Web edition: June 18, 2009
Print edition: July 4, 2009; Vol.176 #1 (p. 30)
Astronomical art faux pas
Assuming they are in the Northern Hemisphere, those two young folk on the cover of the May 23 Science News look remarkably chipper while keeping astronomers’ hours. I make the time to be about 3 a.m. as a waning decrescent moon rises.
Dainis Bisenieks, Philadelphia, Pa.
The cover of your Special Astronomy Issue is a wonderful example of why we need more and better astronomy and science education. For instance, when seen after sunset the crescent moon looks like ) but before sunrise the crescent phase looks like ( .
Your cover illustration shows “youths exploring the night sky.” Those making astronomical observations could still be active in the morning, but most of the activities seen in these types of illustrations would be going on in the late evening. Artists and cartoonists often place a crescent moon in the night sky, probably to indicate that it is indeed night. Watch your daily comic strips for a few weeks to see. Almost invariably, the crescent moon shown is the phase only seen in the wee hours of the morning.
When I first noticed this several years ago, I wondered why artists consistently drew the crescent moon wrong. I wrote to several cartoonists with strips in the daily newspapers. Only one replied: Guy Gilchrist, one of the cartoonists for the “Nancy” comic strip. Guy said that the moon was drawn wrong “probably because it’s easier to drag a pen or brush this >> way than << that way. You have to push << that way. We cartoonists are a lazy bunch.” I would hardly call folks who can come up with a new cartoon every day of every year “a lazy bunch.” But perhaps it is easier to draw the wrong phase of the moon — and who would notice?
I wonder if artists, cartoonists and audiences were better educated about the moon’s phases, wouldn’t the artists make a little extra effort to get it right?
Jack Ryan, El Dorado, Ark.
I love your magazine, but was greatly amused by the retro cover art of the astronomy issue. The young amateur astronomer at the window has apparently discovered a rare miniature star orbiting between the Earth and moon — the bright dot that appears inside the crescent of the moon! I would love to read an explanation of this new phenomenon!
Barbara Dilworth, Eureka, Calif.
Quantum plant activity
As a biologist with some background in physics, I found the article “Living physics” (SN: 5/9/09, p. 26) probably one of the most important that you have published for a long time. Some indication that biologists are aware of the exciting developments in quantum physics and that those developments need to be applied to biological theory are much overdue. But there is still a long way to go. The article makes it plain that researchers now need to consider the implication of Bell’s theorem of non-locality, which indicates that quantum “particles,” such as the electrons and atoms in molecules, do not even need to be close to each other, provided they have been previously quantum entangled. I await your article on the biological effects of Bell’s theorem with great anticipation.
Donald K. Edwards, Saanichton, British Columbia, Canada
In the article “Living physics,” it is stated that 95 percent of the light hitting a leaf reaches the photosynthetic reaction center. If photosynthesis is so efficient, it would truly be a good way to convert sunlight into biofuels. Yet Nathan Lewis at Caltech has stated that photosynthesis is only about 0.3 percent efficient, so that enormous amounts of land would be needed to produce significant amounts of bio-fuels. If Lewis is correct, it is smarter to use things like photovoltaics that have far higher efficiency. Obviously, in this instance, the calculation of “efficiency” is being based on different measures of efficiency. Can you illuminate this issue for me? Perhaps the real limitation is in the production of carbohydrate plant material rather than in the absorption of light and its conversion into active electrons.
Bill Thomas, Cedar Mountain, N.C.
As the reader points out, calculating the efficiency of photosynthesis depends on what you’re looking at. When calculating how much energy from the sun gets converted into the mass of the plant, the numbers can vary. Some giant grasses are extremely efficient and over a three-month growing season can convert about 8.8 percent of the light they absorb into biomass. The conversion efficiency of most plants, when averaged over the whole year, ranges from a few tenths of a percent to almost 10 percent.
In the story, the scientists discussed the “quantum efficiency” of photosynthesis, focusing on only the initial step of the transfer of energy from sunlight, which takes into account the odds that a photon that gets absorbed by a plant will actually be used and converted into energy. Scientists agree that the quantum efficiency of photosynthesis is nearly 100 percent at low light levels. —Susan Gaidos