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[ 20041031 ]

Cool Dead Stuff Halloween Night Post

I grazed over to the CBC website to read something else and found Highway construction reveals ancient forest in New Brunswick, in which we learn of a petrified forest so dense that (when alive) it would have been difficult to walk through. It's located about 65 km out of St John, and any New Brunswickian Arcturus readers are hereby implored to visit the site and send pictures, if possible; it seems that such formations erode rapidly, so it might not be there for long.

Here's the abstract of the paper the article mentions: Early Mississippian lycopsid forests in a delta-plain setting at Norton, near Sussex, New Brunswick, Canada; it states that "densities of 10 000–30 000 trees per hectare are inferred." The low end of that range is one tree per square meter; at the high end, the trees would have been less than two feet apart!

While I was at it, I did a search on "New Brunswick" at the Geological Society page, and found Geoscience at the BA: Tetrapods en croute…roasted alive in the Carboniferous, which both explains that massive stands of petrified trees are (relatively) common in Atlantic Canada and paints an enchanting picture of life, and death, 345 megayears back:

We can imagine low lying forested swamps teaming [sic] with plant and animal life, with strands of tree-like lycophytes, quite different in their growth habit and look of today’s trees; and an under-storey of ferns, seed-ferns and small tree-like horsetails. Large arthropleurids and millipedes fed on the rotting vegetation whilst the small terrestrial vertebrates fed upon smaller insects. Large terrestrial scorpions would be among the top predators. Flying insects, some of which were very large owing to the oxygen-rich atmosphere, populated the air. Gently flowing rivers crossed the floodplain and small freshwater lakes contained a diverse animal life.

During dryer intervals lightning strikes started fires even on the low-lying areas where they may have spread through the crowns of the trees. Some of the trees were completely destroyed while others were hollowed out. Animals tried to escape this catastrophe by hiding in previously hollowed trunks - only to be suffocated.

The surrounding upland areas where clothed by forests of large cordaite trees, up to 45m high. But these upland areas were susceptible to lightning strike and crown fires may have spread rapidly. Destruction of the vegetation and subsequent rainfall caused increased erosion and sediment-laden water flowed down the river system, which became clogged with sediment, logs and charcoal.

Apparently we can thank Earth's atmosphere's lower oxygen content these days for the modest size of flying insects, to say nothing of the absence of giant scorpions at the top of the food chain!

Jay Manifold [5:35 PM]

[ 20041030 ]

Stealth Killer Comets

A real-life scary story for Halloween, and one in which I parasitize on Rand Simberg, or, to use a more benign expression, develop variations on a theme ...

Notwithstanding that the original story in Space Daily tells us that this idea is partially credited to Chandra Wickramasinghe, who is unfortunately most famous on this side of the pond for weighing in on the side of "creation science" in a trial in Arkansas in 1981, it's worth investigating. Or at least playing with the numbers in a blog post. ;^)

-- Numbers, that is, associated with the hypothesis that there may be a large number of short-period, dormant comets with albedos of ~0.001, rendering them effectively invisible from Earth and greatly raising the likelihood that one will hit us before we can find it (abstract).

So what difference does an albedo of 0.001 make?

Starting at the beginning, Google™ has a whole slew of definitions for albedo, in which we find such useful tidbits as the value for charcoal: 0.04, forty times higher than what Napier and Wickramasinghe suggest for most periodic comets!

Since visualizing something 40x darker than charcoal isn't especially easy, let's figure out how bright (or how faint) the Moon would be if its albedo were suddenly changed to 0.001. As things are, "[t]he average lunar albedo is about 0.073" (source). I note, however, that this varies with wavelength; this ESA document notes that "the lunar albedo is an almost linearly increasing function of wavelength from about 5% in the UV to 28% at 800 nm," the red end of human vision being around 770 nm. (This source states that humans are prevented from seeing UV by the lens of the eye, not by lack of UV-sensitive receptors. But I digress.)

The magnitude of the full Moon, with its existing (aggregate) albedo of 0.073, is -12.7 (the Sun is almost exactly fourteen magnitudes brighter, a factor of nearly 400,000). Knocking that down by 73x would make the full Moon a magnitude -8 object, still the brightest thing in the sky besides the Sun but now only about 21 times brighter than Venus at its brightest (though still about a hundred times brighter than a very dark lunar eclipse; and note the application of lunar eclipse observations to vulcanology by providing a means of estimating the quantity of volcanic and other aerosols in Earth's atmosphere -- clever, these Portuguese. But I digress ...). It would no longer cast a shadow except at high altitudes, and it wouldn't be bright enough to read by, as it usually is now (for those, like amateur astronomers, accustomed to activity at low light levels, that is).

At first or last quarter, turning to this handy table and applying the correction factors therein, we find that the Moon would shine at a mere mag -5.4, only about twice as bright as Venus. I note that for observers in mid-northern latitudes, Venus is a spectacular sight in the morning sky these days, high in the southeast an hour before sunrise, so moderately early risers among my readership should be able to make the mental comparison themselves.

Another way of getting the same effect would be to make the Moon smaller -- much smaller; if its albedo were the same as it is now, it would only be about 400 kilometers in diameter, the size of a large asteroid, and subtend only 3.5' of arc as seen from Earth. Still another way would be to move it farther away, out to nearly 3.3 million km from Earth, 8½ times its present distance. Keep that in mind, because it may be the best way to think of the problem: if the hypothesis is correct, it would be as though dormant comet nuclei have to be, astronomically speaking, right on top of us before we can see them.

A fortuitous recent result of asteroidal spectrography found that the object under observation was, in fact, a nearly dormant comet. "The V-band geometric albedo of the nucleus is 0.030±0.005, and this is well within the currently-known distribution of albedos for other active comets and extinct-comet candidates." Already darker than charcoal, I note. But Napier and Wickramasinghe would fill the sky with such objects thirty times darker still, flying mountains of ice and soot that, all other things being equal, would get five and a half times (√30) closer to us before being detected, eliminating over eighty per cent of any possible warning time. As the paper's authors drily conclude: "Deflection strategies that assume decades or centuries of warning before impact are inapplicable to this hazard."

The awkwardly designated Comet LONEOS C/2001 OG108, the object referenced in the previous paragraph, is thought to be a prolate spheroid (like a rugby football) 10 km long and 8 km thick. If so, its total volume works out to over 300 km³. At the density of water, its mass would be over 300 billion metric tons. Impacting Earth at fifty kilometers per second (a typical value), it would release a total energy of (recalling that 1 kg TNT ~ 4.2 MJ), in round numbers, ninety million megatons.

(The last comet actually seen by most of the population, Hale-Bopp, had a nucleus four times the diameter of Comet LONEOS C/2001 OG108, and if it was spherical, almost exactly 100 times the volume, therefore 100x the mass, therefore 100x the kinetic energy of impact.)

Nearly all truly dangerous objects, of course, would be far smaller than these -- small size is still the main factor in detection, and we're worried about the ones we can't see yet. But even a one-kilometer impactor works out to more than 150,000 MT.

A one-kilometer object with albedo 0.001, at lunar distance and with phase angle of 90°, that is, like a first- or last-quarter Moon, would be only a twelfth-magnitude object in Earth's sky, about 350 times too faint to be glimpsed without optical aid; a 6-inch telescope would be needed to pick it out. And if it were coming at us at fifty kilometers a second, we'd have just over 2 hours' warning if it were detected.

So let's move it out to 0.05 AU, the somewhat arbitrary threshold distance within which asteroids are deemed to become "potentially hazardous" -- seven and a half million kilometers, just under twenty times lunar distance. Now our 1-km pitch-black impactor shines at nearly mag +19. It's still less than two days away, and nineteenth-magnitude objects require some serious hardware to detect: large amateur or medium-sized professional telescopes with CCD imagers; forget about direct observation through an eyepiece.

Not to overlook the obvious, this had better not be any time near full Moon, either, or we'd never see it at all.

If we wanted a month's warning, we'd have to be able to spot things three hundred times fainter yet, elevating the difficulty well into the range of professional equipment, which by definition is not abundant. Then there is the issue, raised by Transterrestrial Musings commentator Josh "Hefty" Reiter, of something coming at us with a phase angle of 180°±, say, half a radian; -- that is, out of the Sun. This is actually not as much of a problem as it might appear. The solid angle in question is only p/4 steradian, one-sixteenth of the entire sky. And in fact very few known objects orbit entirely between Earth and the Sun: other than the planets Mercury and Venus, only two (or perhaps three) so-called Apohele asteroids have been discovered (I blogged one such here). Furthermore, comet hunters deliberately search the "comet haystack" within 50° of the Sun in any case.

There is a related problem, however, that is much more serious: objects approaching on high-inclination trajectories around the South Celestial Pole. Relatively few well-equipped amateur astronomers live south of latitude 30° N, meaning that the sky south of d = -60° is much less monitored, and the problem of looking through greater airmass probably reduces the effective declination limit to -50° or even less. This area of sky is at least twice as large as the unobservable region near the Sun.

A cometary remnant approaching from the far southern sky would be much more likely to hit sea than land -- just look at a globe -- and oceanic strikes are far worse than continental ones. An example, perhaps?

So what do we do? The mainstream answer, courtesy of news @ nature.com, is:

A new space telescope might provide the answer. Earlier this month, NASA announced that it would launch an orbiting infrared telescope called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) in 2008, which will map much wider areas of the sky. Given enough time, it should be able to detect the dark comets, says Napier.

But nobody grazes into Arcturus looking for mainstream answers. Before I get to that, however, there are a couple of things about the mainstream approach that I must approve of:

  1. Observing in the infrared. The hypothesized dark cometary nuclei are, well, dark -- in the visual part of the spectrum. They cannot avoid emitting thermal energy, however, and turning to this page and scrolling down to "Effective temperature," we learn how to calculate it. Plugging in the appropriate values for one of these objects at Mars' distance from the Sun (A = 0.001, S = 586 W/m², and s is the Stefan-Boltzmann constant), we get 225°K, which is -48°C or -54°F. The same calculation for Jupiter's distance (S = 50 W/m²) yields an effective temperature of 122°K = -151°C = -240°F.

    Now we use Wien's law (page down to end) to calculate the wavelength of the maximum energy flux for these temperatures. For a pitch-black cometary remnant at Mars orbit, this turns out to be 12.9 microns, and for one at Jupiter orbit, it's 23.7

    Turning to the WISE mission description, we find that the instrument will observe at "four different wavelengths that range from 5 to 35 times longer than the longest waves the human eye can see," which probably means 3.5-25
    mm. Looks like they've got an appropriate range covered.

  2. Observing from space. This manages several of the risks noted above: it covers the entire sky, is not affected by lunar phases, and needs to avoid only a very small area near the Sun. In any case, WISE will always be oriented at right angles to the Sun as it covers the complete celestial sphere in 6 months.

Now for the not-so-good news.

For one thing, the WISE science page states that it "will be able to measure the diameters of more than 100,000 asteroids," but this is only a small fraction of the total main-belt population, which is in the range of 1.1-1.9 million, and that's just the ones more than a kilometer in diameter. Indeed, the PI's page promises only that it will "detect most main belt asteroids larger than 3 km."

It will be better at detecting smaller asteroids closer to Earth, but any such observation must be completed by ground-based observers, who face the limitations of sensitivity, moonlight, and declination already mentioned; the spacecraft's survey program does not allow follow-up exposures for orbit determination.

WISE will cost over $200 million and will only operate for six months. This works out to over $13 per second. Cost overruns could substantially increase this, not because anybody working on the project is incompetent, but because WISE has multiple and very different objectives: asteroid work, brown dwarf detection, intragalactic dust, and distant galaxies.

So my unconventional answer, based on this earlier post, would be to develop a "WISE Jr," optimized for dark asteroid/comet detection in the inner Solar System. Aim for a unit cost on the order of $20 million, and build and launch at least 10 of them in rapid succession. Cool the detectors with liquid nitrogen instead of solid hydrogen or liquid helium. Use Russian and Ukrainian launch vehicles. Reserve several units to do nothing but follow-up imagery, for quick determination of orbits.

Five years of that, and this scary story would be nothing but a bad dream.

(Relatively new readers whose appetites have been whetted by the above are encouraged to read A Modest Proposal for an Asteroid Warning System and Asteroid Detection, Again.)

Jay Manifold [4:36 PM]

Happy Halloween from the Spitzer Space Telescope

(See this earlier post for background on the Spitzer.)

Regular contributor and Argus-eyed blogospherian Mike Daley sends this ... thing, which is actually an IR shot of an H-II region less than 1° southeast of g Cygni (a/k/a Sadr), which depending on how you look at it is either the central star of the Northern Cross or the star that marks the belly of the swan. For those of you with a Tirion, it's in the center-right portion of Chart 9.

Jay Manifold [8:32 AM]

[ 20041027 ]


Unless a well-situated hole in the clouds develops, nobody in KC is going to be seeing the lunar eclipse.

There is, however, a webcam (in the Canary Islands). Enjoy!

Jay Manifold [4:18 PM]

And Here It Is

The news release says that "perhaps as many as 500 [images] were taken by the visible light camera." The image archive has several of the better early ones posted.

More developments as they occur ...

UPDATE: Movie at various IR wavelengths (0.8 - 5.1 mm).

Jay Manifold [5:44 AM]

[ 20041026 ]

Semi-Liveblogging of Titan Flyby

I'm not going to stay up until 3 AM and watch the whole thing, but this is what NASA TV had on in the first half hour or so of "Uncovering Titan." It opened with a prerecorded (and, to my eyes, badly blue-screened) commentary by Torrance Johnson (all names approximate unless otherwise indicated). Then a shot of a good-sized room with a wide U-shaped array of tables filled with academic-looking types sitting in front of laptops. Not a lot of movement, and I'm afraid that planetary scientists aren't the most telegenic, so it made for odd TV.

Then NASA TV anchor/interviewer Elaine Chao came on and interviewed Earl Mays (again, names are approximate). He noted that Cassini was out of contact with Earth for 32 hours while gathering the data and taking the images which it will now play back to us. Data quality may suffer due to rain in Spain -- they're using the Madrid receiver; but the rain is light and shouldn't have much effect unless it gets heavier. In any case, some data can be played back tomorrow if necessary. An animation of the flyby showed the sequence of various instruments scanning and photographing Titan. He remarked that Cassini filled both its solid-state data recorders on this flyby: capacity, "nearly 4 gigabytes," a startling reminder of advances in memory-storage technology since the spacecraft was built (I should mention, however, that the necessity of radiation-hardening all electronics causes the computer hardware used in space probes to lag several years behind what we enjoy on the ground).

Next, an extended live interview -- still underway when I broke away to post this -- with Carolyn Porco. That's one name I know is spelled right, if only because I can never see her on TV without recalling the account of Gregory Benford's lengthy dispute with her in Deep Time, in which she is portrayed as less than imaginative. She introduced a short "movie" of Titan's rotation, taken from Cassini in mid-June, which showed some surface features. This flyby will improve the resolution of (parts of) Titan from 90 kilometers to only 200-300 meters. The "Xanadu" feature (mentioned in my post of this morning) is on the "anti-Saturn" hemisphere, that is, the one that always faces away from the planet, and is actually the white area in the center-left portion of the image.

This flyby will, in particular, reconnoiter the Huygens (they're pronouncing it hoy'-jens) landing site. They showed a "cloud movie," a very brief clip of images from the past couple of days, depicting 11½ hours of movement (in just a few seconds) of a cloud complex at 68°-70° south latitude, 1000 kilometers across, described as a "big storm complex." Then a Titan map (necessarily sketchy) with different-colored boundaries around the areas to be imaged on this flyby at one pixel per 4 kilometers, 1 pixel/2 km, and 1 pixel/200-400 meters.

The first new image arrived at 8:50 PM CDT. It was very bright, did not show much contrast, and was shown on a split screen, with a narrow-angle view on the left and a wide-angle view (the entire disk of Titan) on the right. The south pole was on the lower left of the images, with north to the upper right. Carolyn Porco explained that multiple images of the same field of view will be "summed" to decrease noise and increase signal. One long exposure would do the same thing, but would risk smear due to spacecraft motion. On the other hand, some smeared images will be deliberately taken to calibrate instruments.

The next sequence was supposed to be a 3 × 3 mosaic of the entire moon, but it didn't come in while I was watching.

More discussion of image processing. Then a full-disk shot of Titan in UV; this senses only the atmosphere and doesn't penetrate to the surface at all. It shows a detached haze layer, which -- especially at the north limb -- has intriguing structure. "It reminds me of that beautiful shot at the end of 2001, with the fetus floating in a ball."

Then a triptych of low-phase-angle images of Titan (that is, with sunlight bouncing almost straight back at Cassini) taken a day or two ago. Left-hand image is raw and blurry. Center image has "stretched" contrast, is made up of summed images, and has a haze-only image subtracted from it to reveal more surface features. Right-hand image is the same as the middle one, but with sharpened edges.

Not to end on a discouraging word, but no specular reflection has yet been observed by the spacecraft. This is important because if there were any substantial fluid-covered areas on the surface of Titan -- that is, those methane/ethane lakes and seas we've all been looking forward to -- we should have seen some by now.

More images were arriving when I turned the TV off, but they were all unprocessed. There will no doubt be at least a few processed ones available in the morning. Off to bed.

Jay Manifold [8:50 PM]

Cassini Flyby of Titan Looms

In this near-IR shot of Titan, we see (at l = 938 nm) a world revealed: its surface area the size of the Eurasian landmass, but with -- maybe -- oceans and lakes of methane and ethane, and continents of water ice plated with complex organics. No sunny pleasure-domes here, though; more like "frozen in an everlasting view."

Note this in the caption: "On Oct. 26, Cassini will acquire images of features in the central-left portion of this image from a position about 100 times closer." More info and images at the main Cassini page; those of you who get NASA TV can watch live coverage of the flyby at 8:30 PM CDT tonight.

Jay Manifold [5:39 AM]

[ 20041025 ]

This Day is Called the Feast of Crispian

So read this, already!

Jay Manifold [12:03 PM]

[ 20041022 ]

Spectacular Rainbow

By way of proving that amateur astronomers like looking at interesting atmospheric phenomena in the sky as well as proper celestial objects: any local Arcturus readers in the general vicinity of 119th & Metcalf in Overland Park got a stunning view of a rainbow around 6:30 this evening. The Sun was just setting, and the rain clouds that have lingered over this part of the Midwest for several days have finally begun to move on. The result, at least for a few square miles of Johnson County, Kansas, was a nearly full-180° rainbow, complete with secondary, nine degrees farther out and with the colors reversed.

I didn't have a digital camera with me, so here's a picture of one taken in similar conditions -- low Sun angle and plenty of moisture in the air -- but it only shows about a 60-70° arc, which would subtend perhaps 30-40° of sky. The one I saw stretched over 110°, from north-northeast to southeast, and only an exceptionally wide-angle lens could possibly have captured it all. It was the most impressive rainbow I've seen in all my 45 years.

Jay Manifold [8:05 PM]

[ 20041019 ]

TV in Distress

Friday lunch bunch member Clif Guy sends Flat-screen TV emits international distress signal, which about 50 other people have already linked to, according to Technorati -- but only mavromatic and Informationlab (which points to EPIRB) provide any technical details, though Dave Halliday tells a fun story over on Synthstuff.

Anyway, glancing at the EPIRB site, it seems that 121.5 MHz is on the way out, being replaced by 406 MHz. More info at How does an EPIRB distress radio work?, including the note that the 121.5 MHz transmitters are only 0.25 watt, which helps explain how a malfunctioning TV could emit a signal detectable by a satellite hundreds of kilometers overhead; the design spec for the overall system is stringent enough that an unshielded TV can look like a beacon.

Jay Manifold [12:15 PM]

Assigned Blogging: 90 days to Mars?

"Lexington Green" of Chicago Boyz asks what I think about Magnetic Sail Plasma Beam Propulsion, in particular as blogged by the indefatigable Randall Parker over on FuturePundit.

There are several interesting lessons here in my favorite topics -- project management (especially risk management) and public perception of large scientific endeavors.

As Randall himself once noted in an e-mail to me, a Mars mission need not, indeed probably should not, consist of one spacecraft using one type of propulsion for interplanetary transfer: send the hardware and consumables on ahead by some relatively conventional means, following a Hohmann transfer ellipse (long; do a search on "Hohmann"), whose typical time-of-flight is 8½ months (calculation). Then use your exotic propulsion system -- magnetic, nuclear, whatever -- to get the people there fast, in a much smaller spacecraft, arriving at the same time; in project planning, we call this a "finish-to-finish dependency."

This manages several risks. By category, as found in § of the PMBOK (2000 edition), they are:

My point, as usual, is: don't confuse a proposal for, or even the existence of, an intriguing technology with the actual work of employing it effectively. Organizational and project-management risks have sunk many a project that was technically feasible.

Jay Manifold [7:48 AM]

[ 20041018 ]

There's A First Time For Everything

-- in this case, a satellite crashing into an apartment building; both the satellite and the residence were Chinese. Lots of damage, but no injuries. The satellite appears remarkably intact. (Via Blogdex.)

See this earlier post for an estimate of how many satellites are theoretically detectable with a medium-sized telescope on any given evening (or morning).

Jay Manifold [5:30 AM]

[ 20041017 ]

Your Sunday Morning Dose of Homosexuality and Prostitution

Sometimes I wonder why I bother cranking out posts like the one below when I could just sit back and blog lurid scientific topics, like the one just sent in by one of my late-'70s University of Chicago dorm-mates, Jon Osborne:

As you may recall, in the course of trying to square proposed genetic evidence that homosexuality could be hereditary, despite the obvious genetic disadvantage of a disinclination to have sex with the opposite gender, I proposed the "whore gene," the idea that the gay gene in women would cause them to be more, er, fertile. Mocked, I was, mocked! But as George Eliot said, "In the vain laughter of folly wisdom hears half its applause." Anyway, to come to the point, I was right! See here.

Jay Manifold [10:34 AM]

Kangaroo Rat on Wheels?

Or perhaps a reverse kangaroo rat, one that makes hydrogen from water. In any case, don't get too excited about this:

The truck is hydrogen-powered and creates its own fuel from solar energy and water, a technical feat that rivals the advanced technology being researched by major auto companies and universities. The four-cylinder engine is tuned to run on hydrogen, which is produced by a hand-built electrolysis system mounted in the bed.

As a project done by high-school kids, it's remarkable, to say the least, and they deserve plenty of praise. And of course the self-contained aspect of their system is fascinating. I expect, however, that this story will fuel (pun intended) the miraculous car urban legend. So let's take a closer look.

First of all, the article goes on to say:

Although the truck performs as planned, it's more of a demonstration project than a practical vehicle. The four solar panels and hydrogen-generating system create only enough fuel per day to travel a few miles.

But that was expected, Waxman said, and the students have a motto that underlines the pioneering nature of the project: "How far did the first airplane fly?"

Like most alternative-fuel schemes, the amazing technology works -- but only briefly, not on a scale characteristic of actual consumer use. So how limited is it?

A three-year-old, four-cylinder Chevy pickup is rated at 120 horsepower, or 89 kilowatts (@ 5,000 rpm); has a fuel tank capacity of 18 gallons; and gets 21 mpg, giving it a range of about 380 miles on one tank of fuel.

Suppose that it is driven 12,000 miles per year, half of it city driving at an average speed of 20 mph, and half of it highway driving at an average speed of 50 mph. Then the truck is operated 420 hours per year, averaging 33 miles over 1 hour and 9 minutes per day. The tank must be refilled every 11 days or so, an operation which requires less than 10 minutes.

You don't get something for nothing; burning hydrogen created by electrolysis will create no more energy than it took to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen in the first place. So the power consumption of the truck is in the neighborhood of 50 kW -- call it 60 kWh per day.

The solar constant is 1.37 kW m-2, but 24-hour average at the top of the atmosphere is of course much lower, and varies widely by geographic latitude and time of year (good background article here). Cloud cover, of course, affects it still further. Let's optimistically assume daytime availability of 900 W m-2 -- the solar-powered truck was built in Arizona, after all.

And let's assume that the electrolysis and fuel-delivery subsystems are perfectly efficient. That leaves the photovoltaics, which assuredly aren't; this source says they're only about 15% efficient, though full-spectrum solar cells with efficiencies of 50-70% are theoretically possible. Let us assume improvement to 20% efficiencies for large arrays.

If the pickup truck has 10 square meters of solar panels on it (which would certainly make it "ungainly looking," per the original article), it is therefore, according to all the assumptions above, capable of generating 1.8 kW. Suppose it somehow manages to do this for 8 hours per day. Total power: about 14 kWh. Total daily range: maybe 7 miles. This is optimistic; I'd expect half that, or less, in most places. And I note that you can walk 7 miles in considerably less time than it would take the truck to create its own fuel for the trip.

But it's still a fun project, and something much, much smaller (about the size of one of these) would make a great educational toy: park it in the sun for an hour and generate enough hydrogen to buzz around for a minute or two. (Not a great Xmas gift unless you're in the Southern Hemisphere, though.)

And I should add than in terms of a vehicle suitable for commuting, the solution, of course, is to not lug your solar panels around with you. The annual power consumption of such a vehicle could be met by an array of advanced photovoltaics totaling less than 20 square meters in some places. American readers wishing to pursue this further are encouraged to start here.

Jay Manifold [10:27 AM]

The Bridges Must Roll?

Currently tied at #21 on Blogdex, we find a roll-up footbridge in use at the Marks and Spencer headquarters in Paddington. The "basin" mentioned in the photo caption may be viewed here (but IE is required and broadband is recommended).

(Vaguely related, much earlier posts here and here. If I had categories for posts on this blog, this one's would be R.A.H.)

Jay Manifold [8:05 AM]

[ 20041016 ]

Lunar Eclipse, Wed 27 Oct (in Americas)

Not to overlook the obvious, and by way of providing a public service, this event should be spectacular, weather permitting (a simplified diagram for the Central Time Zone is here; but for those of you who prefer your astronomy straight, have at it).

Turning to this handy application, I find that at the beginning of the umbral phase of the eclipse, which is to say the part that actually looks like something, the Moon will be almost due east and just over 20° above the horizon as seen from KC. This will be about a quarter after eight o'clock that Wednesday evening. At mid-eclipse, just after 10 PM, again as seen from here, the Moon will be high in the east-southeast, nearly halfway to the zenith.

Overall, the umbral portion of the eclipse lasts for almost two hours, and totality is 40 minutes in duration.

I really hope the weather's good for this one, because: the next one is two and a half years away (Sat 3 Mar 07) and totality will be ending at Moonrise at this location; the next one after that is only four months later (Tue 3 Jul 07) but doesn't really get going until almost four in the morning; same thing for the next one (Tue 28 Aug 07); so the next total lunar eclipse occurring in the evening hours as seen from the Americas isn't until Wed 20 Feb 08, three years and four months from now.

Jay Manifold [3:13 PM]

[ 20041013 ]

Of Possible Relevance

Given, er, recent events ... again via Natalie Solent, a remarkable post from Squander Two, culminating in: "We may think that the populace are scientifically ignorant now, but they are paragons of rationality compared to what they'd be if we stopped their scientific education." To see the supporting reasons, RTWT.

(In the spirit of incessant self-promotion, a related post of my own is The Two Cultures.)

Jay Manifold [7:03 PM]

Spam (II)

(Ref this earlier post.) The multitalented John J. Reilly of The Long View has been getting the same garbage (post will eventually move here), and also notices the Carlson/Colson name resemblance exploit.

If two commentators (or whatever it is we are) who technically agree, or at least do not disagree, with certain aspects of the spam in question, namely its opposition to these types of scenarios, are nonetheless repelled by it, it may be regarded as somewhat objectively disgusting.

See also Peter Sean Bradley of Lex Communis, on the ground in Fresno.

Jay Manifold [7:45 AM]

[ 20041012 ]

Foxes, Hedgehogs, and the Anglosphere

Natalie Solent, a co-guest-blogger of mine this week over on The Daily Ablution, has a couple of fascinating posts on her own excellent blog: one that quotes Isaiah Berlin commenting on Archilochus, and then another quoting (apparently) an e-mail from Jim "Anglosphere" Bennett on an extension of the metaphor. Go read them (they're short).

All done? Great. Now I'm going to recycle something from just over a year ago, in the third part of my interminable review of The Substance of Style:

What I suspect to be the most important passage in TSOS is at the very end of the first chapter, "The Aesthetic Imperative" (page 33; emphasis added):

... dynamic, emergent processes that begin in the personal -- in individual action, individual creativity, and individual desire .... in our era ... are accelerating aesthetic discovery.

Infer what you will of my mental state and internal priorities, because that reminded me of this (pp 360-361):

The laws of the Romano-Germanic family are coherent but, one may say, "closed" systems in which any kind of question can, and must at least in theory, be resolved by an "interpretation" of an existing rule of law. On the other hand English law is an "open" system: it has a method that can assure the resolution of any kind of question that may arise, not substantive principles which must, in all circumstances, be applied. The technique of English law is not one of interpreting legal rules; it consists, beginning with those legal rules already enunciated, of discovering the legal rule -- perhaps a new legal rule -- that must be applied in the instant case. This is accomplished by paying very great attention to the facts of each case and by carefully studying the reasons that may exist for distinguishing the factual situation in the case at hand from that in a previous case. To a new fact situation there corresponds -- there must correspond in the English legal mentality -- a new legal rule.

The freedom and openness -- and wealth -- of the Anglosphere may well rest on its ability to develop open processes for creation and discovery, as opposed to closed definitions of a tidier but fundamentally static world.

Jay Manifold [7:23 PM]

I Don't Just Offend People Around Here

I offend 'em clear across the pond, six time zones ahead. Enjoy!

Jay Manifold [6:38 PM]

[ 20041010 ]

Kansas Science Standards 2004: Intro

I attended this event a week ago Tuesday, but have not had the chance to blog it until now.

I took I-435 and K-10 to Lawrence, glimpsing Mt Oread on the horizon from about 12 miles out, and arrived about 7:15, just in time to get one of the last few free parking spaces on the street near the Kansas Union building, where the event was to take place.

Upon walking in and being directed (by a couple of stereotypically sharply dressed, and exceedingly polite, College Republicans who were hosting a different event) to Woodruff Auditorium, I found a television interview with Jack Krebs himself in progress just outside the door. I also immediately spotted John Calvert of IDNet, whom I know slightly, and Linda Holloway, whom I have never actually met but who is publicly recognizable, having appeared frequently on TV and in the paper during and after the events of 1999.

Just inside the door, volunteers were distributing a handout which included a list of sponsors, an outline of the evening's proceedings, and a list of websites and books about evolution, ID, Kansas Citizens for Science, and pro-evolution Christian material (I will reproduce this list in abbreviated form at the end of this post).

On a huge screen behind the stage was the content of the front page of the handout -- a long list of sponsoring organizations (they're listed on the webpage linked to in the first paragraph of this post) and the outline of the proceedings -- a nice touch and one that immediately both established the authority behind the event and conveyed a sense of openness by setting expectations.

Inside the auditorium were two or three hundred people of all ages, from elementary school-aged kids to senior citizens. A Fox News camera was set up in front of the stage on the left. The handful of antievolutionists present -- the loud ones, I mean; there may have been any number of quiet ones -- were in the rear left corner of the auditorium, perhaps 10 rows behind me.

The welcome was by Hume Feldman, whose English is accented and a bit fractured, but whose message was unambiguous: "I will not give them equal time," he said, comparing IDers to people trying to say that 2 + 2 = 5. Highlights: science is not a democracy; the scientific method of experimental observation provides a method to differentiate truth from falsehood; all successful modern technology and exploration is based on science; KU, as the preeminent educational institution in the state [at which point I imagined hearing a groan from Manhattan], is taking a strong position on this issue; the Kansas legislature is offering incentives to bring biotechnology industries into the state, and evolutionary biology is the basis of all biotech; alternatives may be discussed in social science or philosophy classes; if we don't take a stand on this, who will?

He then introduced Chancellor Hemenway, who spoke briefly from a prepared text. Highlights: university as a marketplace of ideas, examine them with respect, appropriate place for debate, university will offer scientific side; scientific theories are developed from observation and hypotheses and, unlike philosophic or political theories, are not merely speculative. Hemenway received substantial applause.

Hume Feldman then reappeared and introduced Jack Krebs, after reading his bio. The following is a highly condensed version of Krebs' talk, taken from my frantically-scribbled notes; see also Evolution defenders anticipate new fight, in the Lawrence Journal-World; thanks to Jack Krebs for the link, and for his own report on the talk, which you may find here.

Websites listed on handout:

  1. Kansas Department of Education

  2. Kansas Citizens for Science

  3. The Wedge Document: The strategy of the Intelligent Design movement

  4. National Center for Science Education

  5. The Panda's Thumb

  6. Kansas -- What Can We Expect in 2004, by Jack Krebs, May 15, 2004

  7. Understanding Evolution

Books listed on handout:

  1. Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design

  2. Perspectives on an Evolving Creation

  3. Finding Darwin's God

  4. Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism

Jay Manifold [12:03 PM]

Kansas Science Standards 2004: The Talk

The first thing I should say is that Jack's report, linked above, itself includes links to a PowerPoint deck (warning: 710 kB) and a Word document (only 71 kB) which give virtually the entire contents of the talk, as well as links to MP3 audio files. So all this post will tell you is what parts of it I managed to take notes on, whether I was particularly impressed by certain statements or simply had time to capture them. I have tried to add value, however, by finding and including useful links. I should also mention that my next post will describe the question-and-answer period afterward, which got pretty lively, and I will conclude this series with some opinions and advice which I hope at least will not be boring. ;^)

The outline of the talk remained on the aforementioned screen throughout the talk itself. Krebs introduced himself as "a citizen for science" rather than a science teacher, although he teaches science for a living, and immediately issued a disclaimer: the talk was not to be about what's going on in the science standards writing committee. He also referenced his Panda's Thumb article of 15 May [one of the URLs listed on the handout, and at the end of the Intro, above], estimated that he would be speaking for 45 minutes (until 8:30), followed by Q&A, and wryly noted that "almost everything I say tonight will be oversimplified."

He then moved into the body of the talk with a definition of science standards, which he said "help ensure excellence and equity" and are also very important for adhering to the standards promulgated in the No Child Left Behind Act -- "whatever you may think of that, they're there."

Then he reviewed the events of 1999 at what he admitted was a high level, approximately as follows:

  1. Young-Earth Creationists [hereafter YECs] influenced standards.

  2. The KSDE State Board of Education split 5-5.

  3. There was a secret collaboration with the Creation Science Association of Mid America.

  4. One board member changed his vote, so the altered standards were adopted 6-4.

  5. It "happened suddenly -- the world was taken aback."

  6. The new board elected in 2000 threw the altered standards out and re-adopted the original draft in early 2001.

He emphasized that his two main points were that there was a secret collaboration and that it was with out-of-state YECs. At present, a 25-person committee (linked above) is again reviewing and revising the standards. Some of them (he did not name names) are anti-evolution. Furthermore, the composition of the board itself will be at least 6-4 anti-evolution next year, due to the election of an antievolutionist in the GOP primary for District 6, and a possibly anti-evolution challenger to the incumbent, Bill Wagnon, in District 4 [see map]. By the spring of '05, then, there will certainly be an antievolutionist majority on the board, possibly as great as 7-3.

They are expected to make changes to the standards recommended by the committee, and have a new national "Intelligent Design" [hereafter ID] strategy to guide them, giving them the "means, opportunity, and motive" to make such changes. He stated that last time, all the discussion about the standards was after the fact, but now, we can talk about it ahead of time.

The ID movement is led by the Discovery Institute [hereafter DI] and the Intelligent Design Network. It has attempted to change state science education standards in Georgia, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, and Texas -- but a recent effort in West Virginia was led by YECs instead. "[IDers] are well-financed and well-organized," and ID ≠ YEC. The goal of ID is to overthrow philosophical materialism; IDers believe that it has taken over the culture, with "devastating" consequences.

What does this have to do with science? He quoted from the "Wedge Document" [another of the URLs listed on the handout, and at the end of the Intro, above]; IDers believe that science is the cause of this, that if you're a scientist, you're an atheist with "naturalistic bias." They see science as the weak spot of naturalism, and evolution as the weak spot of science. Their strategy is Intelligent Design.

ID claims to be a scientific theory, but is merely a negative philosophical argument. It has no testable hypotheses, no proper methodology, and no research data. In addition, its philosophical arguments are flawed and empirically invalidated, such as the idea that all genetic change is "downhill" and generates no new information. ID has had no impact on the scientific community.

IDers claim agnosticism -- "it could be space aliens" -- but Krebs has tapes of all ID conferences and from, for example, Hank Hanegraaff, indicating otherwise. He then read direct quotes from Philip Johnson and William Dembski in support of this.

Then another disclaimer: nothing wrong with religion; he has a degree in anthropology with a concentration in comparative religion, and has a strong sense of the importance of people's beliefs. He then quoted again from the Wedge Document and mentioned the book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design [listed at end of Intro, above].

And another, longer disclaimer: ID is divisive, claiming that people must be either for God or for science, and is highjacking science education as a means to an end. But many theists accept science; there is, for example, a new Catholic position paper on the age of the Earth and common descent.

IDers say such people are enemies. Here's Philip Johnson:

Liberal Christians are worse than atheists because they hide their materialism under a veneer of religion.

This battle isn't science vs science, or science vs religion; it's religion vs religion -- "interventionists" vs believers in "a continually present God who acts through natural processes."

Krebs got a firsthand look at IDers tactics when he was on a listserv with some Ohioans during the fight over that state's standards. When their '99 change of one word, from "natural" to "logical," was changed back by the Ohio board in '01, the IDers objected and got "natural" taken out.

A problem with the God-of-the-gaps approach, unsurprisingly, is that "the gaps are shrinking," which is why many Christians think this is bad theology -- "your notion of God will get smaller and smaller."

Then there's the topic of "origins science." Antievolutionists attack all the historical sciences, saying "no one was there to see it," a weirdly post-modernist argument claiming that belief results from bias. He quoted IDNet's Calvert and Harris stating that historians' explanations are subjective. In reality, of course, "the past has left huge amounts of evidence"; all science makes inferences, not just the historical sciences; and 150 years of scientific testing have resulted in a strong preference of variation and selection over special creation.

Fairness? "There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal things." He quoted John Calvert again, from the KCStar, claiming that evolution is a theory in crisis. IDers use public relations, not the scientific method. They're trying to do an end run around science, education -- ID is not established science and is using the classroom as a battlefield -- and religion.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Economic Growth Act is a legislative attempt to attract $500 million in life-sciences business to Kansas in the next 10 years. The state board of education will not ban the teaching of historical sciences in general or evolution in particular. But a draft of the new standards could be in front of the board as early as April, and the board will act by the end of June.

He then listed several specific things that audience members could do, "irrespective of your position," and noted that the Dole-Leid Center emphasizes increasing the level of civil discourse in society. Since antievolutionists feel very strongly about these topics, he recommends moving issues away from (say) fossils to moral, religious, and ethical concerns. He encouraged those who agree with him to stand firm for science, but "in a way that is nice," thanked everyone, and encouraged those who disagreed with him to participate in the Q&A.

The talk ended with warm applause.

Jay Manifold [12:02 PM]

Kansas Science Standards 2004: The Q & A

The question-and-answer period began with an admonition from Jack Krebs that "this is not the place for you to give your speech," with a slide listing ground rules displayed on the large screen behind the stage.

On some of the questions, I will describe the questioner in parentheses. I will also state whether any questions are follow-ups by the previous, or some earlier, questioner.

Q - (Angry young man.) Accuses Krebs of completely misrepresenting ID, claims ID is used in other sciences. Chancellor Hemenway called for public debate -- will there be a sponsored debate?
A - Take it to the scientific community (audience applauds), not to schoolchildren. Convince the biologists. Public debate about ID is a PR event that the ID movement uses. He is willing to discuss a possible forum, but it's up to Chancellor Hemenway.

Q - Why can't KU invite Behe, Dembinski, and Johnson? (Loud applause from 3-4 antievolutionists in corner.)
A - [I just wrote "summary" -- better refer to the MP3 on this one.]

Q - (Professor of evolutionary biology at KU.) How many high-school teachers in Kansas are capable of showing that ID is not science?
A - He reviewed several high school biology texts; they cover a huge amount of information in a short time. No high school teacher in Ohio considered material provided by IDers as appropriate for the high school level.

Q - (Bio major in evolutionary psychology class.) Who's behind the disclaimer pasted into textbooks in Alabama, and will we see it elsewhere?
A - It's been passed around a lot, but probably won't make it to Kansas. Kenneth Miller [author of Finding Darwin's God, URL given at end of Intro, above] dissected it. Five or six years ago the antievolutionists were all isolated, but the internet has enabled lots of communication between them and the rise of organizations like DI.

Q - Agreement on clash of religious paradigms [that is, rather than religion vs science]. IDers say that ID should be presented to kids; agrees that comparative religions class would be good.
A - Board member Bill Wagnon has asked the board to consider standards for instruction in comparative religion. Hard to do in science class -- materials are unavailable, teachers fear backlash, and "balanced" material would offend most people.

Q - (John M------?, of Kansas Families United for Public Education.) Please elaborate on the biosciences initiative.
A - There are at least a dozen bioscience organizations in Lawrence and KC. The K-10 [state highway 10, connecting Lawrence to the KC metro area] corridor is being looked at [as an area in which biotech companies could concentrate]. Representatives of these groups should speak up. The events of '99 were exaggerated, but exaggerations are what people remember.

Q - (Joanne Farr, works for Merck, homeschooling mother, teaches evolution to kids.) Educating kids brings them into the discovery process. Her daughter wanted to see a debate.
A - [Referring to earlier questioner] That guy's got one vote.

Q - (Joanne Farr) How to teach the issues?
A - You have to bring it to life. The #1 standard is science as inquiry. Danger of teaching nothing but facts. Do experiments. Read from Science News. Shouldn't get stuck with thinking of science as facts, but science as process.

Q - Groups doing end run around separation of church and state.
A - Went to a lawyer conference. The '80s cases were obviously religiously motivated. Those concerned with this now try to establish ID as science and divorce it from religious motivation. IDers aren't trying to get it into standards directly; they're using "wedgie ways" [my favorite expression of the evening].

Q - (Biology teacher.) I can't teach biology without evolution, and no matter what is in the standards, I will continue to do so. (Audience applauds.)
A - [no response]

Q - Are IDers from specific denominations?
A - Don't know of all denominational positions. Spectrum of groups. Some in some denominations don't hold to party line, whatever it is. Speculation that some denominations are primary source of YEC or ID. YECs are primary source of antievolutionism. Philip Johnson has directly told YECs to take low profile publicly and let ID do the work.

Q - (Professor who asked question earlier.) Compliments on pointing out that reaction in '99 was to an exaggeration, as teaching of evolution not banned; but biology teachers in Kansas can get degree without taking evolutionary biology class -- might even be possible to get PhD in biology at KU without one.
A - I don't know.

Q - Compliments on trying to reach common ground.
A - Thanks. I discuss evolution with antievolutionists, who usually just have a hodgpodge of little factoids. Should change subject and try to get at deeper concerns.

Q - IDers are well-funded. When they come to [questioners' relatives'] churches, they raise money. Questioner addresses these things, tries to help them connect the dots, can soften up their point of view. This is what needs to happen.
A - We're all Americans. Throw out philosophical discussions, "talk about what's in our hearts." Howard Ahmanson, a Reconstructionist, funded DI. Some DI "fellows" make $40,000 a year.

Q - Wasn't DI founded by lawyers?
A - Philip Johnson.

Q - (Same questioner.) Leaders know better, lie, and dissemble, but regular people don't know better. Trying to do the right thing -- have to deal with people who just want to do the right thing -- soften them up.
A - Get them past evolution as such.

Q - '99 board was 5-5 plus a weak person, but now it looks like a hard 6 or 7. Is it worth taking it to the board? Did we already lose the battle for 2 years?
A - It's a political issue. Some thought last time that advocates of evolution were too strident. Someone said "democracy got us into this mess, and democracy got us out of it." Thinks we have strong enough arguments, not to change their minds about evolution, but about what is good for Kansas as a whole.

Q - Good reasons to continue to speak out in venues, including before the board. Support 3-4 board members. Squeaky wheels may be speaking out -- we should not give up venues.
A - If board adopts standards to de-emphasize evolution, need to keep issue alive 2 years down the line. If debate broadens in next 6 months, there will be more people with that concern.

Q - I'd like to hear more about your organization.
A - KSCF formed in '99 -- citizens' group -- small core has kept it alive -- contact us if interested.

Q - Is there a summary of what Kansas biology teachers actually teach, so that we can compare the standards with reality?
A - Unknown. Do know of teachers who've been told to skim over evolution section. Atmosphere of "dangers of evolution" poisons the well -- need to get philosophical issues out of way.

Q - (Questioner's HS bio teacher was Ken Bingham, member of standards committee.) There are teachers and committee members who don't know the science -- how does this happen?
A - Kansas has increased its teacher standards, but needs to attract teachers. We're basically a scientifically illiterate society. Major problem is how much time this debate takes away from science teaching.

Q - (Left-wing nutjob.) Fundamentalism is controlling/sidetracking the debate -- corporate takeover of our childrens' minds -- gay marriage, evolution are distractions from bigger issues.
A - Social studies classes are good for these types of discussions. KSCF has firm commitment to sticking to one topic.

Q - IDers capitalize on American fairness. Philip Johnson has already spoken at KU. Biologists have debated this for 150 years and made their decision. Will there be other political elements to the dispute, like global warming?
A - Fairness is a common tactic. One board member said, "let the children decide."

Q - (Same questioner.) Postmodernism of ID argument.
A - In postmodernist relativism, competing worldviews supposedly have equal validity. They use wedge issues -- science, then theology.

He then thanked the crowd, which responded with a partial standing ovation. I made my way forward and introduced myself; he said "another Panda Thumb-er!" -- even though all I've done is leave a comment or two over there -- and seemed delighted. KSCF members were handing flyers with their URL (listed at end of Intro, above) and other contact information to audience members as they filed out. In the foyer, I overheard an antievolutionist say "one of us should have jumped up and said, what about the fossil record?" But I didn't feel like eavesdropping on strategy, so I left. Rode back to town on K-10 and I-435 under a nearly-full Harvest Moon, wondering how it will all play out.

Jay Manifold [12:01 PM]

Kansas Science Standards 2004: My Thoughts (Optional Reading)

This is where I drive my readership down to single digits by offending virtually everyone:

  1. Science standards promulgated by a national body and adopted by state education authorities do not ensure excellence and equity. They ensure wasteful political battles. Kansas had no science education standards at all prior to 1992. The historical evidence suggests that it does not need them. (In any case, they're probably unenforceable; this document shows that the vast majority of school districts in Kansas are rural and sparsely populated; some 58% have fewer than 1,000 students apiece, implying graduation class sizes of 80 or less. Antievolutionism is popular in rural areas, and a reasonable supposition would be that in well over 100 of the 304 school districts in Kansas, evolution is being glossed over, ignored, or repudiated.)

  2. The board decision of '99 -- to remove certain questions regarding the historical sciences from statewide assessment tests -- was, constitutionally speaking, a very good one. Structuring the tests to leave these types of questions in but making them optional, with the clear understanding that those skipping them get a big, fat asterisk next to their names in school records, and that those students' "special" status will be communicated to all prospective colleges and employers, would be even better.

  3. Ultimately, teaching the historical sciences, and indeed history itself, is tremendously problematic constitutionally in an educational system based on taxpayer (that is, coerced) funding in an otherwise ostensibly free society. A plurality (three-eighths) of Kansans with children in public schools supported the board's 1999 decision. Their money is now being spent to promulgate ideas they abhor to their own children. This is progress?

  4. There is no correlation between the performance of a state's public education system and that of its economy (proof), and therefore no reason to expect that Kansas will gain or lose biotech industry, irrespective of the content of its science education standards.

  5. The argument that "methodological naturalism" leads to an increasingly inhumane and destructive civilization was perhaps just barely plausible half a century ago, given that 20th-century totalitarians invariably claimed to be "scientific." But if we apply argument from observation to the world today, we find that the places where there's the most applied science are the best places to live, and the places with the least applied science are the worst.

  6. In particular, as Hume Feldman stated during the introduction, biotechnology is completely founded on evolution and would not exist without it. No evolution, no antibiotics. No evolution, no vaccines. No evolution, no gene therapies. No high-yield crops saving the Third World from starvation. No defense against AIDS or bird flu. No, thanks.

  7. IDers can and will move the goalposts, and on very short notice. Notwithstanding that a rapid succession of fallback positions turns their arguments to mush, expect them to respond to criticism with assertions that they don't really oppose evolution as such, that their methodology really does exist and is in use somewhere or other, that they are continually misrepresented by their opponents, and possibly even that they're being persecuted. IDers are on a political power grab -- unwittingly aided and abetted by the existence of state science instruction standards -- and any excuse will serve.

  8. IDers, at least the ones I've observed, are also angry, bitter, alienated people (in striking contrast to the behavioral standard of their belief system), and their attitudes get the better of them often enough to make their opponents seem relatively attractive, regardless of the strength of either side's arguments. Affective gains precede cognitive gains -- especially in science. Andy Cline (emphasis added):

    What do I mean by "winning"? Since these are not debates except by connotation, there is no way to assess a win outside of subjective judgement based on pathetic appeal, i.e. who we like after watching a dramatic performance rather than who we believe after considering a rational discussion. This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as nothing interrupts your emotional experience with partisan interpretation.

    The debates will not be won during the event. The debates will be won or lost in the pre- and post-debate commentary and the spin that drives it.

  9. In this context, Jack Krebs is, well, a godsend to the pro-science side. He does his homework, does not disdain to engage (and closely monitor) his opponents, encourages civic participation by all sides, and readily admits his own limitations. More importantly, he looks vaguely like C. Everett Koop and has a pleasant voice.

  10. Besides, he got lucky on questioner order. The very first question was sufficiently rude as to get the audience on his side, if they weren't already. The overloud applause by the IDers when the subsequent questioner suggested that Behe et al be invited to KU reminded me of the scene in Citizen Kane where Kane claps for his "singer" wife's attempt at opera -- it was that forced. And it's a real good thing that the crazy leftist was near the end of the line.

  11. Tactically, the evening boiled down to telling the new board: we're on to you. Whether this will work, of course, remains to be seen. Politicians sometimes do respond to pressure, and the event got plenty of print coverage and some TV. Every board meeting next year will receive far more public scrutiny that would otherwise be the case. If the scrutiny is perceived by board members as persecution, it will backfire; but if one or two of them can persuade themselves that they have higher priorities than making certain edits to the standards the committee forwards to them, KSCF may yet succeed, even in this environment.

UPDATE: Post and comment thread now available over on The Panda's Thumb.

FURTHER UPDATE: And another, on Transterrestrial Musings.

Jay Manifold [12:00 PM]

[ 20041009 ]

A Public Thanks

-- to Tony Ortega of The Pitch for my honorable mention in the category of Best Local Blog, especially since Arcturus only occasionally focuses on local matters. I feel deeply grateful to be living in a city where amateur astronomy is so active, and for a medium in which to write about it (and anything else) that can reach so many people. Anyone grazing in as a result of reading the article referenced above (which appears on page 12 of the dead-tree edition) is encouraged to poke around a bit, and especially to read the posts listed under "Important Stuff" in the left sidebar. As always, feedback is welcomed.

UPDATE: It would be churlish of me not to point to my fellow KC-area bloggers in some way, so graze on over to KCbloggers! (That's the "Crazy Little Bloggers" link in the left sidebar).

Jay Manifold [10:58 AM]

[ 20041007 ]

Really Distant Early Warning

Via the AScribe Newswire (story not available online; I got it from a LexisNexis™ search), "Supernova Warning System Will Give Astronomers Earlier Notice" -- which in turn references a paper entitled "SNEWS: the SuperNova Early Warning System" -- what I've dubbed the distributed observing model is put into place.

Reading section 8, [t]he alert to the astronomical community, we find:

The large pool of skilled and well-equipped amateur astronomers is also prepared to help locate a nearby supernova. The editors of Sky & Telescope magazine have set up a clearinghouse for amateur observers in search for first light (and a precise optical position as early as possible) [38], via their AstroAlert service [39]. This was started by former editor-in-chief Leif Robinson, and has the continued support of current editor-in-chief Rick Fienberg. In collaboration with the American Association of Variable Star Observers, they have developed a set of criteria for evaluating amateur responses to an alert, so that a reliable precise position can be disseminated as early as possible. For instance, there must be at least two consistent reports, demonstrated lack of motion, lack of identification with known asteroid and variable star databases, variability consistent with supernova light curves and, if the information is available, a spectrum consistent with known supernova types.

On 14 February 2003, Sky & Telescope performed a test for amateurs. A transient target (the asteroid Vesta at a near-stationary point in its retrograde loop) was selected, which at the time was about magnitude 6.7. Sky & Telescope issued an alert (very carefully tagged as a test) to their mailing list, with a given 13° uncertainty radius. They received 83 responses via the web response form, and more by e-mail. The responses were of world-wide distribution, and although many observers experienced poor conditions, six were successful in identifying the target. From this experience, they have suggested refinements to optimize amateur astronomer strategy. A second test is planned soon, and should be a regular occurrence.

The relative success of succeeding tests should indicate just how good amateur astronomers could be at saving civilization -- not from supernovae, but from much closer hazards.

Jay Manifold [4:19 PM]

[ 20041006 ]

New ASKC Dark-Sky Site

While this is primarily of interest to locals, after describing the site I'll list some things that any amateur astronomer interested in finding a similar property should keep in mind.

The site is located at 38°13'14" N, 94°33'38" W, which you can plot via MapQuest's lat/long coordinate search. This is approximately 57 miles south of downtown Kansas City, MO. The nearest substantial town, Butler, MO (population ~4,300; birthplace of Robert Heinlein), is 13 miles ENE. The 40-acre property is irregularly shaped, approximating a narrow rectangle one-eighth mile east-west and one-half mile north-south, and appears capable of accomodating well over 100 vehicles at a time with plenty of room for tents, telescopes, etc. A low rise, perhaps 20' in elevation, occupies the middle of the property; the coordinates given above are for nearer the north end, where most observing is likely to take place.

There is no line-of-sight view of any artificial lights from the site, with the possible exception of red aircraft-warning lights on the smokestacks of the La Cygne power plant, which are visible just above the horizon in the NNW. There is certainly no direct view of any road or rail line, so car and train lights should not be a problem.

The site is nearly treeless except around the perimeter on the SW, SE, and NE. It is covered with tall prairie grasses, wildflowers, and milkweed, except where it has been recently mowed to accomodate ASKC members. On the afternoon that I visited (last Saturday) it appeared especially attractive due to recent rains, followed by clearing, which left the sky a deep blue above lush green growth.

The club has already rented the property through the end of the year and is, in my opinion, overwhelmingly likely to purchase it shortly thereafter; over half the purchase price is already on hand as a result of fund-raising conducted under "Project CORE." Please note that this site will not replace Powell Observatory; its function is to provide a dark-sky environment for dedicated amateur work, whereas Powell is largely oriented toward public outreach.

Now, if you're looking for a site well away from city lights, whether to buy it yourself or for your local astronomy club, here are some things to think about (file under "risk management"):

  1. Light pollution, obviously. How far from the big city? Small towns? Nearby light sources -- houses, barns, other large structures? Any car or train traffic in view?

  2. Atmospheric effects. How's the weather, generally? Any nearby sources of smoke or fog? (Nearby water may also create a bit of an insect problem.)

  3. Southern exposure (for northern hemisphere dwellers). Most deep-sky observing is of objects south of the celestial equator. The closer you can get to the absolute theoretical southern limit of declination, the better.

  4. Nearby future development. Are the nearby towns growing? Are there highways close by that lead into the big city, near which new bedroom communities might arise?

  5. How much is it going to cost? Can you/your club afford it?

  6. How accessible is it? Are there paved roads within a reasonable distance and well-maintained unpaved roads to the site? How far are you/club members willing to drive?

  7. How many people will it easily accomodate? Can you hold full-scale star parties/campouts there with three-digit numbers of guests? Do you want to?

  8. In the past, has there been mining (or other activities) on the property that might render it unsuitable for development? You may need to have the soil sampled to confirm this.

  9. Does hunting, especially of larger game requiring heavy, high-velocity ammunition, occur on or near the site? If so, when?

  10. Are there local zoning or other regulations limiting development of the site?

  11. You would be well advised to develop a master plan for the site so that your "durable improvements," if any, are of adequate capacity and are built in the proper order.

Jay Manifold [6:14 PM]

[ 20041004 ]

What Can Be Said?

-- on this day of days, the very anniversary of Sputnik, but to quote a lyric:

Don't look back
A new day is breakin'
It's been too long since I felt this way
I don't mind where I get taken
The road is callin'
Today is the day

Shallow commentators will rank the Presidential election as this year's top story; but we know better. Just as Apollo 8 redeemed a dark time, SpaceShipOne uplifts us all. So raise a toast to Paul Allen, Anousheh and Amir Ansari, Brian Binnie, Mike Melvill, Burt Rutan, and everyone else who worked on this project for showing the way. Don't look back. The stars are calling.

Jay Manifold [6:37 PM]