One of the most familiar asterisms in the night sky is the Teapot, in Sagittarius. Today we’re going to talk about that and have a bonus conversation about Bertrand Russell’s Teapot Argument.
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Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online, the world’s longest running online astronomy degree program. Visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.
Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast episode 418: I am A Teapot. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe today. And with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey Pamela, how are you doing?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser Cain: I’m doing great. So last week, it was the penultimate episode. This is the ultimate episode: our final show before we go on break, wrapping up this season of Astronomy Cast. What is it, season 9? Season 10? We really should –
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s season 10.
Fraser Cain: Season 10. We have wrapped up Season 10. We were podcasting before podcasting was cool. Now it’s cool, and we’re still podcasting. And the trick, the secret, is to take a break every now and then.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s true. It’s true.
Fraser Cain: Over this summer, while people are detoxing because they’re not listening to Astronomy Cast, what else could they do that relates to the projects that you’re working on? Where should they go and sort of catch up?
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, we’re getting ready to launch a whole bunch of awesome things over at Cosmo Quest, with a lot of help from Interface Guru. We are getting ready to redo our website so it’s easier to find things, easier to navigate. And, along the way, we’re going to be launching a whole bunch of new content, new products, new tasks, new ways that you can learn and do science.
And, along the way, we’re also going to be launching information about our eclipse 2017 plans here in St. Louis, so stay tuned. Follow @cosmoquestX on Twitter. Follow it on Facebook, and you’ll be able to keep up with everything we’re doing.
And, what about you? What all are you up to this summer?
Fraser Cain: Well, so we’re still gonna be producing the Guide to Space videos. And, in fact, I’ll have a little more time to shoot, and record, and maybe go to some more interesting locations. I wanna start doing some stuff that’s a little bit longer, a little bit slicker. So, we’re gonna be putting some energy into that. So, if you haven’t already, go and subscribe to the Universe Today channel.
We’re going to be doing a bunch of improvements, actually, to these shows. So, we’ve got plans to make a bunch of intro videos, and better graphics. And, stuff to make these even slicker and make it feel a lot more like television, but not television.
So, that’s what’s gonna be in the works. So of course, Universe Today, every day, many stories. Come and join us and read. And, if you didn’t listen to the Weekly Space Hangout, go ahead and catch up. We’ve got a whole year. Our ultimate episode there was with Dr. James Green, who is the director of planetary science for NASA. And, what a treat to hear him talk about that.
And, I think the big thing is Juno which, by the time people listen to this, Juno will be at Jupiter. But, that is gonna be the big news that we’re gonna be super busy with all summer long. I’m really excited about that.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And, we do have to say one final sad bit of news in this ultimate episode of season 10. And, this is after watching him go through his undergrad years working with us at SIUE, and finish a graduate program out in Savannah, Georgia, and go on to get a great professional job. Preston’s professional job has finally reached the point where he has to say goodbye to editing Astronomy Cast.
So, in the fall, we will be looking for a brand new student to help them get some experience on doing the real thing. So, come fall, we’ll be looking for a new SIUE student to take over the help, and help us – maybe not stick around for another 10 years, but another three or four is what we’re hoping for.
Fraser Cain: So, thanks Preston. We really appreciate having you along for this journey. And, we look forward to all of the cool stuff we’re working on. We’ll keep people updated on what you get up to.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s been a great ride. And, we hope that everything’s just upwards and onwards for you in your brave new next set of endeavors.
Fraser Cain: All right, now for the show part.
Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by 8th Light Inc. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides disciplined software leadership on demand, and shares its expertise to make your project better. For more information, visit them online at www.8thlight.com. Just remember, that’s www.8thlight.com . Drop them a note. 8th Light; software is their craft.
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Fraser Cain: So, one of the most familiar asterisms in the night sky is the Teapot in Sagittarius. Seriously, it looks like a teapot. Go and check. Today we’re gonna talk about that, and a bonus conversation about Bertrand Russell’s teapot argument.
Pamela, where did you get this title from? This is all you.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I have to admit; I’ve been greatly enjoying the fact that the numbers of our episodes have started to hit HTML HTTP error codes. So, I write a lot of websites, and when you’re doing curl to go back and forth across different pages, sometimes you get back error codes. And, some of them are just plain fun. And, error code 418 is, “I’m a teapot,” and so that seemed like an excellent Easter egg, an excellent final episode of the season.
And, considering how broken our real world is, let’s enjoy just being a teapot for just one afternoon. Because, it’s a whole lot better than reality.
Fraser Cain: Okay, so let’s talk about the asterism first. So, for people who haven’t – I guess, aren’t super familiar with the night sky, what is the Teapot?
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, if you go outside now, actually fairly late in the evening, you will be able to see the Milky Way rising. And, as the Milky Way rises, there is this Teapot asterism. It is a set of stars that forms the brightest part of the constellation Sagittarius. And, it looks like a little teapot, with the handle that meets at the top and the bottom, and the little spout that goes out.
And to me, it’s always looked like someone knocked that teapot over, and had cream in the tea, and it spilled all over the sky in this nice, long line tracing out our Milky Way galaxy.
Fraser Cain: For us in the Northern Hemisphere, right? If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you see it fully dumped over and tumbling, right? I think.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, it depends on your perspective, looking at how it fell on the table. But yeah, it’s dumped over both the north and the south. For us, looking at it, it’s like the teapot got knocked over away from you. From the south, it looks like the teapot got knocked over towards you. It’s knocked over however you look at it.
Fraser Cain: Now, we call it an asterism. And, that’s different from a constellation, even though it’s inside a constellation, right? And, I guess the closest analogy is the Big Dipper, which isn’t a constellation.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Exactly. So, there are certain patterns of stars that that pattern is all entirely bright, can easily be made out, and we call them what they actually look like. So, there’s the W in Cassiopeia, which isn’t entirely Cassiopeia, but makes out what we can really see. There’s the Coat Hanger asterism that you need a telescope to see. But, it’s a set of stars that look entirely like a coat hanger. It’s kinda creepy.
In the case of the Teapot in Sagittarius, the brightest stars in this particular constellation form a short, stout teapot.
Fraser Cain: Right. Okay, so that is the Teapot. That is the asterism. And, it’s in a very important region of the sky. What’s going on in there?
Dr. Pamela Gay: What’s really cool is you can use the Teapot to figure out exactly where the center of our galaxy is. So, if you’re looking at the Teapot, on the one side you have the handle. On the other side you have the spout. I’m not going to sing the song. If you go off of the spout stars, from the bottom base of the teapot, up to where the tea would get poured out, follow that line, and just arc ever so slightly.
So, if you form a straight line, there’s a bright star you’ll see. And, just toward the Teapot direction, there’s – you can’t see it. But, there’s a place that happens to be where the black hole in the Milky Way hangs out. So, there’s a 4 million solar mass black hole that looks like it got spilled out of Sagittarius’ teapot.
Fraser Cain: And, so the galaxy core is there, and there’s a lot of really great nebulae, and clusters, and stuff like that, that’s all around it.
Dr. Pamela Gay: This is actually one of the best places to get your first introduction to the sky, when you get your first really good set of binoculars. Because, you can lie down in a lawn chair, in a hammock, and find that bright asterism. And then, trace along the Milky Way, which you may not be able to see from where you live. But, because you know the Teapot fell over and spilled it out the spout, just look all along the spout, and that’s where the Milky Way is.
And, with your binoculars, you will be able to see this over density of stars. And, right near the Teapot is the Lagoon Nebula, which is bright enough to see through binoculars. There’s star clusters in all directions. Straight up from the lid of the Teapot is the Swan Nebula.
It’s an amazingly rich part of the sky, that you can just sort of fall into with binoculars.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. There’s a couple of constellations that really serve as these waypoints for you, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. I have no idea why the people in the Southern Hemisphere aren’t just stumbling around in the darkness. Because, they can’t see Polaris and such.
But still, the Big Dipper, of course; Cassiopeia, as you mentioned; Orion. But in the summertime, you’re looking for that Teapot. And for us, here in Canada, it’s pretty low on the horizon. It’s actually a pretty low view to that object. And, right beside it is Scorpio, which also really looks like its namesake.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And, Scorpio is kinda cool because multiple cultures that didn’t have contact with one another at the time they were naming the constellations, all looked at it and went, “That’s a Scorpion. We’re gonna name it a Scorpion.” And so, you have this section of the sky – the constellation Sagittarius, I can’t get the Greek mythology picture out of it. But, a teapot sitting next to a scorpion seems like a rather terrifying Texas kind of thing.
And for me, the first time I was really able to see Scorpio was when I was down in Texas. And it’s like, “There’s the Teapot. There’s the Scorpion. These two things don’t belong together.”
Fraser Cain: Right. So, what is the best way to really appreciate this constellation and what it has? I love – because it has a lot of stuff that you can see almost with the unaided eye; stuff that you can see with binoculars. Where would you get started to really get to know it?
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, for me, the best thing to do is pull up Stellarium, figure out where it is in your sky, and then go outside with no plan and something that doesn’t have a motor. So, a set of binoculars, a Dobsonian telescope, and start off that bottom of the spout. And, just use that as a direction. Go up through the spout, find that over-density of stars that makes up the Milky Way. Head in the direction of the lid of the Teapot along that density of stars.
And, as you shoot along that over-density of stars, you’re just gonna stumble over dust, and gas, and star clusters. And, all of these young things that show how active the inner part of our galaxy is, where there is still rich star formation going on. There are young clusters that haven’t yet been torn apart by their orbits around the galaxy.
And then, once you’ve really just sort of gone as far as you can go, with either that Dobsonian or that pair of binoculars, now it’s time to go attach your camera to something, so that you can get a deeper exposure. And, start to see, “Oh my gosh, there’s all this amazing color in this part of the sky.”
And, there’s nothing quite as magical, in a way, than setting up your just normal, everyday Canon, generic, low-end rebel camera on some sort of a tripod. And, getting a good 30 second exposure or so of this region of the sky. And, realizing there is all of this stuff that just fills the sky, that you just can’t see with your eyes.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, and all of those – the famous nebulae, all the ones that you’re all familiar with, right? The Lagoon Nebula, and the Eagle Nebula, and the Trifid Nebula. And, not the Orion one, but most of the other really interesting nebulae are all located in that same region.
And, you just – as you said, you take a Canon or a Nikon camera, set it for a long exposure, point it at that region of the sky. And, either something that’s very wide-field – but, even something that is like a 50 millimeter, or something like that. And then, just take your 30 second exposure. You know, whatever has a good aperture, a nice wide aperture. Like, if you can get your hands on a 1.4, a 1,8. I’m sure that’s gibberish to a lot of people. But, you want one that is a fairly fast lens.
And, as you say, you get all of the stuff in the Milky Way, and then you get all of these blobs of different colors. And, it’s just – it’s stunning. And, it is the place to start. I really think, if a person wants to get into astrophotography, all those beautiful nebulae that people have on their computer desktop backgrounds and things like that, they’re all there. It’s just how much you zoomed in to see them.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And, what really gets me about looking in the direction of Sagittarius, is you never run out of new depths to go to. They just set up a new instrument, on a very large telescope, that links all four of these giant mirrors together. It’s called Gravity. Someone forced an acronym. And, this particular instrument is designed to allow them to do very careful, interferometric observations of the stars that are closest to the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy.
So, you can drink in the beauty of Sagittarius from the, “Hey, I’m outside in a dark site with my eyeballs,” “Hey, I’m outside with a pair of binoculars,” maybe not even in a dark site, to, “Hey, I’m using the largest collective set of glass on the planet to observe this system. And, understand what it’s like within a solar system sized region around that supermassive black hole.”
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Absolutely phenomenal. So, let’s now completely and totally switch gears. We’ve talked about that version of the Teapot, probably the one that’s closest to the HTTP error code. Let’s talk about the other one, and this is the Bertrand Russell’s teapot thought experiment. Argument? What is the best way to describe this?
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s a philosophical argument. And, usually we don’t bring these kinds of things up in Astronomy Cast because we do try and have a facts-based journey through the universe. And, this is logic 101 versus observational astronomy 101. But, since we’re talking about being a teapot today, it seemed like a good direction to go in.
I actually learned about this argument from Surly Amy, who started making these adorable necklaces that have a teapot floating out among the planets. And, I was perplexed. And, rather than admit to it, I went and Googled. Luckily, her Etsy page labelled it as Russell’s Teapot, which made it easy.
And, I found out about an argument on basically proof of ideas. And, the argument is that you can’t simply say, “My idea must be true for other people based on the fact that those other people can’t prove the negative of the idea.” This is generally brought up as a, “You can’t say that God exists because you can’t disprove God.” And, the way that he put this, the Gedankenexperiment, if you will, was – and, I love the fact that he used the word “elliptical” in this argument.
He said, “If I were to tell you that there is a little china teapot in an elliptical orbit out between Earth and Mars, and I was to tell you that it was too small to perceive with even the most highly technological telescope here on Earth, you would laugh at me. And, you would say, ‘That’s not out there. You can’t convince me it’s out there.’ And, the fact that you can’t prove that it’s not out there is not sufficient reason for me to argue that, ‘Yes, of course there is a teapot out there.’”
So, it’s a way of basically saying through logical thought experiment, “You can’t force me to believe something just because I can’t negate it.” But rather, the burden is on the other person to prove that the thing exists, if they want it to be a logical argument.
Fraser Cain: Right. And so, you said – we don’t bring philosophy into Astronomy Cast too often. Where would we see an argument like this in astronomy, in cosmology, things like that?
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, one interesting place that it’s cropped up over the years, is the argument over whether or not there should be life out there. Because currently, it’s simply a belief statement. There is no way to say, “Yes, there is alien life,” “No, there is not alien life.” We have no evidence to prove or disprove it. So, it is insufficient for someone to say, “Of course there’s alien life. And, you don’t have the ability to negate my argument, therefore I must be right.”
Fraser Cain: Because, the only way that I could negate your argument is to scan every single world in the entire universe, looking for life down to the atomic level, to find out whether or not it doesn’t exist. And, only by having scanned – and, that’s just life as we know it. Then, I’d have to come back around, and you go, “Yeah, but it could be some form of crystalline intelligent cloud entity.”
And then, I have to start the whole search again, this time looking for crystalline cloud entities. And be like, “Yeah, no, no, no. It’s in another dimension. It’s phase-shifted from us, and you’re gonna have to take another crack at it.” And, so then I go and, again, furiously search every single world in the entire observable universe, searching for these phase-shifted, invisible aliens. And, you would then just shift it again.
So, that’s back to that, “You can’t prove a negative.” Right?
Dr. Pamela Gay: And, this also gets at the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” side of the argument. Of, it’s not sufficient in the case of things like aliens to simply say, “Oh, I have this little bit of possible evidence from what the Viking probes did on Mars.” That’s wussy, not conclusive evidence. You have to have overwhelming evidence when you’re trying to prove extraordinary things.
And so, on one side you have Bertrand’s teapot, saying, “It’s not sufficient for me to say, ‘Hey, there’s a teapot in an elliptical orbit between Earth and Mars. You can’t disprove me; therefore, I must be right.” You can’t say that about aliens, either. So, it gets complicated.
Fraser Cain: But, the flip side is the easy way, right? Which is that you just have to prove a positive. So, if you say, “I am certain – it is my argument that there are no aliens in this universe,” and then you say, “Oh, found one.” Then, my argument is invalidated.
And, that’s how science works, right? I mean, that’s the heart of science, is to go that way and not the other way.
Dr. Pamela Gay: But, this is where it still has to be extraordinary evidence. And, we’ve seen so many different things, where people brought forward evidence that just wasn’t quite fully baked. There was the Mono Lake life that wasn’t built on DNA argument a few years ago. Where, they were trying to argue that the life was using phosphorous instead. And, it just didn’t quite pan out when other people repeated the experiments.
And so, it’s gonna have to be extraordinary evidence. But, we’ve seen that happen. This is what happened with the supernova results that we were talking about, I think, last week. With, in 1998, all of a sudden, two different research teams realized, “Oh my gosh. Our universe is accelerating in its expansion rate. This means that there has to be an extra term, that,” well, dark energy.
Fraser Cain: Right, right. I guess what I was just saying is that if I say that there is – it is my theory that we are alone in the universe. I am making a truth claim. I am saying, “We are the only life in the universe.” And, that is a truth claim that is testable, right? Because, all you have to do is find one instance of life anywhere but Earth, and my truth claim is rendered incorrect.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes, it’s true.
Fraser Cain: And, in many cases, scientists make a – they come up with a theory, they describe the evidence that they are using to form that theory. But, they are also open to, and often suggest, the evidence, the piece of evidence that would completely and utterly invalidate their theory.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes. And, this is where we do see Higgs Boson was found. It didn’t have to be there, but it was found. We see good scientific theories are ones that are predictive.
Now, with Bertrand Russell’s teapot, I have to admit, part of me really hopes that someday, someone will launch a teapot with a message inside of it. A little china teapot, into an elliptical orbit between the Earth and Mars, that might rattle around the solar system for a few thousand years, before someone happens to go, “What is this?” And pick it up.
I think this is kind of like the ultimate bottle in the ocean kind of thing. And, I desperately hope that someone, someday puts a little china teapot in orbit.
Fraser Cain: But, according to quantum mechanics, isn’t there a non-zero chance of a teapot randomly forming over an infinite amount of time?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes, there is a non-zero probability, but that doesn’t mean it’s an actual probability.
Fraser Cain: And, if the universe is infinite, and we can assume that the universe is also gonna exist for an infinite amount of time, and a teapot is a physical object that can exist in the universe, doesn’t that mean, according to that same quantum mechanics rule, that not only are teapots randomly popping into existence, but there are an infinite number of teapots randomly popping into existence?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Given a multiverse, yes.
Fraser Cain: Not even a multiverse, just an infinite universe.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Not necessarily in our solar system, though.
Fraser Cain: No, no, no, in some other solar system. Some other sucker. So, I guess that’s true. He said there’s one of our solar system, and that would require an infinite amount of time. It’s awesome. I love the argument.
Dr. Pamela Gay: This is why I wanted to do this episode.
Fraser Cain: I never get a chance to get philosophical. This is great. But, another sort of version of that is Carl Sagan, in A Demon Haunted World, does a really great kind of similar version of that, talking about the dragon in his garage, I believe. And, it’s a very similar argument. And really for me, as a skeptic, that was one of the arguments that was – just hammered the point home so beautifully. And, kind of taught me to be a skeptic. And, I’ve really kind of enjoyed those kinds of philosophical arguments.
And, of course, these are the dragons that we battle as we try to explain science out on the internet.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And I have to say, my favorite version of this of all is, of course, the flying spaghetti monster.
Fraser Cain: What is the – I don’t understand.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, the flying spaghetti monster was a non-disprovable religion put forward. And so, the idea was, people – there’s actually a beautiful treatise written up, if you Google “flying spaghetti monster.” And the idea is, there are pastafarians who follow his noodly appendage, and have argued against a lot of the fanatical Christian, not-biblically-based ideas against evolution. And, have been fighting to keep religion out of schools, using their pastafarian arguments.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. The gist is that if it’s reasonable to teach the controversy between a science, which is an evidence-based, comprehensive study of the natural world, and you’re only postulating things that you have evidence for, and this thing someone makes up, then it’s also perfectly legitimate to, then, teach the controversy between science, this thing someone made up, and this other thing that somebody made up. Why not?
And so, it’s a wonderful, wonderful argument. And I think that you should totally, if you haven’t read the history of where the flying spaghetti monster came from, it’s wonderful.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It was used in an argument confronting the Kansas school board. And, it was originally written up by Bobby Henderson, who wrote, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And, it’s one of those things that, no matter what your religious or areligious perspective is, you should be able to appreciate the context of where it’s coming from, in a country that is, reportedly, divided between religion and state being completely separate.
Fraser Cain: Well, on that note, I think that we need to wrap up this episode, this season, this decaseason of – dec-season –
Dr. Pamela Gay: We have completed a decade of – we have spent ¼ of our lives doing this show.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, totally. Who knew that we would still be doing this 10 years later? I knew, but I’m so glad that we did. And, don’t worry, we’ve got a zillion more. We have an infinite number of shows in our respective balance. So, we will see all of you in September, and thanks for listening. Thanks for watching. And thanks, Pamela, for bringing the brain.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And, thank you for making this fun to do year after year after year.
Fraser Cain: Awesome. All right, we’ll see you next season.
Dr. Pamela Gay: See you in the fall.
Fraser Cain: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org . Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google Plus.
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Duration: 32 minutes