Cosmic Distance Scale

Graph error bars

You often print graphs in which data points have error bars that are too short. About a third of the error bars don’t overlap the line of best fit. So which is wrong? Neither! When it comes to describing statistical uncertainty, such as drawing an error bar, the usual measure is plus or minus...

How many digits are satisfactory in the measurement of pi?

In the 3rd century BC, Archimedes proved that the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is less than 3 1/7 but larger than 3 10/71. That’s about 3.141. Later mathematicians have computed what we now call p (pi) to greater and greater accuracy — but how many digits are “enough”? The answer...

Should you use light-years or parsecs for astronomical distance?

You give astronomical distances beyond the solar system in light-years, but professional astronomy papers use parsecs. Which is preferable? Light-years, no question! Here’s how I see it. The parsec (which equals 3.26 light-years) is defined as the distance at which a star will show an annual parallax of one arcsecond. This means it is...

Why are the stars so far away?

Why are the stars so far away? That question has a real answer: Because if the stars were much closer, Earth wouldn’t exist, and we wouldn’t be here to ask. In places where stars are much closer together, such as globular clusters and the center of the Milky Way, planetary systems are probably unstable...