New Geek Destination: Klingon Cave Tours

Klingon vanity license plate, via

Since “Star Trek: The Experience” is no longer open, here’s the next best thing. A company is getting ready to provide self-guided tours of the Jenolan Caves west of Sydney, Australia, and one of the languages soon available for the tours is Klingon. Yes, it is a fictional, completely fabricated Star Trek language, but I’m guessing there will be some takers on this. Why Klingon?

Well, if you have watched Star Trek you may recognize the name Jenolan as one of the ships featured in the episode of The Next Generation where Scotty (from the original series) appeared. The only Klingon in that episode was Worf, and Scotty stayed pretty clear of him (still jumpy from that Tribble incident, no doubt). So there’s not a clear Klingon connection, but obviously there’s some fan love involved.

Australia’s ABC reports that earlier this month two Klingon scholars (yes, really!) from the United States flew to Australia to tour the caves and finalize the translation of a self-guided tour. They have recorded it at a Sydney studio and the commentary will be available sometime in August on a digital audio device.

Map showing the location of the Jenolan Caves in western Australia. Credit: ABC

The Jenolan Caves are the world’s oldest dated limestone cave system. And if you aren’t fluent in Klingon, the tours will also be available in 10 other more commonly-spoken languages.

And can anyone read the Klingon words in the top image?

Report: Two Objects Crash to Ground in Mongolia

One of the objects that crashed in Mongolia. Image: MUFON

Two objects reportedly crashed to the ground near Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia on Feb. 19, 2010. The first object, according to the report on the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) witness database, weighed 10 kg, while the second larger object weighed approximately 2 tons. Other than that, there’s not a lot of information available about the objects. But of course, UFOers are having a field day, calling the image, above, that accompanied the report a “leaked UFO crash” picture. But the object looks suspiciously like a rocket or jet engine, or perhaps a rocket nose cone. Objects that crash to Earth likely have a very terrestrial origin. We’ll provide an update when any news becomes available. But if you are looking for a few laughs, check out the comments on Io9.

Amazing: Scale of the Universe

Interactive scale of the universe, created by Fotoshop on NewGrounds. Click to access.


Via the Bad Astronomer, check out this incredible interactive Flash animation from NewGrounds that provides a scale of the Universe, from the very small (0.0000000001 yoctometers) to as large as we know, the estimated size of the Universe. Click on the image, or here to access, and after it loads, use the slider at the bottom to zoom in and out. Gives you a new appreciation for all that’s out there, big and small!

Why did HAL sing ‘Daisy’?

Okay, so this may not be important breaking news about astronomy, but it may answer a burning question posed by most people who have watched  or read “2001: A Space Odyssey”: that is, why does the computer HAL-9000 sing the song ‘Daisy Bell’ as the astronaut Dave Bowman takes him apart? Well, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke made HAL’s final act in the world this song as a tribute to HAL’s great ancestor, the first IBM computer to ever sing. Click below for more on this geeky topic!

In 1962 Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the novel – and co-wrote the screenplay for the movie – “2001: A Space Odyssey”, visited Bell Labs before putting the finishing touches on the work. There, he was treated to a performance of the song ‘Daisy Bell’ (or, ‘A Bicycle Built for Two’) by the IBM 704 computer. This evidently inspired him to have HAL sing the song as an homage to the programmers of the 704 at Bell Labs, John L. Kelly, Carol Lockbaum, and Max Mathews. Kelly and Lockbaum programmed the lyrics, and Mathews the accompaniment.

Daisy Bell‘ was originally composed in 1892 by Henry Dacre, and English composer. Upon coming to the U.S., he was charged a duty fee for his bicycle. A friend remarked that it was lucky that he didn’t bring a bicycle built for two, or he would have had to pay double duty. Taken by the phrase, he used in in a song to acclaim both before it became a smash hit with computers with a penchant for song, and after.

Here’s a recording of the 704 talking and singing the song. If you want to sing along karaoke style to the original singer, here’s a video of the 704 doing its ditty (ignore the different model name and year – the 7094 exists but can’t even sing backup):

And, of course, here is HAL-9000 in his death throes with a more maniacal version of the classic:

Source: Switched, MOG, Bell Labs

Google UFO Doodle Explained

The intertoobs have been abuzz with Google’s seemingly unexplained latest doodle: A UFO beaming up one of Google’s “O”s. The plot thickened when Google’s Twitter account Tweeted the following: “1.12.12 15 1.18.5 20.15 21.19.” What did it all mean? Was Google giving credence to UFO believers? Or referring to the wife of Japan’s new Prime Minister for her belief that she traveled to Venus on a UFO? Or perhaps honoring Voyager 1’s launch (Sept. 5, 1977) or space shuttle Discovery’s first landing on Sept. 5, 1984? None of the above, it turns out.

Google was paying homage to the 20th anniversary of 1980s Japanese video game, Zero Wing. According to CNET, apparently a villan from the game named Cats makes this somewhat famous declaration at the beginning of Zero Wing: “How are you gentlemen. All your base are belong to us.”

When you take all the numbers in the Google tweet and turn them into the corresponding letters of the alphabet, you get: “All your O are belong to us.”

The world can rest now. Google’s search page is now back to normal. And the Google techies are back to playing video games.

Source: CNET

News Story on Neil Armstrong Slips on an Onion

Neil Armstrong on the moon. Credit: NASA


Two newspapers in Bangladesh have issued a retraction after publishing an article taken from the popular but satirical website “The Onion” which claimed Neil Armstrong had been convinced by conspiracy theorists that the Moon landings were faked. The Daily Manab Zamin said Armstrong had shocked a news conference by saying he now knew it had been an “elaborate hoax.” The New Nation then picked up the story, and only later did they realize the Onion was not a genuine news site.

Both have now apologized to their readers for not checking the story. “We thought it was true so we printed it without checking,” associate editor Hasanuzzuman Khan told the AFP news agency.

“We didn’t know the Onion was not a real news site.”

The article said Armstrong had told a news conference he had been “forced to reconsider every single detail of the monumental journey after watching a few persuasive YouTube videos and reading several blog posts” by a conspiracy theorist.

Of course, like everything else on The Onion, the story was completely made up.

The two newspaper articles drew a lot of attention in Bangladesh, and was one of the top articles getting hits on the papers’ websites.

Here’s the Onion’s article.

Report: UFO Sightings Coincide with Popular Sci-Fi Films, TV

Scene from the movie "Independance Day." Credit: 20th Century Fox

The British Ministry of Defense released 4,000 pages of documents detailing hundreds of UFO sightings between 1981 and 1996. A summary of the documents by UFO expert David Clarke comes as no surprise to scientists and skeptics: many of the sightings coincide with the release of popular sci-fi movies or television shows.

609 UFO sightings in 1996, compared with 117 in 1995 correspond with the rise in popularity of the “X Files” television show and the release of the alien blockbuster film “Independence Day.” “Obviously, films and TV programs raise public awareness of UFOs and it’s fascinating to see how that appears to lead more people to report what they see to the authorities,” Clarke said.

The documents released include sightings reported by police officers and fighter pilots as well as young children, the Daily Mail reported Monday. 90% of the sightings could be explained by mundane objects such as bright stars and planets, meteors, artificial satellites and airship advertising.

The other 10% were listed as “unexplained,” mainly because of insufficient information.

For an excellent overview of what really happened in one of the most famous UFO stories of all, the 1947 Roswell, New Mexico alien spaceship crash, listen to Brian Dunning’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast on the subject.

Source: Reuters, UPI

Get Your Own Personal UFO

I’m always amazed at what you can find on You Tube. Type “UFO” in the search panel, and you get all sorts of wacky stuff. But this one is really quite cool. It’s called the X-Jet and was created by the US Air Force. It is kind of like your own personal flying Segway. For everyone who has wondered where the flying cars are, here’s your answer.

Happy Birthday, Charles Messier!

Most of us know the name of Charles Messier, the French astronomer and comet hunter who published perhaps one of the most celebrated catalogs of astronomical objects of all times, but how much do you really know about the man? Today is the anniversary of Messier’s birth, so why not step inside a take a look a what make this curious astronomical character one of the most celebrated observers of all time.

Charles Messier was born on June 26, 1730, the tenth son in a wealthy family of 12 children from Lorraine, France. Times were very tough back then… Even for the rich. Half of his brothers and sisters died while Charles was still quite young. By the time he’d reached 11 years old, Charles father had also died, but he was left in the care of his 24-year old brother – Hyacinthe – a Navy curator. As luck would have it, while his brother was gone, young Charlie would fall from a window in his house while playing and break the long bone in his thigh. Well, medical attention then wasn’t the same as it is today. A neighboring farmer took him in and cared for him as best he could, writing to Hyacinthe that the lad would have full recovery. However, when the older Messier brother returned, he realized how impaired this injury had made him, so he removed him immediately from the local school, took care of his education, and trained him for eight years for administrative and methodical work. Although we can imagine that young Charles felt a bit restricted during that time, what he learned would serve him well – precise observing methods and an eye for fine details.

Charles Messier was bitten by the astronomy bug at age 14 when a a great 6-tailed comet appeared and he had a chance to witness an annular Solar eclipse from his home town on on July 25, 1748. About a year later, his schooling would end and like most young men, he’d drift for awhile, not too sure of what direction he wanted life to take him. Well, in 1751, that part of present-day France was reorganized, (Off with their heads, you know…) so Hyacinthe decided to stay loyal to a certain faction and it was time to put 21 year old Charles to work. There were two positions open: one with the curator of the palace and one with the astronomer. Guess which position he took? So, on September 23, 1751 Charles Messier left for Paris to work for the Naval Astronomer in the unheated hall in the Royal College where his fine handwriting netted him the job of copying maps. Besides that, the Observatory director, Delisle, kinda’ liked him… So he taught him about his instruments, how to make observations and introduced him to his assistant and they both let him keep their notes.

As an astronomer, Charles Messier’s first documented observation was of the Mercury transit of May 6, 1753. Delisle himself had introduced Messier into the beginnings of astronomy and drove home the point of calculating exact positions of all observations and documenting them. This well-learned lesson was a skill that would eventually immortalize Messier’s observations and in 1754, he was officially employed as a Depot Clerk of the Navy.

And still dreamed about the stars…

Somewhere in 1757, Charles Messier started looking for comet Halley. The comet was expected to return in 1758, but at the time these orbital calculations were little more than guesswork. Observatory Director Delisle had calculated an apparent path where he expected comet Halley to appear and young Messier drew up a star chart for him. As luck would have it, there was an error in Delisle’s calculations and no matter how valiantly and determined Messier was to find the comet, it was never there. At least until the night of August 14, 1758 when he accidentally tripped across another comet. Carefully documenting his observations, Charles followed it telescopically until November 2, 1758 and after comparing notes with contemporaries, realized this particular comet had been discovered on May 26, 1758, by De la Nux. Even if it wasn’t Comet Halley, or a new discovery, his observing time wasn’t wasted… It was the beginning of a new era.

While he was documenting and following De la Nux’s comet, Messier discovered another comet-like patch in Taurus on August 28, 1758. Being the good observer that he was, he recorded its position, returned later, and when he discovered it wasn’t moving – realized he’d located a nebula. He measured its position on September 12, 1758, and it later became the first entry in his famous catalog, Messier 1 or M1. Realizing he was on to something, Messier then began to sweep the heavens with his telescope, searching along Delisle’s path for comet Halley and recording objects “which could be mistaken for comets” along the way.

Comet Halley was finally recovered by German amateur astronomer, Johann Georg Palitzsch, on Christmas night 1758. However, for Messier, his “Ah ha!” moment wouldn’t come until January 21, 1759, nearly a month later. Although he remained loyal to his teacher, Messier began to have doubts about Delisle’s computations, and after a few independent observations he found Comet Halley on his own. Of course, Delisle wouldn’t admit that he was wrong. He told Messier to continue to observe along the lines he’d given him and simply refused to announce his discovery to the French academic world. Like all good employees, Messier simply took it in stride, stating: “I was a loyal servant of M. Delisle, I lived with him in his house, and I conformed with his command.” When Delisle finally realized the error and announced Messier’s recovery of Comet Halley on April 1, 1759, the other French astronomers believed they were a victim of an April Fool’s joke and didn’t believe it. To make matters worse, Delisle even refused to publish another of Messier’s comet discoveries made in early 1760…

Well, 28-year old Messier might have had a weak leg, but he had one heck of a strong back bone, because despite the ridicule and suppression, he became more determined than ever to prove them wrong about his abilities. Delisle was getting old and less inclined to observe… Allowing Messier to take over more and more. Messier recorded his second “nebula,” M2, previously discovered by Jean-Dominique Maraldi, and plotted it on a chart showing Comet Halley’s track. He observed the transit of Venus of June 6, 1761, and the appearance Saturn’s rings. He observed Comet 1762 Klinkenberg from May to July, 1762, and on September 28, 1763, he discovered Comet 1763 (Messier), and the next one, Comet 1764 Messier, on January 3, 1764. He had hopes to enter the French Royal Academy of Sciences in 1763, but it was a dream that didn’t come true… and a bitter let down for Charles Messier.

Messier2While searching for nebulae during 1770, Messier went off the beaten path. This led to 19 original discoveries that weren’t documented in any catalogs by other astronomers he could get in touch with. Devoting his life to astronomy, he used every clear night to advantage, continuing to discover comets and add objects to his catalog. At age 40 he married (after 15 years of dating), and a year later, on January 10, 1771, Messier independently co-discovered the Great Comet of that year. On February 16, 1771 he presented the first version of his Catalog of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, with the first 45 objects, to the Paris Academy of Sciences. This was his very first memoir and during that same year that he was finally officially made the “Astronomer of the Navy”.

A year later Madam Messier gave birth to a son… And within two weeks they were both gone.

If you think today’s scandal sheets at the grocery store checkout are bad, then know they couldn’t hold a candle to what aristocracy could do back then. According to research, a malicious legend is reported by Jean-Francois de Laharpe, written in 1801, that the death of Messier’s wife had prevented the discovery of another comet which would have been his thirteenth, and Messier was more desperate because of the lost discovery than of the death of his wife (especially as this comet was discovered by Montaigne, whom he didn’t like). Anyway, Messier observed this comet March 26 – April 3, 1772. On April 5, 1772, he added another cluster to his list, M50. But after that, Messier seemed to lose his spark for observing and a great deal of his life’s work went on to his assistant, Pierre Mechain. It would be some five years before Messier would take his observing back up in earnest – and 10 years before his passion for hunting comets would return again.

It was about this time that another famous astronomer (Sir William Herschel) began to make his mark in astronomy – and with his superior telescope, put the aging Messier and his work into the past. In less than a year’s time, Charles would accidentally fall once again – this time a 25 foot drop into an ice cellar – from which it took the 50-year old over a year to recover from his injuries. When he returned, he went back to scanning the skies for his beloved comets, but his heart really wasn’t in it. He did discover several more comets, and went on to write many great works. Mechain left to become the director of the Paris Observatory and France fell once again. (Off with their heads). His fortune gone and his observatory falling apart, Charles Messier finally received national attention when Napoleon himself, in 1806, presented him the Cross of the Legion of Honor – the medal you see him so proudly wear in all his portraits.

ThCharlesMessier01As time passed, the old man Messier did as many old men do… Retired on their laurels and perhaps spent a bit too much time reflecting on the past. Unfortunately, Charles spoiled a great deal of his astronomical reputation by writing a rather detailed autobiography, which ended up tying the great comet of 1769 to Napoleon, who had been born that year. Even though in his mind, it might have been a good political move, it was suicide to the scientific world. No one could believe he would actually equate the appearance of a comet with Earthly events. As Admiral Smyth said: ‘The last comet put astrologically before the public by an orthodox astronomer’. Quietly going blind, Messier suffered a stroke in 1815, and lived for another two years… to meet the age of 87.

Although you may argue that Messier’s Catalog was not particularly scientific… It wasn’t arranged by Right Ascension and Declination… Nor was it broken down by object type… What Charles left us was a legacy. Within the Messier List is every known type of object: galaxy, globular cluster, open star cluster, supernova remnant and planetary nebula. His observations were made with a small telescope that averages out to about what a modern 102mm would be today. He couldn’t resolve things. He made mistakes. He was human.

He was Charles Messier.