Erosion of a different kind

Offered without further comment … From FoxNews today: A new provision tucked into the Patriot Act bill now before Congress would allow authorities to haul demonstrators at any “special event of national significance” away to jail on felony charges if they are caught breaching a security perimeter. From the U.S. Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Cindy Sheehan‘s account of her arrest and expulsion from the State of the Union address on Jan. 31: What Really Happened …. UPDATE (2/2): Charges against Sheehan have been dropped and the Capitol Police chief admitted his officers were overzealous.

Money talks, they say 1

Some critics call the WWW the “worldwide waste of time,” but researchers at the distinguished Max Planck Institute have used a curious little internet game to deduce how a pandemic might spread worldwide. Seeking a means to track how humans might spread a contagious disease, Dirk Brockmann and Lars Hufnagel analyzed the travel routes of U.S. and Canadian paper currency featured on the website, Where’s George?. Since money travels with humans, Brockmann and Hufnagel could use the “behavior” of the bills as virtual radio tags to simulate the likely movements of infected travelers. Here’s an excerpt from their Nature abstract: Like viruses, money is transported by people from place to place. Surprisingly, the scientist found that the human movements follow what are known as universal scaling laws. They developed a mathematical theory which describes the observed movements of travellers amazingly well over distances from just a few kilometres to a few thousand. The study represents a major breakthrough for the mathematical modelling of the spread of epidemics (Nature, 26 January 2006). Click here for the full press release from the Institute. Extrapolating from their conclusions, it seems unlikely that Asian bird flu will present much of a threat globally until ...

It’s the economy, stupid! 2

Here’s some cheery news. According to this report, the U.S. debt just topped $8.19 trillion, somewhat over the current U.S. debt ceiling. Technically, that means the U.S. is in default, at leat until it raises its own debt ceiling. To put this whopper of a number in perspective, that $8.19 trillion works out to just over $27,480 for each citizen of the U.S.A. Or, if you had a stack of 8.19 trillion, 1-cm thick CD jewel cases, they would stretch 81.9 million km (51.2 million miles) into space — about halfway to the sun! Incredible.

White House squelches global warming expert

For yet another example of the Bush administration’s war on science, take a look the Sunday New York Times today. It seems that James Hansen, a NASA climate scientist, has been talking a little bit too much about global warming. The White House wants him to cool it. The party line apparently is that global warming is a myth, despite disturbing evidence that the average sea level globally has been steadily rising, indicating polar ice cap meltdown. (See this BBC article about rising sea levels for details.)The Daily Kos has a great commentary on the NYT article by DarkSyde, who seems to have an inside track on the allegations. For many more details about global warming, check these resources at Amazon.com:DVD: Global warming: The Signs and the Science Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis–And What We Can Do to Avert Disaster

Federal money + religion = help? 2

Religious groups have received almost 25% of the $15 billion in federal funds set aside for Pres. George W. Bush’s global AIDS battle, the Associated Press reported today. The groups stress the conservative Christian litany of abstinence first, being faithful second and condom use third. Some overtly spread the Word of God, as well. Before I launch into my tirade, let me first offer some of my background. I am in fact a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and have been for 22 years. I have also lived in a country, South Africa, with a serious HIV/AIDS crisis. That experience and my faith-based background color my remarks. Were these funds disbursed to religious groups who were working in the U.S., there would be a huge backlash. The Constitution prevents the government from promoting religion, otherwise known as the separation of church and state. The groups, however, do their work overseas, so they are not preaching Christianity to U.S. citizens. Rather, they bring the Good News and their HIV/AIDS instruction to the unchurched masses of the Third World. The federal funds no doubt facilitate the process. Now, undoubtedly, these groups are doing some good diminishing the spread of ...

Their crystal balls are cracked

At the end of each year (on the Gregorian calendar, anyway), there are a bunch of self-styled psychic experts who prognosticate events for the coming year. Usually, they are wrong far more times than they are right, yet they manage to sucker the public into believing in the psychics’ supernatural accuracy. The experts play up their infrequent successes, and just fail to mention the times they are wrong. There is a great website here that keeps score. The author has not yet updated it for 2006, but the results for 2005 are convincing enough. And by the way, Happy (Chinese) New Year. Kung hei fat choi!

20 years ago today …

… the Shuttle Challenger, exploded shortly after launch over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all seven of its crew. Among them was the first (and so far only) Teacher in Space, a radiant, inspiring woman named Sharon Christa McAuliffe. The accident, 73 seconds into the flight, remains fixed in my mind for many reasons. One, quite selfish, is that fateful day was also my 30th birthday. Another is the consideration I made to apply to the Teacher in Space myself (though I never did). Christa and I shared the same profession, and I understood the deep emotional connections that can exist between teachers and their students. And yet another was just the shock of it all. We had grown so accustomed to routine launches from Cape Canaveral that collectively we forgot how dangerous space flight really is. In the months that followed, we learned, courtesy of an impatient demonstration by physicist Richard Feynmann, that O-ring seals in the external boosters had failed in the unusually cool weather of the launch date. Chilled below their design temperature, the rings lost their pliability and allowed jets of burning solid propellant to ignite the liquid hydrogen and oxygen in the external fuel tank. The ...

The origin of art?

My friend and colleague here at St. Francis, Matt Gatton, has an interesting and compelling hypothesis about the origin of art, specifically cave-wall art. Matt surmises that early artists in caves and other enclosures took advantage of a property of optics — the camera obscura — to create their images of wildlife. It is now fairly well accepted that European painters of the middle ages and Renaissance used the camera obscura, otherwise known as the “pinhole camera,” for many of their works. Since the pinhole camera flips images upside and left-to-right, careful inspection of some paintings will show rings that should be on the left hand are instead on the right, and so on. Anyway, Matt has done simulations in the field to test his hypothesis and has developed a convincing case for the early origins of art. Check out his website at www.paleo-camera.com.

It’s not just here …

From the BBC comes this disheartening news. According to a recent survey, just under half of the Brits surveyed accept evolution as the best explanation for the development of life. And in case you thought the British public was more sophisticated than the folks in Kansas and Dover, Pa., more than 40% of those surveyed believe intelligent design or creationism should be taught in school science classes. Ironically, the BBC’s Horizons program commissioned the survey for a program about the ID controversy in the States. According to the BBC report, Over 2,000 participants took part in the survey, and were asked what best described their view of the origin and development of life: * 22% chose creationism * 17% opted for intelligent design * 48% selected evolution theory * and the rest did not know. Asked what explanation of the development of life should be taught, the respondents replied * 44% said creationism should be included * 41% intelligent design * 69% wanted evolution as part of the science curriculum. Let’s hope that the IDists in the States don’t use this survey as more ammunition for including ID in high school science classes. Let’s also hope that educators, both here ...

Einstein helps astronomers find a new planet

Using a technique called microlensing, astronomers have discovered a new extrasolar planet, 28,000 light years distant, with a mass approximately 5.5 times that of earth. The discovery brings the number of extrasolar planets to more than 170. Alas, all seem unlikely to harbor “life as we know it.” Most of these planets have been detected by the “wobble” or Doppler effect method. Planets with large masses and their parent stars essentially orbit a common point, “pulling” the star off center. Our own Jupiter, roughly 318 times the mass of the earth, would be an eligible candidate. Neptune, with a mass roughly 17 times that of earth, and much further from the sun than Jupiter, would not be. See graphic. The warping of space by matter, part of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, provides planet-hunters another tool. Stars, which are typically much more massive than even the largest planets, warp space around them, like a shotput ball resting on a waterbed. Light from more distant objects is distorted by the warped space, creating a blip in a graph of light intensity (a light curve). A planet orbiting a star will create a similar, but much smaller companion blip. The new planet ...

Pole shift-iness

During an assembly this morning at school, the speaker, Harry Pickens, asked students what gave them hope and what worried them. One response in particular stunned me: The pole shift — the wandering of the magnetic pole toward Russia! I mean, what? On my personal list of “things to worry about,” the drift of the magnetic pole from its present location in northern Canada toward Siberia is pretty low, somewhere near getting struck by heat lightning and being trampled to death by a wooly mammoth. But the remark did concern me as a symptom of poor critical thinking. The student in question (one of my former physics students — sigh!) had apparently picked up on the near-hysteria among the fringe-science crowd about the pole shift foretold by any number of psychics, channelers and “science experts.” [See an earlier blog about a radio caller’s fear of the earth flipping over around solstice time.] Do a Google search on “pole shift” and there will be countless sites warning of an imminent reversal of the earth’s poles. Many seem a little hazy about the difference between magnetic pole drift and reversal, which is geologically evident, and the alteration of the earth’s actual axis ...

Stardust melody

Well, the folks at NASA are singing praises for their successful capture and return to earth of “comet stuff.” CNN story. The aerogel material they used to capture bits of Comet Wild2 is peppered with dust and debris from the pristine comet, giving scientists fresh interplanetary material to investigate. Why all the fuss? Well, the only off-planet materials we have had to investigate have been the moon rocks brought back by the Apollo astronauts, solar wind particles brought back by Genesis and the occasional meteorite. For astronomers to get a real clear idea of how the solar system formed and what it is made out of, they need some unsullied primordial samples. Current theory goes like this. Roughly 5 to 6 billion years ago, a huge cloud of dust and gas slowly condensed by gravitational attraction into the sun, the planets, the planets’ moons, and a bunch of things called planetesimals spread out well past Pluto’s orbit. Asteroids and comets are among those planetesimals, so Comet Wild 2 is one of the bits leftover from the formation of the solar system. In other words, it’s a cosmic fossil. Astronomers estimate the age of the sun to be about 5 billion ...
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