difficult – comprehension relies on points of reference. Take our sun – sure it’s a star yet we would never call warmth or light “star light” – stars are something a child wishes upon, they live outside the realm of sunlight. We feel the sun’s warmth, watch it rise and fall, take it for granted as air and water. Our sun is tangible, we see it every day – grasping what lies beyond our little corner, visualizing the universe in all its enormity without blowing a fuse – that’s the tricky part.

“Baby steps” elude when discussion of universal scope enter the ring. That said – I’ll give it a try. On a clear night, away from city lights with a dark sky void of moonlit interference – systematic dedication might result in counting 8 or 9 thousand stars. A friend shows up with respectable binoculars and perhaps 200,000 is possible.  A good backyard telescope materializes and upwards of 15 million stars blow your mind. In reality – our Milky Way galaxy is home to over 300 billion stars.

Ours is an average sized galaxy – measuring about 120,000 light years from end to end, ( one light year is approximately 9.5 trillion kilometres). Astronomers estimate over 170 billion galaxies in the “observable” universe – stretching outward from us for 14 billion light years in every direction.

Professor Marshall McCall of York University published a “map” of  galaxies within 20 million light years of planet Earth.

Image credit: Marshall McCall / York University

View larger. | A diagram showing the brightest galaxies within 20 million light years of the Milky Way, as seen from above. The largest galaxies, here shown in yellow at different points around the dotted line, make up the ‘Council of Giants’. Image credit: Marshall McCall/York University

The universe can’t be defined – exceeding imagination being the only definition I can offer. All I ask is that you “look at the damn sky” and at least try.

Venus “Glory”

Continuing my “baby steps” campaign into the cosmos – a  tireless mission, based on irrepressible enthusiasm and wonder. A cause asking readers to “look at the damn sky”. Discussion of God, religion, and creation myth are strictly forbidden – as are theories and scientific speculation. Gazing skyward – allowing yourself to replace ideological lines in the sand with unabashed “wonder” feels terrific – my pondering knees would collapse into giddy wobbles if so much as one person said “holy crap – thanks for the cosmic nudge”.

ESA (European Space Authority) space orbiter Venus Express captured images of rainbows on Venus. Dubbed “Glory” – “glories “appear as circles of coloured light when sunlight reflects off atmospheric droplets – on Earth, same sized water drops – clouds of Venus contain sulphuric acid. Venus has rainbows people!

After our Sun and Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the sky. On dark nights when the Moon doesn’t steal the show – Venus can actually cast shadows. Only 650 Km circumference smaller than Earth and 80% the mass – Venus is considered our “sister” planet. First visited in 1962 by Mariner, Venus may equal Earth in physical mass – atmosphere on the other hand would squash us like bugs –  93% greater than earth and equivalent to diving a kilometer below the ocean surface. It rotates backwards, with one sluggish day 243 “earth days” from dawn till dusk. It has no moons and writhes with volcanic activity.

Look at the sky and ponder rainbows of Venus.

Because the ecliptic - pathway of the planets - hits the horizon at a shallow angle on March mornings in the Northern Hemisphere, Mercury sits buried in the glare of morning twilight.

Because the ecliptic – pathway of the planets – hits the horizon at a shallow angle on March mornings in the Northern Hemisphere, Mercury sits buried in the glare of morning twilight.

The ecliptic intersects the horizon at a steep angle in the Southern Hemisphere, so Mercury will be easier to see from that part of the world.

The ecliptic intersects the horizon at a steep angle in the Southern Hemisphere, so Mercury will be easier to see from that part of the world.

Pondering AquaBounty

Pondering AquaBounty comes with a preface – one that admits I’m no expert, acknowledges dismissing immediate research was a conscious decision, and making it clear this is a knee jerk reaction. That said – AquaBounty makes me nervous.

AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts bio-tech company believes genetically modified Salmon should grace our tables. Last year Canada gave AquaBounty  green light blessings to farm Atlantic Salmon in Prince Edward Island. Foot in the door, AquaBounty applied for approval to produce and sell genetically altered Salmon in the Americas. Under federal regulations, details of their application is not public record. What little is known came out of a shareholders report last week – revealed were plans to “start” the Chinook Salmon based eggs at their hatchery in PEI, ship them to Panama, maturing at twice the rate of their sea going cousins.

So why are my nerves twitching?  AquaBounty has no intention, nor would they be compelled under federal legislation to identify their genetically altered Salmon. If it were a clear cut case of rainbows and lollipops – why bother shipping eggs to Panama? What assurances or control would Canada have over farming practices in Panama? Would they simply issue apologetic press releases titled “Oops, sorry” if a mishap introduced these fish into the wild? Should the public swallow – hook, line, and sinker – closed door, back room deals without question? Is there validity to claims modified Salmon amplifies allergic reaction in those with seafood sensitivity?

GMOs skepticism spreads faster than snippets of sordid rumour – if they actually solved the world’s problems – why all the brick walls, non disclosure, and corporate delivered pacifiers? I have an open mind – explain it to me. Convince me money doesn’t trump all else. Knowing employees at Monsanto headquarters refuse any food made from genetically modified food sources be served in their cafeteria doesn’t help much.( See link below )

Link to CBC story on AquaBounty application….

U.S. company applies to sell genetically modified salmon in Canada

A Massachusetts-based firm has applied to become the first seller of GM salmon in Canada.

Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider , PNG


I’ve have Starlings on my mind. It began a few days ago when I chanced upon a poem at – “When Starlings Fall” transported me to childhood dusks – those precious moments between day and the darkness responsible for “bedtime”. Longing for thunder cloud lullabies, straining to catch the slightest breeze – trading last breaths of evening for resignation of summer bedroom hell. This is when they came; thousands of Starlings able to dance in unison – not a puff of wind as thousands of flapping wings defied possibility.

Yesterday, out of nowhere a friend mentioned this video. I hadn’t pondered, let alone thought about Starlings in decades. Not one to mess with the cosmos – take a moment to watch and wonder.