Strange Universe | WAMC

Strange Universe

Sundays, 9:35 a.m.
  • Hosted by Bob Berman

Astronomer Bob Berman sheds light on the mysteries of space and time. Always fascinating and fun, Strange Universe will take you places you never knew existed. Learn why Betelgeuse sometimes goes weirdly dim and how after the totality in 2017 in places like Wyoming and the Carolinas, millions finally got to see a total solar eclipse.

Strange Universe 11/29/20

Nov 29, 2020
Earth from Space
Image Credit: NASA

Every couple of months you'll read about the "first-ever New Earth" found beyond the solar system. But in nearly all cases, the item had been uncovered many years earlier. It’s an odd development that science discoveries are being announced as “new” when the information has been out there for years or even decades. It's strange. Another science journalism sin is hyping sky events that are either minor or unobservable. So beware of today’s headlines, promoting a lunar eclipse Sunday night, November 29th.  For casual observers, the Full Moon will remain unchanged.

Strange Universe 11/22/20

Nov 22, 2020
Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

Explore the five most abundant elements in the galaxy: hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. The remaining seven dozen elements are almost a seasoning. Together they make up just 4% of the universe. And then there’s the unknown, like dark matter. There’s six times more of it than all of the 92 natural elements combined, but what has nature fashioned out of that?

Strange Universe 11/15/20

Nov 15, 2020
Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

Following up on last week’s episode regarding planet speed, this week we consider the speed of natural objects around us. We’ll hear about the speed of ocean currents, tectonic plates, air motion and more. 

Strange Universe 11/8/20

Nov 8, 2020

Everything moves. We know of no object – not one – that doesn’t spin on its own axis while also whizzing through space. It’s a hurry-up universe. But what about us? How fast are you moving through space? Glad you asked.

First, there’s your speed on our spinning planet, and this depends on where you live. At either pole, you don’t move at all. At the equator, you move at 1,038 miles per hours. If you like math, you can figure your exact speed by multiplying the cosine of your latitude by 1,038. It works out to about 750 miles an hour in typical American cities, which is very close to the speed of sound. And while you’re doing that, you’re also being carried through space at our planet’s orbital speed, which is an extremely fast 66,600 miles per hour.

Strange Universe 11/1/20

Nov 1, 2020
Credit: NASA Goddard / Tom Bridgman

We cover the Earth and Sun’s scheduled pole shifts. Usually the Sun's enormous magnetic field's north pole becomes south, and vice versa, every 11 years, and we are now entering solar cycle number 25. But the recent sunspot cycle has been weirdly drawn out. All this activity has its roots far below the surface in a solar zone called the tachocline, about 70% of the way from the center toward its gassy surface. It's powerful and yet, most people are more concerned about Earth's magnetic poles flipping over. Could our poles shift too?

Strange Universe 10/25/20

Oct 25, 2020
AlexAntropov86 /

Every 26 months Earth and Mars meet, but the encounter can occur at either a narrow gap between our orbits or a wide gap. The difference matters because, after waiting 26 months between Martian encounters, called oppositions, the Red Planet can be more than twice as bright on some occasions compared to others. Whenever we meet in the early autumn, we meet at very nearly its closest and best, which makes it very large through backyard telescopes and simply brilliant in the night sky.

Strange Universe 10/18/20

Oct 18, 2020
Photo Courtesy of WikiImages

Heat is simply the motion of atoms: Something feels hot because you sense the frenzied movement of those little critters. At 98.6 degrees all your body's atoms are jiggling at about 1,000 miles per hour. Atoms stop moving only at 460 degrees farhenheit below zero. Since nothing can go any slower than "stopped," this is indeed the coldest possible temperature -- Absolute Zero.

Strange Universe 10/11/20

Oct 11, 2020

Amateur astronomers are also often disappointed by the full moon, which looks boring because the sun then shines straight down like a flash camera to erase all shadows and highlights; but all phases are not created equal. The best moon for observers happens next  Thursday, October 22, and it stays fabulous right through weekend.

Strange Universe 10/4/20

Oct 4, 2020

This is it – the week that Mars is closest to Earth. It won't come this near again until 2035 or appear this bright. Finding it is a no-brainer. Just step out anytime of night and look around. The night has two stars brighter than any others. The white one is the planet Jupiter. The orange one is Mars. The Martian orbit is oval and lopsided. Every 26 months when Earth and Mars meet, the encounter occurs at either a narrow gap between our orbits, as it did in August 2003, or the widest possible gap, which happened in 2012. Whenever we meet in the early autumn, we meet at nearly its closest and best, which makes it very large through backyard telescopes, and simply brilliant in the night sky

Strange Universe 9/27/20

Sep 27, 2020

There are dozens of "constants” in physics, like the force of gravity, that are just right to allow atoms and planets and life to exist. This week we’ll talk about how the cosmos are amazingly fine-tuned for the existence of observers, but leaves scientists wondering how.

Strange Universe 9/20/20

Sep 20, 2020

The autumnal equinox happens Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 9:31 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Earth will angle perfectly sideways to the sun. Neither pole will tip toward or away from that favorite star of ours, making days and nights equal.

Strange Universe 9/13/20

Sep 13, 2020
Vega Star
Stephen Rahn

Look straight up at 8 o’clock tonight, or the first clear night. You will see Vega, the brightest star that is almost directly overhead at midnorthern latitudes on midsummer nights. It's not as brilliant as Jupiter, lowish in the south these nights, but Vega at 8 p.m. is just as unmistakable. The “standard candle” is shining brightly, almost directly right above us. 

Strange Universe 9/6/20

Sep 6, 2020

This weekend we take a look at Neptune, which is now at its brightest and closest of the year. Neptune is an enormous blue gassy ball 58 times larger than Earth by volume. It’s the only planet invisible to the naked eye, and currently lurks among the dim stars of Aquarius.  It's now out all night long.

Strange Universe 8/30/20

Aug 30, 2020
NASA Saturn
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

In our culture of publicity and hard sell, it's easy to exaggerate, but one planet never disappoints. Through any telescope with more than 30x, Saturn elicits gasps. Strangely enough, photos of the ringed world do not pack the same visceral punch. You have to see it for yourself and now is the time. Saturn is at its closest and biggest and it will remain perfect for viewing for the next several months. Those fabled rings are still nicely angled for our viewing, far from edgewise, revealing exquisite detail, like the inky black gap that separates the narrower darker outer ring from the broad white inner one.

Strange Universe 8/23/20

Aug 23, 2020
NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)

Jupiter came closest to Earth a few weeks ago, so it will dominate the sky all this month and for the rest of the year. Jupiter is in Capricornus, the Sea Goat, but you don't need to know what a Sea Goat is, or anything else to find it. Just look around the sky any time before dawn, for the very brightest star. It’s astronomy made simple.

Strange Universe 8/16/20

Aug 16, 2020

We just saw the finest comet of the past 23 years. It brings up the topic of what constitutes a true celestial spectacle. When it comes to objects of terrestrial beauty, people travel around the world to get a glimpse of the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal. So what are the true sky spectacles? Tune in this Sunday to hear the top five celestial sights that never disappoint.

Strange Universe 8/9/20

Aug 9, 2020

The year’s best meteor shower is now underway. So far you’d see just a few extra shooting stars per hour. But when we reach the nights of August 11th and 12th we will see a meteor every two minutes or so, especially if we’re away from the lights of town.

Strange Universe 8/2/20

Aug 2, 2020

That's Venus, popping out at you just before dawn. It's the single brilliant star low in the east as twilight brightens. If you’re up and out, you can't miss it. And in case you do, it'll stick around right there the whole rest of the year. You probably already know that this nearest world to Earth has shiny overcast clouds that brilliantly reflect the sun. Maybe you also know that it's the slowest spinning object in the known universe. It barely rotates at all. One Venus day lasts as long as 243 of ours. You could walk faster than it spins.

Strange Universe 7/26/20

Jul 26, 2020

Is the moon out of fashion? Well, beginners in astronomy are usually disappointed by the full moon, which looks boring because the sun then shines straight down like a flash camera to erase all shadows and highlights. But all moon phases are not created equal. The year's best moon for observers is happening these nights. That's when it suddenly explodes with breathtaking detail for anyone with binoculars or a small telescope and the phase responsible for these sudden riches is the first quarter.

Strange Universe 7/19/20

Jul 19, 2020

Sunlight is good for human health. And even the small percentage of it that’s ultraviolet is good, because it makes our skin generate vitamin D. But as you know, too much UV can give you a burn. And too many burns can spell skin cancer down the road. Right now, the sun’s UV is at its strongest of the year. About 1 percent of the light hitting a sunbather is UV, which translates into a million trillion photons per second. All are capable of altering DNA and epidemiologists have found that every 1 percent increase in lifetime UV exposure produces a 1 percent hike in skin cancer incidence. Obviously the bottom line is: avoid most of it.

Strange Universe 7/12/20

Jul 12, 2020

Everyone knows the terms waxing and waning, but relatively few of your friends could look at a moon and instantly tell which it is. So let's make it easy. The waxing moon is lit up on the right. It's the moon you see during the weeks before full moon. It's also the moon that's already out when darkness falls, so it's the one seen by the most people: the dinnertime moon.

Strange Universe 7/5/20

Jul 5, 2020

The lowest full moon of 2020 happens during the opening minutes of Sunday, July 5th. This will be the most amber or honey-colored full moon of the year, especially when it rises, at sunset Saturday evening. This full moon may be the true origin of the word “honeymoon” -- since it is amber or honey-colored, thanks to its light shining through the maximum amount of thick horizon air, which reddens the sun and moon whenever they’re low. In actuality, the term "honeymoon" was first recorded in 1552. The idea back then was that a marriage is like the phases of the moon, with the full moon being analogous to a wedding; meaning, it's the happiest and "brightest" time in a relationship.

Strange Universe 6/28/20

Jun 28, 2020

We’ve always noticed that winter is cloudy. But now we’ll experience the year's sunniest period in our region. We went from being 62% cloudy from November through April, to 63% clear now through October, so let’s focus on this relatively short blue sky period. It lets us enjoy stargazing and moon watching – with the very best time to view the moon happening this weekend, when the half-moon provides stunning contrasts on craters through even the smallest telescopes. 

Strange Universe 6/21/20

Jun 21, 2020

This is not just Father’s Day and the solstice weekend, but also the New Moon. It starts what astronomers call a new lunation – day zero of the lunar month. A new moon is utterly invisible because it displays only its dark side and also sits near the sun in the daytime sky, lost in glare. But in popular speech many define "new moon" as the skinny crescent, first seen two evenings later. Millions around the world will then look for the reappearance of the moon as a thin crescent.

Strange Universe 06/14/20

Jun 14, 2020

Now that warm weather is here, we're leaving windows open, which brings up the topic of our planet’s atmosphere. 

The air is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, which leaves just one percent for everything else. Very few know that this is almost entirely argon – an inert gas our body has no use for. 

More interesting is the air’s tiny bit of carbon dioxide, since climate change has made it into a villain.

Strange Universe 6/7/20

Jun 7, 2020
Solar eclipse
A Owen

A total solar eclipse can make people weep, that's how awesome it is; but the total part is important. Only during a solar totality do pink flames leap from the sun's edge, and animals go crazy, and stars come out in the daytime. None of that happens during a partial solar eclipse, which can't even be safely observed without eye protection. So if you want to be swept away, it's totality or nothing. 

Strange Universe 5/31/20

May 31, 2020
Wikimedia Commons

This coming Wednesday, details gets skimpier, but the moon starts brightening explosively, doubling its brilliance in just two nights until we reach next Friday’s full phase. The nights are now warm, and the air scintillates with magic. If you own any old telescope, now is the time to check out the Moon.

Strange Universe 5/24/20

May 24, 2020

Einstein believed in locality. That’s the common sense principle that an object is influenced only by its surroundings. A kind of supplementary principle is local realism -- that all objects have actual properties independent of any measurement of them. Tune in this week as we observe the reason why large objects like Saturn do dwell in specific places and have motion.

Strange Universe 5/17/20

May 17, 2020

It’s common in journalism to present two sides to every story. So every bad news bulletin should have some good news. And this motif actually applies to the entire universe. Now in mid-May, for example, we’ve entered the three-week period when the dazzling Evening Star is largest and most interestingly crescent-shaped though binoculars and small telescopes. The bad news is that when this happens, it means Venus will disappear in less than a month.

Strange Universe 5/10/20

May 10, 2020

The sun is getting high up and strong, yet we take it for granted. Not many regard it with primitive awe, or find it amazing that a ball of fire crosses the sky every day.