What people ask an astronomer in the supermarket

When friends, strangers or former students run into me in the supermarket, I’m asked questions. Maybe I can squeeze a column out of them. Here are the ones from this past month, in no particular order. Feel free to regard my opinions as absolute wisdom, which is the stance that I’ve suggested to my family despite their ensuing laughter.

What’s the bright star in the sky these nights?

Answer: Jupiter.

Can the Truth of Everything be known?

Answer: Yes, but not intellectually.

Does the Universe just go on and on?

Answer: Yes

What about those supposed faster-than-light particles? Is that for real?

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Answer: Probably not. It’ll probably be found to be an error. They should simply run 400 miles of fiber-optical cable between the two sites and test it once and for all. If it does prove real, then some quantum mechanical effect is at play.

Why should that make a difference?

Answer: In the Quantum Theory world, time is nonexistent and information travels instantaneously. So faster-than-light-speed happens all the time. If those European neutrinos are changing form thanks to a quantum-mechanical effect, then superluminal speeds are allowed.

Do you agree with Hawking that Heaven does not exist?

Answer: Why would a scientist be any sort of authority on this?

What’s the finest object through any telescope?

Answer: In my opinion, Saturn. At least it conveys the greatest impact. Currently it’s lurking low in solar glare just before dawn, on the far side of the Sun.

Should hydrofracking be banned?

Answer: That’s not relevant to our community, which lies east of the main Marcellus Shale. Anyway, it would never be permitted within the Catskill Park.

What about elsewhere?

Answer: Fracking revenues boost community wealth and reduce property taxes, but it also introduces heavy truck traffic. As for potential water pollution, that needn’t occur if existing best practices, including triple-sealing of wells, were mandated. Would New York State insist on “best practices” and then closely oversee every well? If yes, then it’s probably okay. If no, it shouldn’t be allowed. Incidentally, though I’d be against fracking in our own area, I find the anti-fracking literature generally misleading, even fraudulent.

Did they ever figure out who’s flying those spooky nighttime planes low over our region?

Answer: No.

Is our planet in trouble?

Answer: No.

Will we have any special sky event in 2012?

Answer: Definitely: Venus. It will get unusually high and dazzle us later this winter and spring, then pass across the Sun’s face on June 5 for the final time until 2117.

What’s the most frustrating thing for you?

Answer: The widespread lack of basic science knowledge. It’s disheartening that most folks are unaware that the Sun moves to the right as it crosses the sky, or can’t name the three main elements in the air that they breathe: fundamental stuff. I don’t know what the cause is. Teachers certainly do their best, I think.

What did you think of last night’s TV show about the universe?

Answer: Cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole, is at a dead end these days. Since no one seems willing to admit this, we instead get catchy-sounding concepts like “multiverses” that do little or nothing to illuminate. Yet meanwhile, astrophysics is making impressive gains in understanding stars and galaxies. We’re advancing rapidly when it comes to the parts, but not the whole.

Is man-made global warming real?

Answer: Yes.

What does the weather look like for 2012?

Since I’m a longtime editor of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, I hear this a lot. But I’m the astronomy editor, and have nothing to do with the weather forecasts. I don’t even give them any credence, though it’s a major reason why many people buy the Old Farmer’s Almanac. And when the conversation has turned to the weather, that’s usually when it’s time to move on.

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