30 December 2005

Intelligent Design of Lava

The caldera of Mt. St. Helens, Washington state, is filling and filling with lava, and has been for more than a year. But none of the current theories adequately explain where the lava is coming from.

Then, in September 2004, the low-level quakes began -- occasionally spiking above magnitude 3. Since then, the mountain has squeezed out about 102 million cubic yards of lava, more in 15 months than in the six years after the eruption.
It's not entirely clear where the lava is coming from. If it were being generated by the mountain, scientists would expect to see changes in the mountain's shape, its sides compressing as lava is spewed out.

At the current rate, "three or four months would have been enough time to exhaust what was standing in the conduit. ... The volume is greater than anything that could be standing in a narrow 3-mile pipe," Sherrod said.

That suggests resupply from greater depths, which normally would generate certain gases and deep earthquakes. Neither is being detected.


We are unable to explain the source of the lava, and there are clearly holes in the theory. Therefore we must conclude that there is a greater force, call it an Intelligent Designer, creating the lava.

29 December 2005

The Matrix: A Lesson Plan on Testability

For your edutainment, here is a lesson plan on the concept of "testability," an important aspect of the scope of science. It is free for use by educators and for not-for-profit personal use.

Introduction for Teacher:
The scope of science is a topic not well understood by the general public or the starting student of science. The recent artificial “controversy” in the media of Intelligent Design (ID) has further confused the issue for students. This lesson plan communicates two important concepts in science: (1) that science seeks non-supernatural explanations, and (2) that all ideas must be testable, either through experiment or through observation.

It is worth nothing that the term “testability” is not generally used by scientists or epistemologists (philosophers who study how we know things). The term used more often is “falsifiability” – the concept that it must be possible to design an experiment or observation which could potentially prove the hypothesis incorrect. However, students easily confuse the term falsifiability with thinking that the hypothesis has already been proven false. “Testability” is a nearly equivalent concept, and is easier to understand and explain.

It is suggested that the teacher of this lesson either watch or read a summary of the science-fiction/action movie The Matrix. The central premise of the movie is that the world that we are familiar with is actually a virtual reality based in a futuristic computer, in a world ruled by computer programs and robots. The main character, Neo, is awakened from the Matrix by a group of rebels, and seeks to wake others in a massive revolution. There are also heavy Messianic overtones, so you may need to guide the lesson away from that aspect.

Student Goals:
After completing this lesson, students will understand the concept of testability, will better grasp the scope and limitations of science, and what questions can be addressed by science.

Students should have paper and writing implements.
Teacher should be able to write on the board.

While designed for a single 90-minute period, this lesson may be adapted to longer, shorter, or multiple class periods.

Lesson Plan:
Teacher Introduction (10 min, 0:00-0:10):
Ask students how many of them have seen the movie The Matrix. Have them describe the premise of the story. Guide conversation to the concept of being trapped in a virtual reality.

Student Groups (20 min, 0:10-0:30):
Break students into pairs or trios. Ask them how they could determine whether we are currently living in the Matrix. Have one member of each group record their thoughts. The teacher should walk around the classroom observing student interactions and making sure they remain on-task.

Whole Class (20 min, 0:30-0:50):
Students return to the larger class group and share their ideas. Keep the discussion focused on methods for testing whether we are in the Matrix. Do NOT yet poke holes in their ideas, simply list them all on the board.

Student Groups (20min, 0:50-1:10):
Return to small groups. Each group is now tasked with examining the many ideas on the board and finding their flaws. Focus the students on whether the different ideas are testable – can they experiment to answer the idea?
If the idea was “wake from the Matrix,” ask how they’d do that. If the idea was “watch for black cats,” ask if every black cat means that we’re in the Matrix, and what would white cats mean. If the idea was to hack into the Matrix through a phone line, ask them who they think can do that. (If this becomes a big issue, contact a local computer science or telecommunications expert at a college, or phone company and ask them if they will write a letter to your class or come speak with them.)

Whole Class (20 min, 1:10-1:30):
Discuss the flaws in the various ideas. Conclude with a summary of the scope of science – that it is concerned with only testable ideas, and explanations that do not require supernatural explanations (including technology greatly beyond that which we know).

Students’ understanding can be assessed during discussion, while walking around the classroom, or by collecting and reviewing their written ideas.
Students may also write reaction papers at the end of the period, or as a homework assignment. Students can also be assigned a longer project to seek out community resources (college professors, phone company technicians or operators) to discuss science related to The Matrix.

Adaptation for Students with Special Needs:
Students with writing difficulties can be grouped with those with better writing skills.
Students with high energy (such as ADHD) can be appointed as Professional Skeptics. Their task is to go between the regular pairs and groups of students and question what they have written in each stage. They could also be used to write student ideas on the board when discussing as a whole class.

Guiding Questions
If you have difficulty stimulating discussion with your students, try the following questions to get them started.
  1. What is the Matrix?

  2. Did you like the movie?

  3. Do you think it was believable?

  4. Are we in the Matrix?

  5. How do you know?

  6. Can you test that?

  7. What could you see that would prove or disprove it?

  8. If you can’t test that, who could?

  9. Did you ever think that a friend was trying to trick you, or was lying to you?

  10. How could you prove it?

  11. How would you know if you were wrong?

  12. If a friend said you were trying to trick or were lying to him or her, how could you disprove it?

  13. Did you ever think you might be living in a dream?


I'm home visiting my parents, and my mom's addicted to TV, including Jeopardy. Today's double Jeopardy categories included "Not a Prime Minister," "Before & After" (aka Smush), and "Math & Science."

C'mon, you've GOT to be kidding me! ONE SINGLE puny little category for ALL of Math and Science? That'd be like having a category on "Literature & History" with the others being "Particle Physics," "Not a Neurotransmitter," and "20th Century Set Theory"! Gimmie a break people.

28 December 2005


For a non-denominational holiday gift to you, I present Scientific American's list of science questions for Supreme Court nominee Alito. Entertaining, and quite telling.

23 December 2005

Creationists vs. Museums

The NY Times ran an article about creationists invading science museums, back in September. I didn't report on it at the time, partly because the article was on everyone's lips - my students even told me about it - so I thought it unnecessary.

If by some chance you missed it, you have a second chance to get it as fresh news, from ABC! An Ithaca, NY, museum has created a guide and workshop to discussing evolution, ID, and creationism for volunteers and employees at museums.

The guide provides information on the scientific method (using observations about the natural world and the rules of logic to test hypotheses), the theory of evolution, creationism and intelligent design.

It also offers a script for how to answer frequently raised challenges, such as, "Is it true that there is lots of evidence against evolution?" Answer: "No. Essentially all available data and observations from the natural world support the hypothesis of evolution. No serious biologist or geologist today doubts whether evolution occurred."
At the Ithaca museum, volunteers take a six-week paleontology course before working the museum floor. The guide instructs volunteers that when they encounter evolution critics, they should emphasize that science museums live by the rules of science.
As a final note, the book tells guides that they cannot "win" against a convinced creationist.

"The most you can hope for is a respectful exchange of views," it says.

(ABC News)

I like the last part. I wonder if creationist camps teach their evangelists that they cannot win against convicted evolutionists. I wish they would.

20 December 2005

Holiday Gifts

Still not sure what to get the person who has everything? I have three super generous options for you.

  1. Donate to charity in their name. Mercy Corps is a secular humaniatarian relief group based in the US that primarily focuses on third world disasters. Unlike some other relief groups, Mercy Corps spends a LOT of their time and effort on prolonged help, not just critical help.

  2. Buy a heifer for a needy family in their name. Heifer International provides animals from bees to water buffalos for needy families. Depending upon the choice of animal, it can provide non-lethal food, renewable resources, and income such as milk, eggs, down, wool, honey, plant pollination, fertilizer, insect control, and the sale of offspring, and some animals and their offspring can be slaughtered for food (or you can pick ones that can't be, if you prefer). Income helps the families send their children to school, among other things.

  3. Buy an actual gift that has part of your cost go to charity. If you really just gotta have something to hand the person, check out Gear that Gives. You can choose between having the proceeds go to stop world hunger, protect the rainforest, improve domestic literacy, help animals in shelters, and more. Gifts include logo products (to spread the word), elegant jewelry, and fair trade items.

If you're thinking of getting ME something, well, chances are I don't know you so that's kinda creepy. I'm not giving you my mailing address either, so visit the first two sites.

PA court agrees: ID not Science

Whoo-hoo! You have to go read this for yourself.


Well, okay, I'll quote you an important part.

[It is] abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause [separation of Church and State]. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

Judge Jones (original document)

He goes on with some pretty strong language condemning the school Board, saying that they lied about their agenda, and that the action of the court was not judicial activism, but trying to prevent ill-informed and inane activism by others, that ultimately dragged the whole town including the students through a "legal maelstrom" and was an "utter waste." Those are Jones' words, not mine! I don't think I'd've been so drastic. :-P

19 December 2005

Middle class norm?

I recently saw a post that seemed to claim that middle class families are the majority of the US population, and low income families are a minority. I've worked with low-income students, and I went to college were a lot of my classmates were from middle America, where middle class rich people aren't that common, so I took offense at that assumption. Then I decided to look at it statistically if I could.

While middle class is a fluid term, common definitions include

  1. the amount of your family's yearly income,

  2. acheiving a college degree,

  3. having a professional occupation, or

  4. the amount of your family's savings.[1, 2]

I managed to find answers to the first two, and for one, middle class are NOT the majority, and the other the poor constitute a large minority.

  1. In 2003, 12.5% of the US population lived in poverty, defined as less than "$18,810 for a family of four; $14,680 for a family of three; $12,015 for a family of two; and $9,393 for an individual."[3] This info was difficult to find, as lots of census reports abound, but they go by percentiles[4] rather than histograms, which would be easier to understand.

  2. In 2004, around 33% of the US population over age 18 had any college degree, or around 25% if you only count bachelor's degrees and higher.[5]

I'm still working on #'s 3 and 4. If you know a reference, comment!

17 December 2005

The Urantia Truthbook - another revelation

I stumbled across this one while trying to find the correct spelling of "Seyfert galaxy".

The Urantia Book is quite a work... It claims to contain revelations about the creation of the universe, the origins of life, and an appropriate way to lead one's life.

900,000,000,000 years ago, the Uversa archives testify, there was recorded a permit issued by the Uversa Council of Equilibrium to the superuniverse government authorizing the dispatch of a force organizer and staff to the region previously designated by inspector number 811,307. The Orvonton authorities commissioned the original discoverer of this potential universe to execute the mandate of the Ancients of Days calling for the organization of a new material creation.

(Urantia Book)

So the universe was created in a maelstrom of paperwork 900 million years ago. Man, this really is the modern religion they claim it is.

The Urantia Book was written in 1934-1935 and published in 1955.

(Urantia Book)

In fact, it's so modern it even contains explanations for Hubble Space Telescope images!

The Stars of Space
You are familiar with suns that emit light accompanied by heat; but there are also suns which shine without heat.

(Urantia Book)

They even understand the concept of the local universe.

The local universes are all approximately of the same energy potential, though they differ greatly in physical dimensions and may vary in visible-matter content from time to time. The power charge and potential-matter endowment of a local universe are determined by the manipulations of the power directors and their predecessors as well as by the Creator Son's activities and by the endowment of the inherent physical control possessed by his creative associate.

(Urantia Book)

I could go on... And in fact, I will, at least with what science knows about some of these.

  1. According to radiocarbon dating, the Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old, not 0.9 billion. According to MANY different measurement methods, the universe is roughly 13.7 billion years old.

  2. Stars emit light and heat due to the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium in their cores. Stars do NOT burn like wood, they burn like H-bombs. Work on this started circa 1929, the first fusion reactions were in 1932, the first H-bomb in 1952.[1] I'm not sure when we first learned that fusion powers stars.

  3. We can theoretically see up to 13.7 billion light years away. If the universe were any bigger than that, the light wouldn't've had time to get to us yet. That 13.7 Gly radius sphere is called the visible universe, or sometimes the known, or observable universe. "Local universe" is an ambiguous term that can also describe that sphere, or the space containing the Local Group of galaxies. We don't know what happens at the "edges" of what we can see. Sci-fi authors like to speculate the the universe loops around to the other side at the edges. Cosmologists hypothesize the the universe is infinite in size, so it just keeps going at the edges. Either way, if you were standing on a planet near the edge of our universe, to you it'd look like you were standing in the middle and we were at the edge. There's no actual physical boundary.

Okay, that's enough nit-picking for me. Have fun with it yourself - it's like MST3K online - and feel free to post your results! :)

Homosexuality in Penguins

Is apparently quite common. So much for the argument that homosexuality is unnatural. Roy and Silo, NYC's Central Park's famous gay couple, even successfully raised an adopted chick together, and I haven't heard any stories about it being poorly adjusted. But sadly, like more than 50% of straight marriages, Silo separated from Roy - and turns out to be bisexual! I think the makers of March of the Penguins missed out on a wonderful soap opera opportunity here.

Oh, and penguins can also struggle with obseity, just like humans. What a cute little microcosm!

Protecting Polar Bears

The numbers of polar bears aren't well known, though they're estimated to be low. What is known, is that their ecosystem is primarily based upon icebergs. They fish from the floating sea ice, and have a much harder time finding food when they are based off of solid land. Unfortunately, the area of the arctic occupied by sea ice has been shrinking with time.

Because of their threatened habitat, a few environmental groups are trying to get polar bears put onto the threatened species list.

Once a species is listed as threatened, the government is barred from doing anything to jeopardize the animal's existence or its habitat.

In the case of the polar bear, the environmentalists hope to force the government to curb U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.


Brilliant! It's not going to work, but it's an absolutely amazing idea to try, and 100% correct.

15 December 2005

Wikipedia science comparable to Encyclopedia Brittanica

Yes, you read that right. The free online open-source encyclopedia better known as Wikipedia has nearly as good science as the expensive, highly-edited Encyclopedia Brittanica. This was according to peer review organized by Nature magazine.

The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.
In the study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature's news team.

Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.


The biggest weakness in Wikipedia appears to be its structure.

Nature said its reviewers found that Wikipedia entries were often poorly structured and confused.
"But it is not the case that errors creep in on an occasional basis or that a couple of articles are poorly written," Tom Panelas, director of [Encyclopedia Britannica] corporate communications is quoted as saying in Nature.

"There are lots of articles in that condition. They need a good editor."


Meanwhile, nature claims the articles it chose were "on subjects that represented a broad range of scientific disciplines," (Nature.com), but I beg to differ. If you look at the list, there's a lot more from biology than all the physical sciences combined, and there are mere token entries for math (Wolfram, Pythagoras’ theorem) and engineering/technology (field effect transistor), and I don't see any for the social sciences (though one can debate whether there should have been). Also interestingly, despite my background being strongly NOT biology, I know more about the biology things listed (Cambrian explosion, Punctuated equilibrium) than a number of those physics things they DO bother to mention (cavity magnetron). Who picked these articles anyway? There is a single astronomy article listed (Chandrasekhar) FYI, though one could again argue that it's astrophysics, a branch of physics.

And amusingly, the Wikipedia ones that Nature found errors in have little tag marks at the top. :)

Rational discourse

I just started reading a political webcomic called Winger. Yet another way for me to broaden my horizons and try to learn a bit about the perspective of the other side. I'd heard about them from multiple sources, but the one that stuck was via Cox & Forkum.

Winger comic

14 December 2005

Christmas Cancelled!

I have terrible news for you, my many Christian brothers and sisters under the Light of the Lord, Christmas has been cancelled by an activist Judge!

In a sudden and unexpected blow to the Americans working to protect the holiday, liberal U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt ruled the private celebration of Christmas unconstitutional Monday.
In addition to forbidding the celebration of Christmas in any form, Judge Reinhardt has made it illegal to say "Merry Christmas." Instead, he has ruled that Americans must say "Happy Holidays" or "Vacaciones Felices" if they wish to extend good tidings.

Within an hour of the judge's verdict, National Guard troops were mobilized to enforce the controversial ruling.
Said Pvt. Stanley Cope, who tasered Ernot for his outburst: "We're fighting an unpopular war on Christmas, but what can we do? The military has no choice but to take orders from a lone activist judge."

(The Onion)

And if that doesn't have you hating liberal Democrats, perhaps this will.

Thanks to q10 for the links.

13 December 2005


A Brazillian town runs out of space in cemetary so has "no option" but to pass law to forbid dieing.

There's no more room to bury the dead, they can't be cremated and laws forbid a new cemetery. So the mayor of this Brazilian farm town has proposed a solution: outlaw death.
The bill, which sets no penalty for passing away, is meant to protest a federal law that has barred a new or expanded cemetery in Biritiba Mirim, a town of 28,000 people 45 miles east of Sao Paulo.
A 2003 decree by Brazil's National Environment Council bars new or expanded cemeteries in so-called permanent preservation areas or in areas with high water tables. Environmental protection measures rule out cremation.
Most of Biritiba Mirim sits above the underground water source for about 2 million people in Sao Paulo, de Campos said. The rest is covered by protected forest.
"We have even buried people under the walkways," de Campos said, predicting that crypts will reach capacity in six months. "Look, people are going to die. A solution has to be found, or we'll have to break the law."


Is burying people in other towns also outlawed? I can see not wanting to relocate the whole town, but relocating past or future dead to other cemetaries seems perfectly reasonable to me, and does not compromise the environment as could opening up new space for cemetaries or cremation.

11 December 2005

Kansas U prof update

As mentioned by Utenzi, University of Kansas religious studies professor Dr. Paul Mirecki was forced off the road while driving on the morning of Monday December 5, and then beaten by the driver and passenger of the other car. This was after he made disparaging comments towards people who believe in creationism (Edit: typo fixed). It's one thing to teach a course addressing creationism as a form of religion (because it is), but when you say bad things about people, it brings out the worst in them as well.

My response to Utenzi's comment was that I felt Dr. Mirecki's words and actions were uncivil and unprofessional, and he actually deserved a written comment to be put in his record for it. That's a very drastic statement, by the way. In academia professors get tenure for life, meaning they can't be fired unless something really extreme happens, and usually that extreme event has to be preceeded by a paper trail of other offences. Putting in a written comment starts him down the road towards being fired, which is entirely unheard of in academia, and ruin's that person's career and life.

What actually happened I feel was too drastic, and yet I have little sympathy for Mirecki. Dr. Mirecki was the chair of the University's religion department. The (unnamed) Dean came to him with a pre-typed letter saying Mirecki was resigning as chair of the department and returning to being just a professor. Dr. Mirecki says he was forced to sign the letter, resigning as department chair, and says this has ruined his career.

At most schools the Dean does not have the authority to actually force a resignation of the chair position, as usually departments vote to decide who has the chair. On the other hand, the Dean does affect firing, and so could've threatened Mirecki with that. Mirecki of course would have sued, and won, but meanwhile his career really would have been ruined.

Which brings me to his claim that this ruins his career. That's absolute hogwash. If he resigned voluntarily it would've been a bit of a disgrace, but he could work his way back from it. If he was forced into it, he could (and will) fight it, and in the meantime he's still a full tenured professor. I really don't see where the hurt is. But if anything ruined his career, it was his poor choice to insult the class of all Christians who believe in creationism, and to do so publicly. If there was any ruining done, he ruined himself.

08 December 2005

Everything else is metal

When astronomers turn their telescopes to the sky, we see that the universe is composed of some 98% Hydrogen. A bit under another 2% of the atoms out there are Helium, and then there's a smidgeon of everything else. (If you google this, your numbers may vary, but it's at least 90%.) That's if we count the particles, count how many atoms of each element there are.

If we instead weighed (technically, found the mass of) everything in the universe, we'd come up with around 75% of the universe is Hydrogen and 23% is Helium. And if you get that distinction, between number density (the former) and mass density (the latter, the normal concept of density), you are now at the same level as I was after a year of grad school.

Either counting by number (more common) or by mass, Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, with Helium trailing far behind but making up most of the difference. H and He are the most important elements in the universe, whether we're in stars or giant gas clouds. Because of this, astronomers have a number of jokes about the chemicals in the universe.

  • "The universe is made of Hydrogen, Helium, and everything else."

  • "In astronomy there are three elements. We call Hydrogen X, Helium is Y, and everything else is Z."

  • "If it's not Hydrogen or Helium, it's metal."

I'm not kidding you, we say these. We learn them in class!

Technically, cosmologists also worry about Lithium and Berylium, as mathematical and computer models can use their abundance today to determine details of how the Big Bang occured, but any other elements were created since the Big Bang. In the cores of stars of various mass fusion turns Hydrogen into everything upto and including Iron (our Sun will only get as far as Carbon though). Everything heavier than Iron was created in a supernova, as a massive star violently exploded. Our Sun will slowly expand as a Red Giant and gently shrug off its outer layers in a Planetary Nebula, but we're too small to supernova. Either way, the new chemicals created in a star are then scattered through out the rest of the nearby universe and eventually become part of new stars, new planets, and life as we know it.

Understanding graphs


06 December 2005

Periodic Table

Scientist though I may be, I probably know less of the periodic table than you do. Give this online test-your-memory version a whirl.

I am proud to say that despite the astronomy quips of "there's Hydrogen, Helium, and everything else," "we have three elements: X, Y, and Z," and "everything other than Hydrogen and Helium is a metal," I managed to get 7 right on my first try. I knew where Berylium was (it and Lithium are important in cosmology), but forgot the "e" in Be. The others were CNO, useful in fusion in massive stars, and in general science classes. Another couple attempts saw me place Argon and Xenon, but I didn't have the patience to narrow down where the 8 or so others whose names I know would be located. Sadly I don't know where Iron (Fe - last thing that everything fuses to naturally in massive stars) or Uranium (I have a nice talk on nuclear powerplants that will see Homeland Security drag me away someday) are located.

My personal lack of memorization skills is one of the reasons I try not to require too much memorizing from my own students (understanding concepts is more important to me). If you give the periodic table quiz a shot, along with telling me your score, please tell me your college major or current occupation so I don't feel so bad. :-P And expect a post in the next few days explaining those astrojokes above. I'm not saying you'll get one, but you're free to expect whatever you want. :)

05 December 2005

Broaden your horizons

Because as you should know by now there's no way I can give a good viewpoint of the other side (e.g., theism as opposed to my agnostic atheist secular humanism), I occasionally like to link to blogs with that sort of theme. The Machinery Of Death by "Doctor" Life is one such blog. The author is an evangelical fundamentalist literal creationist conservative Christian who believes that things such as the Harry Potter series, the Olympics, and women polititians are a threat to the world and are signs of the end times.

I'm sure I don't have to remind you that if you wander on over there from here, please do the cause of rationality a favor and be polite in your feedback. :) He gets a lot of flack in the comments people leave, without much constructive criticism, unfortunately.

UKansas Creationism class cancelled due to stupid prof

And this is why I always insist we be civil in this forum.

A University of Kansas course devoted to debunking creationism and intelligent design has been canceled after the professor who planned to teach it caused a furor by sending an e-mail mocking Christian fundamentalists.
[Professor Paul] Mirecki recently sent an e-mail to members of a student organization in which he referred to religious conservatives as "fundies" and said a course depicting intelligent design as mythology would be a "nice slap in their big fat face."
Chancellor Robert Hemenway said Mirecki's comments were "repugnant and vile."

"It misrepresents everything the university is to stand for," Hemenway said.

The class was added to the curriculum after the Kansas Board of Education decided recently to include more criticism of evolution in science standards for public school students.

State Sen. Kay O'Connor, a Mirecki critic, said the university did the right thing.

"I'm glad they decided to listen to the public. The public response was so negative because of what seemed to be so hateful coming from the KU professor," said O'Connor, a Republican. "I am critical of his hatefulness toward Christians."


Ladies and Gents, I know we all get really heated on this issue, on both sides, and even sometimes towards our allies, but keep it civil or there's no chance of either side respecting you, here or elsewhere. When you do something stupid like this, it just hurts your cause and gets everyone pissed off at everyone else.

03 December 2005

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - and Compost!

One of the easiest mantras of environmentalism, and one that makes sense even to the average person who doesn't consider him or herself an environmentalist, is "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." They are listed in the order of importance, and in the order in which they should happen for each specific object. Everyone admits at the least that it takes money and energy to create new products for people to buy, so "Reduce" is a no-brainer, as is "Reuse," but it doesn't hurt for me to remind you abut them, as well as "Recycle."

Consume fewer goods. New goods use the natural resources that go into the goods, energy is required to process the raw materials, and (depending upon the product) additional pollutants are often released in the process of creating the product. One example is Helium - all the Helium used commercially is currently mined from pockets within bedrock. Believe it or not that's the easiest place to get Helium from. Although more is being created, it's not happening as quickly as we use it up. When we do start running low, we're going to have to either reduce our usage or expend more effort (time, money, electricity, research) to get Helium from other places. If we can reduce our usage sooner rather than later it'll take longer to get to the crucial stage, and we'll be better able to handle it when we do.

As a consumer, when you buy a new item you're also spending money that you may not need to spend. People who grew up during the Depression, and people today who are less fortunate (including college students!) are already used to this. The petition linked here is urging congress to create a "Do Not Junk Mail" list much like they did a "Do Not Call" list, which would reduce the amount of waste paper and make your life a little easier.

Once you are done with an item, donate it to someone who is less able to buy new items. The reuse of items helps with reducing the original amount of raw materials needed (see above arguments for reducing). It also saves on landfill space, which is limited. Sure, we could create new landfill, but the Earth's only got a limited amount of square miles, and it's less when you subtract 2/3 of it for oceans, and other things like forests that you don't want to destroy, and farms, and places people live.

Sell your old things in a tag sale. Give them as hand-me-downs to friends or family. Or donate them to Goodwill or another charity such as your church or a homeless shelter. When you get a new cellphone, donate the old one to a local battered women's shelter, or even give it to someone who'll resell it online. There's some people who can't afford to buy new items, so by donating things to them you're giving them a chance they wouldn't have otherwise. This is another good way to give to charity if you don't have money to send to the Red Cross.

If you're willing to buy reused (thrift, second-hand) items yourself, do so. Second-hand items are often less than half the price of new items, and can be in very good condition (especially manufacturer's returns and refurbished electronics, both of which often have longer warranties than new products). Save the containers that you get foods like potato salad in, and use them to carry your lunch to work.

Ditto on who already does this - anyone else own a curb-side couch? In my home I have three main collection areas for things I am done with: trash, recycling (up next on the list), and donations. I produce around one trashbag worth of donations a month, saving me money on my trash collection, and giving me a feeling of good karma.

If an item is no longer reusable, or if it never was, recycle it. It's easier to clean up old materials for recycling than it is to get new raw materials from plants, animals, or the ground, doesn't use up the natural resources, and doesn't use landfill space.

Most cities recycle paper, cardboard, glass, metal, and plastic. Some also recycle styrofoam, batteries, and electronics. If your community does not automatically recycle these, there may be a local college or university that does, and if they have public recycling bins you can add yours. Another option is to find a recycling company and personally contract with them. If you pay for trash removal, it's usually cheaper to recycle goods than to throw them out. My trash removal costs me around $15 a year and my recycling is free. If I simply threw everything out rather than recycling, I'd probably pay $40 a year.

Not part of the official mantra, but worth mentioning is composting. Composting is usually done primarily with plant matter, such as fruits rinds, vegetable peels, fall leaves, grass clippings, and newspapers, but eggshells are also good candidates. Meat, animal fat, and cheese tend to stink too much to be worth the effort of composting. Bananas and their skins can also be a pain due to fruit flies. As opposed to throwing out this garbage, you are saving on landfill space, the energy required to transport it to a landfill, and to maintain the landfill.

If you live in a house with a garden, you can create a compost pile in your yard. Compost piles can take the form of just dumping everything in a pile, or you can buy a compost bin to make it work more efficiently. Worms and other natural critters then eat your garbage and turn it into a rich soil that you can use as a fertilizer for your plants.

If you live in an apartment or have little area around your house, consider indoor vermicomposting. You take a ~100 Qt (or L) plastic storage bin (for one person, probably need bigger for larger families) and fill it with shredded newspaper. In the center you bury a starter bunch of soil and red worms. Then you throw in all your plant and newspaper waste and water it once a month, and the worms process it as fast as you can throw it in. You can occasionally take out scoops of the dark rich soil to add to houseplants, but you might wanna pick out the worms first. I've done indoor worm composting in my apartment for three years, and I've had two successive bins only because I gave the first to a friend because she wanted to use it for teaching. The only time I've had problems with it was earlier this fall when I stupidly threw in a banana peel and ended up with a month-long fruit fly infestation. I cured it by putting the bin outside on the porch for a couple more months - I'm not sure if all the new fruit flies being hatched just flew off elsewhere when the peels finished decomposing, or if an early frost killed them (and half my worms) off, but I've brought it back inside and the bin is doing well now. It makes a good conversation piece too. ;)

02 December 2005

SETI isn't ID

Sclerotic_rings pointed me towards a nice article contrasting SETI with ID. SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, is a project that is systematically, scientifically (not pseudo-scientifically) searching for a signal from space that could only be created by other intelligent life. They're not interviewing people who had anal probes and inside-out cows; they're scanning the sky for radio signals.

The adherents of Intelligent Design ... point to SETI and say, "upon receiving a complex radio signal from space, SETI researchers will claim it as proof that intelligent life resides in the neighborhood of a distant star. Thus, isn’t their search completely analogous to our own line of reasoning—a clear case of complexity implying intelligence and deliberate design?" And SETI, they would note, enjoys widespread scientific acceptance.

If we as SETI researchers admit this is so, it sounds as if we’re guilty of promoting a logical double standard. If the ID folks aren’t allowed to claim intelligent design when pointing to DNA, how can we hope to claim intelligent design on the basis of a complex radio signal? It’s true that SETI is well regarded by the scientific community, but is that simply because we don’t suggest that the voice behind the microphone could be God?


The article goes on to discuss that SETI is actually searching for artificial-ness, not complex-ness, and in this case simplicity of the signal (one frequency) is what will indicate the signal is artificial. But there is another issue that the article misses, as pointed out to me a while ago by Jason, if we were actually searching for a complex signal. And that is that normal noise we get from space is not self-reinforcing in any manner, but natural selection is.

A message from space, a piece of information such as that, can be essentially pared down to digits, just like a sentence has letters and spaces, or a number has a numeral in each place. If an astronomer finds a pattern such as "1234", the astronomer has to analyze what's the random chance of finding those specific four numerals in that order out of any other outcome of four digits. There is no physical process going on that would influence how one piece of data is going to come out after the previous piece of data. (In math/statistics terms, the outcomes of each digit are independent events.) Therefore there's 10,000 different possibilities (0000-9999), so the chance of getting that particular pattern is 1 in 10,000. As the "message" becomes increasingly complex, and remains a "message" and not a mess, the chances are even lower that it happened randomly. Since the noise (random numbers) are not reinforcing, complexity has no natural reason to form, so any complex signal has a low chance of forming randomly or naturally.

Evolution, on the other hand, is not random (but it is natural). We are not arguing that creatures were created randomly like drawing numbers out of a hat as we were in the previous example. Instead, every step along the way reinforced what was going on. A slime that sits there is less likely to survive than a slime that can move. Creatures that can sense light are more likely to detect prey. It's not like we have two different versions of a creature and roll dice to determine which survives, natural selection picks the one better suited to its environment, the one with additional features that make it likelier to survive and reproduce. Events in evolution are dependent. Natural selection is not a random process, it is a chain reaction that in this case has an end result of complexity.

To clarify my point, here are some other examples.

Requires A Creator

  • Sand does not turn into glass and then into telescopes spontaneously.

  • Coal does not turn into power stations, then electricity, then a sine wave radio broadcast all on its own. This is what SETI is looking for.

Does Not Require A Creator:

  • A lump of uranium-235 decays into thorium-231 and causes a chain reaction of further decays. This chain reaction is uncontrolled and in fact is very hard to stop, as places like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Oklo all demonstrate. You don't need any big hand coming down from the sky to push each little nucleus to fall apart, the multiple neutrons released from previous reactions does that for you!

  • A massive cloud of hydrogen gas is self-gravitating, becomes a big lump in the middle, which starts fusion in the center, that changes hydrogen into helium, near the end of its life you actually get a complexly layered system where each layer going inward has progressively more massive elements. (See Wikipedia's stellar evolution article for more information.) It happens on it's own! If it didn't, we wouldn't be here today, as that sorta thing's where all the oxygen in the universe was formed.

Once again, insufficient understanding of the scientific (and mathematical) concepts involved (statistics and random independent events vs. nonrandom dependent events) has done them in. If they're going to try and argue that ID is science, they need to do a better job of understanding what science is all about.

01 December 2005

Europe Cooling and Global Warming

Along with all the other (manufactured) controversy on global warming, we now have a different story emerging for Europe. As usual, I will present some choice words from the news (my choice), and then further science and my interpretation. (Thanks to Uncle Pavian for the additional New Scientist link.)

The Atlantic Ocean's flow between the tropics and cold, northern waters appears to be weakening, which could drastically alter the weather in Europe, a newly released study shows.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, found that the Atlantic Conveyor flow slowed by about 30 percent between 1957 and 2004.

The cycle of flow, technically known as the "Atlantic meridional overturning current," plays a key role in warming northern Europe.


The key is the Gulf Stream. After it emerges from the Caribbean, it splits in two, with one part heading north-east to Europe and the other circulating back through the tropical Atlantic.

As the north-eastern branch flows, it gives off heat to the atmosphere, which in turn warms European land.
Computer models of climate have regularly predicted that the North Atlantic conveyor may well reduce in intensity or even turn off altogether, a concept that was pushed beyond credence in the Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.


The North Atlantic is dominated by the Gulf Stream – currents that bring warm water north from the tropics. At around 40° north – the latitude of Portugal and New York – the current divides. Some water heads southwards in a surface current known as the subtropical gyre, while the rest continues north, leading to warming winds that raise European temperatures by 5°C to 10°C.
The slow-down, which has long been predicted as a possible consequence of global warming, will give renewed urgency to intergovernmental talks in Montreal, Canada, this week on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

(New Scientist)

In sum, Europe is kept at a higher temperature than eastern North America by the waters from the Gulf Stream. The flow northwards however, appears to be shutting down, which means Europe will likely soon experience local reduction in temperature.

Doesn't that contradict global warming?
No. Global warming refers to a WORLDWIDE increase in AVERAGE temperature. Even if Europe is cooling, the rest of the world appears to be warming faster, and more than makes up for one small region of the world cooling instead. Keep in mind the following three key terms:

Weather - local changes in temperature, humidity, etc. that vary from day to day (e.g., sunny, rainy, windy, snowing). This is what little kids learn about in kindergarten.

Climate - average weather for a large area (portions of continents) over longer time scales (decades to centuries). Daily changes (sunny one day, cold the next) don't make a difference in climate; even if one year is colder or warmer than the last doesn't change the climate. Climate may be different in different parts of a continent (e.g., Africa contains both desert and rain forest), but two neighboring towns will not have different climates.

Global climate - averaging the weather/climate information for the entire planet over long time scales. Historically the global climate typically took centuries to change, except when in catastrophic circumstances, such as huge volcanos or asteroid/cometary impacts. The whole of the Earth has the same global climate, so the only way to spatially change the climate is to go to a neighboring planet. Venus and Mars actually have remarkably similar climates to ours, and the three planets are often referred to as the Goldilocks Problem by astronomers - "This planet (Venus) is too hot! This planet (Mars) is too cold! This planet (Earth) is just right!"

However, there are two additional complicating factors. There always are.

Shut-off of the Gulf Stream flow may be the result of global warming.

Nobody is clear on what has gone wrong. Suggestions for blame include the melting of sea ice or increased flow from Siberian rivers into the Arctic. Both would load fresh water into the surface ocean, making it less dense and so preventing it from sinking, which in turn would slow the flow of tropical water from the south. And either could be triggered by man-made climate change. Some climate models predict that global warming could lead to such a shutdown later this century.

The last shutdown, which prompted a temperature drop of 5°C to 10°C in western Europe, was probably at the end of the last ice age, 12,000 years ago. There may also have been a slowing of Atlantic circulation during the Little Ice Age, which lasted sporadically from 1300 to about 1850 and created temperatures low enough to freeze the River Thames in London.

(New Scientist)

Anyways, the data is still fresh and hasn't yet been confirmed by other groups (peer reviewed).

But Richard Wood, chief oceanographer at the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre for climate research in Exeter, says the Southampton team's findings leave a lot unexplained. The changes are so big they should have cut oceanic heating of Europe by about one-fifth – enough to cool the British Isles by 1°C and Scandinavia by 2°C. "We haven’t seen it yet," he points out.

Though unseasonably cold weather last month briefly blanketed parts of the UK in snow, average European temperatures have been rising, Wood says.

(New Scientist)

So don't get your knickers in a twist yet and say global cooling is happening, you can reserve your judgement. Don't breathe a sigh of relief yet either, claiming that the world is safe either way - it sounds to me like most of the world will fry, but Europe will freeze. Me, I'm gonna play it safe and move to Europa, at least the temperature's a pretty consistent 103K (-170ºC). You always know what to wear for the weather there: a space suit!

26 November 2005

Global Warming: the numbers

I was challenged in a locked post on the blog of foreverbeach to show some numerical proof that humans are making an impact on global warming. leenoox's argument was that cow farts contain more greenhouse gasses, and that humans contribute such a tiny amount it doesn't make a difference. I wrote an informative reply I wanted to post here.

You are correct when you say that humans do not create most of the CO_2 in the atmosphere. In fact, we create roughly 4.5% of what is released into the atmosphere every year. [3] In numerical amounts, it's around 5.5 billion tons of carbon yearly due to fossil fuel burning, and 1.6 billion tons from deforestation. [4] The problem is that this 7.1 billion tons of carbon per year is more than the Earth's ecosystems, oceans, etc., can absorb back up - scientists believe these only account for some 2.0 billion tons. We directly measure that every year 3.2 billion tons of carbon (in the form of CO_2) stays in the atmosphere. There's another 1.9 billion tons of carbon unaccounted for, but we still have a the 3.2 billion we KNOW is going into the atmosphere.

Every year 3.2 billion tons of carbon is being added to the atmosphere. The carbon cycle was nicely balanced before humans came along burning fossil fuels. [3] Rather than reducing the amount of carbon that humans produce we could instead solve the problem by making all animals stop breathing, preventing any forest fires, stopping decomposition, and capturing all carbon released from the ocean. This is left as an exercise for the reader.

Dinsaurs vs. Democrats

ETA: I realized the title of this post has a misspelling, however in case anyone linked to the individual page I am leaving it as is.

It's always interesting seeing this country I live in from a different viewpoint. That of the British is especially interesting as the country is our father (much as I consider China to be Taiwan's mother). I value the British views of science and politics, and this BBC article combines both.

Millions of Americans, most of them supporters of the Republican party, believe that the world was created only a few thousand years ago as per the account in Genesis and the dinosaurs can only date from then, so the Tyrannosaurus Rex romped around with Adam and Eve.

In other words these Americans, heirs to every scientific advance in history, deny rational accounts of how the world came to exist.
The dinosaurs, (the child of Republican parents) informs me with great authority and aplomb, are millions and millions and millions of years old. I could have hugged him and his parents; we are, after all, inhabiting the same mental planet.

But many modern members of the Republican party, including some in positions of great power, do not seem to be living on that planet.

(BBC's Justin Webb)

According to Webb, a number of Republicans feel that the evangelicals have hijacked their party and are dragging it down with them into their willful ignorance and denial of science. I haven't heard this yet in the American media, but I'll be keeping my eyes open for it.

25 November 2005

Blog Plug: One Man Bandwidth

This week's featured blog is One Man Bandwidth: An American Professor in China. This thoughtful blog chronicles the capers of an American in China, and reflects our own society back to us in a way we never thought to see it. In terms of background, Lon is a businessman and a professor, though I haven't yet figured out what he's doing in China currently. I guess I'm just going to have to keep reading his blog to find out!

Global warming facts and fiction

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonpartisan nonprofit with the purpose of promoting good science in environmental issues. Their mission statement is as follows.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit partnership of scientists and citizens combining rigorous scientific analysis, innovative policy development and effective citizen advocacy to achieve practical environmental solutions.

Established in 1969, we seek to ensure that all people have clean air, energy and transportation, as well as food that is produced in a safe and sustainable manner. We strive for a future that is free from the threats of global warming and nuclear war, and a planet that supports a rich diversity of life. Sound science guides our efforts to secure changes in government policy, corporate practices and consumer choices that will protect and improve the health of our environment globally, nationally and in communities throughout the United States. In short, UCS seeks a great change in humanity's stewardship of the earth.


I just stumbled across a good article by them discussing some of the arguments made by people who say that global warming isn't happening, isn't caused by humans, or isn't a big deal. The article systematically explains the fallacious thinking in claims such as "today was cold, that means no global warming" (that's weather, not climate), "humans aren't doing it" (see thier arguments, I tire of reiterating them), "a couple degrees isn't a big deal" (I learned something today: it only took a difference of 9ºF to go from the last ice age to today), and "there's no scientific concensus on global warming" (asides from a couple misleading, unsound polls, yes there is).

Go read it and see the UCS's arguments for yourself.

Teh Blogfather

Teh Blogfather just did a review on me! Go check him out, he's quite amusing.

24 November 2005

Era of Understanding

Waking up this morning, I started pondering the separation of science and religion that scientists are so gung-ho about these days. It occured to me that we are in a profound era in which, for the first time, we are significantly able to distinguish beteween science and the supernatural.

The Renaissance may have started off the process of science as we know it, but Galileo still had much resistance to his discoveries. We're all familiar with how he was tried before the Inquisition for saying the Earth went around the Sun. What many people are less familiar with are his discoveries using a telescope, which were some of the reasons for his support of the heliocentric model. Contrary to popular belief, Galileo Galilei ("Galileo of the Galileo family") did not invent the telescope. He heard about others inventing it and using it to see distant people and ships, and based upon a description of the telescope he built his own, better, version. He was also the first recorded person to turn his telescope towards the heavens.

Once looking up, Galileo discovered some amazing things that shook his faith in a perfect orderly universe, one in which everything in the heavens was an unblemished sphere orbiting around the Earth.

  1. Everyone already knew the Moon had phases and varying colors on its surface; Galileo also discovered that it had craters, and thus was a blemished sphere.

  2. Venus also went through phases like the Moon, in a specific pattern indicating it orbited around the Sun rather than the Earth.

  3. Jupiter had four moons circling around it, rather than the Earth. These are now called the Galilean moons, and are (from inner out) Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. We also know today that Io has sulfur volcanos, while Europa's surface is water ice with liquid water underneath.

  4. Saturn had some weird blobs sticking out from the sides of it. Galileo's telescope wasn't good enough to resolve what they were, so it looked kinda like a teapot with handles, or ears (think Ross Perot), or maybe it was three bodies all orbiting the Sun together. Today we know it's Saturn's rings, and in fact all the gas giants have rings though they're difficult to see from Earth. Further evidence of imperfection.

  5. Galileo did one of the forbidden things in astronomy: he turned his telescope towards the Sun and looked through it at the telescope (without any filter). This is STUIPD because all the extra light that the telescope gathers is now focused on your eyeball - remember being a kid and frying ants with a magnifying glass? That's what he was doing to his eyeball. I had a prof once who said "you can look at the sun through a telescope unprotected twice - if you're stupid enough to do it again with the remaining eye." That said, Galileo luckily didn't immediately burn out his eyes (though he was blind in later life), and saw the surface of the Sun had sunspots. It was not a perfect unblemished surface.

    Another fact actually further belittles Galileo's achievement here: the Chinese discovered sunspots sooner, it's just that Europeans didn't hear about it. And they were smart about it - they watched the Sun's dim reflection in muddy puddles.

Seeing all these amazingly imperfect things through his telescope, Galileo, as a good scientist, shared them with the scientific community. They did not believe him. With the poor grasp of science that people had at the time, they believed that either Galileo built a trick telescope, or that there was some supernatural element to the telescope that was deceiving them all. They were not yet able to distinguish where science left off and other fields began. Ancient philosophers in Greece distinguished even less between fields than Renaissance people - the same individuals were philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, astrologers, physicists, theologians, politicians, and orators.

Today as our knowledge expands we separate the subjects more and more, up through the generations-long creationism/evolution debate. Scientists try to draw a fine distinction between science (searching for natural explanations) and religion (searching for supernatural reasons). The only way ID could come close to science would be if its supporters said that the designers were some form of alien life, rather than the biblical God. However, once they start saying the universe and all life in it was designed by aliens, it becomes unprovable and untestable with current technology, which plants ID firmly in the field of pseudoscience. ID is either religious creationism, or pseudoscientific hokey.

23 November 2005

Higher Ed's response to Kansas Creationism

Thanks goes to Nervous Rodent for his initial heads' up on this issue.

Creationism and intelligent design are going to be studied at the University of Kansas, but not in the way advocated by opponents of the theory of evolution.

A course being offered next semester by the university religious studies department is titled "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies."

"The KU faculty has had enough," said Paul Mirecki, department chairman.

"Creationism is mythology," Mirecki said. "Intelligent design is mythology. It's not science. They try to make it sound like science. It clearly is not."


The story checks out - the course is listed on the University of Kansas Department of Religious Studies Spring course list as REL 602. It's apparently a cross-listed undergrad/graduate course.

I find it specifically telling that it was UofK's religion department that initiated this movement, not their science department/s. Good for them! If you also find it inspiring, you should check out this National Education Association petition on academic freedom in higher education.

The NEA is the nation-wide union that represents teachers/professors/faculty from kindergarten through graduate school. Although K-12 is the majority of their/our members, higher education does have its role. The petition/letter-writing campaign is intended to keep an issue on Congress' radar: keeping colleges unregulated by the government. The NEA's suggested talking points emphasize free speech issues; my own letter emphasized that as US colleges are now, we are the envy of the world (unlike our K-12 ed) with the best students in other countries travelling here for higher education. Instituting the same content regulation that national frameworks do in K-12 will only bring us down - especially on topics like religion and science. Go join the letter-writing campaign!

Periphally related: homsexualy and the church

The issue of homosexuality is peripherally related to science, as there is still some uncertainty whether it is biological or sociological. Within the field of psychiatry, it is not considered a disorder, but within the field of religion it is considered anywhere from a disorder to a sin. The Vatican has just weighed in with its most liberal statement on the issue yet.

In an eagerly awaited document, the Vatican has reiterated its policy against gay priests, but has said it would allow those who have "clearly overcome" homosexual tendencies to start the process of becoming a priest.

In spelling out its position on Tuesday, the Vatican office that deals with education within the Catholic Church made a distinction between deep-seated homosexual tendencies and what it called "the expression of a transitory problem."
Msgr. Steve Rohlff, rector of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Maryland, disagreed.

"It flows obviously from the church's teaching on human sexuality, which has been constant from the First century to the 20th Century -- that homosexuality is an intrinsic disorder. It is a psychosexual disorder."

He added, "Does that mean that somebody is wicked or evil? No. It means they have a psychosexual disorder."


The Catholic church now officially states that homosexuality is a psychological disorder that can be overcome, and NOT explicitly a sin. Psychological disorders are not all necessarily sins - for example, depression, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder are not sins. Interesting...

22 November 2005

Astronomy naming conventions

Popular Science did an article on naming rocks on Mars (thanks to sclerotic rings for the link). The article though doesn't clearly describe who gets to name objects.

The brightest stars visible to the naked eye were named by the ancients (things like Vega, Sirius, Procyon, Antares, etc.) - Greek, Latin, and Arabic names have come down to us today, though other cultures had their own names. Those and the next few dimmer in each constellation are named for the constellation and a Greek letter (usually) designating how bright it is compared to the others in the constellation (Alpha Centauri, Gamma Tauri, Alpha and Beta Orionis are actually swapped, etc.) The next few hundred dimmer than that visible with a telescope are numbered in order of brightness. Then the ones that you need scientific telescopes or satellites to see are just given coordinates, or a number in a catalog made by some astronomer who cared.

If you ever "buy a star" or pay money to "name a star" you are throwing away your money in a scam. No one scientific ever sees those lists of names, and the star you "bought" already had a scientific name. Spend your money on buying an acre of rainforest land instead, because at least then although no one knows that you bought it, your money makes a difference.

Solar System Objects
When first discovered, these are given a serial number such as 2003UB313 - year, letters somehow indicating the names of the discoverers, and sequentially what number of that's group's multiple discoveries. Probable planet moons will get something like 2003P1 - year, planet, number of moon after known moons. After a few years of further data, the person who discovered the asteroid or outer solar system object gets to name it (2003UB313's future name was leaked as Xena), while moon names have to be approved and have to fit the scheme of that planet's name. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) keeps track of the names.

Features on Planets
Those visible by eye (i.e., on the moon) were named by the ancients. Those visible by telescope have followed naming conventions established by the ancients, or themes established since (goddesses on Venus, astronomers on the Moon). Those features visible only by remote sensors placed on the planet are unofficially named by the crew manning the robot, but I'm not sure whether the names stick according to the IAU.

Features on the Sun
These are transient, lasting no more than a week or so. They are numbered by the astronomers studying them.

Nebulae, Star Clusters, and Other Galaxies
Although a number of these are visible to the naked eye, we can't usually tell if they're stars or other things, so they weren't given names by the ancients. Since the 1800's when there was a boom in finding coments, astronomers have been coming up with catalogs numbering these things that aren't comets, and attaching nicknames based upon what they look like. This process continues today, with individuals, groups, or automated telescopes doing surveys and numbering them sequentially by coordinates - the whole catalog is named by or the person/s creating it (Messier, New General Catalog, Henry Draper, Abell, etc.). If an individual does (rarely) discover an object or does the first significant research on it, it will often be named after him or her (Zandperl's galaxy) or the name that person/group used to describe it will become popularized (the Hamburger nebula).

21 November 2005

Kansas Biology Test

Thanks to sclerotic rings as usual for this wonderful link to the redesigned Kansas Biology Test.

Fish to lizards: the evolution of land creatures

I need to start reading Scientific American. I was pointed towards a wonderful article on tetrapods (the first land creatures descended from fish). It's a quite long summary of the current state of knowledge, known to researchers as a "literature review," but I find it to be fascinating. The article not only states what we know, but also why we know it to be true and explains how the observations are tied together by logic and reasoning. For those who already support the THEORY of evolution, it's a great example of it in action. For those who don't, it's still worth reading so you can see where we get our ideas from.


Time now to explain the wonderful 6563. It was pointed out to me that some might think it referred to NGC 6563, but in fact it has a very specific meaning to astronomers and those familiar with spectra.

Bohr atom
Most everyone learns sometime in middle school or high school about the Bohr model of the atom (and then forgets it). To remind you, in the center is the nucleus, containing only the protons (positive particles) and neutrons (neutral). Around it somewhat like planets around the sun are the electrons (negative). The whole atom is so small that you cannot see one with normal microscopes. All the pictures you see in textbooks or online are either artists' illustrations, or using electron microscopes, which are special microscopes that don't use light and you can't look through them like normal microscopes.

Although the analogy of comparing the Solar System to the Bohr model is a good start, it is an imperfect analogy. The most important difference is where the orbiting things can go. In the Solar System there is no real physical law saying where the planets can be located. (Astronomers Bode and Titius once thought they had found such a law, but they turned out to be wrong.) Electrons on the other hand have to be in specific places called orbitals. The innermost one is called n=1 and can contain up to two electrons. The next is n=2 and can hold up to 8, then n=3 and so on. (I forget how many electrons n=3 and greater can hold, but for Hydrogen it's irrelevant as there's only one electron except in some freaky circumstances.)

Emission lines
Each orbital or level also has a corresponding energy, so that the lowest (n=1) is called the rest state, or unexcited, and n>1 are successively higher energies and are called excited states. Exactly how much energy each state has in Hydrogen is very well known, and so when an electron moves from an excited state to a lower, less excited state, we know just how much energy is released -- E=R*[(1/n2)^2-(1/n1)^2] if you care, where R is a constant whose value doesn't really matter for argument's sake here.

Dropping down from any level to any other level produces a packet of energy in the form of a photon - yes, that's what light is made out of. The color of the light (or frequency and wavelength of the photon) depends on precisely how much energy was released. Dropping from any level to the lowest (unexcited, rest, n=1) state produces a photon of ultraviolet light, and these photons are always of set UV colors - one for 2-1, one for 3-1, one for 4-1, ... The specific corresponding colors are called the Lyman series. The first (n=2-1) is called Lyman-alpha, after the first letter in the Greek alphabet, then Lyman-beta (n=3-1), Lyman-gamma (n=4-1), etc. Dropping from anything down to n=2 are the Balmer series. These start off with n=3-2, then n=4-2, n=5-2, etc. Since they were actually the first discovered observationally, they're just called Hydrogen-alpha, Hydrogen-beta, or H-alpha, H-beta, etc. for short. After n=*-2 is n=*-3, the Paschen series, mostly in the infrared, and then Brackett, Pfund and Humphreys, though no one (except IR astronomers) ever remembers those names.

Hydrogen-alpha turns out to be a bright red color, and if you took a look at a tube of hot hydrogen gas through a diffraction grating (think of those kids' fake glasses that make all lights look like rainbows or fireworks) you'd see a bright red streak, then some teal, then blue, and maybe if you have good eyes some purple too. If you do the calculations or measurements and determine the precise energy and wavelength of the photon, you get 0.0000006563 meters. Since astronomers don't like writing out all those zeros, you can instead write it as 6.563*10-7m. Or 656.3nm (nano=10-9), or we even came up with a new unit for optical astronomy to have convenient units: 6563Å (1 Ångstrom = 10-10 meters).

Why Hydrogen?
So what, who cares about hydrogen? It's not like there's that much of it.

Not true. Here on the Earth, just about every molecule out there has hydrogen in it. Water, sugars, carbon chains, DNA, and all other molecules involved in life certainly do. But off the Earth it becomes even more important. In the whole universe, some 98% of the particles out there are Hydrogen. Just under another 2% are Helium. The remaining stuff, less than 0.2%, is everything else. Oxygen, Carbon, Nitrogen, Silicon, Lithium, Uranium, whatever, it's all less than 1 in 500 of the things in the universe. When astronomers point a telescope in the sky, they see hydrogen. It's pretty damned hard to see anything else.

Hydrogen is present in all stars. The outer (Jovian, gas giant) planets of the solar system are primarily hydrogen. Vast clouds hundreds and thousands of times larger than our solar system are made (almost) entirely out of hydrogen. When we look at other galaxies we see hydrogen first. Hydrogen, hydrogen, H. If the universe were God, hydrogen would be His Word, and H-alpha, 6563Å, is the Bible where we can read His Word.

19 November 2005


When I saw the email from [info] rosefox I fell over laughing. Sincerest thanks, you ROXXOR!

H-alpha icon

Butterfly LEDs

Apparently some butterflies are not only sparkly, they're also shiny, and in the same way that LED lights are. Neato!

18 November 2005

Review of UnIntelligent Design

Pointed out to me by poludamas, check out this good article about intelligent design and the religious stances of people like Newton and Einstein.

Newton was trying to supplant the view that first believed the sun's motion around the earth was the work of Apollo and his chariot, and later believed it was a complicated system of cycles and epicycles, one tacked upon the other every time some wobble in the orbit of a planet was found. Newton's God was not at all so crude. The laws of his universe were so simple, so elegant, so economical and therefore so beautiful that they could only be divine.

Which brings us to Dover, Pa., Pat Robertson, the Kansas State Board of Education, and a fight over evolution that is so anachronistic and retrograde as to be a national embarrassment.
Let's be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological "theory" whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge -- in this case, evolution -- they are to be filled by God. It is a "theory" that admits that evolution and natural selection explain such things as the development of drug resistance in bacteria and other such evolutionary changes within species but also says that every once in a while God steps into this world of constant and accumulating change and says, "I think I'll make me a lemur today." A "theory" that violates the most basic requirement of anything pretending to be science -- that it be empirically disprovable. How does one empirically disprove the proposition that God was behind the lemur, or evolution -- or behind the motion of the tides or the "strong force" that holds the atom together?

In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science, Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase " natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us," thus unmistakably implying -- by fiat of definition, no less -- that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.

(Charles Krauthammer/Washington Post)

Pretty scathing I think, and it goes on for multiple more screens. Krauthammer, I'm told, is a conservative. Your thoughts? Comment!

Potentially related blogs via "Rent My Blog"

You may have noticed in the past week a new "feature" (as advertising gurus like to call it) on the lower left of the first screen of this blog - "Rent My Blog". Via BlogExplosion each week I hope to feature a new blog on related topics - science, technology, religion, philosophy, anything that grabs my interest and could potentially grab yours as well. The way this works is on BlogExplosion I offer the space to anyone who wants it for a price in "credits" - the currency of BE, equivalent to page views by random people, and how a number of my readers get here. Various BE members then see my offer and some of them (maybe you!) decide they want it. If they do, they click a button and I get a link to their blog to approve or disapprove. If you're a blog that might be related or interesting, I'm more likely to accept it and presto! free advertising. If it's a good one, I may even review it in a post as I do below.

This week's blog is Through a Dark Glass by Philip Del Ricci. Mr. Del Ricci writes about religious topics, mostly inspired by and about various documents for Catholics and people interested in Catholocism, I suspect because he works for a company that publishes them. His posts are about the role of Christianity in the life of someone who is already religious and are not at all antagonistic to atheists such as myself - not that that would stop me from linking to someone. :) So surf on over to Dark Glass (preferably through the link/screenshot on the left) and say "hi"! Be a nice visitor and always follow the Boy Scout rule: leave the place cleaner than when you got there. (I.e., no flame wars unless he asks politely.)

Icon request

I doubt anyone will take me up on this before I go ahead and give it a shot, but I really want an icon as follows. You know those "Jesus-fish" things? Take one (pointing left as they usually do), blunt the nose so it's rounded like a stylized Greek letter alpha, and inside instead of "Jesus" or "YHWH" or something, put "6563". For design purposes, you could also include an "H" outside and left of the fish/alpha, and could include to the right of the number 6563 an Å (Angstrom symbol, A with a little circle over the top of the peak).

And if you get that, you're an astrogeek like me! If not, I'd be glad to explain. :-P

17 November 2005


In the countries of Austria and Germany, Holocaust denial is a crime punishable by imprisonment.
While Holocaust deniers insist they are bona fide historians, some of their most prominent representatives have been shown in court to have a pattern of falsifying historical documents (e.g.David Irving) or deliberately misrepresenting historical data (e.g.Ernst Zündel). This history of Holocaust deniers distorting, ignoring, or misusing historical records has led to almost universal condemnation of the techniques and conclusions of Holocaust denial, with organizations such as the American Historical Association, the largest society of historians in the United States, stating that Holocaust denial is "at best, a form of academic fraud."

Now why can't we make global warming denial a crime?

Glowing Food...

...doesn't necessarily mean radiation. It's a lot more likely that it's a harmless common bacterium named pseudomonas fluorescens. It's always found in meat and animal flesh, however it is usually controlled nicely by a cold fridge. If your fridge's a little too warm, they'll multiply and make your pork chops start glowing, as some Australians discovered. While the glowing bacteria are harmless, they indicate that your meat hasn't been kept cold enough and therefore other, harmful, bacteria may also be multiplying.

"If it glows, throw it!"

13 November 2005

Bird Flu and Cytokines

A study recently revealed that one of the reasons the avian flu may be so deadly is that it causes an immune system overreaction. Virus cells from the deadly H5N1 strain, older samples of H5N1 from 1997, and common H1N1 were injected into healthy human cell samples. In reaction to the H5N1, a large number of cytokines rushed to the site of injection. Fewer cytokines responded for the older H5N1, and fewer still for the H1N1.

Cytokines are a type of protein that help regulate the body's immune response, specifically inflammation. There are many types of cytokines, involved in various specific activities within the body. For example, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) stops the overgrowth of tumor-causing cells. It also is involved in the superfluous inflammation that causes rhematoid arthritis (RA), and may also be involved in the skin disease hidradenitis suppurativa (HS).

In the example of RA, biologic drugs such as Remicade and Enbrel can be used to decrease the effects of TNF-alpha, but the body can develop antibodies to the drug after prolonged use. Interestingly, the research on H5N1 suggests that individuals with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly and children, would be less susceptible to the virus. This was the case with the 1918 H1N1 pandemic, when young adults were more severely affected among the 20-100 million killed. This begs the question of whether purposefully weakening the immune system in H5N1 victims may help them to survive, and of course researchers are going ahead and testing this - though safely on cell samples, not healthy (or sick) humans!

11 November 2005

Academia: the path to science

Ever consider becoming a famous scientist? There is a set path that you must take to get there.

  1. Bachelor's of Science (BS) from a 4-year college or university.

  2. Sometimes get a Master's of Science (MS) along the way, but it's really optional.

  3. Get a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) degree from a major research university, averaging 6 years after entering grad school.

  4. Complete 2-6 years of postdoctoral research (post-doc) at various major research institutions, each time on a 1-2 year contract.

  5. Land your first faculty position for some 3-5 years.

  6. Switch to a tenure-track faculty position elsewhere.

  7. Get tenure 6-10 years later.

  8. Rest on your laurels.

Not explicitly mentioned in here are issues such as time commitment. Undergrad's the best time of your life. As a grad if you're lucky you get a research assitantship or fellowship which allows you to be paid to do your research. You probably work 70 hours a week because you love your work so much. If you're extremely lucky you also have health insurance bundled in there somewhere. If you're not lucky, you get a teaching assistantship. In addition to taking 3 classes a semester (each individually as difficult as taking 5 undergrad classes) and researching 70 hours a week, you're teaching and/or grading up to 3 freshman classes, with up to 300 students each.

Then you get your postdoc. While some grad students are unionized, no postdocs are, few have health insurance, and to make matters worse you report only directly to one individual. Without his letter, your career stops dead in its tracks. You are appointed for one to two years at a time, but you need to keep doing this for some two to six years to get enough publications under your belt that you have a chance of moving on. After some shopping around in postdoc positions, and further shopping among non-tenure track faculty positions, you then have to continue working your ass off both teaching and doing research in a tenure-track position. After six to ten years of continual teaching, supervising grad students and postdocs, and continual publishing, you MAY get tenure.

At which point you can consider starting a family.

Okay, let's do some math here. Assuming no getting off track in the process, you start college around age 18. You get your BS (and we all know what that stands for) around age 22, your optional MS (more of the same) around age 24-25, your PhD (piled higher and deeper) at 28. You then post-doc until you're 30 if you're good, or until age 34 more typically. At the very earliest, you get tenure at age 36, but something like 40-45 is typical and reasonable.

So sometime in then you either have a baby and destroy your career if you're a woman, or watch your wife have one if you're a man, or you wait until you have tenure and risk your own life and that of your baby since you're so OLD.

The Chronicle has a thought provoking article about one woman's story of this. They also provide a discussion page where issues such as The Law are brought up (helps in theory, but in practice won't make the advisor write a letter for you), and why didn't the husband of the woman in question help? The last is a good point, but sadly most employers are even more reluctant to give family leave to men than to women.

*sigh* This is what I have to look forward to in a few years. I should get tenure by when I'm 32, so I guess my teaching-track career has given me that advantage over a research-track. And while I'll probably stay home with my baby for a semester if I can, I expect my partner to do so himself when I have to return to work.

And this post was probably the most personal I'll ever get on this blog, so relish it while you can! :-P

Note to Self (4/3/07): More links here.