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Pull Up a Chair and Be Strange

7:56 am in Uncategorized by Margaret

Morning Firepups! As most of you are aware, I’m all about science and things scientific. I’m one of those people who needs hard, solid, empirical evidence in order to be convinced of the veracity of claims. Don’t have the evidence? Then don’t waste your time and mine trying to convince me. And anecdotal “evidence” is not evidence at all. Don’t even try to woo me with astrology or pyramid power. The fastest way for a guy who wants to ask me out to get shot down is to ask what my sign is.

Now that I’ve almost certainly made you think that I’m a close minded skeptic who wears blinders and never considers the possibility of something more, let me qualify that last paragraph: there are many, many phenomena which are unexplained and sometimes inexplicable. Some things we don’t know or  understand because our science is not there yet, some because we are unable to perceive them, (we can only perceive the tiniest portion of the EM spectrum unaided for example), and I’m sure there are many things that we are just unable to grasp. Consider that just a few short years ago, the possibility of extra solar planets was a hotly debated topic in astronomy circles. While given the vastness of the cosmos their existence seemed inevitable, we as yet had no evidence of any planetary bodies outside our own solar system. Now we know that they not only exist but are in fact common, with some 778 exoplanets counted to date. A few centuries ago, people thought that the elements were: Earth, Air, Fire and Water but now we know that none of those are elements at all. One is a molecule, two are mixtures of molecules and one is a plasma. So science evolves, and to a more limited degree, our perceptions evolve as we develop tools which enable us to perceive more of that electromagnetic band but some things we’ll probably never know. Maybe we aren’t wired for it, maybe it can never be successfully tested, etc.

I have had a number of unexplained things occur to or around me, (not all of which happened while experimenting with mind altering substances). For example, there was the aircraft for which I couldn’t identify the airframe, its methods of flight or of propulsion. There was also what I and my former neighbors called “The Bull Creek Ghost,” a portly, tipsy young man who was always carrying a beer and hanging around the pool area. I have no evidence to back up my claims of those phenomena, except for a couple of witnesses. I know what I perceived though and I know that I can’t explain them and I probably never will be able to. I’m certain that there will always be phenomena which we can’t explain and which will cause almost everybody else to look at us askance and take a step away, but that doesn’t make our experiences any less “real.” Sometimes we aren’t perceiving what we think we are but there are rarer occasions when we have witnessed the genuinely strange.

So what about you? What experiences have you had that you’ve only ever whispered to your closest confidants out of fear of being labeled a loon or worse? I promise I won’t laugh or jeer. Now is the time to get it off your chest, so spill.

The Science of Fiction

6:43 am in Uncategorized by Margaret

Vintage magazine, circa March 1960. (photo: photoscott via Flickr)

I imagine most of us watched plenty of Star Trek, Star Wars and etc. when we were younger, I’ll bet many of us still do. Even those who were never really science fiction fans had to be aware of it. You know the premise: A starship crew travels to far away places, encountering aliens, preventing invasions of the Earth and saving the universe as we know it. More times than not the travellers originate in the Sol system and radiate out to stars with familiar names like Rigel, Vega, Alpha Centauri or Altair. Our carbon based, oxygen breathing heroes almost never need environmental suits when adventuring on the planets orbiting these distant points of light and it usually only takes weeks, days or even hours to get to their destinations. This of course is important in order to keep the plot line moving. I mean who wants to watch a movie that mostly consists of people eating, sleeping, performing routine maintenance or just passing the time? The only movie that I can think of offhand that approached space travel in a realistic way was 2001 A Space Odyssey and it’s important to note that story took place almost entirely within our inner solar system, right up until the climactic and altogether confusing ending.

A couple of films have tried to approach space travel in a different manner. In both the Alien series and in the recently released Avatar film, the sticky, (and boring), subject of long space travel was dealt with by having the crew sleep through most of the journey, thus negating the need to bore the audience silly with make work tasks that will inevitably be the vast majority of any long space journeys. Most books, television series and movies though, use some form of faster than light travel. Battlestar Galactica and Dune used a less common version of science fiction faster than light travel in which coordinates were entered, the engines were engaged and the whole kit and caboodle was immediately folded into it’s destination. The more common versions of fictional faster than light travel is usually in the form of a warp drive arrangement in which space in front of the vessel is dramatically shrunk while the space behind it is expanded by an equal amount.  . . . Read the rest of this entry →

The young Earth vs. the speed of light

2:57 pm in Uncategorized by Margaret

Eta Carina

This week I’d like to discuss the Young Earth Creationists and the reason that astronomy and mathematics thoroughly refutes their claim that the Earth was created as is barely more than 6,000 years ago.

The Young Earth premise seems to be based on some literal interpretations of ancient scriptures. For example the commentary on Genesis by Ibn Ezra around the tenth century a.d., though most modern Jewish scholars dismiss such a literal reading of ancient texts. The modern Young Earth Creationism seems to be rooted in writings by the Archbishop Ussher who published the Ussher Chronology in which he dated the Earth from the night preceding October 23, 4004 BC . This of course is in close agreement with many other scholars such as even great minds like sir Issac Newton and Johannes Kepler who placed the beginning of Earth at circa 4000 b.c. and 3992 b.c. respectively among others throughout history.

It wasn’t until the time of William Thomson, a.k.a the first Baron of Kelvin, (Lord Kelvin), who remained an extremely devout Christian throughout his life, that the Earth’s age became generally accepted as ancient. In 1897, Lord Kelvin calculated the age of the planet based on his knowledge of thermodynamics. i.e. the assumption that the planet was molten in the beginning and given the known mass of it and the known rate of cooling, that put the age of the Earth between 20-400 MILLION years. A huge range as you might notice but absolutely correct….except again his knowledge was incomplete. He had no concept of radioactive decay and how that and tidal forces would keep the interior of the Earth molten to this day.

James Hutton, (1726-1797), who is considered the father of modern geology got no respect during his time yet his research and his careful observations ushered in the era in which we look to the record preserved in the rocks for answers and we would forever after talk about the age of the earth in BILLIONS of years.

Newton and Kepler and even Ussher can be forgiven because their knowledge was seriously limited and astronomy was in it’s infancy and geology wasn’t more than the collecting of curious rocks. Lord Kelvin was guilty of not reading about the work of his countryman and focusing instead on his field to the exclusion of others. In fairness to him, it should be pointed out that in Lord Kelvin’s time, modern geology was still disputed by many religious scholars along with Darwinism. There is no such excuse today. The age of the planet is not an opinion and is not open for debate beyond the range of a few tens of millions of years. Radiometric dating is far too precise to allow for any debate on the fact that the planet is at the minimum, ten and a half times as old as Kelvin’s upper estimate but we’re here to talk about astronomy.

If we are to accept archbishop Ussher’s chronology of the Earth, that would put the upper age of the planet at 6,014 years old, next October 23rd. That would mean that the furthest object visible in telescopes would be 6,014 light years away or less. We know this because the speed of light has been measured over and over with a high degree of accuracy and that it is consistent and FINITE. The speed of light that is traveling in a vacuum is 299,792,458 m/s, (meters per second), with a relative measurement uncertainty of four parts per billion. Therefore we see Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our own solar system as it was 4.2 years ago, as it is 4.2 light years away, a light year being the distance it takes a light to travel in a year.

How do we know how far away Proxima Centauri is? Several ways but the one I want to focus on is called stellar parallax. Parallax is the phenomenon of closer objects seeming to move against a more distant background depending on your point of view. Hold a finger about a foot away from your face. Close one eye and then the other. Flip back and forth between eyes and your finger appears to move against a more distant background. We can do the same thing from the Earth with nearby stars. The orbit of the Earth is a rough circle that is about 185 million miles, or 297 million kilometers in diameter. The difference between the views of distant objects from opposite points in the Earth’s orbit around the sun is called the annual parallax. This gives us the definition of a parsec, which is 1 arc second of movement against the background stars per annual parallax. This works out to be 3.26 light years. Now the only limiting factor is how accurately can such things be measured.

Pretty accurately as it turns out. Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel made the first successful parallax measurement of the distance to another star when he measured the distance to 61 Cygni at 10.4 light years way back in 1838. Turns out that the actual value for the distance is more like 11.4 light years but his heliometer was a pretty crude device. This is also the first time an accurate scientific measurement of the distance to another star was made. Bessel was limited by the quality of his instruments but we have much better devices today, both here on Earth and in orbit. Hipparcos was launched in 1989 and can detect parallax of stars as far away as 1,600 light years and next year the Gaia mission will allow measurements of 10 microarc seconds, pushing that distance back to ten of thousands of light years.

WTF does any of this have to do with age of the Earth you ask? And well you should because so far this seems like a study in digression. yet it’s very relevant. As we KNOW the speed of light and we KNOW the distance to nearby stars and we KNOW their luminosity and we KNOW how much that luminosity decreases with a given distance, all we have to do is find a star type with a KNOWN distance and a KNOWN luminosity and then we can extrapolate the distance to similar stars with incredible accuracy. This is called a standard candle and can then be used to measure distances into the billions of light years. This is how we have determined the universe is about 13.73 BILLION years old. Ergo the Earth and the universe cannot be younger than that or the light from these very distant stars which we can measure very accurately would not have reached us yet.

So we would see the Orion Nebula but not the Carina Nebula. The Andromeda Galaxy? We would have no idea it exists. Heck, we wouldn’t even see the center of OUR OWN galaxy if the young Earth proponents were correct, since that lies over 26,000 light years away. We would be existing at the center of a bubble of stars barely 6,000 light years across and every year that passes, we would have more and more stars come into our field of view and astronomy would be more a science of naming, than a science of measuring. The only thing you have to do to refute young Earth creationism is to go outside away from the city on a clear night. The evidence is clear and irrefutable. Just look up.

Of Science and Opinion

7:45 am in Uncategorized by Margaret

I have a passion for science. I grew up within easy walking distance of the Johnson Space Center near, (now inside), Houston, Texas. Literally down the road, over the railroad tracks and across a cow pasture and I was at the back gate. I would have been an astronomer had I had better math grades. As it is, I went into medical research.

It has been with increasing horror therefore, that I have watched public officials and people with ideologically driven agendas, aided and abetted by the traditional media begin to treat science and the results derived from science as malleable and subjective as opinion. These same folks have elevated opinion to a level that was once reserved for cold, hard facts. They have become to a large extent, interchangeable. Hardly a month goes by that The New York Times or the Washington Post doesn’t print a science denying screed by one of it’s regular columnists, making claims entirely devoid of science or reaching conclusions about data based on nothing but ideological bent. This is especially true about Anthropogenic Climate Change. For the past decade or so, right wing talkers and writers have been granted increasing license to come along and out and out lie to a credulous readership so let’s set some things straight.

Science is the state of knowing as opposed to thye state of misunderstanding or believing. An opinion is an appraisal formed in one’s own mind. Science must be predictable, reproducible and methodical. Without the scientific method, it ceases to be science and becomes junk. The injection of money, the collision of egos, the disappointment of ambitions can all lead to science becoming corrupted and those results must be discarded. That isn’t to say that one researcher’s misbehavior will or should discredit the entire field but for some reason in our society, industry funded shills are granted more credibility than entire fields in which one or a few scientists have been found to have abused their data. In fact, all such tainted results must be treated exactly the same and discarded dispassionately and without prejudice. They aren’t science.

One of the more recent fields to have been thus conflated and confused with opinion is anthropogenic climate change. There are some facts that must be acknowledged. Carbon Dioxide and Methane trap the radiant heat of the sun in the atmosphere. That is a fact. Despite the Bush administration’s attempt at "re-defining" the gas as not a greenhouse gas, you cannot define away it’s properties. The levels of CO2 and CH4, (methane), in the atmosphere are increasing in direct ratio to the burning of fossil fuel and the increasing population of livestock. When it is charted, the correlation can’t be disputed, no matter how much one wants to be in denial of the problem. This is science, not opinion.

A popular weapon that the right wing and the deniers have employed is the old "theory vs fact" meme. Theory is an analysis of observable facts and their relationship with one another. This has been extremely popular with the so called Young Earth Creationists who believe that the Earth was created as is 6,000 years ago and all life upon it was created in it’s present form. They have pushed until too many people place this belief on a par with the accepted history of the planet and life on it. This is not a theory by definition, it is a dogma , which is defined as something that is held as an established opinion. Evolution is a theory, based on observable data. It is predictable, testable and reproducible. The science of biology is based and grounded in Darwinian evolution. Many of the pharmaceuticals you take wouldn’t work if evolution was on the same ground as creationism. gene therapy wouldn’t be possible and trepanning might still be a common practice.

Still not convinced? Then let’s take gravity. Gravity is a THEORY, just like evolution and anthropogenic climate change. And like the former, gravity cannot be entirely explained. There are gaps in our understanding of gravity. One huge one is that despite the phenomenon’s properties on the macro scale being extremely well defined through literally CENTURIES of careful observation, we still don’t know WHAT gravity is. Is it a particle? A wave? A combination of the two? It seems like most people lean toward the particle hypothesis because that would better explain the other problem with gravity: the fact that it breaks down at the quantum level. On an ultra micro scale, the rules of gravity don’t apply. Objects that we KNOW have mass behave strangely down in that universe. Yet gravity undeniably exists and despite the problems and gaps in the theory, we can manipulate gravity with a high degree of accuracy. This has been demonstrated over and over again with the Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo and Cassini missions, none of which would have arrived at their destinations without a really good understanding of gravity. There was a Mythbusters episode in which they tried to fire a bullet to light a match. It took them forever to light that match and it was only luck that managed to get the bullet close enough to light it. Now imagine that the gun was fired from New York State and the match was in Australia, that gives you an idea of what the New Horizons probe is attempting to do. But gravity is, by definition, a "theory" despite our ability to manipulate it and the undeniable evidence that it exists as described, in the same way that evolution is a "theory" and in the same way that anthropogenic climate change is a "theory". The next time you find yourself tempted to think that the Earth is too big and the atmosphere too vast for humans to affect it, keep in mind that the Challenger Deep could hold Mount Everest and it would still be covered by over a mile of water, yet, if you take a large globe of the Earth, the deepest part of the ocean is less than the thickness of the blue paint representing it!

Gravity is REAL! Evolution is FACT! Anthropogenic Climate Change is HAPPENING! All despite your OPINION of Al Gore.