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[ 20040229 ]

I Foresee Interesting Reading

-- at The Sword And The Rose.

Jay Manifold [9:03 AM]

Preliminary Results of Contest Contest

That would be the "first-ever contest contest," which I'm leaving open for a while longer, as it seems to be gathering, or at least maintaining, blogospheric momentum:

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the already-extant but sadly unfunded Henderson Prize for the Advancement of Liberty. Since it is often awarded posthumously, I see no alternative but to use the money to throw Woodstock-scale parties for bloggers. ;)

Jay Manifold [9:02 AM]

Everything's Up To Date

While crime is at generational lows, we find that there is still more to be done; this vitally needed, progressive measure, will, upon enactment, both allow arrest statistics to be "improved," to the lasting benefit of the budget and headcount of KC's finest, and protect the citizenry from all that human waste in the streets, which, like cannibalism in the Royal Navy, will at last be brought relatively under control.

Jay Manifold [6:34 AM]

[ 20040228 ]

Road Trip

I'd love to take the midlifecricycle out on this, but they'll have to build this first.

Jay Manifold [7:52 PM]

[ 20040227 ]

Sociological Phenomenon of the Week

Unless you live in some cultural backwater like the Upper West Side of Manhattan, within the city limits of San Francisco, or Western Europe, you're probably hearing a lot about The Movie, much of it from people who you've never heard mention religion. As long-time readers know, I'm a member of Set A myself, and have been known to unwind with the occasional sermon, so I'm certainly not going to be left out of this interminable, inescapable conversation. From most negative to most positive:

  1. The movie has significant problems with historicity. It's the Gospel According to Mel Gibson. Anyone who's seen Braveheart or The Patriot should know what to expect.

  2. Or, perhaps, it's the Gospel According to Anne Catherine Emmerich, which at least dates back to the early l9th century. Just as long as we know what we're dealing with, here.

  3. Notwithstanding the reliance on extrabiblical sources, I'm latitudinarian about this sort of thing, applying argument from observation to determine value. Maybe the viewers will actually be improved. Who knows? People do all kinds of things I wouldn't and (sometimes) emerge closer to where they ought to be; I'm not going to get in the way.

  4. Every group conversation I have overheard or participated in at work this week has centered on the movie, shattering the usual rule about (one of) the three subjects not to be talked about in the workplace. This is occurring at the largest private employer in a city of nearly two million where 92% of the population self-identifies as Christian and where active church involvement increases with higher education and socioeconomic status.

  5. An anti-Semitic backlash is essentially inconceivable in the US, or indeed in the rest of the Anglosphere, where existing anti-Jewish sentiment is confined to Muslims and, for lack of a better term, incorrigibles who aren't going to get any worse than they already are just because they watched a movie. Anglo-Jewish relations have remained consistently constructive for, by my count, 348 years, and explicitly so in the US for at least 213 years (19 kB *.pdf).

  6. Incidentally, in one of those workplace conversations, a co-worker mentioned that her teenaged nieces, who are, as we say, troubled ("juvenile delinquent" and other such terms having gone out of fashion), want to see the film. As John J. Reilly wryly (really?) remarked over on The Long View: "The opponents of the movie may be on the verge of making The New Testament cool. Talk about Transubstantiation."

  7. Meanwhile, a letter in the KCStar (unregistered?) from Kevin D. and Karen J. Eckhoff of Independence bluntly states: "All the movie is doing is transferring the revealed and inerrant word of God from the Bible to the movie screen." Given the realities of #1 and #2, above, and the use of "inerrant," this is a whacking great data point suggesting that evangelical Protestants have acquired the ability to closely observe a deeply traditionalist Catholic work and not see anything they don't like. It's inadvertent Christian unity. Now, what do we do with it?

A Lenten blog is here.

Jay Manifold [2:42 PM]

[ 20040226 ]

Which Five Books? (II)

Regular correspondent and all-around "idea hamster" Mike Daley took the bait; in spite of not being a GENERATIONS fan, he's heavily into American history (and, as it turns out, American Chopper, but that's another story entirely). Mike tells me that the only three books he's re-read in his entire life are:

  1. Gordon S. Woods, The Radicalism of the American Revolution

  2. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence

  3. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers

I can attest that the Boorstin is a phenomenal read; the assessment of Gutenberg that I quoted the other day is typical of his delightful insights, which occur at high density in its 700+ pages.

Jay Manifold [6:53 AM]

[ 20040225 ]

Oooh! Aaah!

There's a really nice conjunction of the Moon and Mars happening right now. If it's clear (and dark) where you are, step outside and take a look.

(The RASC Observer's Handbook 2004 says [page 81] the Moon will actually occult Mars as seen from the South Pacific.)

Jay Manifold [8:09 PM]

It's Just One Contest After Another

First suborbital passenger rockets, then genomes, and now Robot Road Warriors: Unmanned Vehicles to Race for $1 Million in DARPA Contest:

DARPA will hold the race in two parts in early March. First, a qualifying round will be held during the week of March 8 on the California Speedway track in Fontana, California, where race vehicles are expected to prove their autonomous driving and obstacle avoidance capabilities. Those that survive the trials will then move on the big show, a race from Barstow, California to Las Vegas, Nevada with no one in the driver's seat but an onboard computer.

OK, Arcturians, time to put on your thinking caps. Imagine yourself with $10 million and a burning desire to award it to the first organization to reach a technical milestone. Granted that all technology is a two-edged sword, let's make it a reasonably benevolent milestone. What would it be?

That's right -- this is the first-ever contest contest. Fire away!

(As always, first-time e-mailers will have to deal with Spam Arrest.)

Jay Manifold [6:03 PM]

New Horseman of the Arcturcalypse

Welcome to A Fine and Peculiar Place, authored by a friend of some 25 years, who is in a fine and peculiar place indeed.

Jay Manifold [6:03 PM]

[ 20040224 ]

"A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy" -- Not!

Regular correspondent Kevin Munden points to Why humans are superior to apes, an essay in Sp!ked strongly critical of the misanthropy and nihilism lurking behind anthropomorphism and "animalomorphism": "... many ... will go along with the notion that animals are ultimately not that different from us. The effect is the same: to denigrate human abilities." Not short -- nearly 4,800 words, with footnotes; reading time 12-24 minutes -- but worth reading for anyone interested in defending the idea of human nature.

Jay Manifold [8:02 PM]

When Secularists Are Millenarians (II)

Previously unknown reader (the best kind) Linda Seebach comments:

The closing down of the Gulf Stream (which has happened quite a number of times) indeed does change the climate very abruptly and people much less wildly irrational than Hal Lindsay think we should be worrying about it - in the same sense that we should be worrying about asteroids, since if we know in time maybe there is something to be done.

-- and points me to a column of hers from last October, which I urge you to read in full (800 words; reading time 2-4 minutes).

This is where I admit I was too lazy to point to this in my earlier post. It was what I was thinking of, but by not referring to it, I came across as (perhaps) inexplicably strident.

More non-acrimonious discussion of climate change is sorely needed. My own position is that we must, in effect, select a climate -- almost certainly the one which has prevailed for the most recent eight millenia -- and work to maintain it. The trick is that this will be far more feasible in a few decades than it is now. See also this earlier post.

Can't resist one literary tidbit here. As a onetime cub reporter for the KCStar wrote:

They went out and there was supper and then the radio, turned to be as quiet as possible and still be heard, and the stations finally signing off in this order: Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Mr. Frazer received no picture of Denver from the radio. He could see Denver from the Denver Post, and correct the picture from The Rocky Mountain News.

-- The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio

Jay Manifold [6:58 PM]

[ 20040223 ]

Genome "X" Prize

The NIH is trying to jump-start the development of dirt-cheap genomics with a prize:

Sequencing an entire mammalian-sized genome currently costs between $10 million and $50 million, but NIH hopes that this number can be reduced by four orders of magnitude over the next 10 years, with the ultimate goal being a $1000 genome.

Looks like things are on track. There may be some interesting synergies with a closely related idea:

Last September, at the 15th GSAC, Craig Venter—comoderator of the 2002 panel—announced that the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation (JCVSF) would sponsor a $500,000 prize for the technology closest to achieving a $1000 genome. Rules for the contest, originally planned for release in December 2003, should be announced within the next 2 weeks, according to Heather Kowalski, planning and policy vice president at JCVSF-affiliated The Center for the Advancement of Genomics.

Read the whole thing (700 words).

Jay Manifold [3:15 PM]

Which Five Books?

Currently tied for #23 on Blogdex, International University Presidents Recommend Oldies: the Bible, Homer and Shakespeare. It's an intriguing attempt to answer one question -- “What are five books you believe every undergraduate university student should read and study in order to engage in the intellectual discourse, commerce, and public duties of the 21st century?”

My choices aren't much like the ones the university presidents made. For starters, to recycle an old question, what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Bible study isn't about acquiring the ability to "engage in ... intellectual discourse, commerce, and public duties," and attempts to cram it into categories like that usually result in silly books and unpleasant ideologies. And I would confine my recommendations to American undergraduates (including foreigners studying here), plus any students elsewhere in the world who choose to concentrate on matters American. Finally, my expectations for what the rest of the 21st century will bring, or at least the next two or three decades of it, help narrow the list. By subject:

  1. Overview/"Cliff's Notes": For general cultural literacy, keep this around as a reference.

  2. History: Hands down, it's GENERATIONS (some terminology is here).

  3. Mathematics: Not easy to narrow down, but Morris Kline's Mathematics for the Nonmathematician is a good overall choice (for the importance of this topic, see this earlier post).

  4. Nanotechnology: For all its well-advertised difficulties, there remains no better introduction to both the promise and the peril than Drexler's Engines of Creation.

  5. Politics: Also not easy to narrow down, but Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty is surely among the best explications of an ideal American polity.

Now you know why I'm not a university president. ;)

UPDATE: Previously unknown reader (the best kind) Ed Minchau of robot guy points out that Engines of Creation has been published on the web here. Having quoted from the online version several times, I ought to have pointed to it as well. Not that Drexler will mind if a few more people buy the book. ;)

Jay Manifold [8:27 AM]

When Secularists Are Millenarians

Via InstaPundit, we find that people who wouldn't be caught dead subscribing to this scenario devote their emotional energy to this wildly irrational belief instead: "... major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a 'Siberian' climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world."

I note that the book that started it all predicted (page 185) "... crime, riots, lack of employment, poverty, illiteracy, mental illness, illegitimacy, etc. [will] increase as the population explosion begins to multiply geometrically .... the widest spread famines in the history of the world." Of course, that was supposed to happen in the "late '70's," to be followed by invasions of the Middle East by the USSR, China, and the EU. A generation later, not only did the Malthusian catastrophes not occur, but the USSR doesn't exist, China is converting to a market economy (among other things), and the EU tried to stop an invasion of the Middle East by the US. But, hey, we all make mistakes.

Jay Manifold [8:26 AM]

[ 20040222 ]

February ASKC Meeting Report

Here are some highlights of David Levy's talk. In this post, I cover only the first portion, where he gave us his reaction to and recommendations on the Administration's space program proposal of a few weeks ago. He called the following his "four caveats":

  1. Take the opportunity to simultaneously improve science education, as he believes was done in the 1960s during the Apollo program. He did not elaborate.

    This is problematic in several respects. The successes of the post-Sputnik reforms were limited -- indeed, only eleven years and five months after the last Moon landing, A Nation At Risk proclaimed: "For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents." American society has not demonstrated an ability to sustain improvements in public education.

    Then there are the National Science Education Standards, which we somehow managed to survive without until 1995 and which, far from being received as objective or regarded as nonpartisan, are the subject of the most bitter political disputes occurring at the state level in the US today (example).

    In fact, about half the American population rejects the historical sciences -- and astronomy heads the list.

  2. Spend some of the Moon-Mars program money on NOAA's participation in the Earth Observation Program, which he described as deploying large numbers of automated observing stations in the oceans, on land, and in the atmosphere, eventually producing weather forecasts as accurate 3-4 days in advance as we now have one day in advance. The economic effects of accurately predicting major storms this far in advance would be significant.

    The program is described here (8 kB *.pdf) as "a 10-year implementation plan for an international, comprehensive, integrated and sustained global Earth observation system." Coincidentally, the Group on Earth Observations is meeting this week.

    I concur that if any scientific program justifies major taxpayer funding, it's something like this, which is both international in nature and closely related to risks which, at some point, affect us all -- the ultimate "neighborhood effect" argument. Indeed, I would add to it a program of continuously monitoring the Sun from spacecraft in high Earth (or solar) orbit. Garnering public support may be nontrivial, however, since the public seems to divide into groups believing in, disbelieving in, and not caring about climate change or the potential thereof; I suspect the sincere "we need to know more" group is quite small.

  3. Don't overemphasize Mars; after returning to the Moon, consider going to a near-Earth asteroid instead. I said something similar in my initial (and somewhat overwrought) reaction to the Administration proposal (see point #3).

  4. After showing a slide of the Leviathan of Parsontown, which was the largest telescope in the world for three-quarters of a century and has now been operating (intermittently) for nearly 160 years, he drew an analogy to the Hubble space telescope and said that its lifetime should not be so short ("10 years," an exaggeration), ending with "we must save the Hubble." This brought loud applause from the sizeable audience -- indeed, it was the only applause of the night before the standing ovation he received at the end of his talk.

    While I have other ideas, I note again that the reaction to the SM4 cancellation, whatever happens next, is a profound lesson in how Big Science can capture the public imagination.

None of the above is meant to imply that I consider David Levy to be anything other than a national treasure. He delivered the best amateur-astronomical talk I've ever heard at the Texas Star Party back in '97, and he has a great talent for combining human interest and humanitarian concerns with science and exploration. We are all fortunate that he serves as the science editor for PARADE magazine, which has an effective circulation of nearly 80 million.

Jay Manifold [9:11 PM]

[ 20040221 ]

Viewing of Early Modern Astronomical Manuscripts

Spent a pleasant hour at Linda Hall Library this afternoon, attending the event described in this earlier post; many of the items in the Star Atlas collection were on display -- not in cases; out on tables, with touching and photography, even flash photography, freely allowed.

The library itself is a spare, elegant neoclassical structure on a hill next to UMKC. It is generally regarded as one of the top five or six science and engineering libraries in the country. It's where I go to read things like Icarus, but notwithstanding that I live less than 15 minutes away, I don't get over there very often.

Upon arriving today, I was directed into a side room, ordinarily closed, on the east side of the building, where a dozen or so ASKC members had already gathered, along with our guest of honor and a couple of members of the library staff. I wandered around among the tables, scribbling notes on a pad; here are some of the rare books and manuscripts I saw:

Other than the generally excellent condition of the books and manuscripts, my most striking impression was of the familiarity of the typefaces. All were vaguely similar to good old Times Roman. It underlined for me Boorstin's comment in The Discoverers (pp 514-515): "The technical efficiency of Gutenberg's work, the clarity of impression and the durability of the product, were not substantially improved until the nineteenth century."

David Levy will be speaking at the ASKC meeting, which begins at 7 PM tonight (rather than the usual 4th Saturday of the month) in Royall Hall at UMKC. I'll be blogging that too, but not until tomorrow.

Jay Manifold [6:10 PM]

[ 20040219 ]

Paucity of Posts

Still humping for my certification and making a living, which cuts into my blogging. Some neat stuff coming Real Soon Now -- I'm committed to a Hubble-replacement followup. Check back.

Jay Manifold [8:57 PM]

[ 20040217 ]

ETs, Again

Over on McFreedom, Brett Thomas reviews a relatively new book about the Fermi Paradox. Back in November, I discussed the Drake Equation as enhanced by Rare Earth. I more recently suggested a darker solution.

Jay Manifold [6:54 AM]


My next Radio Rhetorica appearance is less than five hours away as I post this.

Jay Manifold [6:19 AM]

[ 20040215 ]

UN = League?

Horseman of the Arcturcalypse Bill Sjostrom's remarks on the occasion of a debate at Trinity College (Dublin)'s College Historical Society -- the resolution being "[t]hat this house believes that the UN is another League of Nations" -- are well worth reading (1,800 words; 5-9 minutes).

Jay Manifold [8:48 PM]

Lest We Forget

This deserves to be on the front page -- above the fold -- of every newspaper in America.

Jay Manifold [1:35 PM]

Another Piece of the Hubble Puzzle

Today's KCStar ran this column, headlined "NASA sells itself on science, but it really seeks glory," on page B7 in the Sunday Opinion section. Capers perhaps inadvertently explicates public choice theory when he says "... given a chance to support a proposed Mars mission that would guarantee NASA's existence for many more years and provide hundreds of billions of dollars, what's a bureaucrat to do?"

The printed version contains several paragraphs absent from the online version. One appears immediately after: "Originally, the Hubble Space Telescope was going to be placed in a high orbit where it would be able to see the heavens without having the Earth in its way. NASA rejected this idea for the Hubble because the shuttle wouldn't be needed to put it in a high orbit. The science was compromised." It reads:

One of the many other compromises made on the Hubble resulted in the telescope's being built with a flawed mirror: Tests that scientists wanted done were scratched by project managers because they didn't have the money to do the job right. Science lost.

Needless to say, this reinforces my impression that many replacement telescopes could be orbited for far less cost than a Hubble servicing mission. Capers concludes:

The solution is to abolish NASA, creating two much smaller agencies, one for space science and one for exploration. Let the exploration agency fight for money without being able to lie about its doing science. If it can't sell the public on exploration, given real estimates of the cost of that exploration, let the money go for our many other needs. Science, for instance.

As Rand Simberg is wont to point out, Capers buys into the manned-spaceflight-must-be-terribly-expensive meme. But the fix for that is to adopt the first half of his recommendation, and get NASA out of human spaceflight altogether. Because now, there's an alternative.

Jay Manifold [10:35 AM]

[ 20040214 ]

The Genes of Temujin, Chinggis Khan

-- are the subject of my Valentine's Day post over on Chicago Boyz.

Jay Manifold [9:25 PM]

[ 20040213 ]

A Weekend In The Life

I'm batching it for the next 48 hours while -- I swear I'm not making this up -- She Who Must Be Obeyed transports a polydactylic cat to Chadron, Nebraska. I hope to do a significant follow-up piece on the Hubble-replacement project idea, about which I received quite a few e-mails. But I also hope to actually get some things done around the house. Consider it a test of my time-management skills ...

Jay Manifold [5:54 PM]

Public Service Announcement

What I said then. Being married, needless to say, I no longer follow my own advice, which is intended for singles.

Jay Manifold [2:28 PM]

Astonishing Black Hole Statistics

Continuing to mine the March issue of Sky & Telescope for goodies, I find this astounding tidbit on page 20:

If it weighs 4 Suns, the black hole [created by X-ray nova GRO J0422+32, several thousand light-years away in Perseus] would be only 24 kilometers wide. Because of its small size, matter just outside its edge must experience the most extreme tidal effects known anywhere. The hole would also have the greatest average density of anything known. This is because, paradoxically, the lighter a black hole is, the denser it must be. A black hole's size increases in direct proportion to its mass -- so, for instance, if you double its mass, its diameter doubles, thereby increasing its volume by a much greater factor. By comparison, the 3-billion-solar-mass black hole at the center of the galaxy M87 is a little larger than the orbit of Pluto, exerts relatively modest tidal forces on anything falling into it, and has an average density about that of air.

Let's check that. Tides first. Turning to this page (inspired by this Hugo-award winning story), we find that the correct formula is:

F = G M r / R³


G = 6.67 × 10-11 m³ s-2 kg-1

M = 6 × 1039 kg = 3 billion solar masses

r = 50 meters (assumes 100-meter-long spaceship)

R = 7.5 × 1012 m = 50 AU

Result: 4.7 × 10-8 N, about one six-millionth of an ounce. Compare the tidal force on the NEAR spacecraft, which landed on asteroid 433 Eros three years ago yesterday:

M = 7.2 × 1015 kg (source)

r = 2.6 meters (derived from this source [361 kB *.pdf])

R = 7 × 103 m (derived from this source)

F = 3.6 × 10-6 N

-- still only about 1/76,000 of an ounce, but nearly two orders of magnitude greater than the tidal stress on a spaceship flying just outside the largest known black hole!

Now density. This is easier; we'll just use V = (4pr³)/3 to compute volume, and we already know the mass. It works out to about 3.4 kilograms per cubic meter -- actually about three times the density of air, but a long way from our usual mental image of a black hole.

The 4-solar-mass black hole in Perseus, however, is a lot more like the popular conception. Readers are invited to do their own calculations and send them in. Have fun!

Jay Manifold [2:23 PM]

Results of Latest Survey

"It is the chiefest point of happiness that a man is willing to be what he is."

You are Desiderius Erasmus!

You have great love for others and will do just about anything to show it to them. You are tolerant and avoid confrontations, so people generally are drawn to you. You are more quiet and reserved in front of strangers, but around some people you open up. When things get tough, you like to meditate alone. Unfortunately you often get things like "what a pansy," or "you're such a liberal."

What theologian are you?

A creation of Henderson

Jay Manifold [10:15 AM]

The Spirit of Radio

My latest guest post on Chicago Boyz alludes to classical rhetoric, media bias, SomethingAwful.com, and Rhetorica.net, all in three power-packed sentences.

In related news, I'll be a guest on Radio Rhetorica next Tuesday. Listen at this link (select "LISTEN LIVE") beginning at 11 AM CST (1700 UT). Topics to include Bush's space proposal, the rocket equation (79 kB *.pdf), the X Prize, and national insecurity. Listeners may send e-mail to radio@rhetorica.net or call the station directly at +1 816 584 6326 during the show.

Jay Manifold [9:41 AM]

[ 20040212 ]

If Not Us, Who?

The true significance of this story, to my mind, is not that "the group achieved a cloning efficiency of 19 to 29%, on par with that seen in cattle (25%) and pigs (26%)" -- astonishing as that is -- but that the group is at Seoul National University in South Korea.

Isaac Asimov once wrote an essay in which he dated the beginning of American technological preeminence to 1878, when Thomas Edison announced, not that he had invented an electric light bulb, but that he would begin working on one. Stocks in natural gas promptly crashed in London, such was the faith in Edison in particular and American inventiveness in general.

A century and a quarter later, few people seem aware that US leadership in such endeavors is anything other than a permanent state of affairs. But it need not always be so; and the promulgators of this monstrous piece of legislation (25 kB *.pdf) are working, inadvertently but relentlessly, to ensure that less fastidious nations are at the forefront of biotechnology. This may replace the Drug War as the early 21st century's greatest example of the folly of Prohibition.

Coincidentally, I've just been reading the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology's Estimating a Timeline for Molecular Manufacturing, which notes that:

The main question in estimating a timeline for fabricator development ... is when it will be technically and politically feasible. There are probably five or more nations, and perhaps several large companies, that could finance a molecular fabricator effort starting in this decade .... At this point, we have not seen anything to make us believe that a five-year $10 billion fabricator project, starting today, would be infeasible .... Five years from now, we expect that a five-year project will be obviously feasible, and its cost may be well under $5 billion.

Humanity will get one chance to properly handle the transition to nanotech. No serious person can doubt that had any nation other than the United States developed the atomic bomb first, the consequences for civilization would have been utterly grim -- if only because every other nation capable of initiating a nuclear program in 1940 was a dictatorship with no scruples about slaughtering entire populations.

Nanotech will be far more destabilizing. Its very nature may allow a superweapon to be created and used by a non-state group otherwise possessing only modest resources. I do not doubt that environmentalist and Islamic terrorists, given the opportunity, would unblinkingly unleash calamity on the scale of the worst nuclear war scenarios of a generation ago.

This is as close as I ever get to jingoism. The breakthrough simply must be achieved in this country, by organizations dedicated to enjoying and preserving civilization. If it is not, we may see Fermi's Paradox explained, in the swift and permanent fall of the West, and all ordinary human hopes with it.

Jay Manifold [3:53 PM]

[ 20040211 ]

The Sentinel

At five-thirty in the morning this Friday, Central time, the shadow of a fourteenth-magnitude asteroid less than a hundred kilometers in diameter and nearly four hundred million kilometers from Earth, cast by a ninth-magnitude orange star a few degrees southeast of Spica in the constellation Virgo, will sweep across the Americas from north to south, beginning at the Manitoba-Ontario border and ending in southern South America, traveling at a thousand kilometers a minute.

Scores of such events occur every year; they have been monitored for decades by the International Occultation Timing Association, and are the subject of an article in the March issue of Sky & Telescope by longtime occultation expert David Dunham. Their significance lies in the ability of amateur astronomers to submit precise observations of their extent and duration, from which a silhouette of an otherwise hopelessly unresolvable asteroid can be created.

With its size and shape known, the asteroid's density and composition can be inferred; if several occultations by the same asteroid (of different stars, of course) are observed over several years, a good three-dimensional model can even be built.

In the case of Friday morning's event (charted here and here), the asteroid -- 143 Adria, named for the Adriatic by its prolific discoverer (149 kB *.pdf), who was working from an observatory in Pula -- will be less than one-twentieth of an arc-second in diameter as seen from Earth (roughly the size of a dime at 50 miles). Applying the proper formula, we find that a 3-meter telescope in space, or perhaps a somewhat larger one on Earth with adaptive optics, would be needed to resolve the disk of this asteroid.

Gigantic telescopes with cutting-edge technology being few in number, there will instead be a "fence" of observers, along and some hundreds of kilometers on either side of a line running from Winnipeg to Houston, timing the occultation with small telescopes -- the occulted star, SAO 158068, should be visible in 35 mm binoculars -- a shortwave radio tuned to WWV; and (usually) camcorders. Purely visual methods, where the disappearance and reappearance of the star is simply spoken into a tape recorder, are now frowned upon, since they are rarely accurate to better than 0.2-0.3 sec. The 33-millisecond interval of a 30-fps camcorder could permit, given a sufficient density of observers, resolution of limb features on 143 Adria as small as 600 meters; to directly resolve details this size would require a 400-meter telescope, again, in space.

All this reminds me of Clarke's famous short story which became the basis for 2001. In the story, lunar explorers find an alien artifact a few meters in size, protected by a kind of force field; the penetration of this protective field causes the protagonist to speculate that they have set off the "cosmic burglar alarm," and its creators have been summoned.

The analogy here is to the difficulty of characterizing objects as large as tens of kilometers in size as close to Earth as the asteroid belt. Things like these, but even larger, could be lurking scant light-minutes from us. I don't think they are, of course, but it'd make a nice plot for a short SF story, or the first chapter of a novel: amateur astronomers observing an occultation find that the "asteroid" is actually a gigantic toroid, or some other shape strongly indicative of an artifact. Subsequent spectroscopy and radar imaging confirms the presence of oxygen, water vapor, and metallic structures -- without, however, yielding any actual photographs -- and we're off to the races. How do we find out more about "them" without setting off an alarm or otherwise invoking a hostile response?

I note that 143 Adria has an 11-hour light curve but that a note says that this is "fragmentary" and "may be completely wrong." Just how wrong, is the question. ;)

(I went on an occultation-observing expedition here in Missouri in the early 1980s and, in spite of the fact that the WWV signal faded at a crucial moment -- we were near a solar maximum at the time, and the ionosphere was acting up -- managed to return some decent observations; the backup system was to have an ordinary radio playing a local station in the background, which would allow the tape to be compared with others' and the exact time determined. Kinda like dendrochronology [see "crossdating"], but with radio waves.)

UPDATE: The track has shifted west; it now runs from just east of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories down through Saskatchewan, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and passes over the trans-Pecos region of Texas, including McDonald Observatory and Big Bend National Park.

Jay Manifold [6:20 PM]

[ 20040209 ]

Global Perspective

Via maggi dawn blog, we find the Global Rich List. Strongly recommended.

Jay Manifold [9:25 AM]

[ 20040206 ]

A New Politics?

Over on Chicago Boyz, I comment on Fred Turner's latest.

Jay Manifold [11:43 AM]

[ 20040204 ]

A Belated Welcome

-- to any readers grazing in as a result of the March issue of Sky & Telescope, now in mailboxes and on newsstands, in which an article on page 66 covers astronomy blogs; a screen shot of Arcturus is prominently featured. Thanks to Tony Ortega of the Pitch for tipping me off about it, and a very public thank-you to author Stuart J. Goldman and anyone else who had a hand in creating the piece. The barbeque's on me if you're ever out this way.

Jay Manifold [9:50 PM]

Guest Post: SETI

-- well, among other things; and I coin a phrase, the "Covington Technique."

Jay Manifold [9:49 PM]

[ 20040203 ]


Scott Burgess:

As far as Windows software is concerned, Microsoft's critics will presumably congratulate Mr. Gates for obstructing - not assisting - the Chinese by flogging them his inferior wares, since the oppression could of course be carried out far more efficiently and cheaply with a Linux solution.

Jay Manifold [5:56 PM]

Quote of the Day

Via Private Eye, here's the inimitable Germaine Greer, commenting on John Cage’s silent "composition," 4:33, as "broadcast" by Radio Three: "Music is being detached from the unsynthesised manifold."

Jay Manifold [3:49 PM]

Without A Vision, The People Perish

Well, not quite: thanks to commenter "kert" over on Transterrestrial Musings, we now know that Proverbs 29:18 to the contrary, what actually happens is that they miss out on twelve billion dollars in extra funding over the next six years.

In SpaceRef's Overview of NASA's FY 2005 Budget, we find this chart, in which we see exactly how much difference a little vision makes. I think I'll tell my boss that he needs more vision. ;)

Jay Manifold [1:44 PM]

[ 20040202 ]

Guest Post on Chicago Boyz

My latest post over on Chicago Boyz touches on considerations of economics and project management in science.

Jay Manifold [9:43 AM]

[ 20040201 ]

Results of Latest Contest

(Description of contest here.) I got several responses:

I have not filtered entries by ideological content (I'm a death-penalty opponent myself, though not very much like the ones Mark collided with). Or anything else, for that matter, nor is there a deadline. You see, this is part of my Hidden Agenda, one element of which is to generally encourage self-awareness. So I hereby proclaim the above individuals, disparate as they are, to be the founders of the Orthogonal Self-Awareness Party, to which I would give an even clunkier name if I could think of one.

Maybe I should have a contest to name it ... ;)

Jay Manifold [3:11 PM]