Communion Of Dreams

“Uh, he’s already got one, you see.”

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has rightly been called one of the most important scientific tools in human history. It has brought the cosmos closer to us, just as it has helped to drive home an understanding of precisely how far away those twinkling lights in the sky actually are … and connected to that, just how old our universe is:

The depth of Hubble’s data, however, has touched or rewritten nearly every area of astrophysics. Ever since the discovery of the expanding universe in the 1920s, astronomers had struggled with the rate of expansion and what it means. The so-called Hubble constant, the universal rate of expansion, was much in doubt, with two factions arguing very different conclusions from the data. The Hubble constant is also inversely proportional to the age of the universe, another key holy grail of science. One of the primary goals of Hubble was to measure the Hubble constant accurately, using a variety of distance indicators, and by the turn of the 21st century, this helped define a relatively accurate Hubble constant of 72±8 and an age of the universe, which the more recent European Planck satellite has refined further to 13.8±0.04 billion years.


It’s an amazing piece of technology.

But I can’t help remembering that even as amazing as it is, a few years ago it was revealed that it was considered so … obsolete … that US spy agencies had just given NASA two other surplus Hubble-type instruments they no longer wanted to bother to store. As I noted at the time:

…we’ve just found out that what we thought was at the limits of our technology is so obsolete that it can be handed off as so much surplus junk. And the implication is that while NASA is currently without the means to launch and service something like Hubble, that there are plenty other agencies within our government which are not so inconvenienced.


Which brings me around to the title of this blog post. Monty Python fans may recognize it from this scene in the Holy Grail:

Which I just happened to watch this week, and snickered over, remembering the news item about the HST from 2012. Though of course, in this case I hope that the National Reconnaissance Office wasn’t *quite* so taunting of NASA …


Jim Downey

Careful what you wish for.

We all have our little phantasies. One of mine (mentioned previously) is to see a screen treatment of Communion of Dreams.

But in reading about what kind of SF clusterphuck Prometheus has turned out to be, I’m almost afraid to contemplate it any further in case it might come true . . . in the worst way possible.

Jim Downey

(Yes, I intentionally misspelled those words. Here – go watch this stunning transit of Venus and stop bothering me.)

Oh! Lookit the purty pictures!

Do you like APOD? Dig great shots of space? Love to poke around the various and sundry sites where NASA has images?

Then boy, are you in luck:


WASHINGTON — NASA and Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library based in San Francisco, made available the most comprehensive compilation ever of NASA’s vast collection of photographs, historic film and video Thursday. Located at, the Internet site combines for the first time 21 major NASA imagery collections into a single, searchable online resource. A link to the Web site will appear on the home page.

The Web site launch is the first step in a five-year partnership that will add millions of images and thousands of hours of video and audio content, with enhanced search and viewing capabilities, and new user features on a continuing basis. Over time, integration of with will become more seamless and comprehensive.

“This partnership with Internet Archive enables NASA to provide the American public with access to its vast collection of imagery from one searchable source, unlocking a new treasure trove of discoveries for students, historians, enthusiasts and researchers,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale. “This new resource also will enable the agency to digitize and preserve historical content now not available on the Internet for future generations.”

How many images are we talking about? Over 100,000 at present. Completely searchable. The homepage is broken down into several categories (Universe, Solar System, Earth, Astronauts) and contains an interactive timeline of the space program going back 50 years. Each search generates a page of thumbnail images – Titan calls up almost 1,500 – leading to photos, animations, audio files, and artist’s renderings.

Wow. Just wow.

Damn, and I have work I need to get done this afternoon . . .

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

Stellar evolution.
January 9, 2008, 11:06 am
Filed under: A.P.O.D., Alzheimer's, Astronomy, Carl Sagan, Hospice, Science, Sir Arthur Eddington, Space

I commented via email to a close friend yesterday about the persistent fever my MIL has been running, 2 to 2.5 degrees above her normal. We’d seen fevers come and go for the last several months, but this one seems to have settled in for a while. I got back this:

Any particular reason for it, or is she just being like a star that’s going into its final flameout?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Like my friend, I grew up after the basic mechanisms of stellar evolution were pretty well understood. What I learned long ago, and seems to still hold basically true is this: stars in the main sequence will develop, go through an initial process of fusion converting hydrogen into helium, and then will evolve one of several ways depending upon initial mass. Small to medium-sized stars will make it into the helium fusion phase (primarily producing oxygen, nitrogen and carbon), before burning out and eventually becoming a white dwarf. Larger stars can go on to greatness, however, and in the sequence of their lives (including supernova) produce all the natural elements we know in a process known as nucleosynthesis. Either way, massive amounts of material are stripped away from the star and disseminated out into the universe through explosion, solar wind, and other similar mechanisms.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

What is oldest, lasts longest. That is the basic equation to understanding Alzheimer’s.

Generalizing: First, the person with Alzheimer’s will lose the ability to learn new skills. Then the most recent memories will slip, and each succeeding layer of memory acquired in their life will melt away. Metaphorically, they are being deconstructed – like some great skyscraper which is slowly dismantled from the top down, floor by floor. Compare this to other diseases and injuries, which are more like an implosion of consciousness, collapsing in on itself all at once.

Because of the way the disease progresses, layer after layer of experience and memory being peeled away, the patient regresses through life, becoming once again a child in many ways. This is likely the origin of the notion that the elderly experience a “second childhood” with dementia.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Looking back over the last three or four months, it has been a difficult time. I read the posts I’ve made here on the topic, and am frankly surprised that things have been as bad as they have been for as long as they have been. No wonder I am exhausted, even with the extra help we’re getting thanks to Hospice.

Yesterday was a bad day. Whether because of the fever, or just her deteriorating condition, my MIL was really in a state of constant confusion about everything starting first thing in the morning. Nothing was easy, and she needed near-constant reassurance and supervision. Then, shortly after I had gotten her up from her afternoon nap, she evidently had another TIA, and for a while only spoke gibberish – complete word salad. Needless to say, this was frightening for her, and she was almost combative in response. After an hour or so she rallied, but it was still a difficult evening until we got her to bed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

We are made of star stuff.

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos.

Ever since Sir Arthur Eddington sorted out the hydrogen fusion theory of star fuel, which led to the understanding of how the elements are created, there has been a growing awareness that we are, quite literally, the stuff of stars. All of the atoms in our bodies were likely forged in the fusion furnaces of stars now long gone.

And those atoms are shared around. Recycled. I remember seeing somewhere a fun calculation that all of us – each and every person alive – carries with them something like 200 atoms which were in the body of Jesus (or, say Nero, Hitler, et cetera…). Whether a person is eaten by a predator, or their body allowed to decompose in the ground, or burned on a pyre, their atoms just go back into circulation and eventually make their way into all of us.

And one day our own sun will change from a hydrogen-fusing star to a helium-fusing star, if only for a little while. It will likely swell up into being a red giant, and when it does it will consume Earth, or atomize it and blast it into space.

So yes, my friend, in a very literal way, my MIL is exactly like a star that’s going into its final flameout. And I find that oddly comforting. And beautiful.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)