Nobel Prize Physics 2019

The Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded this year to Jim Peebles for ” theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology” and to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for “the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star”.

It happens regularly that the Nobel Prize is split, but in this case there is hardly a connection between the two topics, and the Nobel committee must have realised that,  by adding that the prize this year was won for “contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earthโ€™s place in the cosmos”

In this post I will concentrate on Jim Peebles, maybe in a later post I will write more about the discovery of the other two physicists.

The scientific career of Peebles is closely associated with the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation, so I will first explain what it is and how it was discovered.

According to the Big Bang theory, the Universe came into being 13.8 billion year ago. Incredibly tiny, hot and dense, it started to expand, while cooling. In the beginning it was a soup of gluons and quarks, but after a few minutes (!) the temperature had dropped so much that “normal” matter, like protons, neutrons and electrons became stable and even some light elements like deuterons and alpha particles could be formed. But it was still a plasma for many thousand years, until after around 380.000 years the universe had cooled so much that electrons and nucleons could form neutral atoms, like helium and hydrogen. From that time onwards until present photons could travel freely, the Universe had become transparent.

In the 1960’s Dicke and Peebles at Princeton studied this Big Bang theory, which was still not universally accepted at that time. If the Universe started with a “primordial fireball” , remaining radiation of this fireball should still be present. But the Universe has expanded about 1000 times since it became transparent, so the wavelength of that radiation has also increased 1000 times! No longer visible (reddish) light, but microwaves with a wavelength in the order of cm/mm’s, corresponding to a temperature of only a few Kelvin.

To detect this kind of radiation you need a microwave radiometer , and two colleagues of Dicke and Peebles, Roll and Wilkinson, also at Princeton, were building one. Then they learnt that two scientists at Bell Laboratories, Penzias and Wilson, only 60 km away from Princeton, were actually working wich such a radiometer and had found results they could not explain. Here is a photo of the Holmdel Horn Antenna, used by Penzias and Wilson.

What was it they could not explain? Well, measuring microwave radiation is not easy, because there is much “noise” from many sources, which you have to eliminate or take into account. What they found was that there always remained a background corresponding to a absolute temperature of 3.5 Kelvin. It did not matter which part of the sky they pointed the horn to, and whether it was day or night, there was always this background. They even cleaned the inside of the horn, removing pigeon droppings!

When the two teams came together, the solution was immediately clear. Penzias and Wilson had inadvertently discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, predicted by Dicke and his team. “Well, boys, we’ve been scooped “, Dicke supposedly said.

The two groups decided to write separate articles for the Astrophysical Journal of 1965, referring to each other. Cosmic Black-Body Radiation by Dicke, Peebles et al. and , very modestly titled, A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Mc/s by Penzias and Wilson.

In 1978 Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize for Physics “for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation” Of course many in the scientific community found that the Nobel Prize should have been awarded to both teams. But (old fashioned) Nobel Prize rules made that impossible, teams can not get the Nobel Prize, only individuals (maximum three).

Roll and Wilkinson continued with their experiment and published the results the next year in the Physical Review Letters: ” Cosmic Background Radiation at 3.2 cm-Support for Cosmic Black-Body Radiation. Searching information for this post, I found a fascinating article, written a few weeks ago by Peter Roll, now retired of course, about his perspective on the 1965 discovery of the CMB. VERY readable, also for non-physicists.

I have written in some detail about the discovery of the CMB radiation because the importance of this discovery can hardly be overestimated. It changed the Big Bang theory from a controversial hypothesis into the standard model for the evolution of the universe. Here is another very readable article in Physics Today, one year after the discovery: A Bang, not a Whimper?

Of course there were still many questions. If the radiation was really thermal, it should have a well-defined spectrum. And it was of course very convincing that the radiation was the same at each point of the sky, but actually there should be minuscule differences, how else could stars and galaxies have formed, if the early universe was completely homogeneous?

The best way to investigate these questions, was to launch a spacecraft and observe the radiation outside Earth’s atmosphere. And that’s what happened. In 1974 NASA asked for scientific proposals and in 1989 the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) was launched. Two main experiments, FIRAS by John Mather, to determine the spectrum of the CMB radiation and DMR by George Smoot to measure the miniscule differences (the “anisotropy”) of the CMB.

Here is the spacecraft. Dimensions (without solar panels) ~ 4,5 x 2,5 m. The experiments are indicated, the Dewar contained liquid helium to cool especially FIRAS to near absolute zero temperature.

Here are the results. The CMB spectrum fits so perfectly the shape of a thermal source (“blackbody”) that it received a standing ovation when it was presented to the American Astronomical Society in January 1990.

The temperature of the CMB is 2.728 K, but Smoot found indeed tiny differences, depending on the location in the sky. Here is a map of the sky, with the temperature differences indicated in red (slightly warmer) and blue (slightly colder). When these results were published in 1992, they were frontpage news in the New York Times and Stephen Hawking in an interview called it “the greatest discovery of the century, if not of all timesโ€.

In 2006 Mather and Smoot received the Nobel Prize for Physics “for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation”

Through the CMB we are looking back to the very young universe, 380.000 year old, before stars and galaxies were formed. Exploring these temperature differences, may help us to understand the evolution of the universe. But then a more detailed map of this anisotropy is needed!

In 2001 the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) was launched. Until 2009 data have been collected, resulting in maps like this one, much more detailed.

And in 2009 the Planck observatory was launched. The instruments on board were cooled until 0.1 Kelvin, making it the coldest object in the universe..:-) Here is the Planck map, even more detailed.

You may wonder about the shape of these maps. It is called the Mollweide projection and it minimises the distortion you always get when you project a sphere on a plane. For comparison, here is the Mollweide projection of Earth.

There are two other discoveries in cosmology during the past 50 years that I have to mention, before I can finally come back to Jim Peebles and his Nobel Prize ๐Ÿ™‚

The first one was the discovery of Dark Matter. In the 70s the American astronomer Vera Rubin studied the rotation of galaxies like the Andromeda galaxy and found that the outer regions of the galaxies were rotating much faster than expected, based on the visible matter of the galaxy and Kepler’s laws. An explanation could be that galaxies are surrounded by a halo of invisible (“dark”) matter. The existence of this Dark Matter has been widely accepted by the scientific community, but we still do not know yet what it is. According to many physicists, she deserved a Nobel Prize for her research, but she never got it. Because she was a woman? She passed away in 2016, Nobel Prizes can not be awarded posthumously. Here is a necrology: Vera Rubin, invisible to the Nobel Committee.

The second discovery was made in the 90s by two teams of astronomers who were studying the expansion of the universe. The Big Bang theory predicted that the expansion would slow down, because of the force of gravity. The crucial question was: will this force be big enough to stop the expansion, followed by a contraction, ending in a Big Crunch, or will the expansion go on forever. The result of their research was shocking: the expansion is not slowing down, but accelerating! There must be a repulsive force, which was called Dark Energy. Also here we do not know what it is. In 2011 the leaders of the two teams were awarded the Physics Nobel Prize “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”. I wrote a blog about it: Physics Nobel Prize (2011).

So, what did Jim Peebles discover? Nothing actually, and that may have been a reason that he received the Nobel Prize so late in life (he is now 84 year old) as the Nobel Committee has a preference for (experimental) discoveries.

But Jim Peebles rightly deserves the Nobel Prize because he has been instrumental in developing the theoretical cosmological framework for what is called physical cosmology. In 1982 he published a groundbreaking article about a cosmological model with dark matter in it and in 1984 an article in which he added the cosmological constant ฮ› (now called dark energy) to his model. This model , the ฮ› CDM  model, is at present the standard model of cosmology. For this work Peebles could (should) have been awarded the Nobel Prize many decades ago! Well, better late than never ๐Ÿ™‚

With this ฮ› CDM model, using the properties of the CMB radiation and other experimental results, it is possible to determine how much normal matter, dark matter and dark energy there is in the Universe. The best fit to the (Planck) CMB data is obtained with the following values:

  • Atomic matter 4.9 %
  • Dark Matter 26.8 %
  • Dark Energy 68.3 %

Probably most of you will have seen this result. Everything we observe around us, our earth, the sun, the planets, the galaxies, it is only ~ 5% of our universe. About the other 95% we know basically nothing. Astonishing and mind-boggling.

Let me finish this post with two images. Below is an overview of the Big Bang expansion. The CMB is seen to the left, called the Afterglow Light Pattern. To the left you see “Inflation” and “Quantum Fluctuations”. The present theory is that in the first ~ 10โˆ’32 (!) second, the universe expanded exponentially. I don’t feel qualified to write a post about it, see the Inflation article in Wikipedia.

When the universe became transparent after 380.000 year, there were no stars and galaxies yet, the universe was dark, except for the afterglow! It took hundred millions of years, before the first stars were formed. More info in Wikipedia’s Chronology of the universe.

In 1980 Peebles published a book Large-Scale Structure of the Universe and that has always been his primary interest. There are about 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe, are they just randomly distributed? The answer is no, they are part of what nowadays is called the Cosmic Web. They are concentrated along filaments, with huge voids in between. In this artist impression, each light dot is a galaxy. Another mind-boggling image. ๐Ÿ™‚ .

In 2013 I have written a post : Largest Structure in the Universe discovered, very readable if I may say so ๐Ÿ™‚


How is it possible to extract the values for dark matter, dark energy etc from a map of the sky with minuscule temperature differences?

The first step is to “translate” the temperature differences into what is called a power spectrum. The CMB map has cold and warm patches in various sizes. A power spectrum gives the intensity of these patches as function from their (angular) size.

Here is the power spectrum of the PLanck CMB map. The largest temperature fluctuations are found in patches of around 1 degree. Notice that the angular scale runs from left (large patches) to right (small patches). The red dots come from the CMB map. The green line is the best fit from the ฮ› CDM model, using the parameters given above.

Here is an instructive video, how the different parts of the power spectrum correspond from left to right to increasingly detailed structures.

The calculations are complex and need powerful computers.

In this simulation: Build a Universe you can play around with the various parameters. To run it on your computer, you need to have Flash installed. Not everybody will have Flash, so I have taken two screenshots. The first one, shows the “fit” for a universe with only normal matter. The second one uses parameters like given above.

Taiping, October 2019

This time I visited Taiping to see the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. About the procession and the fire walking I have written a separate post, Nine Emperor Gods Festival . But during my 4D3N visit there was enough time left to walk around Taiping, visit friends and enjoy the food. Here is a report.

After the procession and lunch on Saturday 5 October , I decided to walk to the Amelia Earhart mural at the junction of Jalan Abdul Jalil and Jalan Taming Sari. On my way I passed the Central market and had a look inside. In the morning bustling with activity, but now quiet. Good news: plans for renovation of this iconic building have been accepted and a dilapidation survey has started. The “modern” clocktower in front of the market is quite interesting.

Here is the Amelia Earhart mural. A large mural to commemorate that she landed at Taiping airport on 20 June 1937. The problem is, she never did, as I have explained in two blog posts, Amelia Earhart and Taiping and Amelia Earhart and Taiping (part 2)

The mural is well done and her plane accurately depicted, but the text captions are wrong. She did not land at the Taiping aerodrome, but flew directly from Bangkok to Singapore on 20 June 1937. And the Taiping aerodrome may have been the first one in the Federated Malay States, but definitely not in South East Asia. Read my posts for more background information.

Walking back to my hotel, I passed two buildings that epitomise Taiping for me and actually are a reason that I love the town so much ๐Ÿ˜‰ . The contrast between attractive old buildings and ruined structures appeals to me.

The building of the Ceylon Association is another example of successful restoration. And continuing my walk, I could not resist the temptation of a cendol at Ansari ๐Ÿ™‚

Last month I have published a post Taiping Bandar Warisan about two ruined buildings along Station Road, the Rest House and the Perak Railway Buildings. I ended this report with:

Finally the Perak Railway Building and the Rest House have been fenced off. Letโ€™s hope that this is the start of a positive development!

I am afraid that I was too optimistic. The Rest House looks fenced off quite well.

But you can still enter easily, as one of the entrance gates is unlocked

I was rather shocked when I saw the fencing of the Railway buildings. Only the front facade is fenced off, the side facade is just open as usual! My friend Yeap gave the explanation. Merdeka Day, 31 August, was celebrated this year in Taiping and the parade was passing the buildings along Station Road. The partial fencing was to cover the eyesore from view! Shame on MPT if that is true.

The main entrance (left photo) is “locked” in a very provisional way. Notice how the fence ends.

But from the other side you can. The fence is a solid construction, but completely useless this way. I entered from the side facade and took several pictures. I took care not to wake up the squatter who was living there and sleeping ๐Ÿ™‚ !

I have sent my report about these two buildings to the Taiping Municipal Council and to the Perak Exco for tourism, arts and culture. No reply (yet).

Next two large scale murals. one related to the Central Market, the other one to the Port Weld railway. Well done by the same artist, apparently sponsored by Koridor Utara and MPT. You can find murals nowadays all over Malaysia, good that Taiping seems to “specialise” in large ones.

Almost back in my hotel, I crossed one of my favourite food courts, opposite the Taiping Mall, where I had enjoyed my Chee Cheong Fun breakfast earlier that morning. It seems that in the past, this was the place where they held circus shows. No idea who came with the idea to “add value” to this relaxed place by erecting a useless I LOVE TAIPING .

After a rest in my hotel, it was time for my usual walk in the Lake Gardens . I had taken my umbrella, because the sky was threatening. But with the sun still present, the result is enchanting.

It was a Saturday afternoon, people were enjoying their boat rides, as I was enjoying my walk.

Just a few more photos of plants, flowers, fruits and fresh leaves. Life is good in Taiping.

I have walked numerous times in the Lake Gardens, and never noticed that there is actually a dinosaur near the lake side! After part of the Circular Road became the pedestrian Raintree Walk, people can use it for their exercises.

In the evening I went out for dinner. First I walked to the Casual Market, forgetting that they are not open in the evening. Walking back, passing the nicely illuminated clock tower, I went to another favorite food court of mine, Prima, where I had my Char Kuey Teow.

I was not the only customer ๐Ÿ™‚

The next morning I had breakfast with my friend Yeap in Lian Thong, eggs on toast and coffee. Another nicely restored building.

I had rented a bicycle from Furama hotel, because I was planning to visit the Taiping Aerodrome. But first I visited Mrs Long, the sister of my Singapore friend ST Lee. She is the wife of the late Mr Long, headmaster of King Edwards VIII and it has become a tradition to have a chat with her in her beautiful house at Barrack Road. She is a very good story teller.

When I was doing my research about Amelia Earhart and her supposed landing at the Taiping Aerodrome, I became interested in what was left of the aerodrome. I found a so-called aviation map of British Malaya (1935), with a detailed map of the Taiping Aerodrome. Compare it with the Google Earth screenshot. The left corner of the airfield has been developed already and there is concern that the rest of the airfield may follow. Protests have been hold, until now successfully.

Here is a view of the airfield. It would be great if a destination could be found in line with the original function of the field. For example an airfield for glider planes, or a skydiving school. Bus as you can see on the GE map, the field is now surrounded by residential development, so there might be safety issues.

Not much is left from the original buildings. This might have been the control tower.

A few more pictures. Could the building in the bottom pictures have been a hangar? First I thought that the concrete track in the top right picture could have been a runway, but on the GE screenshot you can see that the runway ran diagonally across the airfield (and has been been extended later, after the 1935 map was made).

On my way back to town, I stopped for a while at another mega-mural, near Antong’s coffee mill. Well done, but not a very good location, not many visitors will come and see it.

Back in town, I visited the Taiping city gallery, where I met Puan Jamilah, who still recognised me from an earlier visit. The planning is that this nice building should become a tourist information center for Taiping, but there is a lack of funding. Pity.

I met Yeap again for lunch, now in the company of Halim. After our lunch we visited the antique shop of Kapitan Tan, where Halim of course had to try the old Vespa ๐Ÿ™‚

In the afternoon I took a rest in my hotel . Later Yeap picked me up and together we went to the Tupai temple for the fire walking. Here is the link again: Nine Emperor Gods Festival.

The next morning I had breakfast with Keseven, a Taiping Heritage Society (THS) member who like me is very interested in the Taiping Aerodrome and rather upset about the Amelia Earhart mural. Taiping is a small town, so it was no surprise that we met there Neal, another THS member. Of course we talked/gossiped about Taiping and THS ๐Ÿ™‚

Halim was free that morning and willing to drive me around Taiping. So I walked back to my hotel, passed the dobi lines, always a colorful spectacle, packed my stuff and checked out.

Halim has been very active in tourism, so we made another stop at the Taiping city gallery and talked a bit more with Puan Jamilah.

Our next stop was at the pillars of the former Residency with the ruins of the ruined Casuarina hotel . Six years ago I have published a report, Shame on Taiping! , about this location. Nt much change, but of course more decay.

A few pictures. Halim told me that he and his wife had managed the restaurant of the hotel when it was still operating, about 12 years ago, so this visit was a kind of nostalgic experience for him.

Halim is quite adventurous and wanted to explore the first floor of the hotel, now resembling a jungle.

He was even more adventurous when we visited the New Club swimming pool, our last destination.

Before dropping me at the station, we had lunch in the Old Railway Station with Mee Rojak and Cendol.

Then it was time to take the ETS train back to Kuala Lumpur. A very convenient way of traveling!

It was a very rewarding trip. Thanks to all my Taiping friends. Looking forward to come again.

Nine Emperor Gods Festival

Last month one of our friends told us that he would have vegetarian food during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. This Taoist festival is yearly held during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month. The largest celebration takes place in Ampang, but there is also one in Taiping, which I had always wanted to see, but never had ๐Ÿ˜‰ .

I asked my Taiping friends about details, and they told me that the main procession would be held on Sunday 6 October, and the fire walking on the last evening, Monday 7 October. So I booked my usual hotel Furama and arrived by train Saturday 5 October afternoon.

Taiping has become a warm nest for me, friends were already waiting at the station, and before sending me to my hotel, we had lunch in restaurant YES.

After a short rest in my hotel, and in spite of the drizzle, I decided to have a look at the Nine Emperor Gods Temple. There are three Kew Ong Yah (Nine Emperor) temples in Taiping, the original one is in Tupai, on walking distance from my hotel.

A lot of activity was going on. Devotees were praying in the temple and having (free) vegetarian food. Many of them were wearing traditional white clothes.

In the temple compound I saw already the floats and chariots that were going to be used during the procession.

That evening I had dinner again with my friends, this time in restaurant 8383 in Pokok Assam. As I said, Taiping is a warm nest for me. The food was delicious and really value for money.

The next morning was the procession. The husband of my friend Bok Kin is a descendant of Ng Boo Bee, the famous tycoon. In April they had taken me to Ng Boo Bee’s tomb, click here for the report. Ng Boo Bee’s town house is in Kota Road., the procession is always passing by there and it is a tradition that the family prepares an offering table in front of the house. Bok Kin invited me to watch the parade from there and of course I accepted her invitation.

Before the procession started, I joined the family in burning joss sticks, not surprisingly nine sticks this time ๐Ÿ™‚

Many people were waiting for the arrival of the parade. The cream-colored building is Ng Boo Bee’s townhouse

Start of the procession. In the background the iconic Taiping clock tower.

When the chariots were close to the house and the offering table, they made a left turn and almost ran to the table, stopping just in time.

Many participants were carrying whips, using them to make a cracking sound. There were also quite a few devotees, dressed in tattered monk robes, a fan in one hand and often a bottle of beer in the other. They personify Ji Gong. Fascinating to watch.

Rocking the chariot is a common practice. I had seen it before at the Chengay festival in Johor Baru.

I kept taking pictures ๐Ÿ™‚ .

Most of the chariots were carried by men. This one was an exception.

This Ji Gong entered the house to pay his respect to the house altar and wrote something on a piece of paper before he continued.

Another Ji Gong. His robe is tattered. His cap is covering his eyes. Holding a bottle of beer in one hand and a fan in the other. The original Ji Gong (1130-1209) ate meat, drank alcohol and did not care about his clothing… ๐Ÿ™‚

The most fascinating part of the procession are the many men, often still teenagers, who have been piercing their cheeks, walk with hooks in their backs etc. They are called masong. Most piercing is done with long, thin, metal poles, but there were a few devotees who had used heavier stuff, like this guy who was using two swords, and the guy to the right, using a gun. Can not imagine how that can heal easily.

Here are more pictures. One guy using an umbrella, another one a tyre pump, even one carrying a ladder! Notice how all of them have one or two helpers, carrying a stool. Understandably, sometimes they have to sit down for a while ๐Ÿ™‚

An Indian drum band added to the festive atmosphere. My friends said that this year the procession was longer than before. Several temple are contributing, and also Indians take part in the parade.

Here is another way of self-mortification , similar to what I have seen at Thaipusam, where devotees pull a chariot with ropes attached by hooks to their back. No chariot here, but other boys, pulling back, while the masong are more or less hanging forward.

More piercing of cheeks.

The last part of the procession. Devotees are carrying kavadis. Both the kavadis and the piercing have their origin in the Hindu Thaipusam tradition. Actually, there is a Hindu festival, Navaratri, during the same nine days of the ninth lunar month, but not related, as far as I know.

Heavy stuff, no wonder they sometimes have to sit down for some rest.

One of the last floats. Sprinkling (holy?) water on the crowd.

The whole parade took around 1.5 hour. After cleaning the offering table, the family invited me for lunch. Vegetarian of course ๐Ÿ™‚

The fire walking took place on the evening of the next day, so I had plenty of time to walk around in Taiping, meet other friends, enjoy (non-vegetarian) food, etc. I have written a separate post about it, Taiping, October 2019, and will continue here with the fire walking.

The next day around 7pm, my friend Yeap picked me up from my hotel and we found a parking place not too far from the Tupai temple, where the fire walking was going to take place. We were early, a big space had been cordoned off, and people were preparing the bed of ashes. It was shorter than I had seen in Sri Lanka, many years ago.

We had a look inside the temple, where Yeap introduced me to Ong Hean Hai, the caretaker. He is standing second from right, with his children . Later he invited us to his office, where he gave an explanation about the Nine Emperor Gods festival.

There were many food stalls in and around the temple compound. In one of them they were making Yeow Char Kwai, a favorite of mine, specially when freshly fried. The name translates as Oil Fried Devils and here is the explanation for that strange name ๐Ÿ™‚

As we were early, we had dinner there. Vegetarian curry mee, very nice. And black coffee with Yeow Char Kwai, delicious when you soak them in the coffee. In the meantime Bok Kin and Teng Hin had also joined.

Preparing for the fire walking, the devotees, dressed in white, perform several rituals. They enter the inner temple, where other people are not allowed. They walk back and forth several times to the fire walking compound, chanting.

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is associated with rain, and this time was no exception. When the fire walking was beginning around 9pm, it had also started to rain. Maybe easier for the devotees to walk on the ashes? For us onlookers, we needed an umbrella.

The lighting was not very bright, so it was difficult to take good pictures. Here are two videos I took. The devotees are circling a few times around the ashes, before they walk.

It is interesting to watch the fire walkers. Some of them walk slowly, others almost run. Some carry a child or a bundle of clothes. Because of the rain, you could not see any glowing ashes, but it still must have been burning hot. After the first group of devotees, also others try. It is said that you can only do it if you have been vegetarian during the nine days of the festival , but I doubt if that is true

AFter the fire walking was finished, we went back to the restaurant, where also many of the fire walkers were enjoying a drink, food and company.

The festival was a memorable experience for me. I took many videos dring the procession and the fire walking. Here is a collage.

Will an asteroid hit Earth?

Roughly 66 million years ago the Chicxulub asteroid with an estimated diameter of 10 km struck Earth at the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. It caused an extinction of 75% of all plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs.

In 1908 the Tunguska meteorite exploded above a remote region in Russia, flattening about 2000 kmยฒ of forest. Ongoing discussion if it was a comet or an asteroid. Estimated size 30-80 m.

On 15 February 2013 an asteroid, size approximately 20 m, exploded at an altitude of ~ 30 km above the Chelyabinsk district in Russia. The shockwave caused substantial damage, many people were injured by broken glass.

And last few weeks there has been “alarming” news in the media about several “space rocks” threatening to collide with Earth and cause havoc. Foremost in this was the British tabloid Daily Express. Here are a few of its headlines (click on the image to see the corresponding article)

7 September:

Asteroid shock: NASA warns of โ€˜100 percentโ€™ chance of asteroid impact

27 September:

Asteroid alert: NASA tracks three space rocks heading past Earth at once โ€“ Will they hit?

2 October:

Asteroid warning: NASA panic as four killer space rocks avoid horror impact with Earth

NASA panics, warning of a โ€˜100 percentโ€™ chance of asteroid impact? Hm, time for a post about asteroids and their danger for Earth ๐Ÿ˜‰

Asteroids are “small” rocky objects, billions of them, orbiting the Sun, most of them in the (main) Asteroid Belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Small is relative, more than 150 million are larger than 100 meter and the largest asteroid, Ceres, has a diameter of 945 km! Notice the units, used in the picture below. One AU (Astronomical Unit) equals 150 million km, the average distance between Earth and Sun. This unit is often used for distances in the Solar System. For example, Mars orbits at a distance of ~ 1.5 AU around the Sun and the main Asteroid Belt is located between around 2.2 and 3.2 AU.

There are also asteroids outside the main asteroid belt, orbiting closer to the Sun. When their closest distance to the Sun (perihelion) is less than 1.3 AU , they are labelled Near Earth Asteroids (NEA’s). They are interesting for several reasons. One of them is the possibility of mining them in the future. Another is the possibility that a NEA could come so close to Earth that it might collide!

Starting in the 1990’s numerous surveys have been set up to discover and monitor NEA’s. During the last decade the Catalina Sky Survey and the Pan-STARRS surveys have discovered more than thousand NEA’s yearly and every day new ones are discovered. The basic technique is to compare pictures of the sky, taken on different dates and looking for “light points” that have moved, using automated software.

In the figure below the cumulative total is shown (October 2019), split according to the estimated size of the asteroid. Total: 21059 , Larger than 140 m: 8817, Larger than 1 km: 900 (10 October 2019).

Fortunately most of these NEA’s will never come so close to Earth that there is a risk of collision. A subcategory has been defined of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHA), asteroids that come closer to Earth than 0.05 AU and are larger than 140 m. At the moment the number of PHA’s is about 2000. They are of course monitored more closely.

In the left graph the total number of PHA’s is given (from 1999 until September 2019. Each year ~ 100 new PHA”s are discovered. The right graph shows the number of PHA’s larger than 1 km. The last decade only a few more have been found.

Here is a graph showing the orbits of the ~ 1400 PHA’s known in 2013.

After this explanation about NEA’s and PHA’s, you might be a bit scared that the UK tabloids were right in their warnings about imminent asteroid collisions resulting in disasters.

Let’s have a look at Sentry, operated by CNEOS, the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (objects because both asteroids and comets are studied). It is a highly automated impact prediction system, that continually monitors the most current asteroid catalog for possibilities of future impact with Earth over the next 100+ years. At the moment of writing this post, it monitors 945 objects. The probability of impact and the impact energy result in a number on the Torino Scale, comparable with the Richter index for earthquakes.

Here is the reassuring result of Sentry: All the 945 objects have a Torino index 0 ! They form no risk for Earth in the next century.

A few comments

  1. Keep in mind that the Torino Scale is defined only for the next 100 years. There exists another scale, the Palermo scale, that is more sophisticated, with both negative and positive values. The result is the same: none of the objects have positive values.
  2. When a new NEA has been discovered, its orbit is not yet well defined. It happens quite regularly that temporarily such an object has a positive Torino/Palermo index. Subsequent observations reduce the index .
  3. Sentry monitors also NEA’s that are smaller than 140 m and therefore officially no PHA’s.
  4. Asteroids, smaller than ~ 20 meter, will disintegrate in the atmosphere, leaving a streak of light, a fireball.

Earth is continuously bombarded from outer space by rocky objects. Every year about 40.000 tonnes. Occasionally a small asteroid, more often remnants of a comet or an asteroid. They are called meteorites and will “burn” in the atmosphere. Here is a map of these fireballs, recorded between 1988 and present. Size and color of the circles indicate the energy of the impact. The large orange circle is the Chelyabinsk asteroid, mentioned in the introduction of this post.

So, what about the scaremongering articles in the media? Here are again the last two captions. In total seven space rocks, horror impacts, NASA panic.

NASA tracks three space rocks heading past Earth at once โ€“ Will they hit?
NASA panic as four killer space rocks avoid horror impact with Earth

Here are the 7 scoundrels: 2019 SH3, 2019 SN3, 2019 SP. 2019 SE8,
2019 SM8 , 2018 FK5 and 2019 SD8.

The last column gives the closest distance, expressed in the Lunar Distance (
384402 km) . The size is approximate (see appendix).

NameSizeClose approachDistancein LD
2019 SH3 ~ 27m 2019-Sep-30 01:371202.000 km3.1
2019 SN3 ~ 16m 2019-Sep-30 11:45845.000 km 2.2
2019 SP ~ 44m 2019-Sep-30 17:41 2540.000 km6.6
2019 SE8 ~ 5m 2019-Oct-01 13:56159.000 km 0.41
2019 SM8 ~ 15m 2019-Oct-01 15:12 1085.000 km2.8
2019 FK5 ~ 6m 2019-Oct-01 22:565094.000 km 13.3
2019 SD8 ~ 12m 2019-Oct-02 02:29 532.000 km 1.4

In an appendix of this post I will explain how you can extract these data from the invaluable CNEOS website. In case another alarmist article will published, you can check yourself if you have to get worried ๐Ÿ™‚

All seven asteroids are NEA’s, but none of them are Potentially Hazardous Asteroids and NASA will not have panicked at all. Actually these events are common, the past year around 2400 NEA’s have passed Earth, 73 of them even closer than the Moon (like 2019 SE8 in the table above). About 370 of them were PHA’s, but none of them came closer than 7.4 LD’s

Let’s have a look now at the first article

Asteroid shock: NASA warns of โ€˜100 percentโ€™ chance of asteroid impact

A ridiculous title but the content is much better. Although there are no PHA’s that will hit Earth in the next 100+ years, on a larger time scale it may happen, so humanity should be prepared for such a situation.

Here is a informative infographic created by ESA, the European equivalent of NASA. Notice in the bottom row, how many asteroids in the medium range (100-300 m) still have to be discovered: more than 80 %!

When a big PHA asteroid is discovered on collision course with Earth, there is basically only one realistic option to avoid a disaster: to deflect it. When you are able to do that (many) decades before its impact, a relatively small change in its course might be sufficient. Many ways to deflect an asteroid are described in this Wikipedia article: Asteroid impact avoidance . And bi-annually a Planetary Defence Conference is organized, the last one was held in May 2019, here is the report .

One section of this conference was dedicated to asteroid Apophis, of special interest to me, because I have published three blog posts about it in 2010-2012 ๐Ÿ˜‰ . For a while after its discovery in 2004, there was concern that this 370 m big rock might hit Earth in 2036, after a close encounter in 2029.
I wrote Will the Earth be hit by Apophis in 2036? followed by a (technical) post Again Apophis . In 2012 the winner of the yearly competition for students and young professionals Move an Asteroid had a winner who proposed to deflect Apophis by paintballing ๐Ÿ™‚ My report Paintballing Apophis! explains how he wanted to do it.

Apophis is not a PHA anymore, but will still pass Earth on 13 April 2029 at the VERY short distance of 31.000 km (less than 0.1 Lunar Distance!), so at the conference there were numerous suggestions how to make use of this opportunity.

Here is a fascinating animation of Apophis, passing Earth on 13-4-2029 (click on the image). All the blue dots are man-made objects, orbiting Earth! The red dot orbiting Earth is the International Space Station.

As in earlier conferences, part of the program is a tabletop exercise about a hypothetical asteroid threat. The participants have to discuss how to respond, which action to take, etc. Very realistic, it reads like a thriller. Scroll down to page 31 of the (pdf) report. Here are the “press releases” given daily to the participants.

In the exercise, the participants decided to deflect the asteroid by using Kinetic Impactors, heavy spacecraft that crashes with high speed into the asteroid. It is the most common way to deflect an asteroid.

THEORETICALLY! Because this technique has not yet been tested in a real situation. Quite amazing, and a source of concern for many scientists.

Finally there is now one space mission in progress to test this kinetic impactor technique and I will end this blog with a description of the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission.

The mission is a cooperation between NASA and ESA and the original plan consisted of two spacecraft, a large NASA impactor called Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) and an ESA spacecraft , the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), that would watch DART crashing into the asteroid and observe the immediate effects of the impact.

Target of the mission is the asteroid Didymos, a PHA with a diameter of ~ 800 m, discovered in 1996 as 1996 GT . Don’t be surprised, but it has actually a “moon”, nicknamed Didymoon, diameter ~ 170 m, orbiting Didymos in about 12 hours.

This was the original plan: December 2020 AIM was to be launched, to arrive at Didymos in May 2022. It would go in orbit around the asteroid and study Didymos and Didymoon.

Dart would be launched in July 2021, arrive at Didymos October 2022 and crash into Didymoon, while AIM was watching! After the crash AIM would measure the change in Didymoon’s orbit, to see if this Kinetic Impactor technique is an effective way to deflect dangerous asteroids in the future.

Here is an artist impression of the mission.

And here is a very informative video, prepared by ESA in 2016 about AIM

But in December 2016, AIM was cancelled by ESA, after Germany withdrew the 60 million Euro funding for the project, to use the money instead for the ExoMars project. The Washington Post commented : Europe will send a rover to Mars but wonโ€™t protect Earth from an asteroid and a planetary scientist said “A cool project has been killed because of a lack of vision – even short term – and courage, and this is really sad

NASA decided to continue with the DART mission and measure the effects of the impact on Didymoon using earth-based telescopes instead. And ESA is planning to launch a much simpler spacecraft, named HERA, in 2023, after the crash of DART! After arrival at Didymos it would study the effects on Didymoon. But the decision to actually fly the mission still has to be taken, in November this year.

As an European I feel rather ashamed that Europe has acted this way.

x x x x x x x x x x x


In this appendix I will explain how you can find reliable information about any asteroid, when you know its name.

First the naming convention for “minor planets” . The year of discovery is followed by two letters and (sometimes) a number. The first letter gives the half-month in which the object was first observed. The second letter stands for a number 1 until 25. (the I is left out to avoid confusion with the J) and counts the objects, discovered in that half-month. When the system was introduced, probably it was thought that there would not be more than 25 objects discovered in a half-month. But nowadays hundreds of objects are discovered every month! The number tells how many times you have to repeat the alphabet! Here is the coding table.

An example. Recently a NEO has been discovered: 2019 SP3. In the table we see that the S stands for 16-30 September and the P for 15. So this asteroid is the 3 x 25 + 15 = 90th object, discovered in the second half of September 2019.

To find the properties of this asteroid we go to the JPL Small-Body Database Browser. Enter the name 2019 SP3 (case sensitive) in the Search box.

Lots of information, mostly about the orbit (left table) and the discovery history (upper right table). Important for us are two numbers in the other tables, the MOID = 0.00252421 AU and the absolute magnitude H =26.98.

The minimal orbit intersection distance (MOID) tells us how close the orbits of 2019 SP3 and Earth can get. 0.00252421 AU = 378000 km. Less than the distance between Earth and Moon!

The absolute magnitude H indicates how bright the asteroid is. It gives us an indication about the size of the asteroid. A large asteroid will reflect more sunlight and therefore appear brighter. But this reflection also depends on the structure of the asteroid, is it coal black or more shining. This reflection property is given by the albedo , which can have a value between 0 (no reflected light) and 1 (perfect reflection).

The problem is that we have to guess what the albedo of our asteroid is. In general they are quite dark, with albedo between 0.3 and 0.05. Often a value of 0.15 is used.

Here is part of the conversion table :

Using the value of H =26.298, we find that the size of 2019 SP3 lies between 14 and 34 meter, with a probable value of 19 m.

Conclusion: with an estimated size of 19 m and a minimal distance to Earth of 378000 km, 2019 SP3 is NOT a PHA.

This is what the Daily Express reported:

Potentially hazardousโ€™ space rock to fly closer to Earth than Moon

Taiping Bandar Warisan

In 2013 I wrote a blog Shame on Taiping! about a few of Taiping’s heritage sites which were in a bad condition. Especially the former Perak Railway buildings and the Rest House, both along Station Road, opposite the King Edwards VII school

Since that time I have been visiting these buildings regularly when I visited Taiping, taking many pictures, both inside and outside. Here is a (large) collection. I have indicated the year that they were taken. Click on a picture to enlarge.

First the Perak Railway Buildings. Here is a scan from Anuar Isa’s report Taiping’s Many Firsts, published by the Taiping Municipal Council (MPT) in 2013.

In 2016 I took this picture of the whole complex, the old timber structure (1885) in the foreground and the (newer) brick building to the left.

Front and side facade of the old timber structure (PWD 269)

Same for the two-storey brick building (PWD 267)

More pictures of the decaying front facade of PWD 269. Without comment, only the year I took the picture.

Between the two buildings there is a nice gate. Notice that sometimes there was an attempt to block the entrance, so that squatters etc could not enter.

This counter must be familiar to Taipingites ๐Ÿ™‚ Nowadays it is often occupied and the squatter living there does not always welcome your visit.

A few photos of the interior of PWD 267. Abandoned but still in reasonable condition. I could even venture to the first floor. Notice the nice iron columns.

The courtyards of the two buildings were taken over by jungle.

In 2017 there was some activity. My Taiping friends told me that one of the entrances had been widened, so a bulldozer could enter the courtyards. When I visited the building, I noticed of course that Donald Duck had disappeared ;-). The entrance had been professionally repaired. A good sign?

The courtyards had been thoroughly cleaned, shrubs and trees had been removed. Of course the ruined state of the buildings became more visible now.

Only later that year I had time to visit the interior of the buildings and I was shocked. The interior had been vandalised, the wooden floorboards had been removed! Was that the real reason for the earlier activity?

It was still possible to climb up (carefully!) to the first floor. The damage is even more clearly visible. Later I asked around, but I was not able to find out who was responsible for this destruction.

In July 2018 I only had a look at the courtyard, there was an unfriendly squatter, I didn’t want to get into an argument with him.

Not surprisingly the jungle is fighting back already.

In December I came again, this time I had no problem entering. Not much change. I am not an expert, but I think these two buildings are beyond repair.

Next to the Perak Railway Building is the Rest House, the Rumah Rehat. Here is what Anuar Isa’s report says about it.

I have been staying in the Rest House, many years ago. At that time it was called Lagenda Hotel. A budget hotel, but quite acceptable, nice colonial atmosphere.

Around 11 years ago the hotel was closed. In the beginning hardly any fencing, you could just walk in, and of course squatters did. Later there came haphazard fencing like in this picture. Still very easy to trespass.

Here two pictures of the iconic main facade, in 2009 and in 2018. Not too much deterioration. But that is only appearance.

In 2012 there was a fence, but very easy to enter. Some decay, mainly in the ceilings.

One year later, still a fence with gaps, main entrance still looks ok.

Inside the building there are signs that people are living here.

People were complaining about the lack of proper fencing and in 2015 a prominent fence was erected, promoting Taiping as heritage town !

A bit ironical in my opinion. Look at the right picture, with the Rumah Rehat as it was and as it is now.

Even with this new fencing it was still possible to sneak in. The entrance still looks quite good and the stairs to the first floor are solid. But walking around there are clear signs that people are living here, even making a fire!

A short visit in 2017. Some signs of decay.

In 2018 I visited Taiping several times. Not much was left of the “heritage” fence.

But a signboard still tells about the Rumah Rehat, one of the many Firsts of Taiping. And a heritage plaque has been attached to the facade.

There are more signs of decay, although it looks that some repair work has been done. These picture have been taken December 2018, less than one year ago.

As a laymen I think the Rest House can still be saved, but fast action is needed.

Here is a drone video of the two buildings, taken last year.

For a long time already I have been planning to write a blog post with a selection of the pictures I have collected during the past 7-8 years, but it didn’t materialise yet. Until today when my heritage friends pointed me to this article in the Harian Metro: Ikonik usang jejaskan imej Taiping . With these two pictures:

Finally the Perak Railway Building and the Rest House have been fenced off. Let’s hope that this is the start of a positive development!

Amelia and Taiping (Part Two)

The conclusion in my blog post Amelia Earhart and Taiping was that she had never landed at Tekah airport. I am a contributor to Wikipedia and, after a discussion with (THS) friends, I decided to edit the history section of the Wikipedia entry for Taiping Airport, removing ” and made a stopover at the Taiping Airport for refuelling

I left the part “Amelia Earhart was flying between Thailand and Singapore and permission to land at Taiping Airport was granted on 7 June 1937 by the then Resident-General of Malaya. “, although I was wondering if this statement was correct, because I could not find any other independent reference on the Internet.

I was also intrigued that she mentioned a few times Alor Star in her notes, but never Taiping.

In this post I will try to answer/solve both issues.

After publishing my post, I searched the Internet again and I was lucky, I found another reference in the Wikipedia entry Federated Malay States Here it is:

Notable event
The Federated Malay States were within the flight path of American aviator Amelia Earhart on the Thailandโ€“Singapore leg of her final and fatal attempt to cross the globe in 1937. She was given permission to enter FMS airspace with provision to land at Taiping Airport on 7 June 1937.

Contributor Bukhrin added this passage about Amelia Earhart on 14 January 2007. Notice the differences. Main point is that she got permission to enter FMS airspace.

That night, before I fell asleep (!), I remembered that Purdue University has an Amelia Earhart Archive ! The next morning I searched the Archive and, lo and behold, this is what I found:

Authorisation to fly through the FMS airspace, and permission for the aircraft to land at the Taiping Aerodrome. Signed 7 June 1937!

So, after all, Taiping IS special? Not really.

In those days before the war, British Malaya comprised three entities, the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Melaka, Penang and the Dindings), the Federated Malay States (Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang) and the Unfederated Malay States (Kedah, Johore, Perlis, Terengganu and Kelantan).

During her flight, Amelia Earhart passed all three , so she needed authorisations for each of them. They were handled by the American Consulate in Singapore. Here are the letters of the Consul to Amelia with the permits attached.

And here are the permits, one for the Straits Settlement, and separate ones for Johore and Kedah. Click to enlarge. For the FMS permit, see above.

All give permission to enter the airspace and a provision to land at the respective aerodrome(s). For the Straits Settlements in Penang and Singapore, for Kedah in Alor Star , for Johore in Batu Pahat and for the FMS in Taiping.

Five airports. Could it be that she had in her mind to land at Taiping airport. And why did she mention Alor Star in her notes?

Today I found the missing puzzle piece in the Purdue archive!

It is the flight plan for her first (failed) attempt in March 1937, where she was planning to circumnavigate the globe in the opposite direction. She will have used the same flight plan in June. Starting on 20 June in Rangoon, two options are shown, a) From Rangoon to Alor Star and then to Singapore or b) From Rangoon to Bangkok, then to Alor Star and finally to Singapore.

She chose option b), landed in Bangkok for refueling, and then decided to skip Alor Star and fly directly to Singapore.

In that case the remark in her notes: We checked over Alor Star airport but did not stop, and headed for Singapore, makes complete sense.

Case closed for me.

I think Taiping Heritage Society should completely rewrite the History section of the Taiping Airport entry. Because the source of the confusion is located there. The info in the FMS entry is correct, although you may argue that it is not really that notable ๐Ÿ™‚

Of course a more general problem is, how reliable is Wikipedia? It is a collective effort with more than 100.000 active contributors. Read more here about Wikipedians . There are checks and balances against vandalism, wrong info etc. But especially with “minor” entries, like Taiping Airport, errors can go unnoticed for a long time.

Precession of the Equinox

Don’t be put off by the title of this blog, I’ll try to keep it simple ๐Ÿ™‚

In Greek/Roman times it was thought that Earth was the center of the Universe. The Sun , the planets, the stars were all rotating around Earth.

Now we know that Earth itself is rotating, in 24 hours (although we keep saying that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West).

We also know that Earth is orbiting around the Sun in 365 days. As seen from Earth, the Sun seems to be moving across the sky. This apparent path of the Sun throughout the year is called the ecliptic.

If Earth would be rotating like in the picture below, then during the whole year, the Sun would be above the Equator and there would be no seasons. . Day and night would be both 12 hour, everywhere on Earth, throughout the year.

But everybody knows that this is not the case. In the Northern hemisphere. daylight will be longer than night in summer and shorter in winter, whereas in the Southern hemisphere it is just the other way around. The reason is that the axis of rotation of the Earth is slightly tilted, about 23.5ยฐ .

Notice that during Earth’s orbit, the direction of the rotation axis remains the same (pointing to the North Star).

In the picture below we can see what happens in a bit more detail. Let’s start with the 1st Day of Spring (20/21 March), when the tilt is not directed towards the Sun and the Sun is directly over the equator. Day and night are equally long all over Earth, it is called the March Equinox. The same happens on the 1st Day of Autumn (22/23 September), the September Equinox.

From March until June, the Sun moves North, days become longer and nights shorter until the 1st Day of Summer, 21/22 June, the Summer Solstice, after which the Sun moves back to the Equator. From September to December, the Sun moves South, days become shorter and nights longer, until the 1st Day of Winter, 21/22 December, the Winter Solstice, after which the Sun moves back again to the Equator. All this has been described from the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere. For the Southern Hemisphere everything is opposite.

So the axial tilt of Earth is responsible for the seasons and there are scientists who believe that this tilt has been critical for life: Axis Tilt is Critical for Life , but this is quite controversial.

Until now I have been rather vague about the apparent position of the Sun. “Above the Equator”, “moving North”, “moving South”. Actually, we can be much more precise nowadays, using a coordinate system similar to what we use on Earth, with latitude and longitude. But how did the Greek and Romans do that?

To describe the location of the Sun against the backdrop of stars, the Greeks used the concept of constellations, patterns of stars that were given a name, often based on their myths and religion. A constellation most of you will know is Orion, the mythological Greek hunter. The left photo was taken by the Hubble telescope and shows the characteristic shape of Orion. Right an antique star chart, published in 1824. To guide the eye, I have connected the main stars with blue lines

During a year, the Sun crosses twelve of these constellations , as indicated in the image below. These twelve constellations are called the Zodiac. The names of the constellations may be familiar to you, if you know your (Western) horoscope ๐Ÿ˜‰ .

At the moment that this post has been published , the Sun has left the Leo constellation and entered Virgo.

Nowadays many more constellations have been defined (88!), covering the whole sky. Below you see a map of the celestial globe. The Celestial globe is similar to the Earth globe, but everything is projected to the “sky”.

Notice that the horizontal scale (Right Ascension) is not in degrees, like longitude on the Earth globe, but in hours and going from right to left. Same as on the Earth globe the choice of the origin (zero) is arbitrary. On the Earth globe it is the Greenwich meridian, on the Celestial Globe it is the March Equinox. The traditional name for this origin is the First Point of Aries.

The name was coined by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who lived from c 190 BC until c 120 BC. At that time the Sun had just entered the Aries constellation during the Spring Equinox. The March Equinox is indicated by the Aries symbol ♈๏ธŽ .

The ecliptic is shown, with the constellations (in white) which the Sun is passing throughout a year. Following the ecliptic from right to left, you will notice that it starts at 0h in Pisces, the Sun moves North until 6h (Gemini) then back to the equator at 12h (Virgo), going down South until 18h (Sagittarius) and back to Pisces for the next cycle.

Do you notice the contradiction? The First Point of Aries is now located in Pisces! How can that be? Time to talk about the Precession of Earth!

Above I wrote that the rotation axis of Earth, during its orbit around the Sun, is always pointing in the same direction (to the North Star). That is correct at the moment, but not forever, because there is a third movement of Earth.

Probably many of you have been playing with spinning tops. When a top (or a gyroscope) is spinning, it will often “wobble” under the influence of the force of gravity. The same happens with the Earth under the influence of the gravitational force of Sun and Moon. This wobble is called Precession.

Here is a short video about the precession of a gyroscope

The Precession of Earth is a very slow process. One round takes about 25800 year. Here is an animation of the process.

The red line connects the two equinoxes, the March Equinox is marked with the Aries symbol. Notice how the March Equinox passes all signs of the zodiac during one precession. 360ยฐ in ~ 25800 year, means a shift of 1ยฐ every 72 year. Since Hipparchus’ time, the First Point of Aries has shifted ~30ยฐ , it is no longer in Aries, but in Pisces and will cross over to Aquarius
around 2600 AD.

The second part of the video shows how the North pole points to different stars during a precession. In the picture you see that “today” it is pointing at Polaris (the North Star) , but in 3000 BC it pointed at the star Thuban, and in 14000 AD it will point close to the bright star Vega.

To summarise, here is a picture, with the three movements of Earth, the daily rotation (24 hours), the yearly orbit around the Sun (~365 days) and the precession of the rotation axis (~25800 years).

Notice that the rotation of Earth and its orbit around the Sun are counterclockwise , while the precession is clockwise! So the yearly motion of the Sun through the Zodiac goes from Pisces to Aries to Taurus etc. But the Spring Equinox has, since Hipparchus , shifted back from Aries to Pisces and will shift to Aquarius around 2600 AD.

Let me end this post with some explanation about why I decided to write it.

Everything written above belongs to the realm of astronomy. Unfortunately there exists also astrology, a pseudoscience. Basically astrology states that the position of the heavenly bodies affects our lives. For example, an important factor is the location of the Sun on the day that you were born. That becomes the sign of your horoscope. Here is an example:

I was born on 17 April, therefore I am a Ram. But that is nonsense, maybe true in Hipparcos’ time. Because of the precession I was actually born when the Sun was in Pisces (12 March – 19 April)

Of course astrologers are aware of the precession, see for example
Sidereal and Tropical Astrology. for various “solutions”.

Directly related to precession is the concept of Astrological Ages. As explained above, during one precession of 25800 year, the March Equinox traverses all 12 signs of the Zodiac, staying in one sign on average 2150 year. Such a period is called an Astrological age. At the moment we live in the Age of Pisces.

Astrologers claim that each age is characterised by certain properties. For example the Age of Pisces is the age of religion, the Age of Aries was the age of war and the coming Age of Aquarius will be the age of freedom.

You will not be surprised that in my opinion these Astrological Ages are even more nonsense than horoscopes.

A few months ago a friend told me about Matias de Stefano, who calls himself an Indigo Child and has memories from an earlier life in Atlantis. He is 29 year old and has many followers. I listened to his video lecture Total Recall. Here is a transcription. One quote to give you an impression of the lecture:

We are Beings (indigo/crystal) that come from the 6th to 13th dimension, to try to promote the 4th and 5th dimension inside the 3rd.

But the following statement is so ridiculous that I decided to write this post.

Earth spins around the sun in a process which lasts about 365 days, but at the same time, our Sun spins around another sun which is a lot bigger, called Syria, about every 26,000 years. As a year on Earth, the Sunโ€™s year has its seasons, equinoxes, solstices and ages, too.

Apparently he has not the faintest idea what the Precession of the Equinox means.

I will end this post with a famous song from the 1967 musical Hair. ” This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius “

Amelia Earhart and Taiping

This blog post will have a different format. I will describe chronologically what made me a detective the last three months ๐Ÿ™‚

It started with this article in the New Straits Times of 17 June: Historical aerodrome make Taiping what it is today, say experts, conservationists . In this article it says:

The Taiping Aerodrome became famous when aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart made a refuelling stop there on June 7, 1937, before continuing her journey to Singapore and New Guinea in her historic attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

I had heard about Amelia Earhart, that she disappeared during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe, but I knew not much more than that. So I checked Wikipedia, it has a detailed article about her. Here is part of her 1937 flight route:

Of course I directly saw a problem. Refuelling in Taiping on 7 June? On 7 June she crossed the Atlantic! On 20 June she flew from Bangkok to Singapore. Could it be that on that day she made a refuelling stop in Taiping?

I am a member of the Taiping Heritage Society and asked them :

There was no response, and I left it at that.

Fast forward to 30 August, when a THS friend wrote: “Wow! There’s a mural being painted on a wall at the corner shop next to the Taiping hospital complete with her face and an aeroplane. 👏👏👏”

Another THS member sent me a picture of the, still unfinished, mural.

Of course my curiosity was raised again and I repeated my question, does anyone know where this claim comes from. This time there was more response ๐Ÿ™‚ . A THS member wrote that there was a separate Wikipedia article about Tekah Airport. Here is a quote:

The airport also achieved fame through the famous American aviator, Amelia Earhart in 1937, when she was doing her world flight and made a stopover at the Taiping Airport for refuelling. Amelia Earhart was flying between Thailand and Singapore and permission to land at Taiping Airport was granted on 7 June 1937 by the then Resident-General of Malaya.

This solved part of the puzzle. It doesn’t say that Amelia LANDED at Tekah on 7 June, but that on 7 June she got PERMISSION TO LAND at Tekah . I will come back to this Wikipedia article later.

Next I used Google to find information about Amelia and Bangkok, Taiping and Singapore. Amelia Earhart & Taiping gave a few hits only, for example this one and this blog, but they basically just copied the info from the Wikipedia article about Tekah.

Earhart & Singapore gave more results. Especially this one: Kallang Airport put Sโ€™pore on global aviation map, visited by legendary pilot Amelia Earhart Here is an picture from this link:

Interesting detail: Kallang Airport in Singapore was opened on 12 June, one week earlier than Amelia’s arrival! I will come back to that later. The newspaper clippings show how famous she was.

My Google search for Amelia Earhart & Bangkok struck gold ๐Ÿ™‚ . The website This Day in Aviation describes important dates in aviation history, and, not surprisingly, has many pages about Amelia Earhart.

Here is the page about her flight from Rangoon to Singapore: 20 June 1937 .

From Rangoon, yes! When you look at the route planning, shown above, you will see that there are TWO entries for 20 June. First from Rangoon to Bangkok, where she landed for refuelling, then from Bangkok to Singapore.

There were two other planes that day, from Rangoon to Singapore. She left Rangoon after the two others, all three stopped in Bangkok, but she arrived first at Singapore, BECAUSE WE CUT STRAIGHT AND DID NOT STOP ALONG THE WAY.

Here are her notes:

Though we did not sight them, there were two transport planes that day on the same route which we flew. The Imperial Airways machine left Rangoon first and the K.L.M. Douglas at daybreak. Our Wasp-motored Lockheed left fifteen minutes later. All stopped at Bangkok, then followed different courses to Singapore. We arrived there first, at 5:25 P.M. local time, because we cut straight and did not stop along the way.โ€


When I communicated these findings with my TH friends, most of them were convinced, but some of them wondered if those notes where authentic.

Then a THS friend pointed out that a few months after Amelia’s disappearance a book was published by her husband (and manager) Palmer Putnam: Last Flight.

The book is out of stock, but fortunately it has been digitalised and is available as an Amazon e-book . I bought it, it is very interesting reading and of course I was especially interested in her route from Rangoon to Singapore. Here are scans of the relevant chapter.

I have color marked the passages which are of interest for this blog. Click to enlarge.

If you wonder how these notes have survived her disappearance, keep in mind that her whole trip was followed eagerly by public and press. Regularly she communicated her notes with Putnam and the press by telex, cable, telephone. Personally I am convinced that the notes are authentic.

What struck me, reading these pages, is that she mentions three times Alor Star. Why Alor Star and not Taiping?

“… on a course south toward Alor Star …” , “…. along the eastern coast of Malay and then across the peninsula to Alor Star….“, “We checked over Alor Star airport but did not stop….”

A few concluding remarks:

I think that much of the confusion has been caused by the Wikipedia article about Tekah Airport. I checked the history of that item and found that it has been created in 2007 by Wikipedia user Andrew Kidman. He also modified and edited it. In 2009 he added the history section, see the quote above. A few month later he stopped contributing. I have found no other mention of a permission to land on 7 June 1937 and think that it might be erroneous. I have contacted him via Wikipedia, but no reply until now.

Kallang airport was opened only a week before Amelia arrived. In “her” book it is described how much preparation was needed, months before she started. Could it be that her landing at Kallang was a last-minute decision?

Here are some recent pictures of the Amelia Earhart mural in Taiping.

The statement that Tekah airport was the first airport in South East Asia also comes from the Wikipedia article, and is incorrect, I think. Both Thailand (1914) and Indonesia (1924) were earlier.

Penang Trip, July 2019

A report about a 3D2N trip to Penang with my friends Paul and Fahmi. Our target was to enjoy food and culture. I have already written separate posts about Penang Mural Art, Penang Colonial Architecture and Penang Museums. In this post I will write about our trip and about food.

We traveled by ETS train from KL Sentral to Butterworth, a very comfortable journey. From Butterworth we took the ferry to George Town. This way of reaching the island is more romantic, compared to the usual way (by car and bridge).

Our hotel was on walking distance from the jetty, but we were hungry and needed lunch first . We found a busy food court, where I had Penang Assam Laksa. The Armenian Street Heritage Hotel is very well located in the heart of the historical town.

After some rest we went out to explore the town. We started with the Khoo Kongsi. More photos .

And of course we saw a lot of mural art. More photos .

The weather was nice. We walked past many houses of worship, in the Guan Yin Temple a celebration was going on with a performance of Chinese opera.

George Town is a haven for foodies, in 2014 I wrote a blog about it, Penang Food. This time we were looking for halal food. We first walked to the Esplanade. because we remembered that there was a Malay food court there, but it was closed already. Beautiful views of the floodlit colonial buildings!

Walking back we ended up at the popular Kapitan restaurant, where we had an acceptable Tandoori Chicken.

The next morning we were in the mood for a dim sum breakfast, but of course most dim sum places are not halal. We were lucky to find a gem: Dim Sum Valet . Delicious dim sum, a very friendly Malay couple, they started the shop beginning of this year. Worth visiting!

We still had some space left for a dessert. Our friends Pat and Roger had visited George Town recently and were very enthusiastic about the durian ice cream of Kek Seng. They were right, it was delicious.

Our first target for the day was the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. A wonderful museum, surprising that I had never heard about it earlier! More photos .

We spent considerable time in the museum, there was a lot to see. For lunch we went back to the food court at the Esplanade that was closed yesterday evening. Now it was open, we had the famous Mee Sotong of Hameed Pata . A long queue, but worth waiting for it

In the afternoon we explored the colonial architecture of Beach Street. One bank building after another prove that in those colonial times George Town was the financial center of Malaya. But not only banks, also emporiums, shops, opulent residences. More photos .

We visited a few more mural artworks, and we were not the only ones. Actually I am not happy about the mushrooming of mural art in Penang (and in the whole of Malaysia!). Not always is it high quality and the economical Law of Diminishing Returns is valid also here. More photos .

After a short rest in our hotel we went out for dinner to the New Lane Hawker Center. I had good memories about this place from earlier visits, but this time I was rather disappointed. Too many tourists, too expensive. We had popiah, oyster omelet , kerang and stingray.

Our last day in George Town already. We had breakfast with Roti Goyang at the Roti Bakar in Hutton Lane. The soft-boiled eggs were really shaking (goyang) surrounded by the pieces of toast. Very nice.

The Sun Yat Sen Penang Basee was the last museum on our list. Sun Yat Sen had his office here in 1912 when he was looking for support for the Chinese revolution. More photos .

A last round of more mural art. Some of them quite nice, in the humoristic Zacharevic style. More photos .

Before taking the ferry back to Butterworth, we had lunch near our hotel, in restaurant Jawi . Peranakan food, friendly service.

After lunch we took the ferry back to Butterworth. Paul and Fahmi went back to KL, I stayed in Taiping for couple of days more, see my report Taiping, July 2019 .

It was nice to visit George Town. But as a result of being a Unesco Heritage Site, it has become very touristic. Fancy museums, I may be old-fashioned, but for me it doesn’t add value.

Penang Museums

During my recent trip to Penang, I visited three museums.

The first one was the Khoo Kongsi, a large Chinese clan house in George Town. I had visited this kongsi already several times during earlier visits, so only a few pictures here. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions of George Town.

The present complex was rebuilt in 1906, after an earlier version was destroyed by lightning. Could it be that the gods were angry because it was too grand, resembling an imperial palace? So the present kongsi is more modest, although you would not say so, when you visit it ๐Ÿ™‚ .

The walls of the temple are decorated with beautiful stone reliefs and carvings.

The temple contains de ancestral tablets. There is also a gallery with portraits of the Khoo family.

The second museum we visited was the Pinang Peranakan Mansion . Last year I had visited the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, click here for a report. But to be honest, I was not aware that there existed a Peranakan Museum in Penang! And the museum opened its doors already in 2004!

Now that I have visited it, I agree that it is one of the top attractions of George Town, not to be missed by any visitor!

The building is old, it was built in the 1890s as residence of Chung Keng Quee, the leader of the Hai San secret society . Irony of fate: the site was formerly used by its rival Ghee Hin secret society. That alone made my visit worthwhile already, because as a virtual “Taiping Boy”, I have read a lot about the fighting between the Hai San and the Ghee Hin during the Larut Wars !

Entrance fee is RM 20, not cheap, but worth the money. You can visit the mansion on your own, there is a lot to see. Or you can join a free guided tour.

For those not familiar with Malaysian history, the Peranakan , also known as Baba-Nyonya or Straits Chinese, are descendants of Chinese settlers who arrived from Southern China in the 15th-17th century. Their rich culture contains Chinese, Malay and European elements.

Here is a collection of photos I took during my visit.

Chung Keng Quee even built his own private temple next to his mansion.

The last museum I visited was the Sun Yat-sen museum. Sun Yat-sen was the
leader of China’s republican revolution, overthrowing the Qing dynasty and the first president of the Republic of China. To get support from the overseas Chinese, he moved with his family to Penang in 1910 and organised his activities from this house.

The house was constructed circa 1880 and is a beautiful example of a Peranakan merchant home.

I had only limited time to visit the museum, will spend more time there during my next visit, because Mr Alvin, who takes care of the museum, is a gifted storyteller.

Actually Sun Yat-sen has also a link with Taiping! He had a house there in what is now the Antong Coffee Mill. His concubine lived there for many years and he visited it occasionally. See my report (scroll down).