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.

09 November 2005

Venus probe launched successfully

Russia has successfully launched the first European probe to Venus. It will get there in about five months and start observations in early June. It's not a lander, but will take pictures from orbit to learn more about the atmosphere, including why it's so dense, windy, and has such a runaway greenhouse effect. A lander wouldn't survive long in temperatures of 700K, hot enough to melt lead, so and orbitter is more cost-effective. I'm hoping it will shed some light upon Earth's global warming. Interestingly, many of the instruments the Venus Express carries are of identical design to successful instruments from previous missions (Mars Express and Rosetta), saving the European Space Agency (ESA) lots of time and money, and hopefully lots of pain as well.


08 November 2005

Shoutout: The Esoteric Science Resource Center (sclerotic_rings)

I just wanted to take a moment to put in a plug for The Esoteric Science Resource Center, by sclerotic_rings. I believe the author of that blog is a published journalist and writer, though I could be mistaken. He usually writes commentary on science, and I take some of my inspiration from him, though I aim to give more background information than he does. Go read it!

Kansas creationists redefine science

The Kansas Board of Education approved new public-school science standards Tuesday that cast doubt on the theory of evolution.
Supporters of the new standards said they would promote academic freedom.

“This is a great day for education. This is one of the best things that we can do,” said board chairman Steve Abrams. Another board member who voted in favor of the standards, John Bacon, said the move “gets rid of a lot of dogma that’s being taught in the classroom today.”
In addition, the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.


Pseudoscience in politics spreads to Germany, stopped in its tracks

Ernst Zuendel, German citizen and long-time Canadian resident, claims that the Nazi death camps were a Jewish conspiracy to extort money from the German government. In Germany, denying the Holocaust is a crime, and after US deportation to Canada (for violating immigration laws) and then Canadian deportation to Germany (for being a threat to national security), he is finally facing charges in the successor to his home country of West Germany, which he originally left as a draft dodger. Among the charges is one of using "'pseudo-scientific' methods to try to rewrite the accepted history of the Nazi Holocaust, in 14 pieces of written work and internet publications." (CNN) I'm glad their government at least understands that pseudoscientific approaches shouldn't be harnessed to support political views.

07 November 2005

Biblical Plague: Avian Flu

The next plague of biblical proportions is currently evolving, and it's name is the bird flu. Moderate estimates put the deaths at 7 million worldwide, or around 1 in 100. One person in your high school graduating class, or ten if you went to school in a major city. One of the profs at my college. Liberal arts college students: one person you share a class with, 20 people per graduating class. Ivy League and state university students: three per class, 200 per graduating class.

Avian influenza, or bird flu as it's commonly called, is related to the same flu that humans can get. It's just enough different that most of the time humans can't catch it. If we're continually surrounded by (infected) birds that increases our chances of being able to catch it, and one particular strain called H5N1 has had a 50% human mortality rate so far. BUT you can only catch it when there's lots of infected birds around you. So far.

Viruses and bacteria are continually mutating, continually undergoing micro-scale evolution, and becoming better at infecting us. Our own bodies are also continually improving our defenses, learning to fight off unfamiliar intruders, so that most of the time we're just keeping up with the invading germs. Whenever a significantly different strain emerges our bodies have a hard time fighting them off for a while, and sometimes people die in the attacks. This has happened four times in the recorded past with the flu, the WWI pandemic of 1918-1919 being the most famous time. (There may have been other older plagues associated with the flu, but we couldn't yet determine different types of germs, or even know that they existed.)

What makes bird flu H5N1 so deadly right now is that it's not common in the human population, so we don't know how to fight it off. If the viruses manage to make it into our system, cross the moat to our castle, we don't know how to combat their tactics, so we've only a 50% chance of fighting them off, even with external reinforcements (retroviral drugs such as Tamiflu). We're lucky so far that they haven't built boats or ladders to get over the water or into our bodies and infect us more easily. Once they learn that, once they mutate, change, adapt, evolve and are able to transmit into humans more easily, and from human to human, we're gonners.

We don't have enough retroviral drugs to administer to a tenth of the population, and just because we know a tenth will likely die doesn't mean we know which ones and can innoculate them. The vaccines we have (like seeing blueprints of their battle plans before they ever lay seige to our castle) will be invalid, as they're for H5N1, and once it can get into our systems it won't be H5N1 anymore. All we can do is once they take over one castle, burn the bridges around it, raze the forests, and destroy the roads. Once one person or area is infected we will have to quarrantine it. Small towns. Villages. Neighborhoods, cities, states, countries. Even doctor's waiting rooms will have quarrantine sections so that those with coughs sit on one side, and those without on the other side. If your friends or neighbors get sick, you won't be able to drive them to the hospital, as that will mean your certain death as well. If you have the bird flu, if you can't transport yourself to a hospital, it may be better to die alone than to call for help, as you'd likely be dooming your rescuers to die with you.

Okay, I'm being more morbid than is probably really necessary. But the bird flu is scary shit. Keep an eye on it.

06 November 2005

US hostile to science

The entire article is worth reading, but I'll quote you a few parts just to get you hooked.

"Among the most significant forces is the rising tide of anti-science sentiment that seems to have its nucleus in Washington but which extends throughout the nation," said Stanford's Philip Pizzo in a letter posted on the school Web site on October. 3.
In the past five years, the scientific community has often seemed at odds with the Bush administration over issues as diverse as global warming, stem cell research and environmental protection. Prominent scientists have also charged the administration with politicizing science by seeking to shape data to its own needs while ignoring other research.
Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller believes the rhetoric of the anti-evolution movement has had the effect of driving a wedge between a large proportion of the population who follow fundamentalist Christianity and science.

"It is alienating young people from science. It basically tells them that the scientific community is not to be trusted and you would have to abandon your principles of faith to become a scientist, which is not at all true," he said.
[A] CBS poll this month found that 51 percent of respondents believed humans were created in their present form by God. A further 30 percent said their creation was guided by God. Only 15 percent thought humans evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years.

Other polls show that only around a third of American adults accept the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, even though the concept is virtually uncontested by scientists worldwide.

"When we ask people what they know about science, just under 20 percent turn out to be scientifically literate," said Jon Miller, director of the center for biomedical communication at Northwestern University.
Scientists bemoan the lack of qualified U.S. candidates for postgraduate and doctoral studies at American universities and currently fill around a third of available science and engineering slots with foreign students.


Reader's Question

A reader asks...

Orikinla Osinachi. said...
The fossils of two copulating lovers were found recently in India dated 65 million years.

Is this scientifically possible?

Can we have fossils of our sex organs when we all know that the human male organ has no bone? And skeletons have no sex organs?
1:56 PM, November 06, 2005

That's a good question Orikinla! I haven't heard of that specific instance, and I'd love to see a link, but here's what I can say. There are two specific aspects of your question that I'd like to address: (1) humans found in India 65 million years ago; and (2) how do we know they were copulating?

To address the first part, according to scientists, the Earth and the entire Solar System were formed between 4.5 and 6.0 billion years ago. Not too long after that, around 4.0 billion years ago, life began on Earth. Photosynthesis followed 3 billion years ago (GYA), sexual reproduction was at 1.2 GYA, multi-cellular life at 1.0 GYA. Mammals emerged at least 220 million years ago (MYA), but hominids weren't until around 15 MYA, the earliest things we could possibly call human at 2 MYA, and homo sapiens at 160 to 100 thousand years ago (kYA).

So the claim of finding humans in India 65 million years ago likely is not valid. Perhaps you misread or misremembered the article, and it was really 65 thousand years ago. Perhaps it was in a disreputable source (part of why I'd like to see the actual article). Or perhaps it really was a peer reviewed scientific finding, in which case I expect to hear a lot more about it in the news, including many other scientists arguing with the group that did the work.

On to the second issue, how do we determine if fossil humans were copulating. Most of what we know about the activities of fossil remains (of other creatures too, not just humans) is circumstantial evidence. If we find a body within a house near pottery, we can guess s/he was cooking or cleaning, or maybe creating pottery. If we find a dinosaur with fossil eggs next to it, it was probably nesting and incubating the eggs. Two human bodies found in an embrace would probably be assumed to be sleeping together, but based upon position alone we probably couldn't tell if they were engaged in intercourse, we really would need evidence of sexual organs as you imply.

Most of the fossils archaeologist and paleontologists find really are bones as you state. Over time, a buried bone will become encased in other stone, and the bone itself will be replaced with other minerals forming the petrified bone. Fossilized footprints are also found, and in that process the mud the creature walked in becomes stone, and then mud of a different material is laid on top and becomes stone. These types of fossils are sometimes called trace fossils. However sometimes other materials (skin, feathers, scales, internal organs) and plant material can also fossilize. My guess there is that the body becomes incased in mud and must become fossilized quickly before the soft materials can decompose, but I am not sure. But this is how we actually know that there were a number of dinosaur species with feathers, and why some people call birds today living dinosaurs. By this method, perhaps some indication of sexual organs was fossilized and preserved

A last possibility though is just that the bodies were encased in a material and then decayed, leaving an impression of the bodies behind. The ancient Roman city of Pompeii was buried in ash after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on August 24, 79 C.E. A pryoclastic flow of superheated gas, ash, dust, and rocks covered the city, and the tremors also caused a tsunami in the nearby Mediterranean. The event was too fast and unexpected for the city to be evacuated, and the death of thousands allowed us an instantaneous snapshot of the city, and even what people were doing at the time.

So in order for scientists to find fossil evidence of intercourse, the couple would have had to been buried in the act, and either had the unlikely chance of being fossilized before their bodies decayed, or have left a clear shape behind. It's unlikely (which is why none have been found yet) but not impossible (which is why it'll be cool when we do, or if the story you quoted is correct).

I hope this answers your question! :)

05 November 2005

Statistics and Trends

The human brain is remarkably good at finding trends, even where none exist. If we have a small amount of evidence that we think points in one direction, our brain will then have a tendancy to see data that supports the claim, while not noticing data that refutes it. For example, suppose someone working on human archaeological remains dies. People will laugh and scoff and someone will inevitably make a crack about the curse of the mummy. No one will believe it, and the rumor will go away. Then a second person dies. Suddenly the story is dragged back out, and someone goes through the obituaries of the world for the past X years and finds the names of everyone else in contact with the remains who died, and suddenly a full-blown curse is "established." Never mind how many people worked with the body that didn't die. It's a curse! All the deaths prove it!

It's easy for people to believe in it, and it makes a good story. To rigorously disprove it, we'd have to pick some other object, not necessarily archaeological, say my car. How many people have come into contact with my car since its "discovery" (creation) 18 years ago? How many of those people have died? Make it a percent, or a rate. Now do the same with some other random object. And another, and another. What's typical? What's statistically acceptable as random chance? NOW compare it to the "mummy's curse" deaths.

A lot of work, neh? Easier to just believe it. Not quite an unfalsifiable statement, as it's possible to test, but not a good choice of hypothesis to be disproveable.

It is not known how many people have worked on the Oetzi project - and whether the death rate is statistically high. ...

Dr Loy's brother Gareth said the two had never talked about a curse - and that Tom Loy had been in poor health, with a condition that caused his blood to clot.

An inquest into Dr Loy's death was inconclusive, ruling out foul play but unable to determine if he had died of natural causes, an accident, or both, Gareth Loy told The Australian newspaper.

An unnamed colleague of Dr Loy scoffed at the idea of a curse, the newspaper reported: "He didn't believe in the curse. It was just superstition. People die."


04 November 2005

To Heal The World

There's a good piece of relevant blog fiction over at To Heal The World. Go check it out.

Vatican to America: evolution has proof, fundamentalism is dangerous

Comparing the evolution vs. ID debate to the heliocentrism vs. geocentrism debate that condemned one of the Western world's greatest scientific minds (Galileo Galileii) to life imprisonment, Cardinal Paul Poupard, speaking for the Vatican, said

The permanent lesson that the Galileo case represents pushes us to keep alive the dialogue between the various disciplines, and in particular between theology and the natural sciences, if we want to prevent similar episodes from repeating themselves in the future. ...

We know where scientific reason can end up by itself: the atomic bomb and the possibility of cloning human beings are fruit of a reason that wants to free itself from every ethical or religious link.

But we also know the dangers of a religion that severs its links with reason and becomes prey to fundamentalism.

The faithful have the obligation to listen to that which secular modern science has to offer, just as we ask that knowledge of the faith be taken in consideration as an expert voice in humanity. ...

A hypothesis asks whether something is true or false. (Evolution) is more than a hypothesis because there is proof.


Just, wow.

02 November 2005

Astronomers discover first starlight; CNN can't figure out what happened.

CNN reporting at times stuns me, and it's usually not for good reasons. Here they messed up a good number of facts. They can't decide where the astronomers were, what they were looking at, or which telescope they used.

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin (AP) -- Researchers from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland believe they have captured traces of radiation from long-extinguished stars that were "born" during the universe's infancy.

(CNN, emphasis added)

Accompanying imageThe image that accompanies the story has no caption, but it's some random star cluster of young stars. These are always within our own galaxy, as otherwise they'd be too small to make out much detail. Local and young forming stars means it's something that's happening recently, not way back in the history of time.

The image also has tiny font in the corner saying it was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. And yet...

(Astrophysicist Alexander) Kashlinsky's team used NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to measure the cosmic radiation, which is infrared light invisible to the human eye, in a small sliver of the sky.

So in other words, CNN just grabbed a random pretty picture and threw it in.

Oh yeah, and they don't even know what they're writing the article about.

In the same issue of Nature, a team of Chinese researchers reported on a separate astronomical issue.

They said they had found that the super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way is small enough that it would fit between the Earth and the sun. That puts it at half the size of previous estimates.