December 2007

The Jet Propulsion Lab reports as of January 28 that astronomers have updated the odds of asteroid 2007 WD5 hitting Mars in January. My post of January 21 indicated the odds then were believed to be about 1 in 75. Now the odds are estimated at 1 in 25, according to new trajectory projections. I think these are decent odds and I am excited about the possibility of a nice impact stirring up some ground on Mars that perhaps can be inspected. There should be some nice video of the event too. Of course, this means there is also a 24 in 25 chance of the asteroid not hitting Mars, however, my gut tells me that JPL is estimating conservatively so as not to be embarrassed if there is no impact. Wishful thinking perhaps, but I await more information.

Near Earth Object Program link:


The countdown is on and it’s four days to go until the Iowa caucus. John McCain appeared Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week”, Mitt Romney appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and John Edwards appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation”. The mud slinging is in full force and apparent on television although the Democrats are stabbing each other in the back with a slightly duller blade than the Republicans.

While Romney and Huckabee have a ‘knock-down-drag-out’ fight underway in Iowa, McCain in rising in the new Hampshire polling numbers like a stealth airplane. In his television appearance, McCain was asked if he thought Romney was a phony, as his campaign ads have cited a New Hampshire editorial saying as much. He replied,” I think he’s a person who’s changed his positions on many issues.” McCain was so much a gentleman as he twisted that knife around in Romney’s back. Huckabee was a bit rougher with his attack on Romney and nearly called Romney a liar for distorting Huckabee’s record saying, “Mitt Romney is running a desperate, and frankly, a dishonest campaign. If you aren’t being honest in obtaining a job, can we trust you to be honest if you get the job?” Ouch!

Hillary Clinton also appeared on “This Week” and continued to pound away at the experience issue saying, ” What people know about me is that I’ve been vetted and I’ve been tested.” The remark has good and bad connotations in my mind and I’m not sure it is a helpful statement for her campaign.

The latest polls show Clinton, Obama and Edwards in a dead heat in Iowa. Huckabee has a slight lead but Romney is gaining ground, or maybe its that Huckabee is losing ground. I may get a six pack of beer and spend Thursday night watching the outcome on television.

Beginning January 1 in Illinois, the expiration date on gift cards must be five years and no fees can be charged that will diminish gift card value.

The treasurer of the state of Illinois, Alexi Giannoulias (jeh-NOO’-lee-ehs), says his office is holding more than $5 million in unused gift card balances for Illinois residents. Unclaimed balances are forwarded to the state. Prior to the law change on January 1, only retailers incorporated in Illinois were required to remit unused gift card balances to the state of Illinois. Retailers incorporated outside the state remitted the unused balances to their state of incorporation IF that state had an unclaimed property law covering gift cards. Otherwise, the retailer kept the unused balances. One way the retailers try to avoid sending the unused funds to a state is to diminish their value by charging monthly “maintenance” fees on the unused balance until that balance is used up. So the new law is a significant change for the better for Illinois consumers.

Most gift card retailers do not record name or contact information for the purchaser or recipient. Unredeemed balances come to the state marked as “owner unknown”. The purchaser or recipient must file a claim with the Treasurer’s Office using the serial number on the expired gift card.

Nationwide $8 billion in gift cards went unused in the United States last year. If you or your gift giver paid for the gift card with a credit card, the serial number of the gift card purchased is often printed on the credit card receipt. This will help in filing a claim with the state that the gift card funds you are seeking really do belong to you.

See my earlier post on gift cards here.

The Quadrantids meteor shower is visible between January 1 and January 5 with the best viewing dates being January 3-4. The origin of the Quadrantids meteor shower is inside the constellation Bootes, high in the northern sky. This means the showers cannot be seen well if at all in the southern hemisphere. The meteor shower produces 50 to 120 meteors per hour, lasts only a few hours and is best viewed after midnight.

In 2003, NASA Ames Research Center found that the meteoroids come from 2003 EH1, an asteroid that is likely a piece of a comet that broke apart 500 or so years ago. Earth passes through the orbit of 2003 EH1 at a perpendicular angle, meaning we move quickly through any debris. This means the shower activity is somewhat short.

The Quadrantid meteors take their name from an obsolete constellation, Quadrans Muralis, found in early 19th-century star atlases between Draco, Hercules, and Bootes. Along with a few other constellations, it was removed from crowded sky maps in 1922 when the International Astronomical Union adopted the modern list of 88 officially-recognized constellations. The Quadrantids, which were re-mapped to Bootes after Quadrans Muralis disappeared, kept their name–probably because another January shower was already widely-known to meteor watchers as the Bootids. The map below should help point out the direction in the sky to look for these meteor showers. Of course viewing will be better with a clear sky which can be a problem in January.

We were supposed to attend a Christmas Eve function at a relative’s house and didn’t go after we said we would. We were babysitting our grandson who was cranky and we didn’t feel good either. The relative called us asking if we got lost and I had to apologize for not calling and canceling. We had been told many of their grand kids and other people we wouldn’t know would be there so we didn’t feel it was a big deal at the time, but after he called we felt bad, even embarassed. The episode reminded me of Steve Goodman’s song “Video Tape” which I thought I would post here. If I could rewind the tape, we would have gone to the Christmas Eve get-together.

If your life was on video tape
Wouldn’t everything be all right
When your head hurts the morning after
You could roll it back to late last night
You could replay all the good parts
And cut out what you don’t like
Oh wouldn’t you be in good shape
If your life was on video tape

If everybody had esp
Everything would be ok
We could see trouble coming
And we could step out of the way
When the grim reaper comes to call
We could arrange to be out of town
It would be the great escape
And you could put it on video tape

I don’t have a video recorder
I don’t have a crystal ball
And when i’m not with my baby
Then i don’t have very much at all
I can’t predict the future
And i sure can’t change the past
But i know it will all make sense
If you love me in the present tense

If your life was on video tape
Wouldn’t everything be all right
When your head hurts the morning after
You could roll it back to late last night
You could replay all the good parts
And cut out what you don’t like
Oh wouldn’t you be in good shape
If your life was on video tape

I ran across some quotations that provoked some thought in me due to the season and thought I would share them:

When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion.

Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865), (attributed)

 My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

 Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), “Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium”, 1941

 I won’t take my religion from any man who never works except with his mouth.

Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967)

 The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible.

George Burns (1896 – 1996)

 Those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990

 Never confuse the faith with the supposedly faithful.

Randy K. Milholland, Something Positive Comic, 10-19-06

 To believe in God or in a guiding force because someone tells you to is the height of stupidity. We are given senses to receive our information within. With our own eyes we see, and with our own skin we feel. With our intelligence, it is intended that we understand. But each person must puzzle it out for himself or herself.

Sophy Burnham

 Whatever God’s dream about man may be, it seems certain it cannot come true unless man cooperates.

Stella Terrill Mann

 With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

Steven Weinberg (1933 – ), quoted in The New York Times, April 20, 1999

 And then to lighten things up a bit, from thought provoking quotes from Steven Wright:

  • Support bacteria – they’re the only culture some people have.
  • When everything is coming your way, you’re in the wrong lane.
  • Ambition is a poor excuse for not having enough sense to be lazy.
  • Hard work pays off in the future. Laziness pays off now.
  • Everyone has a photographic memory. Some just don’t have film.
  • A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.
  • Experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it.
  • For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.

Have a nice holiday!

Mars is closest to Earth since 2005 and will appear to be a bright star in the evening sky during December and January. Mars will be at opposition to Earth on December 24. This means it will be directly opposite from the sun, with Earth in the middle on Christmas Eve. Since it is opposite the sun, the light hitting the planet will all be reflected toward Earth increasing its magnitude to -1.6. It will actually outshine Sirius, the brightest star.

Mars will rise in the east as the sun sets in the west with visibility occurring throughout the night. Mars will set in the west as the sun rises in the east. In 2003, Mars opposition was the closest to Earth in almost 60,000 years. Mars is moving in a retrograde path (moving westward) through the stars of Gemini and will cross over into Taurus on Dec. 30 (see graphic below). It came closest to the Earth on the night of Dec. 18 (around 6:46 p.m. EST) and six days later will be in opposition. Mars will then be 54,783,381 miles from Earth.

Mars’ orbit is more elliptical than Earth’s, so the difference between perihelion and aphelion is greater. Over the past centuries, Mars’ orbit has been getting more and more elongated, carrying the planet even nearer to the sun at perihelion and even farther away at aphelion. So future perihelic oppositions will bring Earth and Mars even closer. The opposition observed in 2003 was a modern record and will stand until August 28, 2287. Now is a good time to view Mars. Even an inexpensive telescope should provide a nice view. At magnifications of 120x, detail in the polar caps can be seen.

Looking east in mid-evening

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