Titan Coolness

January 31, 2007 at 13:24 pm | Leave a Comment

While checking my daily science sources, I ran across this interactive tour of Titan at the Cassini web site. It lets you peer beneath the heavy clouds that hide this world from our view.

Titan is the largest moon orbiting Saturn and is a fascinating blend of organic materials in its atmosphere and on its surface. The Cassini mission to Saturn will pass by this fascinating place 45 times during its extended exploration. What planetary scientists are finding here may well rewrite the books on many aspects of solar system science.

Imagine That: Science and Politics

January 30, 2007 at 12:42 pm | Leave a Comment

Imagine that an astronomer announces the discovery of a new planet in our solar system. Imagine that that planet has life on it and that it may actually be intelligent life. That science is peer-reviewed and other scientists agree that there is a discovery here.

Now, imagine that a non-scientist political appointee to NASA decides that the discovery doesn’t conform to White House guidelines on what science should be, and so he yanks the report and hides it from the media and public.

Imagine that a medical researcher discovers a treatment that can completely cure AIDS. It is tested and seems to work on all patients who have AIDS. Or that the doctor finds a cure for breast cancer.

Now, imagine that a non-medical political appointee to National Institutes of Health decides that the breakthroughs are “controversial” because they doesn’t conform to White House guidelines about what diseases should be treated and which ones shouldn’t. So, the NIH is directed (by non-scientists) stop the research and refuse treatment to people who need the cure.

Imagine that a research team finds a way to create fuels from some commonly available ingredients. The team tests it and shows that it could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and could also help our economy.

Now imagine that a White House operative decides that this breakthrough is directly athwart political goals and therefore isn’t in the best interest of the business community. And so he yanks the research and hides it.

As far as I know, none of these scenarios have happened.

Yet. But they (or similar ones) will.

Why? The White House in the U.S. is now putting non-science political appointees in agencies to control the science and its outcomes. Why? Partly so that this administration can direct science and hide anything that may be inconvenient or perceived as a threat to its ideology.

Why, that sounds very familiar. Didn’t they used to do that in communist countries? Don’t they still do that in some countries?

We all know what the 800-pound gorilla in the room is here: global warming. Suddenly the reports on global warming are coming out, and even as manipulated as they are by industry heavies, the word isn’t good. In the U.S., the president is largely handicapped by truth and reality, and so now he must put in his operatives to control science’s truths in order to effect some sort of reality that assumes that if they manipulate science, nobody will notice that things are going wrong.

Today’s news stories are pointing to some inconvenient truths about acts of scientific sabotage by the Bush administration. Here are the links.

White House Stonewalling Release of Climate Change Documents

Widespread Interference in climate science”

More reports on interference

Bush increases control over agencies (wasn’t this Congress’s job? —note that some business groups think it’s great…)

Science and Politics
And there are more. These articles all describe a bad precedent of politically motivated ideologues in government interfering in the workings of science, and not in a good way. Would you want the government to interfere in a family member’s chance for a cure? For your ability to travel to your job using clean fuels? For a scientist’s discovery to be announced free of political interference? Think that interfering in science just inconveniences scientists? Think again. It’s not just politics as usual. Unwarranted political interference in science harms us all for the benefit of a few.

Networking and the Power Law

January 24, 2007 at 20:24 pm | Leave a Comment

Blogrolls are interesting things. I use mine to link to places I like to visit, and I hope you like to visit them, too. I don’t always agree with every view on every blog I link to, but I do find them all to be thought-provoking and worth my time to visit when I get a chance.

A few years ago I happened across an online “stock market” in blogs called BlogShares. Instead of real-life stocks, this game trades in blogs. As you can imagine, there are blogs that talk about nearly every facet of human existence, literally from A to Z. Blogshares lists them (and gains listings every day) in categories called “Industries.” A blog’s value is based on how many links go to and from it. The site estimates the value of a blog and sells shares in it.

I was intrigued by it, so I listed my blog and started playing the game. I worked my way up into the top 200 players (although I’m certainly not the wealthiest player in the game), and have learned a lot about the amazing variety of blogs out there, simply by reading the blogs I’ve visited as I played the game. Not that I have as much time to play as much as I once did. Work and real life do have a way of intruding into game play, but I still make trades, vote on blogs, moderate votes that others make on blogs, and in general, keep my finger on the pulse of the game as I have free time to do so.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the game; if you’re interested, go check it out. But, I do want to mention how many very cool and interesting people are playing it. There are folks from around the world playing 24/7, buying and selling shares, trading in “ideas” (which are another unit of exchange in the game), and sharing their tips on how to play the game in the online discussion forum attached to the game.

When I first began playing the game, it was still being run by its inventor, a student named Seyed Razavi (who eventually sold it to the group that runs it today). He didn’t actually start out to create a strict copy of a stock market so much as he wanted to explore social networking through the exploration of the blogging phenomenon by using a game to do so. He also wanted to explore how power law theories might work in human networking systems.

A power law basically says that over time, any system will evolve to favor a small subset of users/units/participants, or, in other applications, a small subset of participants or objects in a given system will consume the majority of the system’s resources. You could say, for example, that when a planetary system begins to form, the largest bodies will gather in the most amount of system resources; i.e., the large planets get larger, possibly at the expense of the smaller ones.

For blogs, the power law shows that some blogs get more attention than others; they get larger numbers of sites linking to them, and so forth.

The power law distribution as applied to blogs is an interesting use of a scientific statistical tool to measure human interactions on the Web. And, Blogshares both shares in that power law and facilitates interactions by rewarding sites with more links a higher value than those with few or no links. My own blog has about 51 links to it (some from other BlogShares users), and is valued reasonably well (in the 500s per share). The sites with the most links to them, like Flickr, have very high share values (in the millions of dollars per share).

Some years ago, before the Web was a huge presence in our lives, the idea that getting on the computer and socially interacting was a new one. It’s interesting that the “geeks” among us (me included) are often derided in the media for being anti-social nerds because we interact via computer networks.

But, as it turns out, the social interactions we’re now doing on computer networks are following some of the same laws of interaction and social structure that we see in real life (when, for example, small subsets of our societies control 80 percent of wealth and commodities). The power law does, indeed, describe an interesting human propensity to “cluster” in our online activities, even as we do in “real life.” And, for those who have been playing Blogshares and didn’t know it, we’ve all been taking part in a social and science experiment. It reminds me of the old days, when Xerox and their PARC facility used to invite people to participate in MUD (Multi-User Domains) so they could study and model human interactions.

In that game, I actually built a home in a virtual ski area in New Mexico. I had an art gallery, a pool, a salon (wherein I invited guests to come in and debate various issues), and a front room where I interviewed guests for my home. Other people had built virtual homes in the MUD (it was called Lambdamoo), and so each personal “space” was like an extension of a person’s imagination. The interactions were great fun, sometimes disturbing, and always way more than I ever imagined we’d see on a computer network way back when I first learned to program computers in high school in the early 1970s.

Of course, today we have gone way beyond the MOOs and MUDs of yesteryear to places like SecondLife, which purports to be a parallel life online. (I haven’t visited it, not sure if I really have time), and forums like BadAstronomy (where all of us astronomy- and science-minded folk can talk about our mutual interests). But, it may well turn out to be not terribly different from the MOOs and MUDs, forums and BlogShares—online places where humans can network in yet another way, among the endless varieties of networks we already have. And, as it does, it will go into competition for that most valuable of resource: user time, sucking it in according to the power law that states that the most popular ones will end up taking the most attention from users. An interesting experiment, indeed!

Science and Society

January 20, 2007 at 22:32 pm | Leave a Comment

I’ve been off attending yet another meeting the past couple of days. This one’s focused on science and its role in society. There are about 1,500 of us gathered in Boston to talk about issues in science communication and the ways that scientists, science writers and communicators, museum professionals, and others can communicate the complexities of science through the various forms of media that our society is used to seeing, hearing, and reading. One of the keynote speakers the first night was former vice-president Al Gore, who is probably one of the most intellectually diverse people I’ve heard speak in quite a while. As you might expect, he did talk about global warming, but it’s a subject he’s thoroughly researched, unlike some of the so-called “experts” out there who have politically motivated reasons to promote a one-sided (read: the current administration’s) view of the complex issues facing our environment. Mr. Gore gave a fascinating talk, was funny, human, and engaging. I wish we’d seen that side of him when he ran for president; we might not now be facing some of the dire issues we’re having to deal with in today’s toxic political environment.

I made it a point to meet with him afterwards to chat some more about some of the issues in science communication that he brought up; issues that I hadn’t really thought about since my days in graduate school when I studied the same subjects from an academic viewpoint. So, it was a little like going back to a grad school seminar with an engaging professor to discuss it all with. Talking with Mr. Gore was a great pleasure and I’m glad I had the chance to do so.

But, Al Gore was only one of many good speakers we’ve heard since the meeting began. There have been presentations on gaming to teach science, outreach from various public television web pages, issues in medical communication, blogging, vodcasting, the future of print media, and many, many others.

It has been refreshing to meet with science folk from all over the US—indeed, some have come from Canada, Mexico, Sweden and other countries. The overriding issues are really about how we as scientists and science communicators can do a better job of bringing science to the table in social and cultural situations. The “hallway” conversations are as interesting and informative as the scheduled speakers and panelists, and it’s been a privilege to attend.

The Not-Quite Circle Dance

January 20, 2007 at 18:52 pm | 1 Comment

Planets go around a star.
Their treks are journeys near and far
The paths are often neatly wound
on loops elliptical instead of round.

What makes these orbits not quite round?
The pull of gravity, it was found,
battles against an object’s need
to cruise through space at constant speed.
So, a planet’s path is a tightrope dance—
a deliberate trip, not happenstance.

Round and round, they go around…
But now we know, they’re
not quite round

© 2007 Carolyn Collins Petersen
This poem about the orbits of planets was inspired by a talk I heard yesterday at Science and Society about how poetry can be inspired by science. The poet, Catherine Hughes, grew up in a family of scientists and found that much of her poetry was infused with themes about science. She made the case that writing about science in poetry can be an interesting, and perhaps even fulfilling, exercise.

So, I decided to give it a try. It’s kind of fun to take a scientific idea and work it into poetry. It doesn’t have to be perfect poetry”that’s not the point. Give it a try.

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Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)

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