Always wondered how to find Betelgeuse? The picture below will elucidate the location of this gigantic star.
Betelgeuse is also called α Orionis. Betelgeuse originates of the Arab yad al-ǧauzā, the hand of the giantess, sometimes also referred to as the shoulder star of Orion.
Why is Betelgeuse intriguing?
Betelgeuse is a giant star and is classified as a red super-giant. It has about a thousand times the diameter of our sun and has about ten thousand times as much luminosity, as a result of which Betelgeuse can easily be seen in the night sky, as it is the tenth brightest star. This star is of great astronomical interest. Its radius was the first to be determined by interferometry and it varies by about 15%. As a result, also Betelgeuse’s brightness varies a factor between +0.3 and + 0.6. This is one of the very few stars that are visible from Earth as a surface, not just a point in the sky. Most likely this star is an amazing 500 light years away!
In the opinion of astronomers, Betelgeuze will end up as a supernova (read this Guardian article from 2020). Opinions vary when this event will take place: it could happen within the next thousand or one hundred thousand years. The resulting supernova will be easily visible and will shine over the entire firmament. With a red giant of this type you can expect a 16,000-fold increase in the luminosity. This supernova could reach the brightness of the full moon. Luckily enough, the axis of rotation of the star does not point towards the Earth, and the gamma-ray flash would not be so strong that it would affect the Earth’s biosphere. Now, THAT would be a post-apocalyptic experience ! The remnant of this supernova is expected to be a neutron star based on the mass of 20 solar masses.
When traveling to foreign countries I always attempt to find a few attractions off the beaten track. Botanical gardens are such a spot; as a biologist by I have visited gardens in places such as Paris, London, New Mexico, Hawaii … and now in Kyoto.
In a corner of the Kyoto Garden is an absolutely impressive collection of bonsais. In fact, it has inspired me to start growing a bonsai myself. I’m still in the information stage, so very little progress to report except that growing a bonsai doesn’t seem to be trivial. I will keep you posted!
As far back as 2015, Bill Gates gave a now famous TED talk in which he predicted the occurrence of a pandemic “in the nearby future”. Mr. Gates is getting quite some flack for that prediction, which is quite unfair. Tin-foil-hat-wearers think that Bill Gates has some darker motives, whereas it is my guess that the truth is far more benign: Bill Gates simply reads a lot of books and articles; which are actually freely available to all of us. And if you start reading those, you will quickly realize that it isn’t such a surprise that Bill Gates arrived at his conclusion.
Over the years, a number of people, including many scientists and authors (fiction and non-fiction) have predicted the occurrence of a pandemic. Over-population, the massacre of the environment, climate change… all of these are factors in a dramatically changing playing field for pathogens.
Still not convinced? As a biologist and author, I published a novel on this topic back in 2010: TWO JOURNEYS (available e.g. on iTunes or amazon.com) describes the devastating impact of a CORONA VIRUS pandemic – see TWO JOURNEYS, pages 122/123 – photo below.
I must admit that there was no magic or clairvoyance involved; the SARS and MERS epidemics convinced me (as a scientist) that such a scenario was bound to happen. Sure, my prediction that the pandemic was the result of a CORONA VIRUS was surprisingly spot-on. The main reason for my selection of CORONA (and not e.g. H1N1) was that I needed a culprit that could spread at top speed across the globe – CORONA viruses have a prominent ability to do so through droplet and surface infection. In addition, it is challenging to develop vaccines against CORONA viruses, which at the time of writing the book also passed my mind as a suitable characteristic; I recall toying with the idea of introducing that aspect further on in the series.
What makes TWO JOURNEYS truly special is the analysis of the psychological effects of such an occurrence on the hero; and how populists will misuse the narrative for their own purposes. Quite a few story lines in the book have now (alas) become reality. That is where the novel has its true predictive strenght.
So, TWO JOURNEYS (and its sequel FIELDS OF FIRE) indeed describe the aftermath of a CORONA pandemic. The rest is high speed, adventure fiction – but you will recognize several characters and occurrences again, e.g. the misuse of the pandemic by the villainous dictator Somerset may well remind you of some of our current political leaders – those that put fiction before fact, and self-interest before empathy. I recently addressed this in a (yet again!) predictive blogpost, first published back in March 2020: The Corona Pandemic and How it Affects All of Us.
There it is, on page 122/123. Corona is the culprit of the pandemic that left Alan (hero of TWO JOURNEYS) stranded in Tokyo. Note the line “Corona viruses spread by droplets or surfaces” – better keep your distance, wear a mask and wash your hands.
Over the last few months I have blogged extensively about Corona. Today, it looks as if this disease will be continue to be with us for some time. It may become a virus hat remains “in parallel” to all the flue and common cold viruses out there. There is even some speculation that the appearance of novel viruses may become more common.
Although some countries are opening up again from complete lock-down, other countries haven’t yet reach the peak in the pandemic. The hunt for a vaccine is in full swing, but with my background in biology I agree with some experts that that this may not succeed soon, or even at all. On the other hand, Dr. Fauci is optimistic.
In any case, for the foreseeable future, it is key for all of us to protect ourselves, but especially vulnerable people around us. One of the ways to do this is the use of a face-mask. We would be wise to continue their use also in the future; even when the pandemic should quiet down. People in Asia wear such masks, on a regular basis,and that is good health practice.
Even though such masks are non-medical, they have several advantages. For one they provide (and this has been proven) some basic protection from distributing the virus should you have been infected. They also provide some minor protection against catching the virus (although this protective quality should not be exaggerated). In addition, such masks keep you from touching your face, and they also alert people to keep their distance from you.
Today’s world is complex. We are bombarded with a never ending flood of information; through news, social media and personal conversations. News hits us from all corners of the globe: a hundred years ago nobody would have known (or cared) about forest fires on the other side of the world; today we feel directly affected by them. In addition, we are more than ever confronted with developments that impact all of us, such as the Corona/Covid19 pandemic (see previous blogpost) or climate change.
How to handle this confusion? Only a level-headed “cool analysis“ of the facts helps us deal with this complicated world. Without reliance on facts, the world becomes even more complex and reality even more difficult to handle. And we start making mistakes, after all, who wants to base decisions on wrong facts?
But how to distinguish fact from fiction? People spread half truths or lies in a number of ways. Here’s an example of how that works.
Creationists are convinced that, based on the texts in the Bible, the world is only a few thousand years old. You can think about this any way you want (many will conclude that his perception is wrong. As a biologist, I am slightly biased in this matter), but that is not the point that I would like to make. I would like to talk about the dilemma this causes for the creationist. Thecreationist has two options. First, the creationist could decide that the biblical text is correct and that no further discussion is needed. The creationist could then simply stick to this belief and not enter into any further discussion with anybody. This would be 100% consistent. After all, we all believe in certain things, and sticking to those beliefs is fully acceptable. Sure, it may have some disadvantages for the creationist: this person might feel isolated as many people will smirk at this idea, and/or the creationist wouldn’t be able to gain more followers. The creationist would definitely get less air time on national television! Many religious groups follow such an approach (e.g. the Amish people in the USA, who self-isolate pretty efficiently). Perfectly fine: they can go on with their lives, and I with mine. We mutually respect one other and might even enjoy our differences.
The alternative for the creationist is to collect information to prove that the world is indeed only a few thousand years old. The apparent advantage for the creationist is that the creationist can continue to interact and discuss with fellow humans, thus there is less risk of having to live the life of a recluse. It also provides a feeling that the theory is scientifically validated. And you can actually get invited for a quirky interview on TV.
This is what I call the Creationist Dilemma: the creationist needs to choose between these two options.
Remember, I’m not discussing the pros and cons of creationism. This blogpost addresses the dilemma that confronts many believers in many topics.
There are tremendous flaws in choosing the second option: what I call the Creationist Trap. In choosing the second option, the creationist starts to collect (scientific) evidence that “proves” that either the evolution theory has weaknesses, or that creationism is correct. In other words, the creationist starts out with a theory and then picks and chooses the evidence that supports that theory.
However, this is not how science works. To put it bluntly, it completely contradicts common sense.
It’s like driving a rattling car through the desert and firmly believing that it won’t break down (~theory) because you had it checked, the tank is full, the wipers and horn are working, and your highly concerned passengers were wrong in the past (~facts). Based on which you conclude: we will continue driving! (~action).
In contrast, real science starts out by collecting facts, from which a theory is created. To stay with the car example: oh my, the motor doesn’t sound good at all (~fact); is it breaking down? (~theory), let’s stop and check the motor before it gets worse (~action, leading to the collection of more facts).
The “beauty” of the creationist approach is that it allows anyone to “prove” anything.
Example: climate change. Many climate change deniers have a reason (their starting “theory”) for their denial of human-caused climate change. Perhaps they fear for the economy, or their job. Or they love big cars that use a lot of gasoline, or the theory doesn’t fit their understanding of freedom. Perhaps deep down inside they are afraid of change. In any case, they fall victim to the creationist’s dilemma: instead of simply saying: “Hell, I am not going to change my ways. I’m going to produce carbon dioxide and I don’t care what’s going to happen to the climate” (which would at least be consistent), they are tempted to start collecting data that “substantiates” climate change isn’t happening: they choose option two and fall into the creationist trap. They may refer to irrelevant climate change events that happened thousands of even millions of years ago, or to other „mistakes“ that so-called „experts“ made.
You think the Earth is flat? You think that the whole corona reaction was unnecessary? Do you believe humanity never landed on the moon? Are vaccines bad? Is homeopathy a proper medical treatment? You think brushing your teeth has no benefits? I can help. I’ve been working in science long enough to know where to find information, justgive me sufficient time, and I will collect all the evidence you need to support ANY of your theories.
Is that a valid approach? No.
How to spot people that have fallen victim to the Creationist Trap? Have you perhaps fallen into it yourself? Here some indicators to look out for.
First, always question: why is this person making a certain statement? What is this person’s underlying motivation? In the case of the creationist it is simple: religion. Anti-vaccers may be driven by fear or uncertainty, or mistrust in institutions (like Big Pharma). In many cases the motivation may not be directly obvious, e.g. climate deniers may have many different reasons at the same time. And many won’t even tell or disclose what motivates them. Sometimes they do not even know themselves.
Second, are the person’s statements overtly negative, in a sense that the person is trying to DISPROVE a theory? An expert (this can be a scientist, but also a football coach, an iron monger or an accountant) makes mostly positive statements about theories, since they know the facts that support them. They feel comfortable with the evidence on which the theory is based. A flat-earther is on constant defence against scientists, the media, the world, and is thus attacking the idea that Earth is a globe.
Another telltale sign: is the person heaping up more and more evidence (true or false) from as many sources as possible to make their point? And if one argument doesn’t work, quickly switches to the next one?
Is the person relying on (sometimes amazingly good) oratory skills, is this person a smooth talker? Does the speaker transport knowledge or emotion? Knowledge and facts can be very boring; emotion can be very gratifying and exciting.
An expert knows that no one can know everything about a discipline. As a result, an expert will regularly use phrases such as: “there is no data to support that theory,” or even simply admit “I’m not sure.” A person stuck in the creationist trap will not allow any doubt to shine through. They do not discuss; they debate.
Is the evidence provided actually related to the topic? Are observations pulled in from cases that may seem similar, but that are in fact unrelated: whataboutisms? Typical statements to watch out for are “they were wrong about XYZ too” or “something similar happened then-and-then, and it turned out be completely innocent.”
The indicators above may apply to any individual. But if many start to bubble up at the same time, your alarm bellS should start to go off.
In the end, the scientific method relies completely on common sense, the two are inseparable. Facts know no religion, no politics, no emotions. But they are key to get your rattling car out of the desert.
[Originally posted in March 2020]. In 2010/2011 I published a visionary novel TWO JOURNEYS, which deals with a corona pandemic. I’m a biologist with considerable virology experience which, with the SARS epidemic, inspired my literary work. Although I do not see myself as a expert virologist, I do track this pandemic with high interest. A lot of data has been collected, which can become very confusing (even to me; although I‘m used to work with scientific data) – but I would like to offer a single data point. Today, May 9, globally 275,000 individuals have died. As certain countries (China, Brazil, Russia, Iran, even the UK, and others) are poor at reporting corona deaths, my guesstimate is that the actual number of deaths is probably closer to 600,000. This happened in about 4 months. Imagine no lockdowns would have happened!
It is hard to extrapolate (as crucial data is still missing), but my guess would be that the total number of deaths from this pandemic could easily be within a range of 10,000,000 to 100,000,000 (see the Spanish flu, which had probably 17,000,000 victims – in a less densely populated world). This is a guesstimate if no lockdowns would have been executed.
Now let’s take a different angle. The challenges that we are confronted with are three fold: (1) circumvent human suffering (2) limit economic repercussions (3) as primates, we are eager to have full social, face-to-face contacts. We want all three, and as soon as possible.
These goals seem to contradict one another. However, the beauty is that the solution for all three is identical. And very straightforward: we must all follow the WHO guidance rigorously, and do this now: wash your hands multiple times a day, do not touch your face, sneeze and cough in your elbow, keep a distance to others of 2 meters/6 feet, stay at home & only leave your house for essential business.
The main concern is the weakening of discipline, this is the true problem. People are beginning to move the goalposts, there is a trend to soften the handling of social distancing.
You can help to reduce the number of deaths AND also make sure that the lock-downs are lifted quickly. This means you will have to inform yourself. How often and how to wash your hands? What should my children do (especially teenagers)? How are aerosols created and how far do they travel when talking, coughing or laughing? See this great article by Erin Bromage.
If all of us are very consistent and self-disciplined throughout this pandemic, then we save lives… and the economy.