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[ 20050531 ]


Early evening, St Patrick's Day. Science Night at Della Lamb Elementary in downtown KC: seven spoken languages amongst the student body; at least a third of the kids are straight off the plane from some of the deepest hellholes on Earth (refugee camps in Somalia, Sudan, etc), still learning to use plumbing and electricity.

As for me, I'm learning to use a borrowed, beat-up old Astroscan, a 'scope that's hard to point in the best of circumstances, which these are not: an amazingly crummy finderscope a good 10° out of alignment, a correspondingly amazingly cheap eyepiece, abundant light pollution courtesy of the 2 million people in the KC CMSA, and a high, thin layer of cirrus clouds that are wiping out everything in the sky except for Saturn and a waxing crescent Moon.

I found the Moon. It took a while. Magnification was maybe 30x; the disk subtended about half the field of view. A fat crescent with some Earthshine and high-relief features in the Southern Highlands and along the coastlines of Mare Serenitatis and Mare Tranquillitatis.

An African girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, steps up. Swathed from head to foot in some kind of robe, which is just as well, because it's not warm and there's a strong breeze. I think how strange this environment must seem to her, and wonder how many family members she has lost, and how many people have died before her eyes. She is utterly silent. I point to the eyepiece, and she leans in for a look.

Three seconds later she has leaned back, eyes wide, looking directly into mine -- and grinning from ear to ear, brilliant white teeth gleaming in the darkness. She gazes at me, and then, instead of stepping away, she leans over for another, longer look. Only then does she leap away to find a friend and share the wonder. It occurs to me that some members of the next generation of scientists may have unlikely origins.

Jay Manifold [1:48 PM]

A Voyage to ... Antares?

ASKCer John Cravens shot some video of last week's occultation of Antares by the Moon; here's a link:

Antares occultation video

In a posting to the ASKC Yahoo! group, John provides the following technical details:

Lunar Occultation of Antares (disappearance)
May 24, 2005 2:49 AM CDT (07:49 UTC)
Transparency: crummy
Seeing: even worse

MPEG-1 file, 3900KB (beware dial-up users)
Duration 24 seconds, made using an 8" Celestron SCT-GEM at f/6.3, a Philips ToUcam Pro 840K, and an IBM ThinkPad A20M computer. 40-second, 129MB AVI file trimmed & converted using PVR Plus.

Jay Manifold [12:55 PM]

[ 20050529 ]

The Matter With Kansas (III) - KCRSDP (I)

[NOTE: First two posts in this series are here and here.]

On Thursday evening the 25th of March, 2004, I attended the event described at this page (page down to "2004 Lecture Series"). The next three posts will be a detailed account of the lectures and the question-and-answer session, with comments about the audience(s) and a few asides from me.

In other words, it's not just "free ice cream," but free ice cream of an unusual flavor which not all my readers may find equally worthwhile. I certainly don't expect anyone who's not normally into this sort of thing to suddenly acquire an interest just because I'm writing about it. So read on, or not, as you wish; and as always, feedback is welcomed (if a bit hindered for first-timers by Spam Arrest).

The event took place at 2nd Pres; as I arrived, I noticed that it was next door to a building, now being gutted and renovated into condominiums, which was used as housing for many international students back in the 1980s, the young woman mentioned in this post among them. The neighborhood has become one of the most desirable in the city in recent years, as it is not only visually attractive (rolling hills, mature trees, boulevards, large 2- and 3-story houses typically ~80 years old) but is one of the very few in the entire metro area where sufficiently mixed use has evolved to permit access to most of its amenities on foot.

Everyone entered through a small door on the west side of the building and proceeded to a fellowship-hall-type area for hors d'oeurves, where we paid $5 apiece, ate, and chatted; some purchased books by the speakers. I bought this book, and while doing so was pointed to John Haught himself, who was standing nearby talking to a couple of other people.

So I stepped over, introduced myself, and got his autograph. We spoke for several minutes, during which I mentioned my involvement with Powell Observatory and, when he asked me what I thought of the Hubble decommissioning, inflicted some of my ideas on him, though I had the presence of mind not to drone on about the details. He seems very kind and knowledgeable.

The audience was demographically interesting -- of ~100 in attendance, perhaps 20 were young people, high-school and college age, nearly all of whom arrived as a group; nearly everyone else appeared to be over 50, with many retirees. As I'd expected, Bill Tammeus, an elder at the church, was there.

As became more evident during the Q & A, the audience was overwhelmingly Christian but not at all monolithic. Perhaps one-third or one-fourth were "creationist" in the stereotypical sense. What they all were, in any case, was motivated, as will become (sometimes painfully) obvious in the post about their questions below.

Promptly at 6 PM, we all filed upstairs to the sanctuary, an early-20th-century gothic structure with gorgeous stained-glass windows. The pastor, Edward Thompson, who speaks with a Scottish accent, welcomed us and introduced the first speaker, Ron Numbers. The next post is largely a transcription of his lecture.

Jay Manifold [6:44 PM]

The Matter With Kansas (IV) - KCRSDP (II)

Dr Numbers spoke from memory, referring only rarely to notes, if at all, and spoke slowly enough to permit easy capture of the material. In the following, my comments appear in square brackets.

Dr Numbers' father was a 7th Day Adventist pastor who spent Christmas Day of 1943 distributing handbills on the streets of Kansas City entitled "God's Answer to Evolution." There have been three main phases of antievolutionist movements in the US, occurring in the 1920s, the 1960s, and the 1990s, extending into the present day. The movement of the 1920s was the first -- there was no large, organized anti-evolution movement in this country before then.

[I add the qualifier "large" because the 7th Day Adventist church was strongly opposed to evolution due to accounts of visions by its founder, which were, needless to say, rejected by late 19th- and early 20th-century fundamentalists.]

The 1920s, of course, saw the Scopes Trial; this prompted Dr Numbers to say "everything everybody knows about the Scopes Trial is wrong," largely because the version of events in Inherit the Wind -- recommended for viewing by the group that wrote the national standards for teaching US history! -- is so flawed. Willliam Jennings Bryan was not a young-Earth creationist. He thought the "days" of Genesis 1 were geological ages, an idea that traces back at least to Augustine. Nor did Bryan object to prehuman evolution, though he avoided saying so in public. Bryan did, however, introduce the rather odd "teach children that they're animals, and they'll behave like animals" meme.

[This bit of post hoc ergo propter hoc logic -- to the extent that it even rises to that level -- was used heavily in the 1980s as an "explanation" for the rise in social pathologies that began in the 1960s. Few, if any, of its adherents knew that it was an old idea that had gone out of fashion when the rise in social pathologies of the early 20th century was reversed by the repeal of Prohibition. Plummeting crime rates and improving student performance starting in the early 1990s have gotten it in trouble again, though I still hear it mentioned occasionally.]

Many fundamentalist leaders, like Bryan, advocated the "day-age" theory, and nearly all others, following the lead of the Scofield Reference Bible, supported "gap theory," wherein eons elapsed between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. "Only a handful of fundamentalist Christians in the 1920s rejected historical geology -- and almost all were 7th Day Adventists," whose leader uniquely suggested that Noah's Flood accounted for the entire fossil record.

This didn't change until 1961, with the publication of The Genesis Flood, written by two non-7th Day Adventists, who were careful to avoid crediting their real source.

[Make no mistake: an association with 7th Day Adventism would have destroyed their credibility. By any definition of "cult" I've ever heard used among evangelicals, 19th-century 7th Day Adventism would qualify. Ignorance of its historical roots is a large part of what sustains the popularity of young-Earth creationism in the US today.]

The authors had no expectation of converting the scientific community. Their objective was to get conservative Christians to interpret science via the Bible and drop "compromising" interpretations. Two years later, the "Creation Research Society" was formed, and it succeeded in convincing many Christians to drop day-age and gap theories in favor of "Flood geology." Being premillenialists, however, they were not Biblical literalists and had no problem constructing elaborate symbologies from, for example, the book of Daniel.

[Read the Q&A post below for a perfect example of this kind of wildly nonliteral interpretation being propounded by someone who undoubtedly believes in Biblical "inerrancy," itself a 19th-century American concept.]

"Nobody believes in evolution happening as fast as a young-Earth creationist does," since they think every [macroscopic, non-saltwater-dwelling, presumably] lifeform on Earth is descended from something that was aboard Noah's Ark. The "kinds" of Genesis are deemed to be prototypes rather than species as we see them today, so for example a primitive canid fostered everything from dogs to foxes to wolves later on. This fantastically diverse and rapid speciation is nonetheless referred to as "microevolution" by its adherents.

[In my experience, "microevolution" means absolutely anything the person saying they believe in it wants it to mean. The goalposts will be moved as often and as far as necessary.]

Good polling data are lacking, because questions tend not to distinguish between young-Earth creationists and, in general, theists who don't also believe in a young Earth, but something like 45-48% of Americans believe that the human race is less than 10,000 years old.

In 1989, the book Of Pandas and People, the first to use the phrase "intelligent design," was published, and several school boards adopted it as a biology textbook. ID then got a boost from lawyer Philip Johnson, and was supplemented by the "irreducible complexity" notions of biochemist Michael Behe, who incautiously compared himself to Newton, Lavoisier, and Einstein (and has since been rebutted by Ken Miller). ID-ers "want to effect a revolution in science of the first order, to change the most fundamental rule of using only natural explanations in scientific investigation."

Scientists who are Christians have promoted this principle for hundreds of years, especially since about 1800. ID-ers are thus opposed to the historical Christian scientific stance; indeed, the phrase "methodological naturalism," which they use to label their enemy, originated at Wheaton College (!) in the early 1980s and was urged on evangelical Christians as the correct stance. Now Behe, Dembski, and Johnson say it's tantamount to atheism.

Dr Numbers made a point, however, of saying that we should not conflate young-Earth creationism with Intelligent Design-ism. ID-ers oppose fighting about Genesis and want a "big tent," young-Earthers are "miffed" that ID-ers regard them as troublemakers, and ID-ers don't want to be identified with young-Earthers.

[My personal experience is at odds with this: young-Earthers regard ID-ers as a valuable source of support, and the prominent local ID-ers are young-Earthers themselves in any case.]

Unfortunately, at that point Dr Numbers' allotted time ran out and he truncated the portion of his talk discussing the institutional bases of the Intelligent Design camp.

Jay Manifold [6:42 PM]

The Matter With Kansas (V) - KCRSDP (III)

The other speaker at the event, introduced by someone from the church (I think) named Nancy, was the aforementioned John F. Haught. His style contrasted with that of Dr Numbers by being more academic in language and making heavy use of a PowerPoint presentation; a version of his talk may be downloaded here, and I also found this brief account of an earlier appearance in Utah. He began by saying that his talk would be largely addressed to audience members who were "Christian believers with an appreciation for evolutionary theory, but with questions."

The classical view of Providence developed in prescientific times, in what was conceived to be a far smaller Universe than the one we know. Dr Haught illustrated this with the idea of a 30-volume "Encyclopedia of the Universe," with one page per million years; the Cambrian explosion occurs at the end of volume 29, and modern humans are confined to the last fifth or tenth of the last page.

The problem of how to map a "hierarchical spirituality" onto a 13.7-billion-year unfolding of Nature, especially in the wake of Darwin, has produced a range of responses, from unbelief, to belief in an initial cosmic design, to belief (frequent among believing scientists) in a "hidden plan," to a hypothesis of "divine pedagogy," to elucidation of broad evolutionary trends, and finally, perhaps, to a renewed appreciation for divine love and care acting through Darwin's recipe itself: variation, natural selection, and deep time.

[I note that the human struggle to understand "deep time" is not a new one.]

In connection with the "divine pedagogy" idea, he mentioned Guy Murchie's The Seven Mysteries of Life, and under "broad evolutionary trends" discussed Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man: evolutionary directionality; "increasing centration"; religion as an aspect of cosmology; and emergent, rather than static, hierarchy -- "the world leans on the future as its foundation." Related ideas (a Universe aiming toward beauty; adventure as a combination of novelty and order) occur in Alfred North Whitehead's writings.

At that point, Dr Haught uttered the best line of the evening: "A theologian is somebody who doesn't make much money, but at least he knows why."

His views, unsurprisingly, are that there is no need to identify evolutionary science with an exclusively materialist philosophy, and that "the Christian can accept a Providential God not in spite of but because of evolution's recipe." To this he added a brief homily on the divine kenosis of Philippians 2:5-11, and spoke of the Universe as being "seeded with promise rather than design" -- chance as Nature's openness to the future; the laws of Nature ensuring "a Universe we can depend on"; and deep time as an indicator of divine patience.

He quoted Jürgen Moltmann, in The Work of Love, as saying "we look in vain for special divine interventions .... God is waiting and awaiting." Things like this, unfortunately, helped set up a general mismatch during the ensuing Q & A, which was characterized by oddball questions from the audience and meandering or indirect answers from the speakers.

Jay Manifold [6:41 PM]

The Matter With Kansas (VI) - KCRSDP (IV)

It was more difficult to take accurate notes during the Q & A, so apologies in advance for the fragmentary nature of this account. Again, my comments will appear in square brackets.

Q - About chance and consciousness; what collapsed wave functions before human observers were present?

A (Haught) - "Contingency is necessity not yet understood." Newtonian mechanistics were undermined by quantum mechanics. Life-oriented, mind-oriented Universe.
A (Numbers) - Wife is zoologist at UW and objects to his use of "randomness." Historically, American biologists rejected a mechanistic interpretation of Darwin.

Q - Jesus spoke of the days of Noah in Matthew 24. 2 Peter 3:3-7 prophesies the theory of evolution. Ken Ham spoke at Colonial Presybyterian in 1985. Dead things covered in mud are the result of a worldwide flood.

A (Numbers) - The rarity of human fossils does not concur with the stated purpose of Noah's flood, nor is continuous deposition observed.
[Things like that 1985 conference are why I left Colonial, where I was a member from 1979 to 1989 and an active volunteer from 1976 on. If the passage in 2 Peter prophesies anything, it's the insistence by anti-evolutionists that nothing has changed since an initial burst of divine creative activity; read verse 4 and see if it doesn't sound weirdly familiar.]

Q (Muslim) - My Christian friends in America, unlike my Christian friends in Egypt, make room for evolution in their belief. Is Christianity itself undergoing evolution/revolution? What's evolving here? I teach at a university here in town [he didn't say which one], and I've seen the effect of drug use on my students' minds. Science keeps changing, but God's word remains constant. [Loud burst of applause from fundamentalist contingent in audience. This made my blood run cold. The great liberal canard of the past generation has been that Christian and Moslem fundamentalisms are morally equivalent. I have always found this ridiculous, for the obvious reason that there is no Christian analog to Islamist terror and repression. Will they find common cause in antievolutionism? Read on.]

A (Numbers) - Young-Earth creationism is spreading massively in Islamic countries worldwide. BAB, a Turkish publisher, has printed millions of copies of anti-evolution Islamic tracts.
A (Haught) - Science changes, but there are landmarks; we won't go back to a pre-Copernican or pre-Big Bang universe. For religion not to take an active role in the development of evolutionary theory would be irresponsible.
[This got an even bigger round of applause, for which I suppose I should be grateful.]

Q (the inimitable John Calvert of IDN) - Is it appropriate for public schools to teach students that natural phenomena lack the property of design? In deciding bioethical questions, should life be considered a design or an occurrence?
[A typical attempt at creating and then exploiting a dichotomy for crassly political purposes.]

A (Numbers) - Secularization of bioethics began in the Christian community and spread to the philosophical community; see Playing God.
A (Haught) - Explanatory pluralism vs explanatory monism. "The problem is not when generalists specialize, but when specialists generalize."

Jay Manifold [6:39 PM]

[ 20050520 ]

More Local Events

ASKC volunteers, myself among them, have begun manning Warkoczewski Observatory, located on the roof of Royall Hall at UMKC, every Friday night during the warm months of the year. The public is invited; access is through the eastern stairwell. Sunset is at 8:29 PM CDT tonight in KC.

The ASKC's own Bentley Ousley will be running "Stargaze Kansas City: Exploring our Springtime Skies" at the Gottlieb Planetarium in Science City. Start time is 2:30 PM tomorrow (Sat 21 May).

UPDATE - from Bentley, on the ASKC e-group, about how to get there, illustrative of some communications/management issues we're still experiencing:

"From the grand hall at Union Station ask one of the Science City employees to direct you to the Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium. Ignore their insistence that Science City doesn't have a Planetarium and take the escalator down to the lower level and turn right following the long hallway until you see a structure outside the window to the left that looks something like 'Superman's Fortress of Solitude'. As you are waiting for the doors to open for seating ignore the pleas from the Science City employees that 'the "Citydome" has been closed for years.'"

Jay Manifold [9:52 AM]

[ 20050512 ]

Powell Observatory at 20

Twenty years ago this week, one of the finest amateur astronomical facilities in the Midwest, -- or the nation, or the world -- opened in a city park outside a small town in eastern Kansas. Its main telescope, built around one of the few 30" mirrors produced by Coulter Optical (manufacturers of the venerable Odyssey I), was, and remains, the largest in 5 states. It has always been computer-controlled -- at first, by a Franklin (Apple clone) motherboard with a 6502 microprocessor -- heady stuff in 1985! In the years since, Powell Observatory has become one of the top facilities in the entire world for the detection of near-Earth asteroids. Thousands of people traveled to Louisburg for the spectacular Mars oppositions of '88 and '03.

The facility is not physically imposing, something I really started noticing after reading The Substance of Style. But the setting is reasonably attractive; the skies, while not as dark as they used to be, are still dark enough to see, for example, the zodiacal light; and especially in the wintertime, there is remarkably little competition for the 30". Wander in on a weekend evening and chances are there will be only a handful of ASKCers present, all of whom will be glad to show you the most impressive celestial object they can find with a telescope that gathers eleven thousand times as much light as the unaided human eye.

I've recounted my experiences at Powell many times in this blog: hearing the harrowing tale of an Iranian refugee; getting my first glimpse of Phobos (and so far the only, and the telescope I saw it in is now at Charles Douglas Observatory near Warrensburg, MO -- but I digress); and of course the many public observing nights when I've helped out (you can start with And Stars To Fill My Dream and work your way backward).

And the best were the most serendipitous ... Tom Martinez aiming the 30" at M-33 around two o'clock in the morning sometime in '87 or so, going in on H-II regions (things like the Orion Nebula, but a thousand times the volume), tiny blue-white knots strewn along the standing wave of star formation in the spiral arms of our second-nearest galactic neighbor. The astonishing variety of visitors at the public nights, and the looks on their faces when they were at the eyepiece, the same wonder and amazement for an 80-year-old as for an 8-year old. The walk-ins on the non-public nights who didn't even know the place existed, getting blown away by a solid hour of professsional-grade observing: Saturn, M42, Jupiter ...

When I was very young, I thought that perhaps someday, if I became prosperous, I would have an eight-inch telescope of my own to look through. Unless I actually became an astronomer, of course. But now I have owned a 13" and get to spend far more time actually looking through telescopes than most professional astronomers. And I'm not even trying very hard. We are surpassingly fortunate to be living in this time. Look for your own analogues; there are Powells everywhere, astronomical and otherwise, islands of Serendip for our enjoyment.

Jay Manifold [9:09 PM]

[ 20050507 ]

M104, the Sombrero Bullseye Nebula

ASKCer Dr Eric Flescher points to a story about how the Spitzer has done it again, with this spectacular image of M104. (A background post about Lyman Spitzer is here.)

Jay Manifold [7:32 PM]

[ 20050505 ]

A Plug for the Cosmosphere

I visited this fine facility last Saturday with a couple of dozen fellow ASKC members; we enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour given by Cosmosphere outreach coordinator Daniel Bateman, who took us through the new Mollett Early Spaceflight Gallery, now under construction and due to open on Sat 18 Jun. Entering the gallery, visitors will see matched pairs of Soviet/Russian and American spacecraft: Vostok (in this case, a capsule that flew unmanned, with some spysat stuff; the Cosmosphere obtained a pilot's couch for it and is arranging it to appear as if it is being ejected) and Mercury (Liberty Bell 7, no less), Voshkhod and Gemini, etc. Russian ones on the left along a wall painted red; American ones on the right along a wall painted blue.

Besides having the best collection of space artifacts outside the National Air and Space Museum in DC, the Cosmosphere has an unusually high proportion of its collection on display at any one time: 10%, vs the 4-6% typical of most museums. An SR-71 (real) and a Shuttle Orbiter (full-scale mockup) take up most of the lobby. Outside, a Titan/Gemini launcher has just been installed and visitors can see that the gimbaled main engines are movable by hand. Inside is an excellent V-2 exhibit.

Financial supporters ($100 or more) of the Cosmosphere will be able to attend the grand opening of the Mollett Gallery and meet and get an autograph of an astronaut -- no word on which one, but I suspect it will be someone who flew on a Gemini mission.

Jay Manifold [6:13 AM]