26 Nov 2009
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Check out the new commercial we’re going to be playing before planetarium shows this Fall. Just a reminder that there’s more at Morehead besides what’s beneath the dome. The video stars a number of our current Afterschool program students.

By the way, when you’re watching one of our YouTube videos, hit the subscribe button. That way we can let you know when a new Morehead video gets uploaded. It’s not bad spam, it’s good spam. Like on a Hawaiian pizza.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager. And he does like Hawaiian pizza.

Astronomers estimate that our own Sun is about 4.6 billion years old, give or take a few million years.

And then there’s “Star of Bethlehem” (celebrating its 60th birthday this year), which claims a place among the longest-running planetarium shows in the world. “Star” examines the legendary star from a scholarly perspective, exploring the astronomical events that could have caused such a phenomenon.

Star of Bethlehem“Star” was among the original Morehead productions during the planetarium’s first year of operation. For years, its arrival was marked with the appearance of a plastic star that glowed at night atop Morehead’s roof. (That tradition ended a few years ago when a November storm damaged the plastic star beyond repair.)

Over the years, “Star” has been updated to reflect new scientific knowledge and to showcase new technology, so today’s version probably doesn’t look anything like the “Star” of 1949. In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll even spot a dinosaur in the current version. (UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp once said that a dinosaur appeared somewhere within every Morehead planetarium show. How many have you spied?)

“Star” is still among Morehead’s most popular planetarium shows and has become a seasonal tradition for many families. This year, “Star” begins Nov. 27 and continues through Jan. 3.

Frisbees, cake mix and the very first credit card all appeared around the same time as Morehead's "Star."

Bella is having a very bad day and is not up for remembering her astronomy.

Bella is having a very bad day and is not up for remembering her astronomy.

Today is the new moon. A different New Moon happens Friday, when the second movie made from Stephenie Meyer’s popular Twilight book series opens in theaters.

Although Twilight fans may not care, our heroine Bella Swan’s knowledge of lunar phases is questionable. In the book’s title-inspiring scene, in which her vampire boyfriend Edward leaves her and she wanders through the woods for hours, Bella thinks, “Tonight the sky was utterly black. Perhaps there was no moon tonight—a lunar eclipse, a new moon.”

Bella correctly equates “new moon” with “no moon.” A new moon is above the horizon only during the day, and the only lit part is the far side that we can’t see.

But Bella’s phrasing suggests a few astronomical impossibilities:

1) In her distress, is Bella thinking a lunar eclipse and new moon are the same? Her thoughts are ambiguous. But a lunar eclipse can happen only when the moon’s phase is full. Never when it’s new. Not even in fictional worlds with vampires.

When the moon is new, it’s between the sun and Earth, as Meyer describes on her Web site. A lunar eclipse, however, requires a different geometric line-up: Sun-Earth-Moon.

Lunar eclipse geometry

Only in this configuration can the Earth’s shadow cover (eclipse) the moon. MrEclipse.com explains why lunar eclipses don’t happen every full moon, and NASA’s lunar eclipse page lists dates of past and future lunar eclipses.

2) Even during a lunar eclipse, Bella wouldn’t have “no moon tonight.” The moon remains visible when eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow. Although the moon darkens, sometimes almost to the point of invisibility, it won’t completely disappear because Earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight. An eclipsed moon usually looks reddish (not to be confused with the reddish tint the moon can take on when near the horizon, regardless of its phase).

This total lunar eclipse did not happen at new moon. (Credit: Fred Espenak)

This total lunar eclipse did not happen at new moon. (Credit: Fred Espenak)

3) Even with no moon, the sky wouldn’t look “utterly black” in Forks, Washington, where Bella wanders the woods, unless there was a regional power outage. Because of light pollution, there are no truly dark skies in the entire state. But we can forgive Bella for exaggerating in her distraught condition.

Six months later (warning! spoiler ahead!), things brighten up for Bella when she reunites with Edward in Italy. There they further mangle the solar system by experiencing an impossible sun. That’ll be another blog post.

Do you have an example to share of impossible astronomy in a book?  Please post a comment.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. She doesn't let impossible astronomy get in the way of enjoying a good story.

This month, scientists at CERN will be restarting the largest human machine ever built: the Large Hadron Collider. In honor of this scientific milestone, we invited Dr. Reyco Henning, UNC assistant professor and particle physicist, to our November current science forum.

I can’t speak for the entire audience, but he blew my mind. The scientists studying particle physics have to be some of the most intuitive and creative scientists on the planet. I can only imagine the answer a particle physicist’s child gets when he asks, “Mommy, how did we get here?”

These people spend their lives creating incredibly complex theories to be tested by mind-bogglingly intricate machines in the hopes of understanding the fundamental nature of the Universe. How did it get here? What is the origin of mass? What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy?

Some fun facts from Dr. Henning:

1. Matter is mostly empty space. If Kenan Stadium represented a whole atom, the nucleus would be the size of a golf ball.

2. In the currently accepted model, most physicists estimate that the universe is 73% dark energy, 23% dark matter, 3.6% intergalactic gas, and 0.4% stars.

3. The LHC has had over 3,000 scientists from all over the world work on it at some point.

Henning’s take home message: The LHC will be creating decades of data that will go a long way to confirming, reforming, or rejecting our current conceptions of matter and the Universe. Let’s hope that no more birds or bread get in the way.

Next month: Dr. Kevin Weeks will be talking about his team’s decoding of the an entire HIV genome. See you on December 3rd at 7pm.

Jonathan

ps — In doing a little research, I was unsure about the “largest machine claim” so I did a little google magic and came across this beauty of a blog. The Bagger 288 is no joke.

Jonathan Frederick is Morehead's science program manager.

Now you can watch the latest Science 360 from the comfort of your own computer screen (although it’s much more fun to come in to see it and check out a Planetarium or laser show while you’re at it). But right now you’re probably sitting on your couch and wondering, “Why do plants have flowers? How do flowers develop? What secrets are hidden in their genes, and how could those secrets affect our lives?” I know you are – don’t lie to me. Watch the vid below and find out the answers. When you’re done, check out some of our other videos on our youtube and vimeo channels.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager. He is ready for lunch. No, seriously.


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