21 December 2007

Planetarium Software?

On the off chance that someone following this blog has an answer for this, I'm looking for planetarium software for an online class I am developing for Fall 2008.

Minimum Qualifications
  1. Cheap, or free with a good textbook

  2. Works on Windows XP and Mac OSX.4

  3. Ground can turn on and off

  4. RA/Dec coordinates

  5. Alt/Az coordinates

  6. Sun and all planets

  7. Messier objects

  8. Ecliptic line

  9. Effectively infinite time in the past and future

  10. Asterisms ("constellation" connect-the-dots drawings)

  11. Constellation borders (outlines)

  12. I can learn it with a user's manual and/or FAQs

  13. Students can learn simple tasks with hand-holding

Preferred Qualifications
  1. Free

  2. Works on Vista and all other platforms

  3. NGC and other deep-sky objects

  4. Images of objects

  5. Ability to move forward in 1-day increments without showing intervening time, so as to demonstrate
    1. the analemma,
    2. which constellation the Sun is in throughout the year,
    3. which constellations are visible at night throughout the year,
    4. the motion of the planets relative to the Sun, and
    5. the motion of planets relative to the sky.

  6. Ability to move forward in other time increments, such as a year

  7. Precession

  8. Ability to lock on an object (such as the Sun or Moon) while progressing time

  9. Easy to learn

FWIW, Google Sky fails Minimum #9, Starry Night Pro 3.1 passes Minimum #1b but fails Minimum #2 and may fail others since I can't run it to find out, Starry Night Pro 6.2 fails Minimum 1, I suspect The Sky 6 fails Minimum 1 but I haven't done enough research to be sure, and Stellarium appears to fail Preferred 6. Some combination of Stellarium and Google Sky appears to be what I'm going to have to deal with at this point.

X-posted a few places

Asteroid 2007 WD5

Among all the hype about how asteroid 2007 WD5 has a 1 in 75 chance of hitting Mars on January 30 everyone's missing what I think is the most exciting part. According to NASA/JPL simulations it passed closed enough to Earth in early-/mid-October that our planet's own gravity is probably what actually slung it into Mars's path.

You know what's even more exciting?

We didn't discover it until November.

Science Songs

I collect science songs so I can play them for my students - sure they're college age, but who doesn't appreciate a couple F-bombs about fractals?

For the younger crowd, here's some clean ones that teach you science in 5-minute chunks. Included among them is the original version of "Why Does the Sun Shine?" (popularized by They Might Be Giants).

19 December 2007

Chocolate, Caffeine, and Theobromine - Oh My!

Branching from a different discussion about migraines, dehydration, and caffeine, I wanted to look up whether caffeine was dehydrating - I knew it was a diuretic, but I wanted to know if it more directly dehydrated. And then I got sidetracked by an article about a parrot dieing from chocolate overdose. So rather than having any sort of coherent picture for you today, I present you with some snippits of facts about chocolate, caffeine, and theobromine.

  • "In healthy adults, caffeine's half-life is approximately 3–4 hours. In women taking oral contraceptives this is increased to 5–10 hours" [Wikipedia, original source] In other words, caffeine affects women on the Pill for twice as long as it does for most other adults, but it probably affects people not on the Pill more quickly and more strongly.

  • Caffeine on its own is a stimulant in the body. Caffeine metabolizes in the liver into three different other chemicals - most becomes paraxanthine (84%, takes fat out of storage and into the bloodstream, raising blood sugar levels, and sugar is a stimulant), theobromine (12%, diuretic and a stimulant, is present in chocolate and is why most people mistakenly think that chocolate has lots of caffeine), and theophylline (4%, a good asthma treatment, but in much higher concentrations than produced by caffeine metabolism, also raises blood pressure). Each of these by products appears to be created by removing a CH_3 from caffeine and replacing it with a Hydrogen, the only question is which one gets removed; each of them has further stimulant effects. [Wikipedia: Caffeine, Theobromine]

  • Chocolate contains both caffeine and theobromine, but significantly more theobromine, and only about as much caffeine as a cup of decaf coffee. Theobromine is often confused with caffeine however, and the media does not distinguish between the two, so the misconception that chocolate is a significant source of caffeine continues to perpetuate.

  • One of the ways caffeine works is that it "competes" with adenosine, so that it essentially stops adenosine from working. Adenosine is a depressant in the human nervous system, and its presence is related to the need for sleep; its lack means that dopamine instead begins to dominate - and dopamine is a stimulant, increasing heart rate and blood pressure.

  • In humans, theobromine has less of an effect on the nervous system than does caffeine, but has more of an effect on the heart. In addition, theobromine relaxes smooth muscles (ones that act involuntarily), such as dilating blood vessels (and thereby decreasing blood pressure) and bronchial tubes in the lungs (possibly explaining why I've always felt that caffeinated beverages help when I'm feeling allergic, as I also have allergy-triggered asthma).

  • For reasons unclear to me, most animals (including dogs, cats, and birds) process theobromine more slowly than humans, with the result that it affects them more strongly, leading to theobromine poisoning. Do NOT feed your pets any of your leftover holiday chocolates. It could be the last thing they eat.

Well, that's a bunch of disorganized facts for you. :-P I warn you of two things though, (1) "damnit Jim, I'm a doctor not an engineer!" I'm a astrophysicist, not a biologist, so it's possible I'm understanding some of this wrong; and (2) since I'm not on the clock, I used Wikipedia as my primary (nearly only) source rather than peer-reviewed journals, or even authoritative/reputable news sources, and as we all know, Wikipedia's biggest strength and weakness is that anyone can edit it. If you wish to contradict or clarify anything I mentioned here, I'd appreciate a concise quote from another source, as well as a link to it - I'm looking to learn! :)

ETA: Another link here to birds and theobromine.

15 December 2007

First steps of US on Global Warming

After a week of heated argument (and "boos") with other countries in Bali, US Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky finally agreed to an amended compromise statement. According to the NY Times,

The agreement notes the need for "urgency" in addressing climate change and recognizes that "deep cuts in global emissions will be required." Still, it does not bind the United States or any country to commitments on reducing greenhouse pollution.


The EU wanted an agreement to require developed countries to cut their emissions by 25 to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2020. The United States opposes those targets, along with Japan and Canada. The latest draft of the agreement removes the specific figures and instead, in a footnote, references the scientific study that supports them.


The US and the EU earlier agreed that industrialised countries would not set firm emissions targets at this stage. The "Bali roadmap" initiates a two-year process of negotiations designed to agree a new set of emissions targets to replace those in the Kyoto Protocol.
The document coming out of the meeting, the "Bali roadmap", contains text on emissions cuts, the transfer of clean technology to developing countries, halting deforestation and helping poorer nations protect their economies and societies against impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels and falling crop yields. The roadmap sets the parameters and aims for a further set of negotiations to be finalised by the 2009 UN climate conference, to be held in Denmark.

So as far as I can tell, this is again an agreement with no teeth. The US has agreed to no tangible results whatsoever. It's progress in that we've agreed that Something Needs To Be Done and therefore are acknowledging that global warming is taking place, but all we've agreed to so far is to continue talking. Well, better that than nothing.

14 December 2007

Fluorescing cats

Everyone's been up in arms about these cloned "glowing" cats and how they're horribly eerie because they glow. Well, I have to tell you they're not eerie at all because they're not really glowing, they're fluorescing!

"Glowing" is when the object stores up light energy and releases it later in the dark. "Fluorescing" is when the object absorbs light of one form (usually UV) and immediately releases it in a different form (usually visible light). These cats would be no fun at all unless you have a UV light source. Most "blacklights" are both UV and some visible violet, but the professional ones used in that photo are only UV, and so that's why it looks like there's no light at all; if they turned off their UV light the cats would immediately go dark, just like normal cats. If you don't use a blacklight regularly, you wouldn't see anything weird about the cats at all.

There now, don't you feel better about dropping a fortune on one of these cats once they become commercially available?

ETA: Here's a video about them on CNN, that shows their faces fluorescing (it appears it's only the skin that does it, not the fur), and explains why it's medically usful.

09 December 2007

Asteroid Deflection

I find it intriguing that the best ways to deflect an asteroid from a collision with Earth always involve the Sun's light. NY Times reports on a new (to me) idea of sending a swarm of small spaceships with parabolic mirrors. These mirrors would focus sunlight on one spot on the surface of the asteroid - much like a child using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight on an ant. And just like the ant starts smoking, the spot on the asteroid would start vaporizing, and the gases coming off the asteroid would act as a rocket to push it away from its current trajectory. One benefit of this method that the Times points out is the only difference between a small and a large asteroid is how many mirror ships you send.

My favorite oddball technique is still painting half the asteroid reflective, and half absorptive - the dark side would absorb the momentum of photons from the Sun, while the light side would reflect them, and it would act like a single vane of a radiometer and the trajectory would be changed. The drawbacks to this method are that if the asteroid is spinning the trajectory change would be less, or erratic since the direction of thrust would be continually changing - and pretty much everything spins some. And painting it of course is a pain in the butt.

The mirror ships method has another advantage now that I've mentioned direction of thrust changing - the spot on the asteroid that they aim at can be changed. If the asteroid is spinning, the mirror ships can still always point at the side away from the Sun, for example. If you need to make adjustments to its trajectory, like it's moving a bit too fast, aim for the front side, and when it's going a bit to slow, aim for the back side.

24 November 2007

Science and Faith

This NY Times article is an interesting look at the basic assumption of science: that the universe is governed by rational laws. This in and of itself is an assumption - or a belief - that we are not yet capable of proving. The author alludes to the fine-tuning of universal constants and the anthropic principle, but in the end challenges science to not only find the laws, but find the ultimate reason behind those laws, and find them within our own universe - or else we are taking things on Faith.

23 November 2007

Hey baby, wanna determine the spring constant of my mattress?

Inspired by this list of physicists' pickup lines and a comment by Allison, here's a few of my own.

  • Physicists are Phun!
  • Physicists do it with simple harmonic motion.
  • Hey baby, what's your resonance frequency?
  • Aw man, I wanna integrate those curves of yours...
  • Astronomers do it in the dark, under the stars, all night long.
  • Stargazing's so cold; let's keep warm together.
  • Bigger is better - my tube's 6" around and 2 ft long.

More if I come up with more - or if you add some!

20 November 2007

Why to Take Action

Summary: We can't ever know for sure what the future holds. What we can know is the worst case scenario. If that scenario is bad enough, then we MUST take action to reduce that risk, regardless of what the chances are.

Let's say you're handed a gun with six chambers. You have no clue how many bullets are in the chambers. You are told we have to put the gun to your head and pull the trigger. You have the choice to either (A) do it now, or (B) first pull the trigger once while pointing at the wall, then spin the chamber and point the gun at your head. Which do you do? Of course you should fire at the wall first - if it was an empty chamber you spin it and then point it at yourself, losing nothing; if it was a full chamber you have emptied it, spin it, and then point it at yourself and have gained one additional empty chamber.

What if you were told you could either (A) pull the trigger now, or (B) take 10 lashes, empty one chamber, and then point it at your head? I would still take choice (B). 10 lashes will not kill me. I have no clue how many bullets are in those six chambers, it could be that they're ALL full and my only chance of survival is emptying one of them in exchange for the lashes. It's not worth that risk of my life, so long as the cost (10 lashes) is not enough to kill me either.

That's what this guy is arguing about climate change - even if we had no clue about whether it was happening, the cost of trying to reduce it just in case is so much less than the potential consequences, that we must take that choice.

And there's his various replies here.

19 November 2007

On airplanes...

I keep telling people this, and they never believe me: If I'm on an airplane and the guy next to me starts talking, if I want to keep talking I tell him I'm an astronomer, and if I want to sleep I tell him I'm a physicist. Well, now I have independent proof!

Seriously, all astrophysicists discover this independently. The first time we hear someone else say it we're not at all surprised to find out that someone else came to the same conclusion on their own. It's like gravity - lots of people discovered it. I can't wait till someone comes up with So-And-So's Laws of Airplane Boredom that describe WHY. ;)

(And of course, I usually then have to go and spoil things by telling the other person that astronomy doesn't involve looking through telescopes at stars, but instead looking at computers and programming.)

18 November 2007

Reading level...

cash advance

Ouch, that hurts! :-P

Thanksgiving Turkey

For a T-day alternative, consider buying an organic turkey. The Eat Well Guide will help you find organic farms and grocery stores near you where you can find one.

17 November 2007


I'm just jumping onboard with this Technorati thing. Check out my profile below.

Technorati Profile

Anyone want to give me pointers on how to use it?

Geek quiz

Because I rarely post memes or quizzes here...

69% Geek

14 November 2007

I need one of these

It's a spherical cow!

At $38 and more than a foot approximately 42 centimeters in diameter, that's approxmiately 0.7¢/cm3! A total bargain!

And now some people are laughing, and other people haven't taken physics.

13 November 2007

Academic Freedom

There is a bill in the House right now called "H.R. 4137, The College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007." This bill is designed to help students access higher education, regardless of their financial situation. This is a highly laudable goal. Moreover, this specific bill reauthorizes a system already in place, and already proven to work reasonably well - sure not perfectly, but without the bill going through things would be MUCH worse.

However, there are people planning to tack on an "Academic Bill of Rights" amendment. At first glance this seems harmless - it's supposed to give students the right to free speech and congregation on campuses. Take another look at that. How long have our universities and colleges, both public and private, already been providing the right to free speech and meeting and even civil protests on our campuses without interference from the Feds? When problems come up, have we ever turned to the Feds for their so-called help? You know where else the Feds are sitting on our campuses? Behind tables saying "Join the Army - you'll only have to train two weekends a year and we promise, cross our hearts, that we won't send you to Iraq to be blown up! and we'll even take you if you're schizophrenic or retarded because we need more cannon fodder people who can't understand the situation they're in while on the front lines eager recruits who we can prey upon recruit because of their debt and help to become financially solvent!"

Yeah, I want them legislating for more Federal presence on my campus. Where do I sign up?

To send a letter to your Rep, here is where you sign up.

And in case you think I'm saying this just b/c I'm a flaming Liberal, quoted directly from the model letter on that page,

Over the last four years, 28 states have considered legislation aimed at correcting an alleged “political bias” at their state colleges and universities. After examining the evidence and assessing existing institutional policies, no state enacted this legislation, regardless of which party held a political majority.

12 November 2007

Science Tatoos

Another science blogger asked his readers how many of them had science (or math or comp sci) related tattoos. This is the result. Now I'm tempted to get the below icon created by RoseFox upon my request as a tattoo. I just can't decide where...


07 November 2007

Comety goodness!

Tonight I saw Comet Holmes through a telescope. The last time I've seen any comet through a telescope was Haley's Comet way back in the 80's, in my childhood. I missed both Hale-Bopp and Hyukatuke (sp?) in the mid 90's somehow.

Check out the Wikipedia page on Comet Holmes. Scroll down a couple screens to "Location in 2007" and you'll see a nice finding chart - it's in Perseus, currently North of the left "arm" of the π shape that I see in it. It's clearly visible to the naked eye - I was in a brightly lit city, on campus near some lights, and I still was able to point it out to people who are NOT experienced observers. First find the stars of Perseus, and then you'll realize that one of the North-most stars is actually a bit fuzzy, and that's it.

Through a telescope it resolves into a HUGE fuzzy blob - bigger than planets, bigger than the Ring Nebula, bigger than Andromeda, maybe as big as the space between H and Χ Perseus. (Use the biggest diameter telescope you can, lowest power.) With some careful studying and averted vision you'll be able to see that the brightest center section is elongated (left/right in my tele's field of view, I think East/West actually), it's surrounded by a glowing cloud, and one edge of the cloud is crisp/sharp and slightly brighter (right in my field of view, I think the East edge) while the opposite edge fades away, presumably into the tail. There are no bright stars in the same field of view; focus while looking at a dim star, and keep your eyes on it to view the comet most easily.

It's just amazing. Go look at it, naked eye, binoculars, tele, whatever. The thing is exploding, this's probably its last pass around the Sun. (If it somehow survives, it'll be back in a scant 7 years.)

02 November 2007

Nowak 1; NASA 0

A Florida judge Friday handed a legal victory to a former astronaut [Lisa Nowak] accused of assaulting a romantic rival [Colleen Shipman], ruling evidence found in her car and statements she made to police after her arrest were inadmissible at trial. ...no written consent was obtained to search her car.
On the audiotape of the interview [and Miranda rights], there was no audible response from Nowak on whether she understood that her statements could be used against her in court, and when she was asked whether anyone had threatened or promised her anything to get her to talk to police, [Judge] Lubet wrote. "Thus, there is nothing in either the audio recording or the transcript of the interview that demonstrates that defendant understood these two rights and waived them."
she was "subjected to a barrage of questions" beginning in the predawn hours and was questioned for six hours without being given the opportunity to sleep or make a phone call. "Defendant had not slept during the preceding 24 hours," the judge said.
Nowak's attorneys in August filed a notice of intent to rely on an insanity defense, saying in court documents her diagnoses include a litany of more than a dozen psychiatric disorders.


As Foxtrot puts it, "And she made it into the astronaut corps how?"

24 September 2007

How to Destroy the Earth

In case the title doesn't say it all, here's a little quote:

Destroying the Earth is harder than you may have been led to believe.

You've seen the action movies where the bad guy threatens to destroy the Earth. You've heard people on the news claiming that the next nuclear war or cutting down rainforests or persisting in releasing hideous quantities of pollution into the atmosphere threatens to end the world.


The Earth is built to last...

This is not a guide for wusses whose aim is merely to wipe out humanity...

This is a guide for those who do not want the Earth to be there anymore.

Best of all, the author has taken into account the new definitions of planet and dwarf planet! Go check it out.

19 September 2007

NCLB (ESEA) Reauthorization

NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is up for renewal, and it looks like they're still screwing it up. Take action today - it takes 5 minutes if that.

from National Education Association
date Sep 19, 2007 3:00 PM
subject NEA Education Insider Special Alert: September 19, 2007

Tell Congress: SLOW DOWN and Take the Time to Get ESEA Reauthorization Right!

The House of Representatives is moving forward with very troubling legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind. The draft under discussion:

* Continues to measure school success overwhelmingly on just two (reading and math) low-quality statewide standardized tests;

* Fails to take into account adequately the unique needs of English Language Learners and students with disabilities for educationally appropriate assessments;

* Ignores the critical issues of class size reduction, access to quality early childhood education, and adequate resources for school facilities and materials;

* Contains pay for performance plans that link standardized test scores to teacher pay without the agreement of impacted teachers;

* Eliminates the High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation (HOUSSE) through which teachers can demonstrate that they are "highly qualified;" and

* Imposes many additional mandates and requirements on schools without any guarantee of additional funding.

Instead of rushing to pass legislation that will offer more bureaucracy, more mandates, and less help for students and educators, Congress should take the time to craft a bill that will truly help ensure great public schools for every child!

Send a Message to Congress Today!

Tell your Representative in Congress that you do not support the ESEA reauthorization draft currently under discussion. Urge Congress to take the time necessary to get ESEA reauthorization right! A copy of your message also will be sent automatically to House Education and Labor Committee Chair George Miller.

13 September 2007


In case you haven't heard, a spate of earthquakes have hit the Sumatra region of Indonesia in the last 24 hours - more than 60 of them according to CNN. For the scientifically/geographically minded, here's a map of the region from the USGS in which color indicates how recent the quake was (red is most recent), and size of the box indicates magnitude. It's a little nuts how many of the >7 boxes there are.

FWIW, the biggest nuclear bomb ever exploded had as much energy as a 7th magnitude quake, and ever additional magnitude is more than 30 times more energy.

No significant tsunami as of yet thankfully - a 0.6m (2ft) one was confirmed yesterday, and there's rumors of a 1-3m (3-9ft) one but unconfirmed.

05 September 2007

Statz Rappin'

Math is less my expertise, but this's still to awesome to not post.

I bet it was a project for a kickass Math class.

28 August 2007


Hm, I think I got my dates wrong. I think the lunar eclipse was early this morning, not early tomorrow morning. Oops. Stupid UT.

Protect public workers' retirement

(Perhaps slightly off-topic at first glance, but not really in the end b/c of how many scientists are public employees either through public institutions of higher education, or through national laboratories.)

"Long ago in days of yore it all began with..."

...some politicians on Capitol Hill deciding that if state and federal employees and their families got Social Security benefits in addition to their pension or retirement investment that it was "double dipping," never mind that everyone else in the US is entitled to both a pension and Social Security benefits, never mind that Social Security is their own money in both cases.

This affects ALL state and federal employees - not just me and all public higher ed workers from faculty to facilities, not just my mother (hoping to retire in 2 years) and all public K-12 teachers and employees from secretaries to security, but even firemen, cops, many EMS workers, garbage men, and so on. Of course there probably won't be any Social Security left by the time I'm eligible for it, but think of all the Baby Boomers out there who have put in 40 or 50 years of faithful service to the public (around 50 in the case of my mother), fighting fires and crayons, who are now told as they approach retirement that they deserve less than the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Because of this legislation, the widows of firefighters killed in 9/11 were likely told six years ago they will not, in fact, receive the Social Security benefits that their spouse earned with his or her sacrifice.

So what can you do about it? There are two pieces of federal legislation that my union (the NEA, National Education Association) is working to repeal, called GPO and WEP (Government Pension Offsets and Windfall Elimination Program). The way they are doing this is by bringing pressure to bear on Congressmen nationwide through petitions and letters. What you can do about this is to send a letter online. The letter is already written for you, so it will take less than 10 minutes of your time to fill in your personal information, and you'll be making a difference. Tell your friends and neighbors to participate too.

If you want more information, here's a summary from my State-level union. Spread the word.

26 August 2007

Smart is Sexy

Former child-actress Danica McKellar got sick of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears' examples and is publishing a book "Math Doesn't Suck" after she herself majored in Math in college. Get it for your daughters and neices.

Rice Resonance

In the above video, grains of dry rice are placed on a flat sheet that is driven at different frequencies (the text implies that the surface is a speaker, but it could also be done with a metal sheet or somesuch). At certain frequencies (depending on the size, shape, and material) there are spots on the sheet that tend to stand still (nodes) and spots that wave up and down a lot more (anti-nodes) - these key frequencies are called resonances. If a grain of rice lands on a spot that waves up and down a lot, it will be knocked around, but if it lands on a stationary spot it will act just like it was on a normal table surface and stand still. Thus the grains of rice tend to gather around the nodes in the material when at a resonance frequency - as shown by the pretty patterns.

As the frequency changes away from a resonance, all of the material will shake up and down (no nodes exist), and the rice will scatter all over (these are also the times when the person adds more rice). Then it moves into another resonant frequency and the nodes are located in different spots on the sheet, resulting in a different pattern to the rice. There does exist a lowest possible frequency for resonance, presumably the really simple pattern you first see, but there is no theoretical max to the highest resonance state, just technical limits to how fast you can drive the sheet.

Lunar Eclipse Tuesday

Tuesday night / Wednesday morning will be a total lunar eclipse - it starts a little before 5am (Eastern Daylight Savings Time), totality is around 6:30am, and it ends (theoretically) around 8:30am (more precise times and other time zones at the link above). It is visible in the America,s Australia, and Asia, but not in Europe or Africa; in the Eastern US unfortunately the moon will be setting during the eclipse, so you will not get to see all of it.

If you wish to watch it, I recommend dressing warmer than you think and using bug spray, and start out by going out around a half hour before it's supposed to start (so around 4:30am on the East Coast), watch till you get bored, and repeat every half hour. Binoculars or a low power telescope will enhance the experience, but is not required. If you wish to use a camera, set it on a tripod, open the shutter all the way, and bracket from 1/60s to 5s - use a soft release button or a timer to make sure you don't shake the camera when you trigger it. This APOD photo is an example of what you can do; in it, the Moon moved from bottom to top. Since the Moon will be setting for us and is usually towards the South, it will appear to move downwards, or to the right.

25 August 2007

Compost vs. Garbage Disposal?

I just found out that my trash service picks up compost materials. But most of the stuff I would compost otherwise, I've got a garbage disposal to get rid of. Which is better for the environment for me to do?

Google Sky

Latest from Google Earth is Google Sky. If you download the Google Earth program, you now have the option to view the sky instead of just the Earth. The images for the sky come from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), the Palomar Observatory, and the Hubble Space Telescope. The video demo of the sky aspect looks really promising, and I'm in the process of downloading installing it right now (yay Mac version!).

I can't wait until they *really* get with it and include not only visual wavelengths (as SDSS, Palomar, and the HST all are), but also start including IR (such as IRAS and 2MASS) and radio and microwave (like COBE), and so on. All wavelengths are crucial to astronomy, not just what our eyes can see.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for the makers of TheSky to sue Google over the name. And if you want a head slapper, find Sally Ride's mistake.

18 July 2007

How to Become a Scientist

Just found this resource from an LJ community I follow. It's a discussion of what to do academically to become a scientist. Reminds me of my similar post (concentrating more on the time scales) from 2005.

17 July 2007

"Why do we need to know...?"

Well, on the upside, I'm glad to know it's not just students in science classes.

Rockin' Astrophysicist

After a 30-year leave of absense to become Queen's lead guitarist, Brian May finally finished writing his astrophysics doctorate thesis. We don't know yet if his thesis committee has accepted it, and the actual graduation wouldn't be until next May (2008).

03 July 2007

N-body problem

Next time you need some entertainment, check out this Planet simulation game. Although "solving" the three-body problem is not possible, simulations are trivial. For a couple goals, try to get a "Mercury" type planet - closer to the Sun than the Earth, highly elliptical orbit. When you get it, it will precess naturally due to Earth's gravitation (rather than due to general relativity as Einstein proved). And a harder goal is getting a Moon to orbit the Earth (I haven't managed yet).

18 June 2007

Even Newton knew it

Science and religion are NOT opposed. Papers just revealed to the public in Jerusalem show Newton's calculation of the end of the world based upon the book of Daniel (no sooner than the year 2060), and the dimensions of the temple which reflect the cosmos.

And just because I'm feeling dorky and sleep deprived... Science and religion are not antiparallel, they're skewy.

13 June 2007

China's FDA head gets death penalty

Zheng Xiaoyu, former director of China's State Food and Drug Administration, was sentenced to death for corruption on Tuesday. AP/Reuters/MSNBC

He was guilty of accepting more than $800,000 in bribes, his actions led to the deaths of thousands of US cats and dogs a full two years after he was fired, and dozens of human deaths from tainted antibiotics, and as a result China is giving him the death penalty.

I'm not sure what to think.

08 June 2007

Vector Physics - Japanese TV style

For your entertainment, on the page I found it, it said "Vector physics in real life. From 'Trivia no Izumi' (Fountain of Trivia), the same Japanese show that figured out how heavy a fish Dora cat can carry."

For your edification, what's happening is the truck is driving forward (left) at 100km/hr, while the ball is being shot backwards (right) at (-)100km/hr relative to the truck. Note in particular the strobe effect photos of the ball shot from a stationary truck at 1:40, and the ball shot from the moving truck at 3:50. Also note that while the ball falls it drifts forward slightly, this could be due either to a mismatch in velocities or due to drafting (wind following the motion of the truck), and after it impacts the ground it bounces forward significantly, probably due to spin ("English") on the ball or possibly due to drafting (since the video is sped back up we can't tell how fast it's moving forward compared to while it was falling).

Link c/o hitchhiker.

04 June 2007

Safe cleaners

I just found the linked slideshow on safer, more natural cleaners than the chemical concoctions we usually use around the house. It's from CNN and some of the information comes from the EPA too. Enjoy!


29 May 2007

Astro News Time

Astronomy article on the frontpage of CNN? Check!
Multiple astronomy articles on the frontpage of CNN? Check!
It must be that AAS Meeting time of the year. Check!

Interesting that they're both Geoff Marcy, poster child for exoplanets. I wonder if there isn't anyone else there or something - the Summer meetings are usually less well-populated than the Winter meetings. Interesting that Marcy's in the middle of an observing run during the conference, a coincidence made possible by the meeting being in Hawaii this year. And my stupid school gives me $300 a year for professional development funds. *grumble*

Oh foo, next year's meetings are in boring places, so even if I get that NASA grant (yeah, it's still pending *grumble*) it won't be that exciting. Too bad, 2009's are both in California.

25 May 2007

Pseudoephedrine letter

I don't often advocate for political causes (other than education and science), but here's one. I sent copies of the below letter to my congresspeople, and I urge you to do so as well. Please also feel free to forward this link or email it to friends, family, and coworkers who might also want to send a letter.

Honorable ******,

I am writing to you today about the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 (CEMA), an amendment to the PATRIOT Act that makes the purchase of the most effective over the counter (OTC) decongestant, pseudoephedrine, in moderate quantities an act of terrorism. The act first came into effect on September 30th, 2006, and as such we are currently in the first allergy season under the act, and its impact upon allergy sufferers is only now coming to light. The strict limitations on the amount of pseudoephedrine that may be purchased at a time represents an undue burden upon allergy sufferers nationwide. Considering that the National Institute of Health has authored studies showing that 54.3% of the US population suffers from allergies, chances good are that you yourself are negatively impacted by CEMA, as well as your family members and more than half of your constituents.

Pseudoephedrine is the best OTC decongestant out there, is the main ingredient in Sudafed, and is an important additional ingredient in many antihistamines such as Claritin and Alavert. Because pseudoephedrine can be processed to create methamphetamine, Congress decided in 2005 to pass CEMA as an amendment to the PATRIOT Act and now classifies the purchase of too much pseudoephedrine as a terrorist act. The problem is that the limits set on the drug are too restrictive: a daily 24-hour dose is 240mg, the law allows the purchase of 3.5g per day (equivalent to 14 days' dosage) or 9g in a 30-day period (equivalent to 37 days' dosage), or 7g in a 30-day period (29 days' dosage) should you purchase online.

These restrictively low numbers mean that allergy sufferers (such as myself) must carefully plan trips to pharmacies to obtain sufficient amounts to sustain us through each month. As the limits apply to ALL drugstores and pharmacies combined, we cannot hop from one pharmacy to another. It necessitates extra trips to the pharmacy for me - a matter of time, convenience, and gasoline consumption. It means that I cannot stock up when they are on sale and thus have to spend more money than I would otherwise. It means that should I forget to buy some pseudoephedrine when I can, I will do without, and like many drugs its effectiveness decreases when it has not been taken for a number of consecutive days.

Allergy sufferers' needs can be addressed by modifying the law to allow higher limits of pseudoephedrine purchase within each day and 30-day period, without significantly impacting its effectiveness in fighting methamphetamine. I would recommend increasing the daily limit to 7.2g/day (30 days' dosage) and monthly limit to 22g/30-days (90 days' dosage). The single case that has been prosecuted to date, of William Fousse, involved the purchase of 29g within a 30-day period, and as such modifying the law as I recommend would still allow the prosecution of the individual in question, and would represent a significant improvement for allergy sufferers.

Thank you for your time, and I hope that you will consider authoring or supporting an amendment to CEMA that would allow higher limits on the purchase of pseudoephedrine, relieving an undue burden on the 54.3% of your constituents that suffer from allergies.

To find your federal legislators, you can use the following webpages.

Via the American Astronomical Society - type in your zip+4 or address. Use this one to get the mailing addresses of your congresspeople; use the one in DC b/c Congress is currently in session so that's where they are right now.

Via the National Education Association - insert your zip code where it says xxxxx below. This one lets you send automatic emails to your congresspeople. You still need to input your info though so they can include that in the email, and you may have to do a captcha to prove you're a human. This one can also help you find your state legislators should your state have more restrictive laws than CEMA that you wish to protest as well.

23 May 2007

DNA Testing and Identical Twins

It never occurred to me before, but one of the limitations of DNA testing is that it cannot distinguish between identical twins. In the linked article a woman may have had sex with two men who were identical twin brothers on the same night, conceived a child, and is now suing just one of the brothers for child support. As DNA cannot distinguish which of the two is the father, the judge reverted to the traditional eyewitness testimony and felt that the mother was the most reliable witness and therefore took her word that the interviewed brother is the father while he is claiming otherwise.

Similarly, if identical twin brothers were accused of raping someone, or a murderer with an identical twin had left some hair at a crime scene, in neither case could the culprit be positively identified by DNA testing. It's a shame, b/c we do know that eyewitness testimony is quite unreliable.

20 May 2007

Male Breast Cancer

In many aspects of medicine, men are treated as the "gold standard," and women as a variation upon that, and often one we don't understand very well. While this is improving in many respects, I was intrigued to find there's one aspect where women are the gold standard and men are the rare variation, and that is (as the title says), breast cancer. This lack of knowledge about how to treat men is primarily due to the lower incidence of breast cancer in men. Sadly, they have a lower survival rate than women, so more research is definitely needed.

16 May 2007

Planet of "hot solid water"

The BS-factor on this article is really danged high. First off, the actual sources - here's the pre-print abstract for the reference paper by Gillon, Pont, et al. (A&A May 2007), the paper has been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics, but has not yet been published; and an earlier paper by Etangs (A&A January 2007) has already been published and if you're on a college/university campus you can click on "Full Refereed Journal Article" near the top to read the whole thing (I'm currently home and so cannot read it). I have to admit that I cannot read the full articles as of yet, but based upon what I have read I don't see a convincing argument.

Gillon, Pont, et al., and earlier Etangs studied this planet GJ 436b (its star was the 436th object in the GJ catalog, whatever that catalog was, and as the second object in that system it's labelled b) and determined its mass from how much its star wobbled (via the Doppler effect). Etangs predicted an evaporation rate based upon the star's luminosity and determined that the planet would have to have a density of at least 3g/cm3 - if the density were too low, the whole thing would just blow away from the stellar wind. Gillon et al. determined its radius from how much it dimmed its parent star when crossing in front of it (called transiting or eclipsing). Knowing its mass and its radius gives a density whose value is not explicitly stated in what I can see from home, but I'm guessing is in the range of 1-3g/cm3.

Now, I admit that density is a KEY thing when determining the composition of a planet. Gas giants (Jovian planets) have densities around 1g/cm3. Icy dwarf planets and moons (Plutinos, Kuiper Belt Objects, comets) are more like 3g/cm3. Rocky planets (terrestrials) top out the chart at 5g/cm3. However, the first problem in this situation is that icy bodies usually are NOT pure water ice (H2O) - they're a bunch of dry ice (CO2), methane ice (CH4), and probably even some ammonia ice (NH3). But they're not just water ice, so knowing a body's density does NOT fully specify its composition, just the phase and general class of composition.

Second, there's multiple ways to get the same density. Instead of being a body that's uniformly icy material, it could be high density gas or liquid in the middle, for example Jupiter is believed to have a core of liquid hydrogen. This is less likely than icy material, but it's still a possibility, and I'm not sure if there's enough information to rule this possibility out. Related (objection 2a) is that just because a material is dense doesn't mean it's in a solid state, so even if it were water, it could still be super-dense liquid water.

Which in fact is much more likely than dense ice, since water reaches its peak density at 4ºC - if you cool it any more than that, even to freezing, it becomes less dense. So to reach a high density you CANNOT have what we normally think of as water ice. If perhaps it is solid, it will be some wierd other state of solid water that we should label something other than ice, but I'm more inclined to think that it's a wierd other state of supercooled or superpressurized liquid water - or more likely not water! I think they need a chemist here.

And lastly, calling it ice is deceiving b/c of the temperature claim - if it's hot, it's not going to be ice. In fact, if it's hot I'd expect the water to evaporate!

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." I have yet to see it in this case. There is one case which I am more inclined to believe - Barman has detected water vapor in the spectrum of HD 209458b, though it has yet to be confirmed by another researcher. Spectral analysis is the way to determine the chemical make-up of any material. Until I see this evidence, anything else is just circumstantial.

14 May 2007

"The Mercury 13" Receive Honorary Doctorates

The Mercury 13 were a group of women during the Mercury space program era. These women had many hours of commercial and non-combatant flight, successfully passed all the physical tests of endurance and strength (in fact, more women passed than men), successfully passed all the hurdles their employers attempted to place before them, and a number even passed psychological, and better than the men on average. None of them ever made it into space, despite arguing in front of Congress that they should be allowed to go to space (with even John Glenn arguing against them). (Ackmann and Sherr wrote a good book about them if you want to learn more.)

And now all 13 were awarded honorary doctorates from U Wisconsin, Oshkosh. And more here.

09 May 2007

Melamine pet food follow-up

The guy in charge of the Chinese factory from whence the wheat gluten flour was sold to the US is claiming that he doesn't even know what melamine is. He's being held by Chinese authorities for 30 days, and after that will be either charged or released.

Yes, you read that right, it's wheat flour that was actually contaminated with melamine and cyuranic acid, and it was then mislabeled as wheat gluten or rice protein concentrate. It was this flour that made its way into the feed for hogs, poultry, and fish, and none of the news I've read addressed whether the flour could've made its way directly into the human food supply. Meaning that individuals can only avoid potentially contaminated products by eating home-grown or buying from trusted organic-type farms. I'm screwed.

The mechanism for death is that the melamine and cyuranic acid react in the kidneys, causing crystals, organ failure, and eventual death. Kidneys play an important role in homeostasis, including filtering out impurities in the blood, maintaining the proper acidity, blood pressure, and levels of electrolytes in the blood. Screwing with any one of those individually will kill you, all three...

Although the FDA has received 4,000 complaints of pet (cat and dog) deaths, only 17 have been confirmed.

LA Fires threaten Griffith Observatory

Dangit, they just finisher renovating that thing, and now a wildfire is raging through the park in which the observatory is located.

The park is in the Hollywood Hills, about 10 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. It includes golf courses, tennis courts, the city's zoo and botanical gardens and the copper-domed Griffith Park Observatory.

The bright orange glow of the fire provided a striking backdrop for the white facade of the observatory into the evening hours.

*crosses fingers*

08 May 2007

"Pillow Angel" surgery was illegal

It's not often we hear follow-ups on headline news, so I figured I'd bring this one to y'all's attention: the surgery that removed "pillow angel" Ashley's uterus has been determined to have been against the law.

"Washington law specifically prohibits the sterilization of minors with developmental disabilities without zealous advocacy on their behalf and court approval," said Mark Stroh, WPAS [Washington Protection and Advocacy System, a private group vested with federal investigative authority for people with disabilities,] executive director, in a statement. The hospital has apologized and says they'll be more rigorous in the future, including ALL future treatments for Ashley herself. WPAS is not intending to prosecute.

30 April 2007


Scroll ALL the way right.

Be sure to scroll all the way right.

A zoomed out version - click for a little more detail.

The original page contains not safe for work ("for a mature audience") ads, but because I like to cite my sources it's here, and it contains no information about where the image comes from. If anyone knows where this mural is located, please let me know!

26 April 2007

Hawking survives Vomit Comet

That is such a relief. He did 8 of the free-fall parabolas, grinning the whole time. His motivation? Not just release from his everyday hum-drum life of a preeminent mathematician / theoretical physicist at Cambridge University, probably not even release from his wheelchair and MS, but to "encourage public interest in space". Life on Earth he says, is at risk from global warming and other threats, and "the human race has no future if it doesn't go into space."

About Evolution

Thanks to galbinus_caeli for linking this evolution primer. Haven't read it in full yet, but what I have, I like.

23 April 2007

Letter to the Editor, Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Daylight exacerbates warning

You may have noticed that March of this year was particularly hot. As a matter of fact, I understand that it was the hottest March since the beginning of the last century. All of the trees were fully leafed out and legions of bugs and snakes were crawling around during a time in Arkansas when, on a normal year, we might see a snowflake or two. This should come as no surprise to any reasonable person. As you know, Daylight Saving Time started almost a month early this year. You would think that members of Congress would have considered the warming effect that an extra hour of daylight would have on our climate. Or did they ? Perhaps this is another plot by a liberal Congress to make us believe that global warming is a real threat. Perhaps next time there should be serious studies performed before Congress passes laws with such far-reaching effects.


22 April 2007

Happy Earth Day!

It's our Earth.

Whole Earth, Afirca side

Please take care of it.

Earth and Moon

It's the only one we've got.

Moon over atmosphere

We live on a thin skin of livable air and water. When we destroy that, it's gone.

Sun and Earth and spaceship boom

And take care of each other. We're what makes this lifeless rock livable.

20 April 2007

War on Scientists?

33 or more are dead in a massacure in an Engineering building at Virginia Tech. The dead included 3 Engineering professors, and two language instructors. And this afternoon another gunman killed a hostage and himself - this time in the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.

To heck with it being a war on celebrities and arguing for and against gun control, I want to know why all these people cracking up are picking scientists?! Maybe the IDers are behind it all, it's a right-wing conspiracy!

I do hope everyone realizes I'm making light of serious situations to try and defuse them and don't really believe half of what I said above...

12 April 2007

Astrology: Ophiuchus (1) and Time per Sign (2)

The simplest part of astrology is astrological / horoscope / zodiac signs. These were originally based upon the constellations in the sky that the Sun passed through during the year - you can't actually see that constellation at that time due to the Sun being out, but we can map everything and we know exactly which ones it passes through when. (The specific path of the Sun is called the ecliptic, the constellations it passes through, the zodiac.)

These 13 astrological signs are

  1. Aries

  2. Taurus

  3. Gemini

  4. Cancer

  5. Leo

  6. Virgo

  7. Libra

  8. Scorpio (constellation: Scorpius)

  9. Ophiuchus

  10. Sagittarius

  11. Capricorn

  12. Aquarius

  13. Pisces

In between the sun passing through Scorpius and Sagittarius, it spends a while in Ophiuchus. In fact, the Sun spends more time in Oph than it does in Sco, begging the question of whether the Sun spends the exact same amount of time in each other sign, as is implied by the fact that the dates for signs are evenly distributed. If what matters is where the Sun is in the sky, it should matter how long it spends in each sign. Ophiuchus map

Note in the image to the right the red dashed line representing the ecliptic (the Sun's path), the yellow dashed lines indicating constellation borders, "Sgr" (Sagittarius) in gray on the left, and the little sliver of "Sco" (Scorpius) passed through on the right on the Sun's way from "Lib" (Libra).

As for Ophiuchus, it is one of the 88 internationally recognized constellations. The exact borders were proposed in 1875, and accepted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1933, but the thing to keep in mind is that they had been used in common practice for centuries earlier. Millenia even: the first record of any information about the constellations dates to the 700s BCE. (And unlike the IAU's decision on Pluto, the definition of constellations appears to have been entirely uncontrovertial and unchallenged.)

So two flaws to astrology: Ophiuchus isn't included, and each of the 12 (incorrect) signs is given the same amount of time, even though the Sun spends a different amount of time in them.

05 April 2007

Selection Effect

You are sitting on a chair with a notebook. You're kinda tired, so you keep dozing off. A noise wakes you, and you look up to see a woman rummaging through her purse. You make a note in your notebook. A while later she leaves. You doze off again. You hear women's voices outside in the hallway, and open your eyes as two walk in. Two more notes in your notebook. A woman jangling her keys is noted a few minutes later, another woman tossing something in the trash, and so on.

At the end of the day you have seen 212 women, and you yourself are the only man. Do you conclude that...

A) Women make more noise so when the men entered you didn't hear them and didn't mark them down? (A selection effect or bias.) -OR-
b) The room you were in has some reason for there to be more women - you're in the common room at a woman's dorm, you're in a woman's bathroom, you're in the lobby to an operahouse, you're in a nail salon, etc.? (There's a real effect.)

At what point do we decide that an observation is due to a detection bias, and at what point do we realize that despite the detection bias we're observing a real effect?

31 March 2007

Scientists vs. Laymen

xkcd: The Difference

Click the link and mouse-over for a few seconds for even more chuckles.

I want their Science/COBE T-shirt.

30 March 2007

Don't try this at home.

A kid followed directions found online to make an alcohol and chlorine bomb in a 2-liter bottle, as featured in many YouTube videos. The result? Scars on hands and face, eyelashes burned off, and temporarily blinded for the next 6 months (give or take).

The lesson? Don't try this at home if you don't know what you're doing. IF you have access to a full face shield, goggles (don't wear contact lenses), body armor, thick protective gloves, and so on, you might be able to get away with it, but I wouldn't suggest trying. As for me... there's a reason I went into a math-heavy observational science field: I don't like things that can kill me.

28 March 2007

Endangered Species Act

The Dolitter's got a good rant up about the latest attempt to gut the Endangered Species Act. Go gander!

25 March 2007

Astrology: Intro

I haven't done a post on astrology in a long time - too long. And it's going to take me forever to cover all of what I find wrong with it, and the few things that are good about it. To start off with, I'd like to solicit questions that you may have, and list a few topics that I will want to cover in a series on astrology - most are things that are wrong, a couple actually ARE right (though this begs the question of why they couldn't fix other related things).

  1. Horoscopes' daily predictive value

  2. Birth signs' personality predictive value

  3. Ophiuchus

  4. Precession of your sign

  5. First point in Ares

  6. Age of Aquarius

  7. Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn

  8. Planets and minor planets

I have to admit that I am only knowledgable about horoscopes and how birth signs work in general; I do not know the details about the planets, or exact birth times. If you wish to attempt to enlighten me, feel free, but do expect criticism as I am a self-proclaimed "skeptic" about astrology. And if there are topics you'd like to see me cover, lemmie know in the comments.

I'm famous!

My name's in a book! Along with a few hundred other past employees of NRAO Tucson. :-P

22 March 2007

Oh, Arizona

Former AZ governor "comes out" that he believes a famous "sighting" in in 1997 called the Phoenix Lights was an alien spacecraft, and says the burden of proof otherwise is on the DOD. *rolls eyes*

18 March 2007

Crackpot of the day - CMB not cosmic

One of the benefits of being a science faculty member is that crackpots think you're their key to fame. Take this paper for example. It's only two pages, and I only skimmed the article, but some of the flaws I find are...

  1. Only at the position of the COBE satellite has a nearly perfect thermal spectrum been recorded. Not true, it's also been detected by WMAP (satellite) more recently, and previously by Penzias and Wilson (New Jersey), BOOMERanG (Antarctic baloon), Cosmic Background Imager (Andes, Chile), and many others. It's worth noting that the CMB has essentially won two Nobel prizes at this point in time - one for Penzias and Wilson, and one for COBE.

  2. Given sufficient scattering at all frequencies, at the position of COBE, the signal examined must be isotropic. But it isn't. The very largest effect found in the CMB is a dipole signal due to the Earth's and Sun's velocity through space. It is easily removed with models based upon our known velocity in space. If the CMB were from some source tied to the Earth (such as the Earth's atmosphere or the Earth's oceans), this dipole would not exist at all.

  3. Although the article discusses the possibilities of microwave scattering in the atmosphere and an oceanic source, it does not present models or other tangible evidence linking either hypothesis to reality. This is essentially the same flaw as IDers have.

Feel free to pile on and offer your own criticisms.

11 March 2007

New Mexico lawmakers declare Pluto a planet

I don't care how many resolutions they pass, saying it doesn't make it true. As a resolution, it doesn't even carry any weight - they're not outlawing textbooks that call Pluto a dwarf planet, they're not changing the state K-12 science standards. Besides, laws don't change basic science. Might as well pass a law that π=3 while they're at it.

Your Opinion: Do you think it is futile, dangerous, exciting, or something else (non-exclusie OR) for lawmakers to be making laws about science?

07 March 2007

A first for women!

The first US astronaut to be fired is a woman. [CNN, NY Times/AP, NY Times/Reuters]

A search of the NASA webpage on "lisa nowak" does not yet reflect this. It really is historic, not only is this the first time a woman has done such-and-such, but a woman was the first to do it at all. I think I'm going to cry.

Women in Space

Did you know that women astronauts are required by NASA to go on the Pill continually before going into space? Not only do they want to make sure there's no chance they'll get pregnant before going up, they also want to eliminate menstruation. The article fails to mention the complication that it can take months for your body to learn when not to menstruate and that you're still going to get breakthrough bleeding.

There's also ALL sorts of concerns about bone density - a 2% loss per month for both men and women, but women after menopause likely do not regain it when they land. And most women astronauts are in their late thirties or early fourties so they are getting close to menopause (~50). And they don't have the opportunity to have kids even worse than women in ground-based research science.

And they invariably pass out when standing back on Earth as compared to only 20% of men doing so.

And so on.

There's just so much we don't know about women in space yet - out of around 450 people who have gone to space, there have only been 50 women.

If you haven't yet read The Mercury 13 by Ackmann, do so.

06 March 2007

What is Science?

Linked to me by kadath, is this blog post defining Science. The important part is the 3-part definition, which includes EVERYTHING I've ever thought of as science.

#1: Science is a changing and growing collection of knowledge, characterized by transparency (all methods are documented, and the lineage of ideas can be traced) and testability (prior work can be repeated or its results evaluated). It is an edifice of information that contains all of the details of its construction.

#2: Science is what scientists do. We have institutions that train people and employ them in the business of generating new knowledge — contributing to that edifice in definition #1 — and we have procedures like the bestowal of degrees and ranks that certify one's membership in the hallowed ranks of science.

#3: Science is a process. It is a method for exploring the natural world by making observations, drawing inferences, and testing those inferences with further experimentation and observation. It isn't so much the data generated as it is a way of thinking critically about the universe and our own interpretations of it.

There are essentially three different usages of the word "Science" that I have seen, and Pharyngula neatly sums them all up. #1 is the layman's definition, #2 is the research scientist's, and #3 is the educator's. When I student-taught middle school science, one of our main goals was showing the kids that they ARE scientsts themselves and that they already do use the process of science in their everyday lives, so it's not something big and scary and separate from them.

Whose job is it to find killer asteriods?

Congress says it's NASA's; NASA replies not on this budget! I think they're going about it wrong. NASA's job is the exploration of space - specifically, going to objects. NASA employs far more engineers than astronomers. It's the job of astronomers to look at objects, and that is all that's required to find asteroids. True, NASA runs the space observatories, but that's only because they've gotta get up there somehow. Once they're up there, the majority of the time on them is thrown open to anyone who applies for the time - generally astronomers, not engineers.

I think the best bet would be for Congress to establish another National Observatory, let's call it the National Asteroid Observatory (NAO), along the lines of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO, runs Arecibo and the VLA, among others) or the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO, runs most of the telescopes on Kitt Peak, among others). Or, since those are based upon wavelength regimes and we wish to base upon the target instead, a more similar model might be the National Solar Observatory (NSO, Kitt Peak and Sac Peak primarily). All of these are under the National Science Foundation (NSF, currently has a telescope doohickey linked on their frontpage, whose sound effects fascinate Gabe). The new organization would also cooperate with NASA to get any actual deflection missions done, but *detection* is a research thing, not an engineering thing.

And the bonus value-added feature of having a new group independant of NASA? NASA wouldn't be able to fuxx0r it up.

02 March 2007

Lunar Eclipse Saturday!

Saturday is a total lunar eclipse (pointed out to me by Sclerotic_Rings as usual).

Man, I just love these things! Notice how Saturday's lunar eclipse is followed in two weeks by a partial solar eclipse. Also note how that happens again later this year (six months later) in August/September. The reason? When the Earth-Moon-Sun are aligned just right for a part of the year (line of nodes, eclipse season), they may cross each others paths for a couple weeks before and after - this means that whenever there's a solar eclipse (at a New Moon), there's a good chance of a lunar one two weeks before or after (at the Full Moon). And if there's one set on a certain date, there's a good chance six months before or after, halfway around the Sun, that it might happen again.

More info on Wikipedia.

27 February 2007

Exoplanet data

The furthest discovered exoplanet is OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, at 21,500±3,300 ly distance. However, it is an anomaly, as it was discovered using gravitational lensing, which I believe allows us to detect things much further away than the other methods, so the fact that most exoplanets have been discovered by other methods leads me to think I should throw out lensing-detected exoplanets.

Wikipedia also has a list of all 212 exoplanets discovered to date, that I intend to comb though. It occurs to me that if I do a rigorous job of this, I could submit it as a literature review to a peer-reviewed astronomy journal. One problem is (in addition to getting primary sources for the Wikipedia info) it would require me to confirm that no one else has published the same thing. To that effect, a couple links for me (and anyone else curious):

  • ADS Abs - a searchable archive of all published peer-reviewed astronomy papers. I think it stands for Astrophysical Database Service Abstracts, but I could be wrong. Hosted by Harvard.

  • Astro-ph - another searchable archive of astronomy papers, not as good a search engine, but includes papers that are in the process of peer-review and aren't yet published. Hosted by Los Alamos National Labs.

26 February 2007

Today's Astronomy lesson

In local coordinates, besides 0º altitude being the (ideal) horizon, we have two other key points - the zenith at an altitute of +90º, and the nadir at -90º. These are both originally English words, though they're used less often lately. Zenith means "peak, height, best", for example "The pop star was at the zenith of her career." And nadir means "lowest, worst," as in "Britney Spears is at the nadir of her career."


Mad Movie Scientists

Linkie dink

And aw, shucks, Sclerotic Rings likes me. ^_^''

25 February 2007

Fuel cell car

Although this blog article on fuel cells isn't entirely correct (see my comments below the article), the author still makes some good points about fuel cells NOT being a solution to our fossil fuel problem.

23 February 2007

Question of the Month: Exoplanets

We now know of at least 212 extrasolar planets. All of these (except maybe a few) are what's known as "hot Jupiters" - they're as huge as Jupiter, but they're really close to their sun. The reason for this is always touted as being that our detection methods are biased to find high mass planets (big), and to find ones with short periods (close to the star).

My question now is what percent of stars in the studyable volume of space have so far been found to have these hot Jupiters? If it turns out there's only 400 stars close to us, and 200 of them have hot Jupiters, or 50% of nearby stars have hot Jupiters, then we've definitely more information than a detection bias, it'd would be a real tendancy. But how many is it really?

To answer this question (first order approximation), I'll need two bits of information: (1) how far is the furthest star around which we've detected a planet? and (2) what's the local stellar density? The latter I can find with a little searching, the former perhaps with a lot of searching. If anyone gets the info before me, let me know, otherwise I'll post my results when I have them.

20 February 2007

Flu experiment

CNN is all ranting and raving about a University of Michigan study in which some 2,000 students living in the dorms are wearing face masks and using hand sanitizer throughout flu season to empirically discover their effectiveness at reducing the spread of the flu.

Apparently even though there's lots of anecdotes about masks helping prevent illness, there haven't been any real solid data about it. On the one hand, I think it's great that they're getting hard empirical evidence about the spread of flu in preparation for a potential pandemic (as well as studying to sociological/psychological aspects of having people wear masks!), and on the other hand it strikes me as a "no duh!" moment.

And no good story goes un-anecdoted. In Spring 2006, a year ago, I was to start treatments with Remicade, which has immunosuppressant side effects. Because I didn't want to get sick while on it, before I even started the treatments, I started washing my hands or applying antibacterial gel after every class. Prior to doing so, I would typically get a mild cold during the first week of EVERY semester, and often catch a moderate cold during the middle of the semester. I did not get any notable illnesses in Spring 2006, so I repeated it in Fall 2006, also failling to catch ill. This Spring I was sick three days after the first day of meetings of Spring 2007 - I forgot to wash my hands all day.

I went a full year without illnesses, simply by washing my hands three times during my work day, every work day. Give it a try yourself; maybe you'll be pleasantly surprised. BUT do NOT try this with children. They need to build up their immune systems - as adults, ours are already fixed, but kids's immune systems have to learn it's ok to have some amount of germs around. Without continual mild exposures to germs, kids are at a higher risk for developing allergies and asthma, or so the latest research suggests (not that I have a source handy).

Australia bans incandescent bulbs

Awesome, Australia has decided to ban "normal" incandescent bulbs, in favor of CFLs (compact fluorescent lights). [BBC, CNN Video]

The motivation is that saving the electricity will save CO_2 production, and therefore slow global warming. That's great, but I have a couple questions still: (1) What about all the mercury going to landfills? and (2) can physical science teachers still obtain incandescents for demos? :-P

17 February 2007

Climate Change Report

I recently wrote an email to a colleague with whom I've been debating global warming. We both agree that it's happening, but he thinks we do not have sufficient evidence to conclude it's manmade (via CO_2) rather than solar variation.

My email:
FYI, here's a link to a summary of the IPCC report on global warming from Wikipedia.
And here's the full text.

The summary is in a nice bulleted format with section headers, so you can skip to the parts you're most interested in. The report includes data stating that

1) atmospheric CO_2 and methane levels are higher than at any other time in the past 650,000 years, and

2) since 1750, human activities have resulted in "radiative forcing" of 1.6 W/m^2, while solar variations have resulted in only 0.12 W/m^2.

Page 11 of the full text has a graph, Figure SPM-4, which compares the observed temperature increase since 1900 with computer models assuming only natural sources, and natural plus antropogenic sources - search through the full document on the word "solar" to find relevant sections.

I don't have permission to repost his reply, so I'll try and reword it at another time.

See also this paper on ice ages, this discussion of that paper, and this discussion of that discussion.

14 February 2007

Physics is Love

Earlier this week my students asked me if I'd cancel class on Valentine's Day. I replied of course not, because we all love physics! And to prove my point, check out this little treatise on romance as circuit diagrams. It's a little flawed as I mention elsewhere, but still entertaining and illustrates a point.

13 February 2007

PEAR Labs closes/relocates

Thanks to Sclerotic-Rings for the head's up. Princeton's Engineering Anomalies Research Lab is closing due to lack of funds, 28 years after its inception.

The group studied whether consciousness affected random events on a large statistical scale. They found minute but statistically significant influences from human thoughts, or (take your pick) statistical anomalies in their data. They published peer-reviewed articles about their work, and also published later work that failed to confirm their original work.

In the end, they say they have proven that consciousness does play a role in random events, denying the current state of physics that allows for no mechanism for such an interaction. I say that they may have valid arguments against current physics, however they fail to do the thing that real scientists do: propose an alternate hypothesis that can be further tested. To me they are no better than those who support Intelligent Design. I agree entirely with IDers' claim that Darwinian Evolution has flaws - (1) Punctuated Equilibrium has supplanted Darwinian evolution, so they're really barking up the wrong tree, but (2) Irreducible Complexity is something that is not well-explained by any of our evolution models. However, by failing to propose an alternative scientific hypothesis that does fill in the gaps of evolution, ID fails to be science. Similarly, it appears that consciousness could affect random events, but the PEAR Labs researchers fail to to propose any mechanism by which it might do so.

Until then, I will remain skeptical.

And to round off this discussion with a little humor...

11 February 2007

Science *union* Creationism

This NY Times article gives an interesting perspective of a scientist who is also a young Earth creationist - Dr. Marcus R. Ross (PhD from URI Geoscience dept) says the two are different paradigms, different ways to view the universe and one's place in it. The article also brings up an ethical quagmire, about whether it's legitimate for people to study something they don't believe, using their degrees to undermine science, and so on...

Go read.

Next time I'm bored

I'll check out Scientific American's Sci-Sudokus. They use letters instead of numbers, and there's a science clue along with them. I haven't yet done one so I don't know what the clue has to do with anything.

09 February 2007

NASA's shrinks

Did I call this one, or what?

Now, the Lisa Nowak affair has prompted NASA to announce it will conduct a review of its psychological testing procedures for astronauts.

The review might begin by dusting off a 1998 report. Facing the prospect of lengthy missions to the international space station and beyond, NASA commissioned the study to look at how to enhance compatibility among astronaut crews. One recommendation called on NASA management to "develop and implement a psychological evaluation process as an integral part of an astronaut's annual physical examination."

"That was one of the major recommendations made," Dr. Patricia Santy, a Michigan psychiatrist and former NASA flight surgeon on the Challenger mission, told TIME. "NASA was not interested and felt that the general flight surgeon would be able to identify problems on the annual physical exam." (Time.com)


If checking out the link above and also here, near the bottom, click on "Big Chill" and then the third photo, and read the accompanying text. If you're lazy...

Mark Goodsell wanted to document the bitter cold. He snapped this photo on his front porch in what he calls "mid-Michigan." Goodsell lives in Harrison, which is in the center of the state, and he adds that 20 degrees below zero was the actual temperature and not the wind chill.

What's wrong with this picture?

08 February 2007


One of my students told me they read that NASA doesn't have official policies regarding affairs among crew members. BUT, NASA has agreed they need to take a look at their psych screening proceedures.

Oh yeah, and the student suggested we call Nowak an "astronut." I've since seen the term used a few others places. Amusing.

06 February 2007

Soap Opera Science

Any little bit of credibility that NASA had leftover after the investigation into the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster revealed the same institution-wide hush-hush over flaws that doomed the Space Shuttle Challenger has now been thoroughly smashed by the astronaut love triangle that made international headlines when it turned murderous.

As I mentioned elsewhere, there's a *REASON* NASA does psychological screening of all potential astronauts. I really hope someone gets sacked for screwing this up so royally. I'm also starting to think that NASA should be entirely torn apart and rebuilt. This is a shame, because the process will likely also end up trashing a large number of other important projects, some cooperative.

05 February 2007


If any of you have been following the LJ Feed of this blog, my apologies for the recent redump of articles. I just switched to the "Beta" version and it decided to republish everything or something, so it might've just flooded your friendslist. Sorry!

30 January 2007


I just may have to buy a few theremin kits online for my Physics II class this semester. It's a very early electronic instrument based around using the human body as a part of an RLC circuit.

HST Update

Hubble's back online, but the ACS still isn't. Next servicing isn't scheduled until Sept 2008 (so in practice, Oct 2008).

In unrelated news, the webpage "NASA.com" contains the tagline "Nothing is really real unless it happens on television." The real webpage is www.nasa.gov, and more detailed information about the current Hubble status is available from NASA here.

29 January 2007

HST in Safe Mode

From an email to all Hubble users (I'm not one, but I got forwarded it) ...

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 29 Jan 2007 20:10:51 -0500
From: Brett S. Blacker <blacker-AT-stsci.edu>
Subject: ACS anomaly and extension of HST Cycle 16 deadline

HST entered inertial safe mode on Saturday January 27. Preliminary indications are that this event was associated with an ACS anomaly. GSFC and STScI engineers and scientists are still investigating the situation, but it appears unlikely that ACS CCD observations (both WFC and HRC) will be available in Cycle 16. Current indications are that ACS/SBC can be restored using operational workarounds, so observers should assume that the ACS/SBC configuration will be available in Cycle 16.

The formal Cycle 16 deadline was 8 pm EST on Friday Jan 26. We received a total of 747 proposals, including 498 to use ACS/WFC or ACS/HRC. The latter proposals are unlikely to be viable. In order to ensure that we accommodate the science areas covered by those programs, we are extending the HST Cycle 16 deadline.

ACS is currently the best camera on the HST. This is a big loss if it's down. *sigh* And wasn't it just repaired lately too? I hope it's a transient phenomenon. At least researchers are being allowed to revamp their proposals, as this happened less than 24 hours after a round of proposals were due.

24 January 2007


If the geek genes that brought you to my blog intersect with a love of pets, check out Dolittler. This is a blog by a practicing veterinarian in South Miami, FL. She's a good read.

22 January 2007


I'm not particularly looking forward to teaching thermo later this semester, but the following quote gets me close.

Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and the second law of thermodynamics. All three are processes in which useful or accessible forms of some quantity, such as energy or money, are transformed into useless, inaccessible forms of the same quantity. That is not to say that these three processes don't have fringe benefits: taxes pay for roads and schools; the second law of thermodynamics drives cars, computers and metabolism; and death, at the very least, opens up tenured faculty positions.

--Seth Lloyd, writing in Nature 430, 971 (26 August 2004). (Wikiquote:Thermodynamics)