Sunday Starlinks

October 27th, 2013

I had a long couple of days, flying up to Gillette, Wyoming to give a talk about the science of superheroes (I will post a video when it is ready).  The University plane had a problem and we wound up driving back, although I did get to see Devil’s Tower in person finally and had a good carload of smart, interesting people to chat with on the long drive home.

New distance champion among galaxies.  An aside: it’s standard to quote the proper distance to an extragalactic object — the distance it was at when it emitted the light we are seeing from it.  Apparently the press release made a big deal about its current distance, which is probably pretty confusing to some readers.  This article does explain the difference.

A new phenomenon called “dark flow” something I am probably going to have to worry about as a cosmology professor.

NASA admits mistake over Chinese astronomers ban from conference.

Republican proposal to strip peer-review from science funding.  This is a horrible, horrible idea, even if there are concerns that science has lost its way.  The fact about the latter issue, however, is that it is scientists who are recognizing the problems and this shows the power of science to self-correct, somewhat undermining the negative sensationalism.

The science of Tea Party wrath.

Ten myths about space travel that make science fiction better.  I don’t know that I agree with the assessment myself.  One new fact: it’s hard on the eyesChris Hadfield not impressed by planned Virgin Galactic flights, but he’s a freaking astronaut.

Awkward Halloween photos.  Nice, although a slideshow.

Awesome Netflix customer support!

Computers prove the existence of God.  Not exactly, but a good linkbait angle.

Spray-on clothing.  Living in the future!

The age of antibiotics is over.  Scary without exaggerating.


I wasn’t Chillin’, I was Chilean…

October 23rd, 2013

A bit of a placeholder here for now, as I think it will be of interest to write up the anatomy of an observing run in Chile, but wanted to let anyone looking here know that I wasn’t dead.  My wifi on my laptop however, which was supposed to let me stay better in touch and blog from my hotel in Chile, is apparently dead.  I did have ethernet connections in the office at the University of Concepcion and the Las Campanas Observatory, but I was pretty busy working at those times.  Suffice to say for now I got good data, gave what I think was a well-received colloquium talk, ate/drank some good stuff, and talked science a lot.  And had a cold most of the time.

Just catching up here on a long list of stuff now that was put off by the trip.


Sunday Starlinks

October 13th, 2013

Trying to finish up a lot of things before I leave for Chile this week (a colloquium at the University of Concepcion, work with an old student/collaborator, and an observing run at the Magellan Observatory).

Still profoundly disappointed and annoyed about the government shutdown, particularly the NASA part.  My friend Meg Urry has an article about it at CNNThis guy also not happy about the scientific waste.

Speaking of that, there’s more on the NASA story vis a vis China and congressional restrictions (which should be lifted during a shutdown, right?).  Well, Congressman Frank Wolf got annoyed and wrote NASA a long, angry letter about how his legislature and his positions on China have been mischaracterized.  Although it’s harsh, I’m actually pleased because I now have a better understanding of the restrictions and I don’t think they’re as oppressive as I originally thought.  I almost always prefer engagement over boycotting, so I don’t love the situation, but…

My article at Amazing Stories discussing art vs. science using the movie Gravity as a case study.

I agree with the LA Times decision not to print letters from climate change deniers.  If their premise is “there’s no evidence for climate change” or “there’s no evidence in support of humans causing climate change,” or similar, they’re lying or ignorant.  There’s room to debate the evidence, but not to deny it exists and is not easily dismissed.  And a new study indicates just how soon seriously high temperatures become the new new norm.  And why we should be investigating geoengineering, even if doing it is a risky proposition.

How to turn science into science fiction.  Some good, although simple, advice.

If TV science were like real science.  Ha ha!

Superhero films by the numbers.

On memory revision.  This is why eye witness testimony is poor and hard data is good to have.

What’s wrong with the new Malcolm Gladwell book.  Not surprisingly, a condescending Gladwell disagrees.  This is an interesting topic to me as a general question about ways of popularizing science, the strengths of entertaining narrative, and the pitfalls thereof as well.

Science fiction writer Eugie Foster has a cancer diagnoses and needs some financial help.  While the initial kickstarter is funded, I’m sure even with the best possible outcome at this point she’s going to need more money, and I suggest purchasing some of her ebooks.

Terrifying old Halloween costumes.  Some really are.  Then there’s this modern Joker, yikes!

George R. R. Martin bought a movie theater.

Idiocracy not coming true, apparently, but the reverse, suprisingly.  Humans getting smarter.  Similar to a story I posted a few weeks ago on the Flynn Effect.



Monday Starlinks

October 7th, 2013

Due to the Denver excursion to see Gravity in IMAX 3D and visit a haunted house (The 13th Floor), I didn’t have the time to post yesterday.  So here we are today…

I have a few story clusters I’ll start with.

First, Gravity was a pretty cool movie, ground-breaking (space-breaking?) even, although it has some flaws.  A review from Christian Ready.  Some critical tweets from Neil DeGrasse Tyson (and a reply to at least one)Buzz Aldrin on GravityPhil Plait on Gravity.  The consensus, which I share, is that it’s an incredible movie with some small errors or points of confusion.  And on a related note: the ten most dangerous space walks.

Next story cluster is about NASA and Congressional interference, both the obvious one (the shutdown) and a less obvious one (black listing China and Chinese scientists — even ones working in the USA).  NASA is the agency most hard hit by the shutdownYes indeedSee it here.  Scientists are at home.  Some telescopes have shut down science operations.  Some scientists (like me!) are waiting for approved grant money to come in, and waiting, and waiting… Here’s some more details from the AAS.  And Congress, back when NASA was open and they were talking with them, told them that playing with China was prohibited.  Chinese astronomers working in the USA often stay and remain citizens, and generally speaking do not spy — we’d love people to see our work!  But they’re being blocked from attending meetings at NASA centers and this is leading to boycotts.  This issue is a little nuanced, but basically it’s politics having a negative impact on science and scientists.  Catalogs of exoplanets are not exactly issues of national security.

Final cluster includes a few academic issues.  Who’s afraid of peer reviewAcademia’s two-body problemWhy are there still so few women in science?

50 People’s “most intellectual” joke.  Some good and very nerdy ones here.

Another brief article on Einstein’s brain, with more evidence similar to what I’ve seen before.

The Nobel prize is really annoying.  Some good points from Sean Carroll.

Interesting look at deep time and risk.

Kind of wish Hal Clement was still around to write Shellworld.

“Weird” masks to give you supervision and superhearing.  They will let you spot the person whispering to their friend that you’re wearing a weird mask.


Mid-Week Starlinks

October 1st, 2013

I have a bunch more, and prefer to share some fun stuff than bitch about how the government shutdown is negatively impacting astronomy (which it is). Well, I will share this link about what NASA has done and gotten for its efforts. Have a good nap, Curiosity.

And more NASA telescopes have permitted the clouds of an exoplanet to be mapped. I have a story in Launch Pad that has similar concepts.

Another alternative cosmology. It doesn’t predict the microwave background radiation or light element abundances, or a number of other things, so I don’t think this dog will hunt. Here’s a more conventional challenge to the currently preferred cosmology. Another take on the latter story.

A bunch of articles with good and/or interesting things to say about the new movie Gravity.

Three scenarios for funding interstellar travel. Since the rich keep getting richer, I’m going to go with trillionaires. Going to doubt organized religion.

More on positive science fiction and a giant tower concept.

A whole mess of starships. Enjoy.

They made a lightsaber? No, not exactly, but worth a read. Even if just for the picture of Luke Darwinawardwinner.

Popular Science shuts down its comments
. They have some good reasons, but it makes me uncomfortable. It has gotten tough to read comments in a lot of places due to the trolls and biased zealots. Also see Daily Kos for their take on the story.

Foods of the future! Still waiting for meals in pill form.

26 Sure signs you’re a physics graduate.

Making physics fun with Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. *LOVE* this idea!

Leonard Nimoy on where the Vulcan salute came from. Live long and never pay retail, to make a joke in poor taste.

Expert chess players are smart, yes. I think the appropriate way to interpret this is that practice will bring expertise, but top performance requires both practice and aptitude for any field of endeavor.

The latest report on climate change from the IPCC has come out. I had some on this Sunday. Here’s another take. Not that it will stop biased/clueless conservative politicians from repeating lies about it. Don’t know that that jibes with this explanation of the conservative mind. More on the age of denialism. And even more.

Related, a dark future for science.

Attack of the Clones! For real. Moo!

The Scopes Monkey Trial still controversial. Amazing, but very true. And another creationist thinks Bill Nye the Science Guy doesn’t understand science. Yeah, right.

While there’s something to be said for some of the rationalizations for Lady Superhero Costumes Redesigned by Ladies, the art is terrible and so are some of the new concepts. Ugh.

Sunday Starlinks

September 29th, 2013

The Benfords continuing to make news talking about interstellar travel and the Starship Century.

Over at Amazing Stories, some thoughts parallel to mine about separating art from artist, although I’ll give my answer. Try to do it. Life is too short. Even the evil (by someone’s subjective opinion) can and do produce good things to benefit the rest of us.

Let’s name the belching beast at the center of our galaxy Smaug.

Teaching Sandra Bullock about living in space (for GRAVITY). I’m thinking my wife and I will go to Denver and see Gravity in Imax, although perhaps a few days after opening night.

This article about gadgets to turn yourself into a superhero looks like a rip off of mine. Or maybe great minds think alike.

How to kill Wolverine? Plausible?

Ten books people pretend they’ve read. I’ve read 7 of the them. Wish I could have my time back on a couple of them.

Climate change keeping it from being so cold, despite a solar minimum and La Nina. And in bigger climate news, the new IPCC report is out and the news is still quite concerning.

Dr. Stephen Grande on bashing bad science and its impact on science advocacy. Audio interview.

Our interstellar future in the eyes of science and science fiction. Some good people (e.g., Geoffrey Landis, Allan Steele, etc.) in a long video discussion.

Dieting Disaster Looms. Wall-E Future?

Habitable exomoons? Yes, please! (Written by my talented friend, Shannon Hall, and linked to before I realized I knew the author.) And Neil deGrasse Tyson disses Venus in favor of moons in the solar system.

Does Hanging Up a Star Trek Poster Scare Away Women?

September 25th, 2013


We found that there were clear stereotypes of computer science students as people who, for example, “stay up late coding and drinking energy drinks” and have “no social life” (Cheryan, Plaut, Handron, & Hudson, 2013). In several behavioral experiments (Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, 2009), we found that women who enter a computer science environment with objects stereotypically associated with the field (e.g., Star Trek posters, video games) are less likely to consider pursuing computer science than women who enter a computer science environment with non-stereotypical objects (e.g., art posters, water bottles). These results held even when the proportion of women in the environment was equal across the two types of environments.

Emphasis mine.

The researchers suggest “broadening the image of computer science” by changing environmental factors among other things. Replacing the Star Trek poster with a Monet poster, I guess. I’m a little shocked that “video games” are a turn off for would be computer science majors of any type, however, in the same way telescopes should not be a turn off to would be astronomy majors.

I’m torn here, because I want to have welcoming environments, but I also want to hang up things I like in my student lab and other spaces, and Star Trek and science fiction in general are part of that and may in fact help select similarly-minded people to engage with me (e.g., “Hey, I like that poster!”). I also think there may be another solution, too, involving bringing about more general social acceptance of Star Trek and things geeky.

And maybe I’m over reacting a bit, since they didn’t investigate astronomy students, many of whom I know, male and female, were inspired in part to go into science by Star Trek. I was.

Never Give Up, Never Surrender!

September 24th, 2013

About 6-7 years ago, I had a little grant money to analyze Chandra X-ray Observatory observations of a particularly interesting quasar. There was a post-doc in the department who was running out of money, didn’t have a job to transition to yet, and I wound up hiring him for six months to do the analysis and write a paper. He did the analysis and presented a paper at an astronomy meeting (see the abstract). He then expanded that into a longer, detailed paper, with some help from me and our collaborators, and submitted it to a peer-reviewed journal.

We got a referee from hell. The referee was snarky, competent in some areas but less so in others (and oblivious to the difference), ambiguous, dogmatic, and tended to prefer negative comments to constructive criticism. We had two round of comments, and two rounds of revisions, but before we could finally get the paper accepted, the post-doc got a job offer for a faculty position and the paper got lost in the transition. I’d periodically check in about, but his faculty position was teaching intensive, and his time was limited. And believe me, it’s hard to pick up a paper and dive into revisions after it has sat for months…or years. After a while, you forget the details, the literature continues to evolve, and the required revisions become more extensive while the memory is distracted by students. Doesn’t help when there’s the taint of an unpleasant referee.

I kind of thought the paper would never get done, which would have been a shame, as there’s some nice stuff in it.

Well, my former post-doc did return to the paper earlier this year and revised the paper with help from me and some co-authors (new and old). We got a more constructive referee. And this morning the paper was accepted for publication!!!

Sometimes it is possible to make up for past shortcomings and make good, and to finish off old projects that remain worthwhile.

Never give up, never surrender!

Sunday Starlinks

September 22nd, 2013

NASA has a plutonium problem that threatens the future of deep space missions. And no, putting plutonium on rockets is not as dangerous as some politically motivated fear mongers have made it out to be. And NASA is turning science fiction into fact.

Why are some hell-bent on intelligent design. I think there’s some insight into people I’m inclined to refer to as fundamentalist idiots when I’m being lazy. Even if they are idiots, they’re not going to listen to anyone using that terminology. And Michael Shermer reminds us of why we should pick science over belief. So there you have why we should, and why some don’t.

An aspiring scientist quits and blames the culture of modern academia. This is an interesting letter and contains nuggets of truth. I went through a similar crisis of conscious in grad school, but I didn’t quit. I just got depressed for a few months, then recovered. Science is done by real people who suffer the shortcomings of real people. Academics involves money, power, egos, and more, just like everything else — the ivory tower is dirty. But at the end of the day, there is still meritocracy and you get to spend a lot of your time doing research, and everything else tends to be even dirtier. Still don’t like it? Change it, at least in your own department or research group.

Why you don’t fucking love science. A bit of a stretch to be linkbait, but a sound point in there to consider.

Here’s an article by someone who thinks that Bill Nye the Science Guy being on Dancing with the Stars is bad for science. His reasoning is that Nye is an older white guy and put on a lab coat for his opening dance — kind of stereotypical in a way that will drive women and POC away from science. I disagree, mostly. Yeah, a bit stereotypical, except for the fact that it’s a science guy being called “a star” in the popular sense, and being seen dancing. That’s not stereotypical. If he sticks around, we’ll see more sides to Nye. Also, a lot of scientists are older white guys — letting an older white guy be a speaker for science is just fine. He’s not the only one — just the only one on this how. I am horrified sometimes about playing demographic games on sample sizes of one. I’m all for someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson taking his turn on DWTS, and for all I know he turned them down and Nye is a second choice. I also question the premise in the article that Nye being a white male will “drive women away from science.” It may not attract them, but that’s a far cry from driving them away.

Here’s someone who is doing the right thing about the stereotyping issue. Don’t complain about what others are doing — do what you think should be done and be the change you want to see. The important thing here to me is that the trailer for her movie looks decent and interesting (given the time I’ve spent in Brazil). I mean, can you imagine voting for a woman for President just because she’s a woman? I think of Palin, and the idea makes me shudder. But a smart, talented, and ambitious woman like Landre is probably worth supporting. (I also see she’s just hit her $75k kickstarter target).

Here’s a bunch of stuff that’s about alien life, for real, but not really as scientifically sound as it probably should be. We’ll start with the most sound: alien microbes from space? Unfortunately, a bit circumstantial and published in a “journal” that is more speculative than most. But it’s still kind of science, compared to pictures of various small animals seen in Curiosity Mars photos. (Maybe Valentina Tershkova will show up in a photo. Or robot snakes.)

OK, we all know about Orson Scott Card’s various bigotries by now, and confirmation bias is giving people bad reasons to read his mind, accusing him of “defending genocide”. (This is probably based on Kessel’s essay giving one interpretation of Ender’s Game.) I’m fine with interpreting complex literary work. I’m not so fine with mind reading and giving a biased interpretation of a piece of work because you find the author’s personal views unappealing (or worse). If Ender’s Game is a defense of genocide, Ender sure seems to feel guilty about it and spends a lot of effort in subsequent books to make up for it. Writing a story involving genocide doesn’t mean the author supports genocide. Card gives us plenty of non-fiction essays to tell us what he really believes — let’s stick to that. No mind reading required.

Two competing models for alien civilizations. I’ve been thinking about this myself.

Lo and behold…adults play video games. Duh, like this is news. Except to some it apparently is. Adults also watch cartoons, play board games, dress up for Halloween, read comic books, and do anything fun they want to — even if some people have narrow-minded definitions of what it means to be an adult.

You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but magnetic bracelets don’t help your arthritis, or in general have health benefits. Duh.

I like the idea that Wonder Woman should tie her hair back when the shit gets real.

Star Trek the Next Generation cast wearing The Original Series uniforms. Fun. And mostly for the headline: Cheer me up, Scotty!

This is the car of the future I always wanted. Pretty awesome. Too pricey, however.

A fun color acuity test. I got an 8.

The case against high school sports. Physical education, yes, but the expensive, organized sports thing is unfair and makes little sense, except from a particular point of view. How about putting that emphasis on math, science, writing, and thinking?

Teacher outed for comparing atheism to smoking, nets student a scholarship. Yes, Texas.

The difference between climate change skeptics and deniers. (David Brin)

Finally, Al Franken making a good analogy for why many climate change deniers have flawed logic:

The Science in the Movie Gravity: an Interview with Science Consultant Kevin R. Grazier

September 20th, 2013

I have my interview up at Amazing Stories today. Why not click through there, read it, and leave a comment if so motivated?

Calling for Constructivism

September 19th, 2013

I’ve been thinking about how to respond to certain negative things I’ve seen over the years, particularly on the internet. I’ve struggled, and tried on outrage, indignation, logic, rationality, ridicule, and other responses. Frankly, I haven’t been happy with most of them, and watching other people overdo them has really made me cringe. I could write down a long list of incidents, current and past, and I bet everyone could write down their own list. I don’t think boycotts, bullying, bluster, and the like are the right response to someone with a different opinion. Even an idiotic and offensive opinion. If you have the better idea, you should be able to win the war of ideas — if not with the offender, at least with those watching the war. Every little infraction, even those that are simple misinterpretations of written comments without context, seems too often to be the worst thing ever and brings out calls to die in a fire. Really? Is such a response really the best response? It’s just destructive.

I’m also not finding pure reason the best way to go in some situations. With no emotion, there’s no passion. And some positions are just the result of bias that is not rooted in reason, but rationalization. Some think that their own opinions are facts, when they’re not. Arguing with a global warming denier who denies the greenhouse effect isn’t an argument — it’s explaining physics to a pre-recorded TV show.

And I’ve also been thinking about how often we scientists, with our system to root out bias and promote objectivity, still wind up too often bitching about poor or offensive referees for our papers. Anonymity there, as for the internet, seems to give some people the green light to be rude and condescending even when it’s not justified.

It’s hard enough dealing with referee’s reports without also having to deal with the emotions of being insulted. (This doesn’t happen every time, or even most of the time, but enough of the time that it’s depressing.)

I’ve decided I’m going to try to be constructive in my dealings from now on. If I’m trying to teach a pig to sing, it does waste my time and annoys the pig, so when I’ve got a true believer (or denier as the case may be) who is not arguing in good faith, the most constructive thing to do is to disengage. It’ll save me some time. If I come across some offensive behavior, I can and should point it out, but I don’t have to be holier-than-thou in a way that will cause people to dig in their heels deeper. Adversarial interactions rarely bring about the changing of minds or hearts.

It’s stressful to hate, bad for your health. Don’t give the haters back what they give you. Instead you could spend showering love on someone who deserves it.

There are situations where you can’t walk away, I know. Also situations where walking away cedes the field to the hateful and the biased, I know. Responding to hate and outrage with the same isn’t constructive, however. Always try to find the best possible outcome and how to get there. Look for win-win solutions. Be constructive. Make the changes you want to happen, happen, without tearing down others to do so. And lord I know there have been a few I’ve wanted to tear down myself, but if it’s not necessary, we’re all the better for it.

I’m sure I’ll fail to live up to this ideal from time to time and rant and rage about this and that, but I want to live in a world with fewer insults, fewer unnecessary fights, fewer vendettas, and fewer howls of outrage. We can critique each other’s ideas without trying to destroy each other, and there are few people who are truly so evil that they deserve to be destroyed. Look to create first before you look to destroy.

Look to be constructive. Build a legacy. Let people look at your life and see a zone around you where the world is a little better, there are more smiles, and more things of worth are being accomplished. Cultivate positive people around you who don’t tear you down at every opportunity. We can have a better world. I know my own personal world will be better.

Watch 50 Years of Quasars Online!

September 18th, 2013

I love living in 2013, and in many ways things continue to improve. Here’s the latest example. A small 2-day meeting at Caltech is filmed and put online within a week: Talks with slides and video.

In particular, even for the layperson, watch Maarten Schmidt’s talk about the discovery of quasars. There’s also, at the end, a public talk by Martin Rees that is worth the time.

Everyone can get a taste of what real science meetings are like now, and without paying the registration fees.


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