30 September 2005

Science Words

Eleven parents of students at a Pennsylvania high school are suing over the school district's decision to include "intelligent design" -- an alternative to evolution that involves a God-like creator -- in the curriculum of ninth-grade biology classes.

The parents and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) say the policy of the Dover Area School District in south-central Pennsylvania violates the constitutional separation of church and state, which forbids teaching religion in public schools.

The school board says there are "gaps" in evolution, which it emphasizes is a theory rather than established fact, and that students have a right to consider other views on the origins of life.


The problem in this story, and much of the "evolution is only a theory" story, is that English and Science are different languages that share a few words, but they mean different things. I figured I'd give a few definitions / explanations here of some words commonly used in the evolution versus ID argument.

English: Something that is absolutely correct, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Science: These terms are not generally used as their meanings are imprecise. Sometimes when talking w/ laypeople they're used to mean "observation," other times to mean "theory." When talking to other scientists we use different words. Nothing in science can be "known" absolutely as "true," so these words are meaningless.

English: (self-evident)
Science: Data, numbers. This is the only stuff we "know" for "sure" is "true," and even then there can be mistakes in the scientist's methods to get the data. ("Data" is plural, "datum" is singular.) "Observation" is sometimes used to refer to the first step of the Scientific Method, which is also called "Question" at times.

Science: An untested educated guess about the REASONS or explanation behind what's being experimented upon. May be proven correct or incorrect in the long run. Leads to predictions for specific experiments, and if consistently upheld leads to a theory.

Science: A guess about the results of a particular experiment before we've done anything on it. Meaningless in the long term, because (1) it only applies to that specific experiment, and (2) it gets supplanted by data and theories.

Science: A theory that can be expressed in simple terms, such as an easily memorized sentence, or a formula. I've seen many other definitions for the term Law, but this is the one I like. Some such "laws" have since been disproven, or were based upon faulty assumptions, but by tradition they are still called laws.

English: An untested guess at a reason, with a high chance of being wrong.
Science: A hypothesis that's been tested many many times for many years and hasn't ever been disproven. It's impossible to ever prove anything is absolutely "true" in science, as there is always the possibility of other explanations. A theory is the most likely one, and is as close to being "true" or "right" as scientists will ever admit. (Think of scientists as a non-committal boyfriend who won't say "I do." When he says "if I were going to marry anyone, it'd be you," that's like scientists saying "this is our theory, it hasn't been disproven yet.") Theories are often refined as time progresses, but rarely proven entirely wrong.

For example the geocentric solar system / universe proved wrong and was changed to the heliocentric model. It was refined when we determined the distance to stars, so we knew that the solar system was just part of the universe. Hubble further discovered (1923) that there were other galaxies than our own. Similarly, the reasons behind it all were refined, as Aristotle's "natural motion" turned into Galileo's inertia, Newton's gravity, and then Einstein's General Relativity (~1910). Further tweaks are continuing as Stephen Hawking and others study information in black holes and string theory.

Evolution is a good example of a theory still in the process of being refined at a coarser level. Where we are with evolution would be somewhere between Newton and Einstein with gravity, or between knowing the distance to stars and the distance to galaxies. Natural selection was presented before Darwin (I believe). Darwin extrapolated that, carried to extremes, natural selection could mutate species into other species, and that process was called evolution. During the 20th century it was recognized that there were distinct times when new species "quickly" (hundreds of thousands of years) developed, and this has been incorporated into an updated version of evolution called punctuated equilibrium (not often taught in K-12 schools, sadly). This refinement of the theory of evolution states that environemtnal triggers, such as massive habitat change brought on by a comet or asteroid collision, or ice ages or global warming, would cause "rapid" evolution of new species - faster than can be captured in the fossil record, but still gradual in terms of tens of thousands of generations.

Current-day theory about the geography of the universe is pretty solid. Current theory on gravity/GR (General Relativity) has a major gap, in that we can't yet reconcile GR with quantum mechanics. But we're working on it. Current theory on evolution is pretty solid but has some small gaps, in that we haven't found missing links from the evolutionary explosions, and some subsystems seem difficult to evolve in small steps. But we're working on it.

27 September 2005

Steve's for Evolution

Spread this around.

Denver, Colorado, February 16, 2003 -- A first-of-its-kind statement on evolution signed by over 200 scientists was unveiled today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual convention in Denver, Colorado, following Lawrence Krauss's topical lecture entitled "Scientific Ignorance as a Way of Life: From Science Fiction in Washington to Intelligent Design in the Classroom." The statement -- sponsored by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a nonprofit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools -- reads:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate scientific debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism of evolution. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to "intelligent design," to be introduced into the science curricula of the public schools.

The 220 signatories are a distinguished group. Almost all hold PhDs in the sciences. They include two Nobel prize winners, eight members of the National Academy of Sciences, and several well-known authors of popular science books such as Why We Age, Darwin's Ghost, and How the Mind Works.

And they're all named Steve.

(National Center for Science Education)

As of 9/26/05 the list had 626 signatures. Over 600 scientists named Steve agree that evolution is a fact!

More Evolution

The vast majority of working scientists contend that biological evolution is an established fact supported by overwhelming evidence. They say that evolution's mechanism is well explained by the process of random mutation and natural selection that Charles Darwin described 147 years ago. Darwin's theory - updated and confirmed by recent genetic discoveries - eventually will answer all or most questions about the origin and history of life, they say.

Nevertheless, polls repeatedly have found that a majority of Americans accept the concept of intelligent design and want it to be taught in schools along with evolution. President Bush waded into the debate in August, saying that schools should teach both.
Asked to cite scientific evidence for supernatural design, John Marburger, President Bush's science adviser, replied: "There isn't any. ... Intelligent design is not a scientific concept."

(Knight Ridder Newspapers)

ID-ers say that we have insufficient evidence to prove 100% conclusively that evolution is what formed life. That is a flawed argument. It's important to recognize that "lack of evidence" isn't the same as "contrary evidence."

For example, can you prove 100% conclusively that the sex of a person you know is female or male? The person may have secondary sex characteristics (such as breasts, muscles, or facial features) indiciative of a particular biologicial sex, but have you seen their primary sex characteristics (genetalia)? If so, there's still the possibility of that belying the individual's genetics, as in the case of hermaphrodites and individuals whom have undergone sexual reassignment surgery (aka a sex change operation). Have you taken a sample of their cells and looked at their chromosomes with a super-powerful microscope and counted the X's and Y's? That's the only way today to be certain of a person's sex, and yet I don't know a single person whose sex has been confirmed this way, and yet I still assert that I am female, my boyfriend is male, and for many other individuals I claim to "know" their sex.

If we are to accept that we need 100% conclusive evidence to accept evolution, we would have to also accept that we cannot know anyone's sex without analyzing their chromosomes.

21 September 2005

Nothing's Inexplicable

No, we don't know everything yet, but we're continually getting closer. Take the core of Andromeda for example.

The Andromeda galaxy (aka M31) is our closest neighboring galaxy, and we think it's a lot like ours (the Milky Way). Eleven years ago we didn't know why the center was black, then the Hubble discovered it's a supermassive black hole. The next mystery was what's the blue glow around the center. Now Hubble's revealed that it's a disk of young blue giant stars. The disk is 1 light-year across and contains some 400 stars. Around that is a larger disk of old red stars about five light-years across (not sure how many of them).

To put things in perspective, the next star over from ours, Proxima Centauri (part of the Alpha Centauri system) is 4 ly away. And in the center of Andromeda there's 100 times that many stars in a diameter one fourth of that. We suspect the same thing is going on in the center of our own galaxy, as we've seen a number of bright blue stars there. Also if it were an uncommon thing, what's the chance that the only galaxy doing it would be the one next door? (That sort of ex post facto argument has flaws though, similar to the anthropic principle.)

Why is this freakish stuff going on in the core of a galaxy? We've no clue. But I bet we will in another 10 years. Maybe an IDer would say "God did it" and stop there, but not astronomers.

Armchair Science and Amateurs

There are few science fields where amateurs can make a contribution. One such field used to be in discovering new comets and asteroids, but now automated telescopes do the vast majority of the discovering. Amateurs still make a good contribution when they follow them with their own telescopes for a week after, but it's a bit less glamorous. Another case where they make a difference is tracking common birds at birdfeeders in Project Feederwatch.

However, amateur archaeology is a bit less common, and more so armchair archaeology, partly because of the training usually required, and I've never before heard of amateur satellite archaeology, but now some guy's done it, using Google Earth nonetheless. I wonder how many crackpot calls each museum gets compared to how many eventually pan out like this?

Sources Say

Always check your sources. An unreliable person quoting an unreliable source isn't the way to go. This goes double for the internet--don't believe anything you read online unless you can confirm it with two sources you trust.

20 September 2005

Ozone Hole

Read these articles about the present state of the ozone layer and ozone hole.

Ozone is a formerly hot topic, when they first discovered what was going down with it in the 80's. Today, we know a lot more about it, but fail to communicate this to the general public, as can be seen in the conflicting articles above. There are three aspects of ozone that should be discussed.

  1. Ground Level Ozone

  2. Stratospheric Ozone (Ozone Layer)

  3. Depletion of Stratospheric Ozone (Ozone Hole)

First off, what is ozone in general? Ozone's chemical compound is O3 - it is made up of three oxygen atoms. Oxygen atoms can form up to two bonds with other atoms. Think of it like your typical person with two hands who can hold hands with up to two other people. If you and your sweetheart hold hands just with each other, right to left and left to right, you get the oxygen molecule, O2. When you hear about "breathing oxygen," this is what they mean. If you hold hands with two other people, and they each hold hands with each other, in a triangle shape, that's ozone. It's easier to break you three apart, to tear your hands from each other, as is true with ozone. Theoretically you could have O4 and so on, but these larger molecules get increasingly easy to break apart, increasingly unstable, and are pretty much never found in nature.

The next important aspect to ozone is that of UV light. Ultraviolet light is just the right energy to interact with ozone molecules, either forming or destroying the molecules. High up in the atmosphere, within the stratosphere, the ozone layer absorbs UV light when the UV breaks apart molecules. This protects all life on Earth from UV light, which causes cancer and various mutations. The molecules naturally reform on their own, so (without human interference) the amount of ozone in the ozone layer stays constant. Stratospheric ozone (the ozone layer) is good for humanity.

Low in the atmosphere, in the troposphere near the ground, not much ozone forms naturally. When UV light sneaks through past the upper layers and interacts with pollutants (such as nitrous oxide) it forms ozone. Not enough ozone to block UV light, so it doesn't do much good. But enough ozone to hurt us in other ways -- because it is so unstable, when you breathe ozone in, it interacts with the lining of your lungs and essentially "burns" (oxidizes) your lungs. This is especially bad for people with asthma or lung diseases. Tropospheric ozone (ground-level ozone) is bad for humanity.

To complicate matters more, not only does ground-level pollution help form ozone, other pollutants help destroy stratospheric ozone. Specfically, the chemicals that used to be used in air conditioners, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), interact quickly with ozone to break it apart, and then move on to break apart other ozone molecules. This contributed to the current day ozone hole. We have since banned CFCs, which is slowing the destruction of the ozone layer (destroying the ozone layer is the same as creating the ozone hole).

All that's fine and dandy, but it doesn't explain the flip-flopping results that CNN reports. As is often the case, I'm pretty sure it's all a matter of what they measured. The first group (that said the ozone layer is recovering) went to certain specific locations and measured how much ozone was in the ozone layer above those spots on the ground, for the dates 1996 to 2002. They are not up to date, and it's possible things have happened since then. The second group (ozone hole worst ever) measured specifically the size of the ozone hole over Antarctica this year. Perhaps this year was an anamoly?

I think most of the issue is in the locations chosen by both groups. It's possible that most of the ozone layer is getting thicker, but that one section of it over Antarctica is getting worse. What's the overall result if we combine the two groups? I don't know, and I don't think I could without looking at their data in depth and probably doing additional research. Give it a year or so and someone will do that and come up with a whole new set of answers. That's what's great about science -- no one person or group can claim to know what's "right"! :)

19 September 2005


Main Entry: be·lieve
Pronunciation: b&-'lEv
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): be·lieved; be·liev·ing
Etymology: Middle English beleven, from Old English belEfan, from be- + lyfan, lEfan to allow, believe; akin to Old High German gilouben to believe, Old English lEof dear -- more at LOVE
intransitive senses
1 a : to have a firm religious faith b : to accept as true, genuine, or real *ideals we believe in* *believes in ghosts*
2 : to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something *believe in exercise*
3 : to hold an opinion : THINK *I believe so*
transitive senses
1 a : to consider to be true or honest *believe the reports* *you wouldn't believe how long it took* b : to accept the word or evidence of *I believe you* *couldn't believe my ears*
2 : to hold as an opinion : SUPPOSE *I believe it will rain soon*

(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

There is also an implication to the word "belief" that no evidence is required. Thus the CNN statement that "Astronomers believe a quasar is produced by cosmic gas as it is drawn toward the edge of a supermassive black hole" [emphasis added] is completely wrong. It implies that astronomers have no hard evidence and and are asserting it to be true for us to take on faith.

When you talk on the phone with your family, say your daughter, what evidence do you have that at the other end of your phone it's your daughter? The sound of her voice, the way she words her sentences. But you don't see her, do you? You can't touch her and know she's there. And yet you still know that it's her, right? That's how well astronomers know that quasars are produced in the system of a black hole.

We can't see the black hole directly, but we see all the evidence of one, for example, how fast the gas is moving and how far it is from the center indicates how much mass must be inside a certain radius, which tells us it must be a black hole. Computer models also show that the end of a super massive star's life is a black hole, and we'll see a disk and jets, which is what we see with quasars.

This isn't belief, it is our best knowledge.

18 September 2005

"Telepathy Experiment"

Found through another blog, check out this "Telepathy Experiment."

It worked for you right? Unless you fscked up your math. It's a parlor trick, it's inevitable you'd get that answer, and here's why.

* Think of a number between 2 and 9
What number you choose is irrelevant, but for completeness, most people pick 7. This step seems to give an element of free will.

* Multiply the number by 9
* Add the two digits together

Anything from 2 to 9 multiplied by 9 gives a 2-digit number, with digits adding to nine. (Any multiple of nine has its digits add to a multiple of nine. It's a result of our base-ten number system, just numbers divisible by two have their last digit divisible by two, and similar rules for divisibility 3, 5, and 10. Oh and 7 as well, though I don't know anyone who has that test memorized.)
The result of these steps is 9 for everyone, eliminating the apparently random effect of the first stage.

* Subtract 5 from the number you now have
9-5=4, unless you're doing New Math.

* Convert the number into a letter -
4 = D

* Think of a European Country starting with that letter
There is exactly one country in Europe whose English name starts with the letter D, Denmark.

* Now think of the second letter of that country

* Think of an animal that starts with that letter
(This must be an animal - not a bird - so if you are thinking of an eagle think again!)

Again, for the record birds ARE a type of animal. I believe the author meant "mammal" where he put "animal."
There are a limited number of animals whose English names start with an E, or at least few well known ones. The ones I could think of are Eagle, Elephant, Emu. Birds are ruled out, leaving elephant.

* What colour is your animal?

** Now concentrate carefully on your answers
** Check below to see if I have read your mind

You are thinking of a grey elephant that comes from Denmark.

Asides from the misspelling of "gray," yeap, that's all you could come up with. QED

I'm sure similar tricks exist for other languages. Feel free to leave a comment explaining one you know of.

17 September 2005

"Under God"

Cross-posted at Strange Musings. While this post is not science related, I did promise you some controversy, so here we go!

As sammka mentioned in a recent post, I feel it is important to engage in civil discourse on controvertial topics. The following letter is going in the mail to my Senators by Monday.

The Honorable ***

September 16, 2005

Senator ***:

I am writing to you today as a *** State resident regarding the U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruling in California on the unconstitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance (9/14/05), and the subsequent unanimous Senate non-binding resolution condemning this ruling late Thursday September 15, 2005. I am disappointed by your decision to oppose the ruling, and would like to express why.

As quoted by CNN, the non-biding resolution said that “ ‘one nation under God’ in the pledge reflects the religious faith central to the founding of the nation and that its recitation is ‘a fully constitutional expression of patriotism.’ ” I agree that the Founding Fathers held Christian beliefs of a Creator, as is shown by the Declaration of Independence’s statement “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” but disagree about their relevance today. The word of the Founding Fathers is law, but laws should sometimes be changed. Non-white men, and women of all races have been given equal rights and protection under the law that the framers of the Constitution would never have dreamed of. Moreover, the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge by Congress during the 1950’s, and therefore in no way reflects the original intents of our forefathers. Using their intentions is not a valid argument.

What is valid is the effect that these words have today. As you are a Senator of a state with a diverse population, I am surprised that you did not take our beliefs into consideration. The word “God” refers primarily to the Christian Creator – Judaism uses another word, Islam uses “Allah.” A number of citizens in this state believe in other forms of a Creator, such as a female form (Gaia) or a polytheistic form (for example, as in Hinduism and Paganism). And even others such as myself believe in a purely secular form of Creator, such as the Big Bang and Evolution. As of 2001, 21% of the state population self-identified as non-Christian – while this is a minority, we are still a significant percentage of the state. The choice of the word “God” is not inclusive of our beliefs of a Creator, just as if the Pledge contained “under Allah” or “under Evolution” that would not be inclusive of Christianity.

In conclusion, I feel that in expressing disagreement with the ruling by Judge Karlton you failed to consider that there are precedents of newer laws superceding the intentions of the Founding Fathers, and that the phrase “under God” is not inclusive of a significant number of your constituents. I hope that in the future you will consider points of view that differ from yours and represent the other constituents within the state that has elected you.

Thank you for your time. Please feel free to contact me if you have any further questions.



Feel free to modify (or not) this letter and send to your Senator.

See Also:
* Pledge ruling
* Senators' condemnation and appeal
* Senators by Zip Code

15 September 2005

The Value of Life

Today I heard something in the Roberts confirmation hearings that disturbed me. OK, now I know this isn't directly about science, but it does touch on the "science vs. religion" debate that has been in the forefront of the American mind lately.

The Senate was questioning other individuals regarding the confirmation of Roberts as Chief Justice of the United States. I didn't catch the name of the woman being questioned, but she was a pastor. (If anyone knows her name, or where I can find a transcript of this particular discussion, please leave a comment and I'll update the info here.) Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was discussing Wednesday's ruling in California that the Pledge of Alleigance was unconstitutional due to its current wording including the phrase "one nation under God."

The pastor said that she felt that the phrase "under God" was an affirmation of the speaker's religion, and therefore had no place in anything government-supported. Moreover, she said, the phrase was not original, as it was added well after the founding fathers, the framers of the Constitution, I think in the 1950's.

Sen. Sessions made a rebuttal statement that intrigued and disturbed me. The former was that the framers of the Constitution DID clearly believe in a Creator. He didn't make the specific quotation, but "...all men are created equal..." (Declaration of Independence) couldn't help but pop into my mind. Very intriguing. Quite likely, a "freedom from religion" never occurred to them, though that's not saying it would be inappropriate today.

He went on though. (Paraphrasing) "The framers of the Constitution believed in a Creator, and valued human life greatly because they believed we were specifically created. Today, Marxists, humanists, don't value human life as much. They can't."

I take offense at that assumption. In fact, I got pretty angry at him saying so. I value human life IMMENSELY and strongly oppose waging war. As I understand it, the war in Iraq was strongly supported by the Evangelical Christian Right. They believe in a God, a creator, and I don't. *GRRrrr...*

I belive life started by chance, and humans through evolution. Life is extremely precious to me because there was no gaurantee that it would happen at all. In fact, all the odds were stacked against it. The chance of us being here are billions of trillions to one against. Not only is life unlikely, but our very universe is moreso. The slightest tweaking of the laws of physics, and planets couldn't exist, stars couldn't exist, whole galaxies couldn't exist, or else the universe would've died soon after its birth.

Nothing and no one is looking out for us. Nothing cares if we all kill each other. The only thing looking down upon us is cold empty space. We are not special to anyone but ourselves. It is because of this that I feel it is all the more important for us to value every living human being.

14 September 2005

A different form of dating

Article found via The Esoteric Science Resource Center.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL) in California have debuted a new technique to determine the age of a tooth, and therefore the age of a body, and therefore narrow down the number of missing people to search through when identifying a corpse in a massive death situation such as New Orleans, the tsunami, or Sept 11.

Between 1955 and 1963 the US government performed atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs. This testing resulted in large amounts of carbon-14 (aka C-14, aka radiocarbon) being present in the atmosphere at the time. (As I understand the process, the fact that this isotope or version of carbon is radioactive is not used in the method.) This C-14 is nicely mixed throughout all the atmosphere of the world due to weather patterns. Much of this C-14 merged with a couple oxygens to form carbon dioxide, CO_2. The CO_2 was "inhaled" by plants and became part of their structure, so the same concentration of C-14 that is in the air can also be found in plants at that time. Additionally, the carbon that is in the plants is eaten by animals and goes into things like their muscles, so at any given time there's the same concentration of C-14 in the air, plants and animals.

Now, the concentration of C-14 in the air has been steadily decreasing, mostly due to the carbon mixing into the oceans. So that means that the amount of C-14 available in the air to go into plants and animals has been steadily decreasing. We know the rate at which it's decreasing pretty well empirically (i.e., from experiments) - you can think of it like we calibrated our C-14 / date conversion scale by testing on dead people's teeth.

And here come the teeth: Your adult teeth are formed before around age 8, and once they're formed they are fixed. You can't add or subtract any C-14.1 So how much C-14 was in the air when you were forming your teeth is how much C-14 will be in your teeth when you die. Forensic scientists can now work this process backwards: they get a set of teeth and take them to their lab and determine how much C-14 is in the teeth. This sets the date of tooth formation at a certain year, and therefore the date of birth at a certain year - plus or minus 1.6 years! That's much better than older methods of tooth ID, which gave plus or minus 10 years.

The only real catch is you have to have been younger than 8 when the atmospheric nuclear testing started, or not yet born. So if someone was born prior to 1943 that's all the test will be able to tell you, not how much earlier. But pretty nifty results for being irradiated with radioactive materials from nuclear weapons testing!

1 Those familar with radiocarbon dating probably took issue with this statement at first. In fact, C-14 does decay down to a steadier element, nitrogen-14, and relatively quickly. It only takes 5,730 years (±40) for half the C-14 in your teeth to turn into N-14. So in a lifetime of roughly 100 years you'll have around one sixtieth of a half life pass, or you'll have decayed away down to 98.85% of your original amount of C-14. Yeah, the passage of time doesn't make that much difference.

Note that the carbon dating in this case, that is the decrease in C-14 in the teeth is NOT due to radioactive decay, but the decreased amount of C-14 in the ecosystem.

Check out this Wikipedia article for a reminder on exponential decay, or I can post my IM conversation with Jeth where we both relearned it from scratch b/c we'd forgotten...

Return to text

13 September 2005

Scientific Etiquette

In addition to operating by the Scienfitic Method or a variant thereof, scientists also follow an unwritten but well-known code of ethics. Some aspects of this code are familiar to all (the Hippocratic Oath, that doctors should help their patients), some are legally codified (human participants in studies have to be adequately informed of all risks), and there's even some borderline or as-yet-undecided ethics cases / topics that are policed by citizen watchgroups (animal testing, stem cell research).

One aspect of the scientific ethos is that of proprietary rights to data, especially important when related to pharmaceuticals and private funding. If one research group (under the auspices of an individual called the PI, principal1 investigator) is working on a certain drug, their data is private and no one else can legally access it without express written permission. Another group may be working on the same project independently, but the two are likely not allowed to collaborate, and thus it is simply a race against time to see whose work pays out, and who just wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of work.

In astronomy, the best telescopes are majority-owned/-funded by the (US) government, and so the rules are different. Anything produced by our government or government funded is public domain -- eventually. Typically the researchers are granted proprietary rights ("ownership") to the data for a year, giving them a significant head start in analyzing the data and therefore publication. If they choose to publish sooner, as often happens, I believe only the things they put in the paper are publicly usable. After the year deadline has passed, any US citizen (and in practice, anyone in the world with computer access) may freely download and use the data as they see fit. This is why high resolution gorgeous Hubble Space Telescope images are freely available on the web. The data (images) were originally taken for some other purpose, but after the year was up, the HST publicity team cleaned them up and put them out there for anyone to see.

BUT, as your high school English teacher taught you, proper credit must always been given. The worst breach of etiquette physically possible is plagiarism, which can be anything ranging from unintentionally forgetting to list an author in your bibliography, to misleading others into thinking you did work that someone else did, to hacking into someone's computer and stealing their data.

As Dr. Michael Brown (Caltech) is accusing Dr. Jose-Luis Ortiz (Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, Granada), according to the New York Times. Ortiz's group is currently credited with discovering the outer solar system body known as 2003 EL61. (The object's fame was eclipsed by that of so-called "Xena," which actually is bigger than Pluto, so don't be surprised that you haven't heard of it.) Brown's group claims their three-month earlier discovery was digitally snooped on by Ortiz's group -- computers belonging to Ortiz, et al., surfed the web to a page listing where the Caltech telescope was pointed at on the key nights.

The accusation is that Ortiz (or his grad student) looked at those records of where Brown (or his grad student) had been looking, then Ortiz looked at his telescope's records and found images of the appropriate region of the sky in its history. Knowing that something special was there, and knowing that Brown worked on minor planet discoveries, Ortiz/grad student found the same object in their own images, but only because of the head's up from Brown's observations. 24 hours later Ortiz announces he's found the object now known as 2003 EL61. Soon after, Brown accuses Ortiz of failure to cite sources and demands he be stripped of discoverer status, and it be rightfully granted to Brown.

Ortiz counters with his own accusation of academic dishonesty by Brown. In the minor-planet-discovering community, there is a well known protocol for when you spot something new: you inform the International Astronomical Union's (IAU's) Minor Planet Center (MPC).

The MPC is the worldwide clearinghouse for planets, asteroids, comets, Kuiper Belt objects, Trans-Neptunian objects, Oort Cloud objects, 10th planets, and Planet X-es. If it's up there, in our Solar System, it isn't the Sun or man-made, and someone discovers it, the MPC is who you should tell. This is especially important for what's known as NEAs or NEOs: Near Earth Asteroids / Objects. Those are asteroids and other stuff that *might* *someday* have a chance of smacking the Earth, or (much more likely) having a near miss. This is one thing that Deep Impact got relatively right.

Say an astronomer discovers a new asteroid, comet, minor planet, whatever. Call that Night 1. He (or sometimes she) reports it to the MPC, along with details of when he saw it where. This can happen anywhere from Night 1 to Night 30 if he's lazy. I'll call it Night 2. By the end of the day, or sometimes the hour, the MPC calculates a rough orbit for it, and determines where it should be visible in the sky in the future. When they calculate the rough orbit, red flags go up if it's an NEA. In this case, emails IMMEDIATELY go out to major observatories and astronomers (both professional and amateur) who've elected to be on the list. This also happens if it's not an NEA, but without the red flags. Night 3 dozens to hundreds of telescopes point to the expected location in the sky, and the media catches wind of the story and it runs on front pages. Day 3 - Night 4, resulting data is sent back to the MPC. Sometimes it was a bogus detection of an object and nothing is found Night 3, and the search is called off. More often, the MPC refines its calculations and repeats the request for observations. By the end of Night 5 someone has found archived images from five or ten years ago that had the object in it, but no one realized at the time. Around a week after the initial detection, the orbit has been refined enough to know that the asteroid isn't going to hit the earth in 3 weeks, or a million years, whatever the original worry was. Papers are published by a few astronomers within a few months.

Brown didn't do this. He didn't send the initial detection to the MPC because he didn't want some other group scooping his story. Which happened anyway. But if he had told the MPC, then Ortiz wouldn't've had a leg to stand on. But if Brown had then anyone could've published on it by now. But it's Brown's tendency to be secretive that prompted Ortiz to commit the information theft. If he did. Or his grad student.

1) Bad blood begets more bad blood.
2) Shit, I thought astro was free of this sorta crap.

1 The "P" in PI refers to the individual doing the investigation, not the idea being investigated. Therefore the word is "principal," not "principle." It's one of my pet-peeve-phrases. "Affect" vs. "effect" is another.



Science is based upon a process known as the Scientific Method. All science uses a modified form of this.

  1. Obersvation / Question - the scientist observes (notices) something s/he wants to learn more about, or comes up with a question he wants answered. For example, it rains on cloudy days. Why does it rain on cloudy days?

  2. Hypothesis - a guess as to the reason behind what he observes. The clouds are made of Super Crows, and when they shit it rains.

  3. Prediction - subtly different from hypothesis, it is the testable results expected if your hypothesis is true. If I look at a cloud with a telescope, I should be able to see the Super Crows.

  4. Experiment - carrying out the test implied by your predictions

  5. Conclusion - assessing whether you were right, how good the experiment was, etc. I didn't see any Super Crows, but I accidentally left the cap on the telescope, so I think that's why, and I need to try again.

You'll note that the key to this whole process is the ability to perform a test, experiment, or observation that can verify or deny your hypothesis. Some things are impossible to test, or impossible to prove false. There is a pink elephant somewhere on Earth. It's really damned hard to go everywhere on the Earth, and even if you could and you missed him, maybe he snuck to Nepal while you were in Japan, and then snuck back to Japan when you left for Antarctica. Johnny's got a crush on Melissa. You ask him if he's got a crush on her. If he says yes, you've proven your hypothesis true. If he says no, he's in denial to himself, or isn't admitting it to you, proving your hypothesis true. It's impossible to prove your hypothesis false.

Either of these cases are unfalsifiable - impossible to prove false through an experiment. A whole class of things that fall under "unfalsifiable" are the supernatural, including any higher powers and their effects, such as God, Creationism, and Intelligent Design (ID). I'm not saying ID is wrong, I'm saying it's untestable. There is nothing we can do to determine whether God created Adam and Eve, or just helped evolution along, or even only started the ball rolling with the Big Bang and then took a seat in the sidelines (sometimes called the Clockmaker Hypothesis).

  • Science requires the process of testing.

  • ID is impossible to test.

  • Logical conclusion: ID has no place in science.

Once again, just to make sure you get it, science does not say Intelligent Design is wrong, science says it is unable to say anything about it. Science admits a total failure to address the issue of God, and leaves it to the churches, the atheists, and the ACLU to duke out.

12 September 2005

Assumptions: a practical guide

Late last week I noticed a few harmless yellowjackets on the inside of my office window screen. Today I was stung by one of the insects in the process of leaving my office. Which leads me to evaluate the assumptions in my initial statement, "harmless yellowjackets." Either (a) yellowjackets were/are not harmless, and/or (b) they were not yellowjackets, but hornets or wasps. Sometimes it's hard to determine what assumptions you have made until something proves you painfully wrong. I'd been told since childhood by my family that yellowjackets are harmless, and I've never been afraid of them.

There IS a difference between the three bugs, yellowjackets, hornets, and wasps, not that I understand insects or species classification well enough to know the difference, and Wikipedia is little help as they all have different tables (you'll see my comments requesting that be fixed in their discussion sections w/in a few mintues of this posting), but all three sting. Even so, I am unable to identify the bug now, as it was crippled by my hand crushing it on the doorknob and put out of its misery by the retributive depths of my sole, and there were not enough remains for a thorough autopsy.

The next thing I got to test in this encounter after my assumptions, was my allergies. In my childhood I was allergic to bee stings. Most stings would merely result in massive swelling and occasional puffy eyes. If the stinger remained in my skin, I would start having difficulty breathing until the stinger were removed with tweezers. Since then, I have developed asthma (though mild), but simultaneously my allergies have weakened. Additionally, I have never been stung by a wasp/hornet/yellowjacket. This of course means that I had WAY too many independent variables (asthma, allergies, age, type of bug) of which I was simaltaneously testing the effect on the dependent variable (my ability to breathe), and no good control. I still stand by my reported results (survival, no reaction other than the normal one of PAIN), but I must repeat the experiment in a more controlled environment (allergy tests) to determine causality of survival and estimate future mortality rate.

Question Everything

Especially if it comes to you in email. Skepticism is thoroughly scientific, despite Fox Mulder's questioning the wrong things. ;)

  • Have you seen gorgeous pictures of hurricane Katrina approaching a town in Mississippi? Did you notice that the ground's all farmland? And that the "eye" area is much too small for the typical "clear, calm, and sunny"? If so, you've got the key points that Snopes.com identified in this mistaken identity hoax.

  • Did you know that in September of 2005 Mars is going to approach so close that it'll be bigger than the Moon? Did you notice that the same email went out in 2003? Did you stop and think that if Mars were actually close enough to the Earth that it were as big as the Moon, that its gravity would probably be stronger than the Moon's and we'd have killer tides worse than the December 2004 tsunami or August 2005 hurricane Katrina? Did you read the explanation that it's a recycled email with a typo in the original?

  • Fwd: Fw: virus alert - WORST VIRUS EVER ---CNN ANNOUNCED -- PLEASE SEND THIS TO EVERYONE ON YOUR CONTACT LIST !! Aw man, there's more of these than I can list... Read my post on it for a summary of how to know if it's a real virus or a hoax, and how to best prevent yourself from getting virii all around.

Here's what I do when I get a forwarded email that seems a bit sneaky.

  1. Go to Google and look up keywords in the email. Examples for the three above might be "Katrina hurricane photos", "Mars moon telescope", and "virus alert 'card for you' ".

  2. Google will give you many hits; look for sites that you personally believe to be reliable. I trust CNN, BBC, the NY Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post for news; Sophos, Symantec, MacAfee, Norton for virus; Snopes for general urban legends.

  3. Read or skim at least two or three of your "trustworthy" hits. If they agree with each other, then I will consider them all true.

  4. Compose a well-reasoned reply/rebuttal to the individual explaining why the forwarded email is faulty. I am sure to include the references I used so they can independently verify it. Suggest they follow a similar line of attack next time they receive an email like that one.

  5. If the person CC'd others, I also CC them on my reply, and ask that they put me on BCC (blind carbon-copy) for mass emails when applicable, so that spammers don't find my email address in the future, and so that when one of the others does receive a virus they don't have me in their address book. (If they don't know enough to avoid hoaxes, they probably don't know enough to avoid real viruses.)

  6. Send. Delete original. Rant. Repeat as necessary.

Have you been taken in by an email hoax? Or is there one you didn't understand the explanation of? Let me know!

Most distant gamma ray burst detected

The Swift telescope has detected - and studied - the most distant gamma ray burst ever. Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are currently believed to be created when a massive star collapses into a black hole. I'm not sure what's the difference between this and a star going supernova, so I'll be researching that on Wikipedia1 next.

It has a so-called "redshift" of 6.29, which translates to a distance of about 13 billion light years from Earth. ... "This burst smashes the old distance record by 500 million light years," said Dr Daniel Reichart of the University of North Carolina, who has been leading the measurement of its distance.


How do we know it's the farthest? Determining the distance to astronomical objects was one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century. Edwin Hubble (after whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named) discovered that galaxies that are farther away from us (based upon earlier measurements of distance) are also moving away from us faster (greater speed). The speed is directly measured by the Doppler Effect / Shift - the same thing that makes the siren of an abulance driving past change in pitch. In GRBs and other things in the sky, we measure how the color of the light changes and use this to determine the velocity, which cosmologists translate into redshift. The velocity to redshift conversion is exact; the redshift or velocity to distance conversion is still under debate. The current best guess is 71±4 (km/s)/Mpc.

The Swift telescope used in this study can actually detect GRBs even farther away than that, if they happen. Light takes a while to get here, so when you look at objects far away, you're looking at long ago in the past. Think about sending letters by snail mail. If you send one in the same town, it might get there the same day, so if you get a letter from the same town, the person probably wrote it about the day before. If you get a letter from a few states away, the letter's a few days old. A letter from the other side of the country might be a week old, and any news it has will be that long out of date. Even farther away, a letter from Europe would take a couple weeks.

Swift can see very dim objects, dim = far away = long ago = soon after the Big Bang (200 million years after, they guess). We don't yet know how soon after the Big Bang stars started to form. If there were no stars, then none of them would've been dying and forming GRBs! Can you imagine a universe that hasn't yet formed stars?

Any questions?

1 Regarding Wikipedia, caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). While the vast majority of their information is correct and well-written, there are occasional errors that slip through. This is the result of it being open-source: anyone can contribute, including YOU, and only other editors can stop mistakes and vandalism.

Modern Cars

As I'm sure we're all sick of hearing by now, the last time gas cost this much (adjusted for inflation) was in 1981. At the time, cars got 21 mpg. Today, the average car gets 21 mpg. No, that's not a typo. Despite all the wonders of technology, today's cars have the same fuel efficiency as they did 24 years ago. Why is that? SUVs. The increased weight (and probably air resistance too) make up for the best the automotive industry decided to dish out in fuel efficienct technolgy.

Despite making that good point, the article upon which I based this post goes on to throw meaningless numbers at the reader.

Light trucks, a category that includes SUVs and minivans, now account for 50 percent of passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. That's more than double their share in 1981.1
Large SUV sales are 11.2 percent lower than they were at this time last year, according to AutoData.2
Top speed has also increased from 112 miles per hour in 1981 to 136 mph today.3
Overall, the basic 5.7 liter Hemi V8 engine is about 10 percent more efficient than the engine it replaced. The addition of "multi-displacement" technology, which shuts off four cylinders when their power is not added, as in steady highway cruising, boosted efficiency by another 10 percent.4


  1. Do they mean double the percentage from 1981, or double the raw number from 1981? The former is more meaniningful, as simple increase in purchasing will change the latter without showing if people prefer SUVs or cars.

  2. Ditto, but more so: percent of vehicles sold, number of vehicles sold, percent of dollars spent, amount of dollars spent? Amount of dollars spent would decrease if they simply decreased the price of SUVs.

  3. From context, they mean average top speed, not top top speed, but still, who really drives their cars at top speed?

  4. Hey wait a sec, they just said it increased by 10% overall, and then they said it was an additional 10% on top of that? That's not even a mistake I'll let my developmental math kids get away with. On the other hand, maybe they meant that the engine just by itself is 10% more efficent, and the "multi-displacement technology" makes it 10% more efficient on top of that. If so, it's even more a case of sloppy reporting - the description didn't really say that, and for that second 10%, 10% of what?, the original engine or the modified engine? (Though it doesn't matter order-of-magnitude, science reporters rarely understand that concept.)

This isn't even a science article, it's a cars article, and the little evidence they throw in to try and make it more scientific goes awry.

11 September 2005

"Modern Science" launches!

Welcome to yet another blog... This one's going to be about science today: new discoveries, debunking pseudoscience, and controversies. If you have a question about something in science, leave a comment and I'll try to address it. I encourage debate in the comments section - but no name-calling!

To start the ball rolling, I'd like to draw your attention to the tendancy of poor reporting on science in the media. The Guardian recently ran a good article discussing it. This article was brought to my attention by sclerotic rings, where I mentioned that I recently saw a CNN article on a computer virus that'd taken down the station, and their own slow response to fix it. In the very same article criticizing their own reactions, they interviewed MANY newscasters and behind-the-scenes people laughing and joking about not knowing what a worm is. "Hah hah, it's okay to not have a clue what's going on!"

I think this eroding of science in the media is leading to a general disrespect for the method and results of science in the general public in the US, thus allowing non-scientific ideas to take root, such as astrology, the Moon Landing Hoax conspiracy theory, and Intelligent Design (ID).

Expect me to say "prove it."