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Mercury magazine

Autumn 2012 - Volume 41, Number 4

Autumn 2012 - Volume 41, Number 4

Table of Contents



[14] ASP Posters from Tucson
Within this issue are eight of the 85 posters that were presented at the 2012 ASP Conference in Tucson, Arizona. Here's an excerpt from one of them.

[30] The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, Michael Mann
In a plenary session at the ASP's 2012 annual meeting in Tucson, climatologist Michael Mann argued that human-caused climate change is not controversial scientifically and explained how his hockey-stick chart thrust him into the middle of the climate-change war.

[13] Societal Impact: Addressing 2012 end-of-the-world fears, Andrew Fraknoi
Here are a few resources for addressing fears about astronomical causes for the end of the world in December 2012.

[36] Astronomy in the News
A link between cold European winters and solar activity, Opportunity and Curiosity at work on Mars, and a planet circling Alpha Centauri B -- these are some of the discoveries that recently made news in the astronomical community.


[14] Editorial, Paul Deans
Coming Soon: A New Look for Mercury

[15] First Word, James G. Manning
Living History

[17] Echoes of the Past, Katherine Bracher
50 Years Ago: Radio Galaxies

[18] Astronomer's Notebook, Jennifer Birriel
Kepler's Supernova Remnant

[19] Planetary Perspectives, Daniel D. Durda
Farewell Vesta, Onward to Ceres...

[10] Armchair Astrophysics, Christopher Wanjek
Hydrogen Signal Reveals First Stars

[11] Education Matters, David Bruning
What Purpose Reading?

[12] Reaching Out, James Lochner
Outreach vs. Engagement

[13] Societal Impact, Andrew Fraknoi
Addressing 2012 End of the World Fears

[42] Society Scope / ASP Supporters
New Board Members

[44] Sky Sights, Paul Deans
Three planets in December's Dawn

[47] Reflections, Hubble Space Telescope
An eXtremely Deep Field

There and Back Again in the Classroom and in Outreach: Astronomy and The Hobbit

by Kristine Larsen

Originally published in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit features the adventures of the diminutive, furry-footed hobbit Bilbo Baggins and thirteen dwarves in a quest to regain the dwarves' ancestral treasure from the dangerous dragon Smaug. Considered more of a children's tale than the later trilogy The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit garnered twenty-fifth place in a 2003 BBC poll of the best-loved novels (right behind several Harry Potter books), with The Lord of the Rings capturing the top position.

Now, a decade after the record-breaking release of director Peter Jackson's film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, fans of Middle-earth are anxiously awaiting the release of Jackson's three-part treatment of The Hobbit. Given that the first trilogy raked in nearly $3 billion worldwide (according to and that interest in the films is high, both online and at conventions such as the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (release date December 14, 2012) and its sequels (release dates December 13, 2013 and summer 2014) promise to introduce a whole new audience to the wonders of Middle-earth. Therefore now is the time to prepare to exploit the astronomy of The Hobbit in our classrooms and outreach programs.

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

by Michael Mann

As part of this presentation [to the ASP], I'd like to discuss my experiences as a reluctant and accidental public figure in the debate over human-caused climate change. But I'll start by simply pointing out that human-caused climate change is not controversial scientifically. The scientific case is relatively straightforward.

The greenhouse effect is basic physics and chemistry that we've known for nearly two centuries. Early 19th-century scientists such as Joseph Fourier understood the existence of the greenhouse effect -- the fact that certain gases have heat-absorbing properties, and that they warm a little part of Earth's atmosphere.

We know that we're increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases, CO2 in particular, through fossil fuel burning. We can measure that buildup, and the concentration is now 392 parts per million (ppm). If we continue on the course we're on, we'll hit 450 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere within a matter of decades. I'll come back to this later, because 450 ppm is our best estimate of what level of CO2 would likely commit us to a 2°C warming of the planet relative to pre-industrial times.

We can use ice cores to extend that record back in time so we know that today's CO2 levels are higher than anything we've seen in at least 700,000 years. We can look at the isotopic composition of the CO2 that's building up in the atmosphere and see in it the fingerprint of fossil fuel burning. The CO2 buildup isn't natural; it's due to us.

Societal Impact: Addressing 2012 end-of-the-world fears

by Andrew Fraknoi

As students return to school this fall, and the media and web hype about Doomsday 2012 reaches a final, fevered pitch, all of us in science education will need to be prepared to respond to concerns from those who are genuinely worried or confused.

Two new resources are now available for educators, parents, youth group leaders, and science communicators to address fears that worldwide disaster is coming on Dec. 21, 2012.

Astronomy in the News
Link Between Cold European Winters and Solar Activity

Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany

Scientists have long suspected that the Sun's 11-year cycle influences climate of certain regions on Earth. Yet records of average, seasonal temperatures do not date back far enough to confirm any patterns. Now, armed with a unique proxy, an international team of researchers shows that unusually cold winters in Central Europe are related to low solar activity -- when sunspot numbers are minimal. The freezing of Germany's largest river, the Rhine, is the key.

The advantage with studying the Rhine is because it's a very simple measurement, said Frank Sirocko, professor of Sedimentology and Paleoclimatology at the Institute of Geosciences of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Freezing is special in that it's like an on-off mode. Either there is ice or there is no ice.

From the early 19th through mid-20th centuries, riverboat men used the Rhine for cargo transport. And so docks along the river have annual records of when ice clogged the waterway and stymied shipping. Sirocko and his colleagues found that between 1780 and 1963, the Rhine froze in multiple places 14 different times. The sheer size of the river means it takes extremely cold temperatures to freeze over, making freezing episodes a good proxy for very cold winters in the region, Sirocko said.

Mapping the freezing episodes against the solar activity's 11-year cycle, Sirocko and his colleagues determined that ten of the fourteen freezes occurred during years when the Sun had minimal sunspots.