May 29, 2009 at 11:08 am | 11 Comments
Would you Ask Your Banker to Do Your Brain Surgery?
Over at BadAstronomy, Phil Plait is having a field day with Cre@tionist Loonies (CLoonies) I don’t blame him. I am growing increasingly dismayed at the silliness that some people subscribe to in an effort to please the various deities they waste their time trying to supplicate with foolish behavior.
Belief and faith are not matters of science. And this entry isn’t about having faith — that’s a person’s personal business. It’s about those some people I noted up there — the CLoonies who have co-opted faith and spirituality to sell the rest of us a bunch of irrational, made-up ideas.
When a CLoonie gets up and tries to school everybody in a part of science that the CLoonie knows just enough about to be dangerous, all he or she is really doing is showing their ignorance. Even those CLoonies who claim they were trained to BE scientists — they are twisting what they learned (at serious taxpayer expense in the case of one CLoonie who claims to have a PhD in astrophysics, but is rejecting everything he learned as a scientist in order to further some strange ideas he came up with) to suit their own private ends. So, the next time you run into somebody claiming that their god/goddess/object of faith has all the answers for science questions, run away very fast. The odds are very high (more like 100 to 1) that this person is full of it.
Think of it this way — a CLoonie without scientific training, professing to explain science to you — is asking you to accept a bill of goods. Is actually lying to you in order to get something. What would that something be? Probably money. Maybe just a feeling of power. Of looking more important and better than you.
But, if you start to pick apart such a person’s claims and beliefs and assertions, you just about always find out they don’t know what they’re talking about. That they are fundamentally wrong. And, I bet you they know it, but they’re hooked on the feelings of power they get from their act.
For questions of science, research, and just plain how the universe works, it’s best to rely on somebody who actually DOES the science and doesn’t have a spiritual axe to grind. No good scientist is going to ask you take anything on “belief.” He or she is going to show you the facts. Not made-up facts. Not tainted facts. Just facts based on reliable observational methods.
Hey, if you need a surgeon, do you ask your banker who had the same surgery to do the procedure for you, since he knows about it? Would you ask an airline pilot to remove a tooth for you, since she once had one removed and knows how it feels? How about getting your car fixed by an actor, since he played a car mechanic on TV once? No? Then why let self-anointed CLoonies tell you how the universe works based on their faulty, faith-based delusions of self-educated grandeur? Real scientists can tell you all the exciting and provocative stories you want to hear about the universe, and those will be stories based on real science.
You’re better and smarter than the CLoonies think you are, you know. They’re looking for dupes. For people gullible enough to buy the crap they’re selling. And, mark my words, they ARE trying to sell something.
But, you have common sense on your side. And intelligence. If you believe in a deity — use what you think your deity gave you to honestly ask questions about the cosmos — and don’t fall for foolish claims of “teach the controversy” or “God made all this” or whatever 7 impossible things a CLoonie tries to tell you you SHOULD believe in. Science is not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of facts and knowledge based on observable phenomena. Period. All other attempts to explain it through hocus-pocus and oogedy-boogedy magic is, as Sherman T. Potter says, “Mule muffins.”
May 27, 2009 at 11:15 am | Leave a Comment
A Thing of the Past?
I hope not. I remember my first visit to the planetarium when I was in 7th grade. It fired my imagination. More to the point, it stimulated my interest in science — which is a good thing. More kids need to have that experience. Lately, however, as the state budgets fall, visits to planetariums and science centers get curtailed, which is not so good (and funny how you never see sports cut, or administration salaries reduced). To put it bluntly — the U.S.’s future lies in the hands of the kids whose educational services we’re curtailing to pay for misguided wars and financial bailouts. If we aren’t spending the money to educate children (and everyone, really) in science and math and reading and all the other things they will need to make their way in an increasingly technological world, they’ll lag students in other countries. And many of those students elsewhere ARE well educated and will go on to be the leaders in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). I think you can see where this could end up if the U.S. continues to drop the ball when it comes to science and math education.
So, it may seem like a little thing on which to start an educational revolution, but a visit to a planetarium/science center is a small step that pays off big time. It worked for me and for whole generations of kids who launched rockets, created rovers on Mars, fixed space telescopes, and continue to achieve great things in science and technology. It can continue to work for you and your kids. Find a way to make sure they get that — search out programs that bring kids to science and technology museums and planetariums. Those programs exist. Actually, I’m interested in knowing which places actually have active field trip programs so that all their students CAN visit a legitimate science center/planetarium at some point in their school careers. Feel free to write me with stories and suggestions about them, and I’ll try to post about them as I get time.
For now, I want to tell you about a successful program in Southern California. It’s one that brings students from all over the Los Angeles area and surrounds. It’s called the Observatory School Field Trip Program, and is sponsored by the Friends of the Observatory (FOTO), of which Mark and I are proud members. It brings public astronomy to everyone, and in particular, the underserved populations of children and adults who wouldn’t normally be able to come to the observatory due to distance or economic issues.
The actual visit is 2.5 hours of programming and lectures that completely support science curriculum standards at the fifth-grade level. At that level, it’s sophisticated enough to bring in some very cool concepts and approachable enough to interest kids AND adults. Plus, the students and their teachers get to visit a very engaging institution that shows them the wonders of astronomy. It turns visitors into observers. (And yes, in the interests of full disclosure, I DID write Griffith’s exhibits.)
Science, astronomy, cool programs, a great view, and a seminal observatory experience — what’s not to like about FOTO’s program? And who knows, some budding space scientist may get her first exposure to science at Griffith and go on to lead a team on the first visit to Mars or build some absolutely essential piece of technology that will revolutionize our lives and create lots of jobs.
FOTO’s school visit program is one that needs funding to continue — and if you’re a member of FOTO (or, even if you’re not) — it’s well worth a few minutes of your time to tuck a check for $20 into an envelope and send it to FOTO (see the link above for contact info). Or, join FOTO and include an extra $20 when you sign up. You don’t have to live in LA to be a member of FOTO — heck, I’m on the East Coast, but I still send them my membership each year because I believe so much in what Griffith Observatory stands for and what it does for all its visitors. It’s the future we’re juggling with here, let’s fund it wisely.
May 26, 2009 at 11:18 am | Leave a Comment
To the Moon!
Back in late 1960s and early 1970s, astronauts landed on the Moon, walked around, did science, and returned lunar samples that helped change our view of not just the Moon, but Earth, and the way the two formed. It has been decades since anybody set foot on the lunar surface, although humans have been sending a few missions here and there to study this world next door.
NASA is planning to return to the Moon with a pair of satellites called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS). Both missions have ambitious schedules: to map the Moon down to one-meter resolution (which will help identify landing sites for the next human missions), and to chart out the types of resources available on the Moon.
It seems natural to return to the Moon. For a long time, people have talked about the Moon as potential staging site for missions to Mars and beyond. They’ve also talked about the possibility of colonies on the Moon — which are also a great staple of science fiction. But, there’s nothing SF about the actual guts of landing and living on the Moon. We have the technology to do it, and mobilizing such missions would be a tremendous economic boost (better, I’d say, than using taxpayer dollars to fund questionable wars or questionable financial bailouts).
How we get to the Moon and establish bases there (and by “we” I mean all humans, not just space-faring nations), the first things we have to do is what pioneers did in previous centuries — scout out the terrain, report back on the resources, and then figure out a way to do it. So, keep your eyes peeled on the moon missions — NASA’s new lunar missions as well as the continuing missions to the Moon by other space agencies. It’s gonna be a busy time on those distant, cratered plains.
May 21, 2009 at 12:51 pm | 1 Comment
It Survives Bombardments
Our planet is young, in cosmic time. And life on our planet is just about as young.
The universe is some 13.7 billion years old. A lot of time had to pass — say, nine of so billion years — before the Earth began forming, some 4.5 billion years ago. The place was nothing like the planet we know today. It had just accreted from “stuff” in the proto-solar nebula. The baby Earth was hot, but cooling down. It had some kind of atmosphere, although nothing we could breathe. And, it was being hammered by leftover debris from the rest of the solar nebula. The period it was experiencing is called the Late Heavy Bombardment, and it was long thought that the bombardment would have sterilized the surface of the planet (if any life had managed to arise there).
It turns out that the picture of a spanking clean new planet with NO life on the surface during and after the bombardment may need to be rejiggered a bit. A study funded by NASA indicates that the Late Heavy Bombardment may not have sterilized the early Earth as completely as scientists thought, and that some of the incoming asteroids (some the size of Kansas) might have actually boosted the chances for life.
The study focused the Late Heavy Bombardment, which occurred approximately 3.9 billion years ago. It pummeled the planet anywhere from 20 to 200 million years. In a letter published in the May 21 issue of Nature magazine titled “Microbial Habitability of the Hadean Earth during the Late Heavy Bombardment,” Oleg Abramov and Stephen J. Mojzsis, astrobiologists at the University of Colorado’s Department of Geological Sciences, described a computer modeling project they designed to study how the bombardment heated Earth. They ran simulations of the bombardment and the results show that while the Late Heavy Bombardment might have generated enough heat to sterilize Earth’s surface, it probably didn’t do much damage to microbial life in subsurface and underwater environments. In fact, those little critters almost certainly would have survived the bombardment without much trouble.
The story of life on this planet is a tough one to tell. For one thing, it’s not easy to say exactly when life arose. Scientists are getting closer to pinpointing its time, but we may never know exactly where it got the first “oomph” that transformed some randomly mixing chemicals into a living thing.
The sort of “canonical” start date that we toss around is usually 3.8 or 3.9 billion years ago, but it could well have been earlier. These findings are significant because they indicate that if life had begun before the LHB or even earlier than 4 billion years ago, it could have survived in those hidden places protected by the surface from the bombardment. Certainly all the elements for life were in place by the time the planet finished forming — carried in by asteroids and comets, and in place from the elements from which the planet formed.
Astrobiologists are examining each step in the ladder of life minutely — from the elements that formed this planet to the processes taking place on and near Earth during the crucial time when life arose. What they learn may well translate to the stars, especially when we start looking at other planets where life may have arisen.
May 20, 2009 at 10:58 am | 1 Comment
Missions and Experiments, Galore
With the end of the final servicing mission to HST coming up, it’s comforting to know that HST will serve our astronomy needs for years to come. It’s a grand machine and we will get lots of good science from it. Makes me glad! It was a stunning mission to watch from the comfort of my desktop computer.
But, life (and science) marches on, and there’s always another mission coming up for launch, another set of science experiments to perform, and not just in astronomy and space science, but in every corner of the science community. But, for right now, let’s look at a roundup of the news that crossed my desk since early this week.
The Kepler mission to find Earth-like exoplanets, for example, is in calibration and testing now that it’s in space and returning its early data. The Spitzer Space Telescope is beginning a new “warm” phase of its operations, largely because its liquid helium coolant has run out and the detectors it was keeping cool have been warming up. They can still do good science, just not the science that requires coolant to keep the detectors chilled enough to see some of the infrared wavelengths seen before.
The Herschel and Planck missions to study the birth and evolution of the universe were launched last week, and seem to be running nicely, so far. Moon missions are in planning, and at Mars, the handlers for the Spirit rover are working on ways to get it moving again from its dust pit location. SETI institute is celebrating 10 years of SETI@Home – the massive distributed computing project that is searching for signals from elsewhere that might indicate intelligent life elsewhere. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory announced the discovery of a double star system that seems to be birthing one of the fastest-spinning pulsars yet seen. University of Chicago scientists have a new gravity-wave probe that will begin taking data in June, and astronomers in California and France are developing new ways to use the intrinsic brightness of certain types of supernovae to determine cosmic distances more accurately. Finally, the NSF is using the popularity of the movie Angels and Demons to talk about the science of the Large Hadron Collider at the particle physics laboratory at CERN.
Science is ongoing; it’s part of our lives, and we’re part of it. Fascinating, as Spock would say.
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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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