Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Little Night Music

From NPR:

On May 20, 1964, two astronomers working at a New Jersey laboratory turned a, giant microwave antenna toward what they thought would be a quiet part of the Milky Way. They weren’t searching for anything: They were trying to make adjustments to their instrument before looking at more interesting things in the sky.

What they discovered changed science forever.


Calculations years before had shown that if the Big Bang really happened, its afterglow would still be visible. And it would show up today as microwaves coming from all directions.

The static they were getting in New Jersey came from all directions. It was everywhere. Had they just found the remains of the Big Bang?


Monday, May 5, 2014

New Blood for Old

This sounds like something out of a 1930′s monster movie — or an episode of Star Trek — but if it works, it could be wonderful news for medicine… if not for mice and rats.

Two teams of scientists published studies on Sunday showing that blood from young mice reverses aging in old mice, rejuvenating their muscles and brains. As ghoulish as the research may sound, experts said that it could lead to treatments for disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease.

“I am extremely excited,” said Rudolph Tanzi, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the research. “These findings could be a game changer.”

The research builds on centuries of speculation that the blood of young people contains substances that might rejuvenate older adults.


“We can turn back the clock instead of slowing the clock down,” said Dr. Toren Finkel, director of the Center for Molecular Medicine at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “That’s a nice thought if it pans out.”

This reversal could occur throughout the body, the new research suggests. “Instead of taking a drug for your heart and a drug for your muscles and a drug for your brain, maybe you could come up with something that affected them all,” Dr. Wagers said.

But scientists would need to take care in rejuvenating old body parts. Waking up stem cells might lead to their multiplying uncontrollably.

I don’t know the first thing about neurology or medicine other than what I learned in first aid class, so I don’t know if it’s a real possibility or just something in the lab.  What I do know is that somewhere there’s some fundamentalist whack-job who’s going to raise some kind of holy stink about it being against God’s will and demand that no tax dollars go towards this kind of research.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lunar Eclipse

I went out into the front yard to see the lunar eclipse this morning.

Lunar Eclipse 04-15-14This was taken by my friend and former classmate Archie H. Waugh over near Sarasota; my cell phone shot was nothing like this.

Totality was at 3:45 a.m.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In the Beginning

Via TPM, astronomers have looked back into time to the start of it all.

The universe was born almost 14 billion years ago, exploding into existence in an event called the Big Bang. Now researchers say they’ve spotted evidence that a split-second later, the expansion of the cosmos began with a powerful jump-start.

Experts called the discovery a major advance if confirmed by others. Although many scientists already believed that initial, extremely rapid growth spurt happened, finding this evidence has been a key goal in the study of the universe. Researchers reported Monday that they did it by peering into the faint light that remains from the Big Bang.

If verified, the discovery “gives us a window on the universe at the very beginning,” when it was far less than one-trillionth of a second old, said theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University, who was not involved in the work.

“It’s just amazing,” he said. “You can see back to the beginning of time.”

Another outside expert, physicist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the finding already suggests that some ideas about the rapid expansion of the universe can be ruled out.

Right after the Big Bang, the universe was a hot soup of particles. It took about 380,000 years to cool enough that the particles could form atoms, then stars and galaxies. Billions of years later, planets formed from gas and dust that were orbiting stars. The universe has continued to spread out.

Every now and then we need a reminder that the things that consume our lives and vie for permanence in our history are nothing more than specks, and we — all of us and everything we’ve ever known — are nothing more than echoes and dust.

To some people that might be a depressing thought, but actually its a comfort to know that we’ve always been here in some form or another.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sick People

Measles is making a comeback in New York thanks to scare tactics by uninformed people.

This is sheer lunacy.  Just over a dozen years ago this illness was considered eliminated in our country, and this year people are being hospitalized for it. All due to the hysteria about a safe, effective vaccine. All based on nothing.There is no legitimate scientific controversy about whether or not vaccines are safe.  The original study that started us down this insane path by linking the MMR vaccine to autism has been retracted outright. The evidence against administering the MMR vaccine to healthy individuals is utterly without merit.

But people continue to make the utterly baffling choice to refuse it anyway.  Dispiriting new information seems to indicate that they are immune to persuasion when confronted with facts inconvenient to their worldview. Indeed, writers at prominent online media outlets chide us for “demeaning” vaccine-deniers, saying to do so “defies explanation.”

Measles is not just some childhood disease.  People die from it.  And now more could because of some prominent stupid people and junk science.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sunrise, Sunset

And some people think we spend too much money on education…

Americans are enthusiastic about the promise of science but lack basic knowledge of it, with one in four unaware that the Earth revolves around the Sun, said a poll out Friday.

The survey included more than 2,200 people in the United States and was conducted by the National Science Foundation.

Nine questions about physical and biological science were on the quiz, and the average score — 6.5 correct — was barely a passing grade.

Just 74 percent of respondents knew that the Earth revolved around the Sun, according to the results released at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

Fewer than half (48 percent) knew that human beings evolved from earlier species of animals.

HT to Steve Bates and Nicolaus Copernicus.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Monday, January 6, 2014

Fun With Science

This should be entertaining.

Bill Nye “The Science Guy” is scheduled to debate evolution and biblical creation next month with the founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Nye will square off against creationist Ken Ham on Feb. 4 at the Petersburg, Ky. museum’s Legacy Hall. The debate is titled: “Is creation a viable model of origins?”

In a statement on Thursday, Ham described the choice of Nye for a debate partner as a kind of natural selection.

“Having the opportunity to hold a cordial but spirited debate with such a well-known personality who is admired by so many young people will help bring the creation/evolution issue to the attention of many more people, including youngsters,” Ham said in a statement on Thursday.

Get it?  “Natural selection?”  Ha ha hoo boy.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Short Takes

ENDA gets past filibuster in the Senate.

New Jersey mall locked down after gunman opens fire.

Supreme Court turns down Oklahoma abortion case.

Sen. Rand Paul faces more plagiarism charges.

It’s Election Day in a lot of places, including Virginia, New York, and New Jersey.

Alert Starfleet — There are billions of Earth-like planets in the galaxy.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Galaxy Far, Far Away

From the BBC via Shakesville:

An international team of astronomers has detected the most distant galaxy yet.

The galaxy is about 30 billion light-years away and is helping scientists shed light on the period that immediately followed the Big Bang.

It was found using the Hubble Space Telescope and its distance was then confirmed with the ground-based Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Because it takes light so long to travel from the outer edge of the Universe to us, the galaxy appears as it was 13.1 billion years ago (its distance from Earth of 30 billion light-years is because the Universe is expanding).

Lead researcher Steven Finkelstein, from the University of Texas at Austin, US, said: “This is the most distant galaxy we’ve confirmed. We are seeing this galaxy as it was 700 million years after the Big Bang.”

The far-off galaxy goes by the catchy name of z8_GND_5296.

When you think in terms that 700 million years is “immediately” after the Big Bang, it puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

We Are Not Alone

Via Kevin Drum, a graphic from New Scientist speculates at the number of habitable planets in our galaxy.

They started with the 3,588 planets discovered by the Kepler space telescope and then pared this back to only smallish planets in the “habitable zone”—not too near their star to boil over and not too far away to be iceballs. That got them down to 51 planets. But that only counts the planets we could see because our view from Earth was directly on their ecliptic. Extrapolating to all the rest produces 22,500 Earthlike planets. And since Kepler only covered 0.28 percent of the sky and only looked out 3,000 light years, extrapolating yet again produces a final estimate of 15-30 billion possibly Earthlike planets.

Hello out there.

earthlike planets 09-26-13

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Friday, May 31, 2013

Mammoth News

After reading this story

MOSCOW (AP) — A perfectly preserved woolly mammoth carcass with liquid blood has been found on a remote Arctic island, fueling hopes of cloning the Ice Age animal, Russian scientists said Thursday.

I wondered how my friend and former LC colleague John McKay, a big fan of woolly mammoths, would respond.

The story is bad science reporting, pure and simple. It’s science by press release. It allows sensationalism to bury the real science. Cloning and “will it tell us why they went extinct” stories are lazy and ignorant writing. It’s crap and I do not like it. Please stop.

Don’t call David Attenborough just yet.  On the other hand, his brother might be interested in doing another scary cloned extinct animal movie.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Short Takes

President Obama sacked Steven Miller, the acting head of the IRS.

Deadly tornadoes hit Texas.

The White House released hundreds of e-mails related to the Benghazi! talking points.

Iraq — Bomb attacks in Baghdad killed more than 35 people.

Syria — The U.N. condemned the government for attacking civilians.

Yet another military officer in charge of controlling sexual harassment is busted for it.

Clone to home — Stem cells recovered from cloned embryos.

The Tigers lost to the Astros 7-5.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Brainy Idea

This is cool.

President Obama on Tuesday will announce a broad new research initiative, starting with $100 million in 2014, to invent and refine new technologies to understand the human brain, senior administration officials said Monday.

A senior administration scientist compared the new initiative to the Human Genome Project, in that it is directed at a problem that has seemed insoluble up to now: the recording and mapping of brain circuits in action in an effort to “show how millions of brain cells interact.”

It is different, however, in that it has, as yet, no clearly defined goals or endpoint. Coming up with those goals will be up to the scientists involved and may take more than year.

The effort will require the development of new tools not yet available to neuroscientists and, eventually, perhaps lead to progress in treating diseases like Alzheimer’s and epilepsy and traumatic brain injury. It will involve both government agencies and private institutions.

The initiative, which scientists involved in promoting the idea have been calling the Brain Activity Map project, will officially be known as Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or Brain for short; it has been designated a grand challenge of the 21st century by the Obama administration.

There are several reasons why I like this.  Everybody knows someone who has either suffered some kind of injury or has a brain disorder.  It is also the kind of thing that government funding does best.  Private medical research could do it, but unless there’s a way to make money at it, they’re probably going to spend more time on boner pills and hair restoration than curing Alzheimer’s.

It is often the government that gets America to do big bold things without a profit motive.  If you think of some of the things that we’ve done in the last sixty years, such as the interstate highway system or putting Neil Armstrong on the moon, it was done because we as a nation decided to do it through the government.  And along the way, the government didn’t exclude the capitalists; they hired them and paid for the research and promoted their products along the way.  Everybody wins something, and that’s called progress.

PS: I see that Steve Benen and I are having another of our psychic mind-melds.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Fun With Science

Sometimes Monday mornings are hard to get started on blogging since it’s after a weekend and there’s not a lot of stuff to poke fun at.  But here’s a fascinating bit of photography and Mr. Wizard science that is sure to mesmerize you for a little bit via Summer Ash at The Maddow Blog:

The amazing phenomenon captured above is not actually visible to your naked eye, only to the camera. Running at 24 frames per second, as opposed to the ~12 frames per second rate of our eyes, the camera can register the vibrational signature of the sound coming out of the speaker as it affects the nozzle of the hose. You can see this in slow motion at around 1:07. To try this experiment yourself, check out the instructions by the filmmaker on YouTube. And for a cool discussion on what your eye can and can’t detect, read this.

Just too cool.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Reading

The Good, Racist People — Ta-Nehisi Coates on the fact that even today an Oscar-nominated winning actor — Forrest Whitaker — can be suspected of being a shoplifter because of the color of his skin.

In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”

A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”

The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.

But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.

I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.

The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked.

And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take.

The “Undocuqueers” – Benjy Sarlin at TPM on the hurdles that remain for gay couples with immigration issues.

A report released Friday by the Williams Institute at UCLA calculated that out of the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be America today, 267,000 adults identify as LGBT. Another 637,000 LGBT adults were legal immigrants. Gary Gates, a scholar at the Williams Institute, said that the number was a conservative estimate based on cross-referencing survey data on undocumented immigrants, sexual orientation, along with data on married same sex couples. Gates’ remarks came at an event in Washington, D.C., debuting the finding that was hosted by the liberal Center for American Progress.

There are some issues gay and immigrant rights groups are looking to address that concern specifically LGBT immigrants, for example greater sensitivity towards gay and transgendered detainees taken into custody by ICE. But the dominant issue affects U.S. citizens and immigrants alike: the ability to sponsor one’s partner or spouse for a visa.

The Defense of Marriage Act, now under review by the Supreme Court, bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples. That means that the usual laws allowing citizens to bring foreign-born husbands or wives to America under a family visa don’t apply. The result is often that couples are forced into effective exile: the popular progressive blogger Glenn Greenwald, for example, lives in Brazil with his partner because only Brazilian law recognizes their relationship and grants Greenwald permanent residency.

According to the Williams Institute, the nation is home to an estimated 32,300 same-sex binational couples in which one spouse is an American and the other a non-citizen. According to Gates, more than half have children, meaning entire families face the prospect of being split apart if a foreign partner or spouse can’t find an alternative visa through work, school, or other family relationships — a process that can take years in the best of circumstances.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist and activist who revealed in 2011 that he himself was an undocumented immigrant, said at CAP’s event on Friday that his grandfather was upset when he came out as gay in part because it closed off one possible avenue to citizenship.

“I ruined the plan,” he said. “The plan was to come to America, marry a woman, and get my papers that way.”

Sleepytime — Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker:  The science of sleep is an eye-opener.

Of the many ways that things can go wrong in bed, sleep troubles are probably the most prevalent. According to a 2011 poll, more than half of Americans between the ages of thirteen and sixty-four experience a sleep problem almost every night, and nearly two-thirds complain that they are not getting enough rest during the week. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that fifty to seventy million Americans suffer from a “chronic disorder of sleep and wakefulness.” The results are dangerous as well as annoying. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that almost five per cent of adults acknowledge nodding off at the wheel at least once during the previous month. The U.S. Department of Transportation has determined that what might be called D.W.D.—driving while drowsy—causes forty thousand injuries a year in the United States and more than fifteen hundred deaths.

Our collective weariness is the subject of several new books, some by professionals who study sleep, others by amateurs who are short of it. David K. Randall’s “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep” belongs to the latter category. It’s a good book to pick up during a bout of insomnia.

Randall begins with an account of his own sleep problems, which include laughing, humming, grunting, bouncing, kicking, and, on at least one occasion, sleep-walking into a wall. He considers a range of possible explanations for the national exhaustion—too much light, too much warmth, too much avoirdupois—and finds them all compelling. The electric light bulb has made darkness optional, eliminating the enforced idleness that used to begin at sunset. Modern mattresses and bedclothes trap the heat that the body gives off as its core temperature drops each night. Obesity increases the chances of developing sleep apnea, a condition that combines choking and waking in an exhausting, sometimes life-threatening cycle. For all these reasons and more, Randall anticipates a bright future for the emerging field of “fatigue management.” One sleep expert he interviews predicts that “fatigue management officers” will soon be as common at major corporations as accountants. Like time, sleep, it turns out, is money.

Doonesbury — Soul-searching.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Reading

Worst Pro-Gun Argument Ever — Mark Nuckols writes that the idea of the “citizen militia” sounds all Yankee-Doodley, but history proves that armed civilians tend to go after each other instead of the tyrant.

The constitutional government of the United States has never been perfect, but it has repeatedly corrected its mistakes and sometime tendencies to abridge the fundamental rights of its citizens. If this basic order and balance is ever imperiled, it will almost certainly be under circumstances of severe economic stress. And in such circumstances, tolerance and good faith trust in other Americans will likely be in short supply. Even today, numerous public figures routinely characterize their political opponents as enemies of American values. And a quick glance at the comments sections of websites around the Internet reveals that many people in this country already doubt the “Americanness” of their fellow citizens and the legitimacy of existing government institutions.

So a citizen uprising at any point in the foreseeable future would probably not involve like-minded constitutionalists taking up arms to defend democracy and liberty. It would more likely be a matter of one aggrieved social group attacking another. And for the most criminal and vicious members of society, the rationale of “protecting” their own rights would be a convenient justification for straight-up looting, robbery, and bloodshed.

There may never be a time when all the people in this country embrace one another as true Americans or accept the authority of their political leadership. Which may be part of the country’s boisterous — if sometimes overly enthusiastic and even paranoid — democratic tradition. But as we debate the role of firearms in our society, it makes no sense to be sidetracked by the impossible and dangerous idea that a heavily armed citizenry is the ultimate safeguard of liberty in America.

Hizzoner Dishonor — Not everyone remembers former New York mayor Ed Koch fondly, especially those in the gay community who suspected him of personal reasons for being silent on AIDS in the 1980′s.

The gay brief against Koch comes in two stripes. The first is that he should have been out and that had there been an openly gay political leader of national stature urging action on AIDS, the course of the epidemic might have been very different; countless lives could have been saved. I find this counterfactual an exercise in magical thinking and ultimately unfalsifiable and unhelpful. It’s not clear that an out gay man could have been elected mayor in 1977 in the first place, especially given the “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo” signs that current New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is accused of orchestrating on behalf of his father in that primary, or that an out or outed gay mayor would have won re-election in 1981 or 1985. It’s also not hard to envision a scenario in which an out or outed gay mayor would have driven from office by scandal, perhaps only adding to the shame and ostracization the gay community faced then. The point is, we just don’t know, and there are simply too many variables to plot out what kind of impact an openly gay elected official like Harvey Milk, whom Koch fell short of on many levels, would have had on the epidemic.

What we do know, or can usefully conjecture, forms the basis of a more sober if no less damning indictment of Koch—which is that the particular way in which Koch was closeted shaped his halting, seemingly indifferent reaction to the epidemic. Unlike the coy posture he adopted later in life, Koch didn’t just refuse to answer questions about his sexuality during his years in office. He aggressively—if unsuccessfully—attempted to eliminate any whiff of homosexuality from his profile. If Kirby Dick’s documentary Outrage is to be believed, Koch had a long-term relationship with a man named Dick Nathan, but broke it off before his first mayoral race (this account comes from David Rothenberg, whom Koch appointed NYC’s human rights commissioner). Nathan moved to Los Angeles (where he died of AIDS in the ’90s) and was conspicuously replaced by Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, as Koch’s beard. Koch also proclaimed himself a heterosexual in a 1989 radio show when he was running against David Dinkins, and generally took pains to distance himself from New York’s gay community.

Reading Randy Shilts’s account in And the Band Played On, it’s impossible not to conclude that Koch’s personal paranoia came to determine his policy response to AIDS. According to Shilts, Koch “warmly embraced requests that cost the city nothing,” but routinely rejected any requests—for housing for people with AIDS, for a health center in Greenwich Village, for hospice space—that came with a price tag. Koch, Shilts writes, wanted to avoid the perception that gays would get “special treatment” in his administration. The result is that “for the next two years, AIDS policy in New York would be little more than a laundry list of unmet challenges, unheeded pleas, and programs not undertaken.” “All the ingredients for a successful battle against the epidemic existed in New York City” concludes Shilts, “except for one: leadership.”

Reaching for the Stars — How the dung beetle provides insight — and a warning — about celestial navigation and light pollution.

The cosmos is nothing if not egalitarian; we are all equally small. It seems fair that Earth’s sanitation workers should benefit from the Milky Way, as the rest of us do. And dung beetles likely aren’t alone; crickets, moths, nocturnal bees, and other insects probably share their ability to navigate by the Milky Way and by polarized moonlight. “I’d be surprised if they were the only insect,” Warrant said.

One wonders, then, what will happen as the night sky disappears. Thanks to sky glow, ten per cent of the world, and forty per cent of Americans, no longer view a night sky that is fully dark. This troubles ecologists as well as astronomers. A paper published in 2011 by Christpher Kyba, a physicist at Free University, in Berlin, found that light pollution washes out the polarization of moonlight, which could have a detrimental effect on dung beetles and other insects, at least around urban areas.

“Dung beetles play an incredibly important role in revitalizing our soil,” Warrant said. “It’s a gardener’s dream, to have all this manure pushed into the dirt.” He couldn’t predict what the long-term biological consequences of sky glow might be, “apart from the fact that it probably will have some impact.” But he noted that in Australia, in the first half of the century, millions of hectares of land were ruined by the dung of imported cows. (Native dung beetles prefer the dry fare dropped by marsupials and wouldn’t touch the sloppy, foreign stuff.) Soil quality improved only after the country imported dung beetles en masse from South Africa. “You could see what kind of impact they must have in South Africa,” Warrant said, “and what it would be like if they weren’t there.”

We suppose that we are superior to dung beetles, but are we really? At least dung beetles recycle. We scavenge, hoard, consume…what? Crap, mostly. It piles up around us; increasingly we live on a ball of it. Even light we waste; designed to illuminate, it now obscures. As our celestial guides recede, we risk losing our bearings and will have ever less to consider but ourselves.

Doonesbury — Explain that.