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[ 20051126 ]


This, I mean. Everybody knows we've been on the Moon since the Fifties. ;^)

Jay Manifold [6:26 AM]

[ 20051125 ]

Stained Glass from the Sky

That's one way of looking at the huge pallasite meteorite just found in Brenham Township, Kiowa County, Kansas; as Beccy Tanner's story in the Wichita Eagle, In Kansas, meteorite hunter finds a gem, notes: "The meteorites of Kiowa County are known throughout the world for their gemlike olivine crystals, which look almost like stained glass when cut."

Judging by the photos accompanying the Sky & Tel and Wichita Eagle articles, the meteorite is about 1 meter in length and about half that in height and width; a prolate spheroid (admittedly not a great approximation of its shape) of those dimensions would have (applying V = 4πa²c/3) volume ~0.13 m³. Stated mass is 650 kg, so bulk density (m/V) is right around 5 g/cm³, nearly that of Earth as a whole and much denser than most rocks in Earth's continental crust, which averages 2.7 g/cm³ (source).

As noted in last year's Road Trip Report, I saw the previous record-holder in this category on display next door to this thing in Greensburg, KS. A bit more background info may be found at About a Group of Meteorites Found in Brenham Township, Kansas. Finally, thanks to Dr Eric Flescher of the ASKC and AL Comet Observers Club for the tip.

Jay Manifold [6:35 PM]

[ 20051122 ]

Amazing Pix of 25143 Itokawa

Graze on over to JAXA and scroll down for pictures that reveal 25143 Itokawa to be a true rubble pile. Thanks to the ASKC's Dave Hudgins for the tip.

UPDATE: See Today's HAYABUSA for regular updates in English.

Jay Manifold [3:54 PM]

Guide to Peer Review

Bland title, but critical subject -- life and death, in fact; writing in The Scientist, Tracey Brown, director of the UK charity Sense About Science, explains:

Every day, medical helpline operators, pharmacists, and doctors meet with the consequences of bad science in the public domain: worried parents, patients frightened about their treatment, and people taking ineffective remedies. Take a recent call to the Meningitis Foundation: Does gargling with lemon juice kill meningococcal bacteria?

Government representatives also report a rising caseload from misinformation and hype about alleged scientific findings. The anxiety and energy expended on campaigns such as those against mobile phone towers and incinerators are putting a new kind of pressure on representatives to delve into scientific issues and form judgments. Good science is essential for putting resources to good effect and for public health to be effective. But how is good science defined and how are all these people in the frontline supposed to help the public to distinguish which claims are scientifically grounded and which are not?

In all the workshops, interviews and discussions that have gone into producing the guide, there has been a wholly positive response to beginning to make sense of science stories through the prism of quality checking.

Here's the link: A short guide to peer review. "'Is it peer reviewed?' is what Sense About Science is encouraging everyone to ask about science stories." RTWT.

And when non-peer reviewed "research" gets busted, as reported in KU class angers ‘design’ advocates -- well, the "researchers" just start the name-calling:

“I would predict that (Mirecki’s) effort will go down in history as one of the laughingstocks of the century,” said John Calvert, an attorney and managing director of the Intelligent Design Network in Johnson County.

John Altevogt, a conservative columnist and activist in Kansas City, said the situation was the equivalent of David Duke teaching about race relations or Fred Phelps teaching about homosexuality.

“These guys should not be teaching classes in religion, because they’re both bigots,” Altevogt said of Mirecki and a fellow faculty member who could not be reached for comment Monday.

Calvert said efforts by educators to demean intelligent design proponents can be effective.

“My voice is a very, very small voice in the woods,” he said. “My voice is rarely heard because we’re in the minority. A strategy that seeks to demean can be very, very effective to them.”

That small voice is getting 245 hits on this search as of 2 PM CST today. Likewise, this search returns hundreds of results. Rarely heard, huh?

In reality, of course, the media act as an immensely powerful vector for junk science -- see the recent hysteria over white phosphorus ammunition, nicely debunked over at TJIC in I made the mistake of listening to NPR. For some ideas on why, see Prof Cline's Media/Political Bias; "bad news bias" and "fairness bias," between them, go a long way toward explaining how things like that get openly promoted by ostensibly professional organizations.

Jay Manifold [2:37 PM]

[ 20051119 ]

“Einstein’s Legacy: Studying Gravity in War and Peace”

(Warning: a bit long, but those who persevere will eventually reach my point.)

On Thursday evening I attended the event alluded to in this post. The venue is a charming structure which no doubt seemed terribly modern once but is now indelibly associated with the first half of the twentieth century (planning for the structure began in 1928), due to the heavy use of art-deco motifs.

I arrived about five minutes before the scheduled start time -- there is covered parking only half a block west, on the same side of 47th -- and found a seat at the far left of the smaller chapel, where the talk actually took place (the main sanctuary was being used for some kind of musical rehearsal). The room was nearly full, and the audience did not differ much from that at past events in the series: mostly boomers and nearly all white. Not much doubt about the dominant political orientation, either, judging by the bumper stickers I saw in the parking garage (eg, WHAT'S NEXT? GRAVITY? [possible source]).

First to the podium was a female Linda Hall Library staffer, whose name I didn't catch, who passed along a few announcements and gave us a quick update on their expansion project. She then introduced the introducer, Bill Ashworth, who quipped that his specialty in 17th-century science was an awkward fit for an event involving Einstein, but who nonetheless did a fine job of recapitulating the career of the main speaker, David Kaiser.

Dr Kaiser's talk was divided into three sections: “Einstein’s Geometrical Vision,” “Fame and Backlash,” and “GR Reborn: From Bombs to the Cosmos.” A four-page handout provided a hardcopy of several of the key slides he used as illustrations, which were projected on a large screen. The radio advertisement on KXTR, which used a sentence which appeared on the handout, seemed to me to imply that there would be a bit more political content (of the faintly self-righteous anti-McCarthyism sort) than was actually mentioned:

Over the course of the 20th century, the fortunes of general relativity continued to be shaped by worldly matters: first by Einstein's Nazi detractors, later by a new generation of American physicists immersed in the Cold War.

In the event, the political lesson I drew from the presentation was quite different, as I will explain below; and while Dr Kaiser led with the contrast between the supposed otherworldly sanctity of physics and Einstein's continuous involvement in politics -- which involvement indeed got him a 2,000-page FBI dossier (this was the J Edgar Hoover era) -- his point about the Cold War turned out to be something else altogether, and delightfully so.

Einstein's annus mirabilis of 1905 was really a miracle six months (so how do you say that in Latin?): the light-quanta (photons) paper in March; the Brownian-motion paper in May; the main Special Relativity paper (30 pages long) in June; and the E = mc² paper, a 3-page afterthought to SR, in September. All written when he was a 26-year-old 3rd-class patent clerk -- "in his spare time, he revolutionized everything we think about space, time, and matter." The UN has declared 2005 to be the World Year of Physics.

But his most enduring scientific legacy is General Relativity, which he began working on in 1907, in the course of writing a review of his 1905 work for a journal edited by Johannes Stark. He developed the Equivalence Principle after watching a roofer fall from a building (the man hit a canopy and survived). The key illustration, which I had somehow never encountered before, concerns a light beam moving from one side to the other of an accelerating spaceship. It will appear to curve downward; so if the Equivalence Principle holds, light should follow a discernibly curved path in the presence of a sufficiently massive object.

And since light follows, as it were, a cosmic great circle route (my phrase), we may in turn say that space itself is curved by the presence of mass. The left side of Einstein's field equation describes the curvature of space-time, while the right side describes the distribution of matter and energy, and it may be read either way -- as matter/energy telling space how to bend, or as space telling matter/energy how to move. He lacked the necessary background in non-Euclidean geometries and worked with his friend Marcel Grossman to remedy this deficiency.

(Dr Kaiser mentioned that Einstein's research notebooks have been preserved, and a 4-volume edition is to be published in a matter of days. I do not know whether this is related to the Einstein Papers Project.)

The important point here is that in General Relativity, gravity is no longer viewed as a force as such, but a matter of objects (including photons) following the shortest available path through curved space-time. The first test of GR was successfully completed by Einstein himself, precisely verifying the previously-unaccounted-for component of the perihelic precession of Mercury, thereby putting to an end the search for Vulcan (with certain highly entertaining exceptions, of course -- complete with "[a]nd now today we have more scientists questioning Einstein ..." -- it ain't the first time; read on).

The much more famous test, because it was much more visually striking -- that portion of the motion of Mercury accounted for by GR amounting to a microscopic 43 arc-seconds per century, about 1/43 the diameter of the full Moon as seen from Earth -- was the deflection of starlight by the mass of the Sun as measured by Eddington. A German astronomer, Erwin Freundlich, had attempted the necessary measurements, but World War I got in the way. Eddington's successful expedition in May of 1919 was front-page news six months later, when the results were announced; Peter Coles provides a thorough account at Eclipse that Changed the Universe.

Einstein's GR paper had been published in November of 1915, and Eddington learned of it through Willem de Sitter, who was in (neutral) Holland. Eddington was a Quaker and explicitly motivated by the tenets of his faith (and the concomitant desire to mend relations in the "international brotherhood of science" in the wake of the war) -- one might wish for a similarly prominent figure today, though as I noted in passing a couple of months back, Francis Collins comes close.

The backlash against Einstein began immediately thereafter. Enormous rallies of early Nazi converts, led by German Nobel laureates Philipp Lenard and the abovementioned Johannes Stark, denounced Einstein and relativity as early as 1920. Lenard would later write a book, published during WW 2, called "Great Men of Science," purporting to trace all major scientific advances to the work of "aryans" -- reminiscent of this, to my mind (lest I be accused of breaking Godwin's Law: no, they're not Nazis; they're just very, very silly). His argument against relativity was that it was both "repugnant to Aryan sensitivity" and "plagiarized from earlier Aryan researchers" -- as Dr Kaiser put it, "you're wrong, and we were there first!"

Einstein fled to the US in 1933; Heisenberg was threatened for continuing to teach Einsteinian physics, and was spared arrest only because his mother was a friend of Himmler's mother. But outside Germany, interest in GR dropped off too -- because the easily-solvable problems it addressed had been solved, and cheap, high-speed computation was not yet a commodity.

It was revived in the postwar world by new patrons, new tools, and new observational discoveries. A particularly intriguing patron was Roger Babson, an eccentric millionaire who greatly diversified his holdings in September 1929 and thereby rode through the Depression as one of America's wealthiest men. He sponsored relativity-related research as part of his consuming interest in a search for antigravity.

The new tools were radar -- perfected at MIT during the war, and subsequently used by Irwin Shapiro to more accurately confirm GR by bouncing signals off Mercury and Venus -- and, of course, electronic digital computers. The work of Bryce DeWitt at Livermore led to the development of numerical relativity.

The new observations, all occurring during the 1960s, were of quasars, pulsars, and the cosmic microwave background. Participation in the field grew from a handful in 1961, when the International Society for General Relativity "had to beg for names," to a membership of over 220 in '74 and 800 participants in a conference in December of '78.

Here Dr Kaiser noted the "back and forth, blurred relationship with elements of the Cold War," particularly with reference to DeWitt's work, of course, which after all occurred under the aegis of thermonuclear weapons development. I have commented elsewhere (in Because It Can Become Good) on America's "ability to apply selective pressures to memes that somehow nudges them in a benign direction," and (in Liberty Enlightening the World) that "[w]hat results is not merely a country, or a civiliation, which is good for people who believe as we do. It is good for everyone." I see this happening in the nexus between the arms race and high-energy physics.

Perhaps Einstein's ultimate political accomplishment was to provide a peaceful outlet for the supporting technologies of weapons of mass destruction. Discussing the "backlash" period, Dr Kaiser said: "Even the most abstract theory could not escape what Einstein called 'the fetters of everyday life'." But in our time, the fetters were transformed into scientific instrumentation. Swords into plowshares, indeed.

Jay Manifold [5:48 PM]

[ 20051118 ]

Results of Latest Quiz

Via Doug Murray at Lines in the Sand ... I am in (so far) a 15% minority:


To which race of Middle Earth do you belong?
brought to you by Quizilla

Judge the degree of physical resemblance for yourself. ;^)

Jay Manifold [3:20 PM]

[ 20051116 ]

Richly Deserved

Graze on over to Yahoo! News for Reuters' Sri Lanka gives sci-fi legend Clarke highest award. To the extent that I have any writing style at all, it's a faint echo of ACC.

Jay Manifold [5:44 AM]

[ 20051115 ]

Next Event in Linda Hall Library Lecture Series

I hope to be at Einstein's Legacy: Studying Gravity in War and Peace, early this Thursday evening on the Plaza. Locals are encouraged to attend.

Jay Manifold [4:47 PM]

[ 20051114 ]

The Matter With Kansas (XI) - Electoral Possibilities

Josh Rosenau, who is tracking the KS BoE races closely, responds to my snark below with a calm and informative e-mail:

Harry McDonald, a retired science teacher, parent and former president of Kansas Citizens for Science, is challenging John Bacon in the primary. Connie Morris has a primary opponent (Sally Cauble, a teacher), and a general election opponent (former Garden City Mayor Tim Cruz, who Morris once accused of being an illegal immigrant). And Iris Van Meter just got a primary challenger yesterday, Kent Runyan, an education professor at Pittsburg State.

More here.

I think that even the rural districts are winnable. The religious authoritarians went too far, not just with evolution, also in hiring an unqualified hack to run the Department of Ed., as well as Ms. Morris's financial improprieties and rather un-Christian words for her fellow Board members.

I am less optimistic, but do not fear the test. Civil disobedience can accomplish what the election may not.

Jay Manifold [1:23 PM]

[ 20051109 ]

The Matter With Kansas (X) - Unsurprising Developments

(Previous post in series here.)

They pulled the trigger, of course; about the only thing worth mentioning regarding this non-news is that the KCStar's coverage manages to include both one superb example of wishful thinking and one astonishingly realistic statement.

Wishful thinking first:

The vote brings to a close the latest chapter of the evolution saga in Kansas, but it isn’t likely to end it. A similar story played out in 1999, when the board removed most references to evolution, the origin of the universe or the age of the earth. Voters unseated conservatives in 2000, and a new board, dominated by moderates, changed the standards back.

Moderates hope the same thing will happen next year, when they vow to unseat conservatives in next November’s elections. Voters will fill five board seats next year, four of them belonging to conservative incumbents. A handful of candidates have already announced their intention to run.

Hey, that's good. Now I'll tell one. But seriously, folks ... look at a map. Now, perusing the Kansas Secretary of State's 2006 Candidate Fact Sheet, we find that the odd-numbered districts are up for election next year. But -- returning to the map -- we immediately see that the 5th, 7th, and 9th districts are overwhelmingly rural and profoundly unlikely to reject their conservative incumbents.

Indeed, reviewing the 2002 results at the Election Statistics page reveals that: John Bacon (3rd district) was unopposed; the marginally qualified Connie Morris (5th) had only a write-in opponent; Kenneth Willard (7th) received a comfortable 56% majority, in a race in which everyone knew exactly what was at stake; and Iris Van Meter (9th) also had only a write-in opponent. This is not a board whose composition is going to change, much less by at least two seats out of five, which is what it would take to reverse yesterday's result.

Wishful thinking aside, the Star did find a member of, shall we say, the reality-based community:

Carol Williamson, science coordinator for Olathe public schools and a member of the committee that helped write the standards before they were changed, said she believes many Kansas science teachers will ignore the changes.

“Kansas science educators are committed to a world-class science education for our students,” she said.

Amen, sister. Now if the people who think standards are the cure for everything could just figure that out ...

PS - See also Jennifer Granick's Wired News piece, Evolutionists Are Wrong!, on bullying by the NAS and NSTA, a tactic that hasn't gotten half the kicking around it deserves.

Jay Manifold [11:22 AM]

My Astrophotography Debut

I've posted astrophotos here before -- see Astrophotography Debut and Huge Sunspot Group Appears for examples -- but never one of my very own. So here it is:

Click on image for larger version.

Time stamp is CDT, so the actual time was 00:16 UT Sunday 9 October. Terminator passes through Mare Serenitatis and Mare Tranquillitatis; craters Theophilus, Cyrillus, and Catharina are prominent, and the Altai Scarp is visible below them.

Hand-held shot with Nikon Coolpix 4800 through a Celestron 8; 32 mm (62.5x) eyepiece projection. Thanks to Leo Johns for formatting and uploading.

Jay Manifold [11:17 AM]

[ 20051107 ]

Yerkes Observatory Saved Again?

Now The Scientist reports, in Buy your own lab, that

Gary and Linda Dower are hoping to pick up their very own observatory. The couple, who own the deluxe Mirbeau Inn & Spa in New York's Finger Lakes region, have offered $10 million to the University of Chicago for the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis. – one of the nation's most historically important, if no longer scientifically advanced, observatories.

It's not quite the same as what I passed along in Yerkes Observatory Saved?, though: "The Mirbeau plan recommends that Aurora University administer the observatory and oversee education programs there. Aurora, however, has publicly distanced itself from the developers and has submitted its own preservation proposal."

Perhaps the most important aspect of this development is the prospect of more privately-funded research:

... other "privatized" observatories could [make significant contributions to astronomy]. Wayne Rosing, an amateur astronomer and former Google executive, used some of his stock option wealth to start a foundation dedicated to promoting astronomical research. Rosing has already purchased two existing two-meter instruments and plans to build several more. These telescopes are ideal for measuring how light bends around super novae and curves after gamma ray bursts, for example, as well as detecting small planets orbiting nearby stars, said [Virginia] Trimble[, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine], who sits on the foundation's scientific advisory board.

Bring it on. The more variety in funding sources, the better (cf Unanticipated Results of Federal Policy on Stem Cells?).

Jay Manifold [12:42 PM]

[ 20051104 ]

25 Years Ago Today

Virginia Postrel has called it the most important election of her lifetime. I'm not so sure [warning: long, rambling, snotty post], but I will never forget the widespread sense of relief after that election, or the astonishing turnaround in the national mood between 1982 and 1984.

I left the apartment early in order to have a little extra time to gas up the car, and it was while doing so that I glanced upward. To see what I saw that fateful morning, click here, scroll down to "Date and Time," select the "Universal time" radio button, enter 1980-11-04 12:00:00 in the field next to it, and click on "Update."

In the east-southeastern sky, that is, on the left-hand side of the star map, a bit below the centerline, is a clump of symbols. You can click on it to zoom in, but it will reset the date/time to the present, so you'll have to select the Universal time button, enter 1980-11-04 12:00:00 again, and hit Update. When you do ...

... you will see that on the morning of Election Day 1980, there was a clearly visible quadruple conjunction -- four of the brightest objects in the night sky: the waning crescent Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn, all within perhaps 7° of each other. It remains to this day the most striking assemblage of the classical planets that I have ever seen.

And it was undoubtedly seen by tens of millions of people on their morning commute. Ever since, I have wondered what psychological effect it had on those who were on their way to polling stations to vote, and whether the result might have been different if there had been nothing unusual in the sky -- a speculation made all the more poignant by Reagan's involvement with astrology. Did a human tendency to assign meaning to celestial alignments alter the course of history?

Jay Manifold [11:35 AM]