Leapin’ Lizards, It’s Leap Day!

So, its February 29th, that special day that comes every 4 years. A year with a February 29th is, as we all know, a “leap” year.

So, where did this come from? Well, there is a lot of history behind it, but, basically, in earlier times, they found that calendars, growing and planting seasons, and so on, were getting further and further off until it was realized that our planet’s year is not exactly 365 days. It really is closer to 365 ¼ days.

So, to insure that Christmas doesn’t eventually drift into what would now be July, an extra day was added to February every 4 years to catch up, or “leap” back to the correct time. Hence, the leap year, and leap day, February 29th.

Now, to be sure, the Earth doesn’t complete an orbit exactly in 365 ¼ days, and, the planet’s orbital speed and daily rotation changes imperceptibly over time, so, every so often the correct time is adjusted by a few seconds here and there. This so our days and years continue to match the seasons and our calendars.

So, Happy Leap Day, everyone!

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Our Brains: What We Really Have

You’ve put the cat in his room and have closed the door, so he won’t get into things while you sleep. All you had to do was to close the door. Then, later that night, there’s the smell of smoke. It wakes the cat, but he can’t get out of the room to warn you. Luckily, something else wakes you and you smell the smoke, locate its source, and prevent the fire.

Now, let’s say you had no cat but a 5-year-old child. And, like the cat, you’ve closed the door to the child’s room. Like the cat, the child wakes up, smells smoke, and opens the door and wakes you in time, something the cat could not do or think of.

That’s because of our brains. We’re so caught up in our lives, that we seldom think about the advantages that our brains give us over the other animals.

Oh, they’re obvious enough to us to the point that we never ask our pets to bring us a glass of water, but we don’t really think about it. Especially when it comes to comprehension, which I believe might be the true 6th sense.

And yet it can be seen in even seemingly unimportant things.

For instance, when I was much younger and living at home, we had various dogs, including 3 greyhounds at one point. It was quite cold one night and my folks put blankets over the dogs so they could keep warm. Of course, overnight, the dogs would move and the blankets would come off.

So, when I awoke first that morning and noticed the now uncovered dogs still sleeping, my thought was that I wished that they could think of grabbing the blankets with their mouths and pull the blankets back up over them.  A human child would have thought to reach for the blanket and cover himself again. The difference amazed me then and still does now. And I realized just how powerful this ability, that we humans have, to think and comprehend really is.

And while chimpanzees and dolphins have shown signs of having greater comprehension than other animals, they still don’t have it to the extent that humans do.

And it’s quite a gift. To see a stick and know immediately that you can use it to pry up a rock, or to see the notepad that you have and immediately know to use it as a temporary shield against the sudden rain as you run to your car.

Just something to think about.

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Shrinking Time

Time flies. Time flies? Yes, and ever faster!

When I was about 6 years old, my grandmother was telling me how I would finish grade school, go on to high school, and then college at 18. Well, for me at the time, a year was nearly forever, and age 18 seemed to be so far away time wise that there wasn’t enough time in the universe to reach that age!

Well, I certainly did reach 18, and the 4 years of high school seemed to pass far more quickly than I would have ever imagined at age 6. And, when I entered college, I saw that I was almost as old as professional ball players.

Then, before I knew it, I’d reached my 30’s and, when I thought about it, I realized that many students graduating high school at this point hadn’t even been born yet when I’d graduated!

Now, some years later, not only have most of the professional ball players at the time I graduated retired, but their replacements have, too!

And that year’s time that seemed nearly forever to my 6-year-old self, is nearly next month to me now.

So, why does time seem to “rocket” by now, and why is that everlasting year seeming to last only a month now? Is it just me?

The truth is, no, it’s not just me, but everyone feels this as they get older. I read once that this has to do with a “kind of relativity” or changing perspective as one gets older.

As the article explained, to a six-year-old kid, a year is one sixth of his lifetime. To a sixty year old person, one year is only one sixtieth of his lifetime. To look at it another way, it would take 10 years for the 60-year-old to “feel” the same length of time has passed that the 6-year-old would feel with just 1 year passing. This is why, more and more, it feels to me like time is not just flying, but “rocketing” past.

I don’t know if this is just mental, or physiological as well. But it does make sense to me. I remember as a kid, hearing my parents and other adults refer to times 20 and 30 years past and thinking it was like ancient history to me. And now, I can recall times 20 and 30 years in my past, and it doesn’t seem that long ago.

It’s pretty amazing when you stop and think about it.

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Driver-less Cars, the Way of the Future?

Recently, there was an article about driver-less cars on Yahoo. it was quite interesting, dealing with both facts and possibilities as to what it could mean. The article talked about how laws might have to be rewritten, insurance rates and accident rates would go down, and how there would be a “transition” from the cars we now have to the driver-less variety. So, what are some of the issues and what are some of the facts?

How close are we to having driver-less cars become commonplace? They are being developed now, and Google actually has a working model, but they are still in their infancy. Most likely, the first ones that are made available to the public will be very expensive, as is usually the case with any new technology. And like the newest technology, they will have the least features and most bugs. As to how far away the first generation of widely produced and seen models are, some articles on the subject say that it could be in as little as ten years’ time. But a lot of hurdles will need to be overcome, and they are not just about the technology.

Even if the first models available for public purchase make an excellent debut, many, many people will be reluctant to trust a vehicle to drive itself. I once read an article that said that the biggest reason that people fear flying is that they know that they have so little control if anything goes wrong. At least in a car, despite it being far less safe than flying, people feel that they are in control. People will perceive having less control being in a car that drives itself, and will be reluctant to trust driver-less cars. Of course, it depends how the technology is introduced. If gradually, with only a few functions being taken over by each progressive car model, then more people will get used to the idea of the fully driver-less car. However, even then, actually giving up the wheel itself will make many people reluctant.

Then there are other issues and questions.

Will a driver-less car really, really, be able to avoid an accident or be able to tell if a route has construction or some other obstacle ahead of time?

Can it predict, during the transition time from driver required to driver-less cars, what the driver of a driver required car will do?

And of course, “Can we now text, since we won’t be ‘driving'”

Then, there are those who just like the idea of driving themselves. In a world where there are only driver-less cars, you won’t be able to take those winding roads the way you  want to, for instance. And, that rite of passage of getting your first license may become history.

On the plus side, there’d be fewer illegal drag races, and drunk driving would be far less of a problem, hopefully leading to greatly reduced insurance rates.

And possibly, people who, today, cannot, or will not, drive, may have more transportation options on the table, since, you may no longer need a driver’s license.

To get some picture of the myths and facts of driver-less cars at this time, November, 2014, go to http://www.techrepublic.com/article/8-truths-and-myths-of-driverless-cars/

If driver-less cars become a reality, it could mean some really big changes down the road, so to speak.

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So, If Aliens Exist, Where Are They?

Recently, a lot of earth-like planets have been discovered, and UFO sightings have been happening forever. Which has led to a general speculation about the existence of alien civilizations, fueled in part by science fiction movies and books, especially when there’s a notable movie, story, or incident, such as the Roswell incident, movies such as “”Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind“, “ET“, “Avatar“, and books such as “Chariots of the gods”.

And of course you have people on both sides of the debate on whether or not aliens exist. Where do I stand on this matter?

I do believe that aliens exist. But I’m not a zealot where possible evidence is concerned. Not every UFO, or picture of one, is necessarily an alien craft and I don’t know if ancient monuments and art were created by, or depictions of, real aliens.

But I also find it incredibly hard to believe that we are completely alone in the universe when we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface in exploring it yet. So when I hear people, including people who are prominent in society say that they don’t believe aliens exist, I think they are like the kid telling his parent he can’t find what he’s looking for when he hasn’t even looked in his room, let alone his closet or the rest of the whole house!

Of course, we still don’t have “it”, the evidence which would be absolute in proving the existence of aliens, such as their openly visible arrival here, a truly “readable” signal from them where we would know that it could only have come from intelligent life and not be something nature could create, or an artifact left here that we would somehow know was not created by humans or nature.

There is what is known as the Fermi Paradox, which attempts to explain why we haven’t been contacted yet or have found any absolute evidence of the existence of aliens.

Now, after having read an article some time ago regarding what it would take to have a successful mission to Mars, I can see that we are still very far away from having the technology to build a ship fast enough with the capability of keeping its crew alive and well for the duration, to make an interstellar journey feasible. This may also be why aliens may not have visited us yet.

What about radio signals? Some theorists say that we may be on different frequencies from what alien civilizations may be using. Possibly. But what if we are on the same frequency?

We’ve had radio since 1914. It’s 2014 now, so the first radio signals, which travel at the speed of light, have only traveled 100 light years. Any civilization further out than that, will not have received them yet. And since there’s no video, but only sound, the alien civilization would have to try to decipher the message first and determine where it came from, before it could send a meaningful reply.

And remember, a civilization only 80-90 light years from us will have only received our signals 10-20 years ago. And, once they reply, if they do, it will take 80-90 years for their reply to reach us!

But let’s say a civilization advanced enough to have radio astronomy, and enlightened enough to believe that other civilizations exist in the universe, and is only 50 light years away, receives our radio signals. Even if they only took a year to decipher the message, find out where it came from, and sent a reply back to us after that year’s time, their message back to us is still a year away from arriving here!

And if you look at just how big the universe is, (The nearest star is 4 light years away and the galaxy is 100,000 light years across with over 100 billion stars!), it’s easy to see that there might not be a civilization capable of receiving and sending radio signals within that 50 light year radius.

With video like that from TV signals, an alien civilization that can pick them up will have a better idea of what they’re seeing and has a better chance of figuring out what is being said as well as what we look like. But, TV did not come into use until the 1940’s, so these signals have only gone out about 70 light years, and if we were to get a reply back, again, assuming an almost immediate reply, that civilization would have to be no further from us than 35 light years in order for us to get that reply this year.

Also, this assumes that a civilization is advanced enough and also interested, in radio communication with us or any other civilization.

We’ve come from ancient Egypt and ancient China to now, a span of about 5,000 years, in which only in the past 200 years have we had any kind of electronic communications. A civilization only 300 years behind us could be as close as the nearest star, but we cannot know with radio astronomy alone since they’d have no way of even knowing our signals exist and nothing they have would be emitting any signals for us to pick up!

What about more advanced civilizations? Certainly they could pick up our signals and send replies back, maybe faster than light, too?

Yes, most likely, so why haven’t we heard from them? They may be too far out and haven’t received our signals yet and don’t yet have a way to “reach out and grab” them. Or they may not be interested or truly believe there aren’t other alien civilizations, and so have no interest in looking or listening.

Or it could be a case of information overload.

In 5,000 years of human civilization, we still haven’t reached or have seen all areas beneath our oceans, under the polar ice caps, or the interior of our own planet, let alone the other worlds of our solar system. Imagine an advanced civilization with access to 5, 10, or even 100 life-bearing worlds that it has already reached with manned missions. They may know about our world but just don’t have time yet to even begin exploring or communicating with us yet!

With our space telescope having discovered over 700 earth like worlds now, I can see how this could be the case. And if a means to reach them easily and safely should ever be discovered, especially if within this century, and especially if life is discovered on many of them, we, especially the scientific community, will be like a kid who’s just gotten a million toys! Every scientific organization and publication wouldn’t know where to explore first and they’d all be crying for people to come work for them as field explorers! It would be amazing!

For now, though, we can only speculate, wait, and continue to listen and explore. Someday, though, I’m sure we will find “it”, that evidence which truly proves beyond all doubt that we are not alone.

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A Historic Day Today

It was July 20th, 1969 and I was eager to arrive home. I was just a kid and me, my parents, and a visiting cousin, were on our way home from my grandparents’ house. I always had a great time at my grandparents’ house, about 400 miles away and always hated leaving and would often arrive home feeling the letdown, but this time, the letdown was pushed well back due to my anticipation.

You see, I’d always, even as a kid, been interested in astronomy and space exploration. And that day, July 20th, 1969, human beings were landing on the Moon!

We got home in time to watch the landing on live TV and I can still feel the emotions I felt that afternoon, 45 years later.

Since then, while there’s been some activity, it seems to have come in spurts, with long hiatus’ in between. And not just us, either. We’ve done, collectively among the few, but recently growing, space-faring nations of the world, manned activity in low and middle Earth orbit, but little else in terms of space exploration, with the exception of interplanetary probes.

I believe we could have done more by this time, especially in regards to returning to the moon. It’s not that we didn’t, or don’t have, the technology, but that we’ve let red tape and politics trip us up. Politics, in the form of governments, until recently, not allowing private companies to venture out into space, often cutting space exploration budgets in favor of other “true” pork-barrel projects, and a “not invented here” policy regarding listening to those who would know better how to keep us in space at a lower cost and who have the vision to see that, in the long, long-term, space exploration can benefit in more ways than we think. And of course, the red tape, where everything has to be filled out 10 times over, even though we live in the computer age where everything can just be copied and transferred, and mindless regulations, as well as good regulations that are enforced in a mindless manner.

So what are the benefits of exploring that great “empty” vacuum? Well, there are planets and asteroids, and gasses and other things out there that can do much for us.

In terms of science, the universe is a living chemists lab. Astronomers and other scientists are seeing things with ever advanced instruments that give us new answers as to how various elements work and also provide proof, or discredit, of the theories we have today. Being there in person, we could learn much more much faster. I read an article recently where a scientist said that a team of astronauts could do in a week on Mars, what all of the robots we’ve sent, such as Soujourner, Opportunity, and Pathfinder, have done in all the years they’ve been there!

In terms of resources, the solar system alone may be a vast storehouse of all kinds of mineral resources, just waiting for us to go out and get them. Instead of getting coal and iron, and rare metals from here on Earth, with all of the environmental and cultural issues involved, imagine if we could get it from some lifeless asteroid or moon instead!

And of course, there’s the question of life outside of Earth. It may be life as we don’t know it, but I think we would recognize it if we discovered it. And while it wouldn’t initially affect the individual on Earth, it would answer some big questions about how rare or common life is and would let us all know that Earth is not as unique in being a life-bearing planet as we at first thought.

But at least one question has been answered. We can reach other worlds.

Recently, private companies, such as SpaceX, have been coming into play, with a good measure of success. Also, more nations have sent people into space on their own and are talking about going to the moon in some cases. I wish them well and hope that the advent of private space-faring companies and more space-faring nations, along with the discovery of a growing number of planets outside our solar system, will renew greatly the interest in space exploration.

There’s much to be learned and had from that great “empty” vacuum we call space.

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Comet of the Century?

In late November of this year, Comet ISON (comet C/2012 S1), will be at only 700,000 miles from the sun and may be visible to the naked eye here on Earth. Possibly very visible, according to some experts. In fact, some have said that it would be the “Comet of the Century”

Will it? No one knows for sure. In the early 1970’s, Comet Kahoutek was also billed as such, being expected to outperform the 1910 pass of Halley’s Comet. In 1910, I’m given to understand that Halley’s Comet covered half the sky at one point. Nothing like its poor performance in 1986.

As for Comet Kahoutek, it was an extreme disappointment, to say the least. I never saw it myself, though I did look for it. I did see Halley’s comet, but it was very hard to find and looked more like a faint dusty spot.

But, I have seen two other comets, though neither matched the 1910 Halley’s Comet pass. (Which I would have liked to have seen but that was over a half century before my time!)

One was in early 1974. I don’t remember the name of the comet, but it was clearly visible to the naked eye early in the morning just before sunrise. it had a well-defined head and tail. It wasn’t visible for too long a time.

Hale-Bopp was the other, appearing in 1996-1997 and was visible for over a year, longer than any other comet recorded. It was impressive and could be easily seen from even the polluted skies of Southern California.

Will ISON be spectacular or will it fizzle? No one knows for sure and comets, like Kahoutek, have been proven to be quite unpredictable. So, come November, watch the skies. Maybe we’ll have quite a show and ISON will really be the “Comet of the Century”.

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