30 September 2011


It's the day after Thursday, and you know what that means ~ it's science Friday !! Of course, every day is science day, but on Fridays I try to remember (a task made more challenging by early onset Oldsheimer's) to write about things sciencey that will be fun and informative.

So. In physics, specifically in quantum mechanics, there is an element of uncertainty regarding the position, speed, or state of subatomic particles, depending on random events which preceded the moment of observation ~ and depending on whether or not an observer is present. In 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger devised a thought experiment to illustrate this paradox, now famously known as Schrodinger's cat. You can click on the preceding link for a rather wordy explanation, or you can click here for a very brief and clever video which clarifies the situation. Summary: cat is sealed in box. A device in the box may or may not kill the cat (see image above). If you open the box, what will you find, a living kitty or a corpse? If you do not open the box ~ check this out ~ the cat is theoretically both alive and dead. Got that? Infinite possibilities, parallel universes, oh my. Try the links, and you'll see how.

Onward. "Emergence is the word used to describe what happens when a system becomes more than the combination of its pieces. A set of rules, group of animals, or collection of objects can develop singular properties that none of the single pieces possess .... Emergence can manifest in many ways, but it always manifests as a new property, held by a group of objects but by none of the individual parts, when no larger control is imposed on the group." Thus begins a discussion of emergence which offers examples from biology, sociology, and physics. Just when you thought you had things figured out.

Finally, a very useful resource ~ Statistical Terms Used in Research Studies: A Primer for Journalists. But just as valuable for any reader, no matter their level of science or math sophistication. You know how statistics can be applied in multiple ways to any event or status, yielding different results depending on the methods used? How does one know whom to trust, and what to look for? By learning the language, of course. You wouldn't buy a used car without some knowledge of cars, or a reliable friend along with you. Just so with statistics, and this short article provides a wonderful overview, useful even to someone like me who has the education and field experience, but that was years ago. The refresher is, well, refreshing.

29 September 2011


Starting on September 17, an ongoing peaceful demonstration called Occupy Wall Street has been conducted in the financial district of New York City, to express opposition to what participants view as "negative corporate influence over U.S. politics and a lack of legal repercussions over the global financial crisis." Personally, I was thrilled. It marks one of the few times since the massive antiwar and civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s that large numbers of citizens have gathered in an act of conscience to exercise their right to demonstrate against unethical and criminal behavior on the part of corporations and government. Smaller ancillary protests have been conducted in cities nationwide.

Through it all, ranks of police officers have been visibly present, more so than at any similar event in recent memory. News and social media have been rife with reports and images of police brutality toward unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. Two such images appear here. Above is a woman who was corralled by police, and then assaulted with pepper spray without provocation, at point blank range by a uniformed police officer. The shocking footage of the screams of the "woman with red hair" arrested the attention of the nation. Her name is Kelly Schomberg, and here is part of her remembrance of events after she was maced. The assaulting officer's name is Anthony Bologna. He has faced charges in the past for allegedly commiting false arrest and civil rights violations.

A second image (below) shows an unnamed police officer blatantly committing sexual assault by reaching under the shirt of a woman protester to fondle her breast. No names are available at this time. What is important to remember that each of these victims was acting legally and peacefully ~ and each of them is someone's daughter, or sister, or mother. The nation should be mortified, and outraged.

Commentor Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC issued a scathing editorial which condemns not only NYPD police brutality, but also daily instances of excessive use of force or authority by police officers across the nation. He is careful to note that the majority of police officers are honorable and conscientious in their work. In counterpoint, he notes that all citizens need to realize something which blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other minorities have known all along ~ that police brutality can happen anytime, anywhere. It happens in all cities, and in smaller communities as well. Police commissioners and politicians turn a blind eye, because after all, the 'thin blue line' is their own first line of defense against an angry public. Can you imagine so many ranks of police officers turning out if a large corporation or a governmental body were not the target of the demonstration? Not bloody likely.

Incidentally, the first time I bookmarked O'Donnell's commentary, then later returned to it, the video had already been censored by Youtube, or by parties unknown. After a search I was able to locate the link above. Please view it in its entirety ~ it includes a slow-motion video which clearly shows the pepper spray assault by Officer Bologna, as well as footage of other instances of unprovoked police violence. It is a vivid reminder that our nation was founded on the principles of free speech, public protest, and yes, civil disobedience. Thomas Paine, Henry David Thorough, Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others form a continuous history of our responsibility to speak out against wrongdoing ~ no matter how many police officers or National Guardsmen are arrayed against us.

And if you click on the link and find that it has been censored, then that tells you that there are people in high places who are very, very afraid that their activities will see the light of day. They, like the offending police officers in New York City, have much to be ashamed of, and much to answer for.

27 September 2011


I'm a proud member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Recently I received via email an invaluable summary of every citizen's rights and responsibilities, titled Know Your Rights ~ What To Do If You're Stopped by Police, Immigration Agents or the FBI. You may well ask, "What does this have to do with me? I don't break any laws." That may or may not be true.

Let's assume for a moment that you never speed in traffic, never drive with any alcohol in your bloodstream, never fudge on your taxes, never smoke marijuana, never change lanes without signaling. Know that every day, people are wrongfully arrested, wrongfully tried, wrongfully convicted and sentenced, even wrongfully executed for crimes they did not commit. This is not conspiracy thinking. It is reality in the American justice system. Ask any criminologist.

Now let's assume that perhaps you do edge over into the gray area of breaking the law from time to time. Nothing serious, no illegal addictive drugs or arms smuggling. You fail to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, or you're talking on your cell phone (shame on you!) while driving and don't notice that you're weaving within your lane, or you possess a legal state medical marijuana card but know that possession is still a federal offense. What is the appropriate response if you are pulled over, or if a law enforcement officer wants to search your person, your home, your car?

The ACLU's summary of your rights and responsibilities has the answers, broken down into these sections ~

~ if you are stopped for questioning

~ if you are stopped in your car

~ if you are questioned about your immigration status

~ if the police or immigration agents come to your home

~ if you are contacted by the FBI

~ if you are arrested

~ if you are taken into immigration custody

~ if you feel your rights have been violated

This is an important document, one worth saving to your computer, one worth memorizing, not only for your own possible use, but also in case you are a witness to police questioning or an arrest. I've nothing against law enforcement ~ I just know that like the rest of us mortals, no single law enforcement officer is perfect. Further, we live in times of uncertainty, when people who are otherwise tolerant and reasonable turn on each other, based on race, gender, age, nationality, religion, or ethnicity. During such times, government policy can change to reflect an overreactive need for control.

Here's an example. I am a gun owner, in accordance with my rights under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I also am registered as a Montana Medical Marijuana patient, a result of several medical conditions including chronic pain from a herniated lumbar disk and from arthritis. I learned yesterday in an announcement from the Montana Cannabis Industry Association that according to a memo from a federal agency, "it is illegal for people who are listed as medical marijuana patients to own a gun or ammo." It appears that the agency would like the arbitrary ruling to apply retroactively.

The multiple levels of irrationality are astonishing. Suspent a constitutional right simply for being legally in possession of a benign, healing substance? It would make more sense to restrict those who drink alcohol from owning guns ~ good luck getting that one passed. Further, there is no provision for restricting the constitutional rights of those who use powerful prescription medications which impair function far more than marijuana does. Further, there is no credible medical evidence that marijuana is an addictive substance. People like myself who went to the trouble and expense to procur a legal Montana Medical Marijuana card are law-abiding residents, with legitimate medical reasons for using marijuana for pain relief.

So since I operate within the system, and my name appears on the state registry of medical marijuana card holders, and since my name also appears on the state registry of those trained and licensed to carry a concealed weapon, can a federal agency simply compare state registries and arrest anyone who appears on both? In theory, yes they can. But their legal foundation is weak to non-existent, and they would face a groundswell of opposition from everyone from NORML to the NRA.

None of which would be of help to me if I were detained. The only realistic (and ridiculous) preventative recourse is for me to sell my gun, or else to suffer chronic pain without medical marijuana, neither of which is a reasonable or legal imposition by the federal government. Now you can see just one instance of how it is possible to be a perfectly legal citizen, and yet subject to the possibility of questioning or arrest. And now you can see how understanding one's rights and responsibilities as set forth in the ACLU summary is important for everyone.

26 September 2011


Today's post is an homage. On December 7, 1995, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His acceptance address, entitled "Crediting Poetry", was itself a blend of remembrance delivered in poetic prose. His life story, and his paean to poetry, began in his childhood in Country Derry, in what is now Northern Ireland, with descriptions which parallel my own rural childhood. Throughout his address, Heaney referred often to those poets who influenced his world view, and he describes poetry itself as "an ark of the covenant between language and sensation."

Through most of my adult life I've read more prose than poetry. I feel now that this was my loss, that the paring down of language to its most essential words and cadences is what makes poetry so compelling. In Heaney's words, "there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasureably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself."

At one point in his narraative, Heaney alludes to a poem by another Nobel Prize-winning Irish Poet, William Butler Yeats ~ "There Yeats presents himself among the portraits and heroic narrative paintings which celebrate the events and personalities of recent history and all of a sudden realizes that something truly epoch-making has occurred ~ 'This is not', I say / The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland / The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.' And the poem concludes with two of the most quoted lines of his entire oeuvre:

'Think where man's glory most begins and ends,

And say my glory was I had such friends.' "

At this link you can read the entire text of Heaney's address, which like poetry itself provokes and inspires all the senses. You will also find a prompt where you can listen to an audio recording of his 51 minute lecture ~ listening to the lilts and rumbles and pauses is as much a treat as the words themselves. And that, gentle reader, is part of the experience of poetry.

25 September 2011


Several days ago, scientists at CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, announced that "they recorded particles traveling faster than light ~ a finding that could overturn Einstein's fundamental laws of the universe .... Measurements taken over three years showed neutrinos pumped from CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, to Gran Sasso in Italy had arrived 60 nanoseconds quicker than light would have done .... If confirmed, the discovery would undermine Einstein's theory of special relativity, which says that the speed of light [approximately 186,000 miles per second] is a 'cosmic constant' and that nothing in the universe can travel faster.

"Light would have covered the 500 mile distance in around 2.4 thousandths of a second, but the neutrinos took 60 billionths of a second less time than light beams would have taken."

The announcement is, in the tradition of the scientific method, only a preliminary step toward confirmation or refutation of faster-than-light particle travel. Years of peer review and duplication of the procedures by independent observers will be required before the results are accepted as real. But the CERN researchers appear to have been quite rigorous in their measurements and interpretations ~ and they themselves insist that others must confirm their findings (see the brief video embedded in the article). If the light-speed barrier can be overcome, one theoretical implication might be time travel. But that possibility is decades in the future. Still, the greatest leaps in our knowledge have been born in our imaginations and our dreams.

Speaking of dreams, another news item grabbed my attention earlier in the week. "Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and computational models, UC Berkeley researchers have succeeded in decoding and reconstructing people's dynamic visual experiences ~ in this case, watching Hollywood movie trailers. As yet, the technology can only reconstruct movie clips people have already viewed. However, the breakthrough paves the way for reproducing the movies inside our heads that no one else sees, such as dreams or memories, according to researchers.

"Eventually, practical applications of the technology could include a better understanding of what goes on in the minds of people who cannot communicate verbally, such as stroke victims, coma patients, and people with neurodegenerative diseases. It may also lay the groundwork for brain-machine interface so that people with cerebral palsy or paralysis, for example, can guide computers with their minds. However, researchers point out that the technology is decades away from allowing users to read others' thoughts and intentions."

The implications are fascinating, though we should be careful what we wish for. Being able to read the minds of others would be interesting and useful at first. But the potential for psychic overload is immense. I foresee many biological complications before this vision ever reaches fruition. Our brains are nuanced and complex systems, with built in redundancy, They operate partially on electrical impulses and partially on biochemical neurotransmitters and receivers. Further, our thoughts, memories and dreams are not linear, like movies, but layered and fragmented, with several or multiple activities happening simultaneously. Teasing out the flow of a particular dream or memory could be daunting indeed.

Further, I rather like the privacy of my own thoughts, even recognizing the medical gains described above. And finally, there is the fine line which science and technology walks ~ on the one hand, with the best intentions of doing good, and on the other, with the potential for abuse by those with low scruples.

But then, it has ever been thus, hasn't it?

23 September 2011


A number of progressive thinkers and policy makers are increasingly speaking out against the tidal cesspool of neocon rhetoric which threatens every civil liberty and individual protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution. A few days ago on this forum, I challenged the skewed assertion by Republican leaders that removing tax breaks on the nation's wealthiest individuals and corporation, and imposing tax rates comparable to what the rest of us pay, amounts to "class warfare". In fact such reforms to the tax code would help to eliminate the very real class warfare which the wealthy have been waging on the poor and middle class in this country for thirty years.

Paul Krugman agrees. The Nobel Prize-winning economist writes in eloquent detail about the specific tactics employed by the wealthy and their conservative hirelings in Congress. Case in point ~ "between 1979 and 2005 the inflation-adjusted income of families in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent .... over the same period, the income of the very rich, the top 100th of 1 percent of the income distribution, rose by 480 percent. No, that isn't a misprint. In 2005 dollars, the average annual income of that group rose from $4.2 million to $24.3 million."

At the same time, the federal tax burden "has fallen much more, as a percentage of income, for the wealthy. Partly this reflects big cuts in top income tax rates, but beyond that, there has been a major shift of taxation away from wealth and toward work. Tax rates on corporate profits, capital gains and dividends have all fallen, while the payroll tax ~ the main tax paid by most workers ~ has gone up."

Enter the concept of the social contract, "an intellectual device intended to explain the appropriate relationship between individuals and their governments. Social contract arguments assert that individuals unite into political societies by a process of mutual consent, agreeing to abide by common rules and accepting corresponding duties to protect themselves and one another from violence and other kinds of harm." I assert that our history has gone through cycles of corruption and reform, characterized by the wealthy taking cruel advantage of the less privileged. We are now deep in a period of corruption, and in dire need of reform.

Paul Krugman's voice is one of those calling for reason, and for all citizens regardless of the power and influence afforded by wealth to pay their fair share. Another such voice belongs to Elizabeth Warren (image below), a Democrat who is running for the United States Senate from Massachussetts. Warren is an economic reformer who "cuts right through the poll-tested B.S. about job creators and class warfare, and gets right to the heart of what's going on in America ~ where our social contract has been broken by greed, and the middle class is dying."

Here is an eloquent video commentary by Warren, followed by analysis by journalist Thom Hartmann. The video is riveting, and should be required viewing in every civics and government class in the nation, not to mention in the halls of Congress ~ a venue where hopefully a newly-sworn-in Senator Warren will serve as the no-nonsense voice for Americans who aren't among the privileged wealthy, and who haven't been suckered by the empty emotional talking points of the Tea Party. The social contract remains the only valid format within which to conduct democracy. It's time we renewed our acquaintance with its particulars.

22 September 2011


Today marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Peace Corps, quite possibly President John F. Kennedy's finest inspiration. According to the Wikipedia description, "The mission of the Peace Corps includes three goals: providing technical assistance, helping people outside the United States to understand U.S. culture, and helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries.

"Generally, the work is related to social and economic development. Each program participant (aka Peace Corps volunteer) is an American citizen, typically with a college degree, who works abroad for 24 months after 3 months of training. Volunteers work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs in education, hunger, business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment."

I've advocated for many years that one of the responsibilities of citizenship in a free society is (or should be) a mandatory 2-3 years of public service. This could be satisfied by service in the military, or by service in non-military organizations like the Peace Corps, VISTA, or many other humanitarian or conservation groups. For all its faults, a democratic republic like the U.S. relies on participation by all its citizens to keep the ship of state on an even keel, and navigating in a positive direction. There is no excuse for apathy, or for ignorance.

Think of the possibilities. If we had as many people in (and as much financial support for) humanitarian programs as we have staffing and financial support for the military, the world would be a far better and more balanced place. An effective and modern military presence may be necessary as nations evolve into a true world community, but there is no substitute for schools, for food, for helping people abroad and at home to support and inform themselves. I invite all readers to share their public service experiences in the "comments" section at the bottom of this post.

A special thanks to Sheril Kirshenbaum for sharing the graph seen below (click to enlarge), which tracks grad school enrollment and the unemployment rate over time. The correlation is quite dramatic. Any speculation regarding the reason both lines track nearly identical paths?

21 September 2011


Moment 1 ~ Want to know what it feels like to orbit planet Earth? Click on this link to view a time lapse video taken aboard the International Space Station. This took my breath away. Thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for the link.

Moment 2 ~ The concept of infinity is daunting, even for some mathematicians. I mean, there's got to be a single, biggest number, right? No ~ any large number you think of, you can always add 1 to. Or double. Or take times itself. Or, you can just lean back and enjoy Taming Infinity.

Moment 3 ~ Actor Nicole Scherzinger was recently a guest on Conan O'Brian's show, wearing one of those low-cut dresses designed to show off maximum cleavage. During the interview she caught him staring at her endowments, kidded him about it, and the rest .... see for yourself.

20 September 2011


Consistent with an earlier announcement which proposed paying for his jobs plan by "eliminating $467 billion in tax breaks for wealthier Americans and corporations", yesterday President Obama confirmed his intent to "raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share", as part of a long-term debt reduction program. For the first time, Mr. Obama went so far as to promise a veto of any legislation which does not include closing tax loopholes for the wealthy.

Predictably, Republican leaders have been all over Obama's plan, going so far as to label it "class warfare". The true class warfare is that which has evolved over the past thirty years, which features the top 5 percent of Americans controlling 95 percent of the nation's wealth, while enjoying tax breaks on that income which were instituted by ~ guess who? ~ Republican presidents, notably G.W. Bush. All of this coalesced to create the current debt crisis (see image above, depicting recent presidents who have significantly increased the national debt ~ click to enlarge).

John Boehner characterizes the president's plan as "the administration's insistence on raising taxes on job creators". Two responses ~ first, trotting out the tired retort "raising taxes, raising taxes" is becoming lame. This is about restoring taxes which should never have been lowered or eliminated in the first place. Second, what job creators? The nation's wealthiest individuals and corporations are cutting jobs left and right, not creating them. Their approach is in line with the failed policy of trickle-down economics, which in reality allows those at the top to keep their cushy incomes while outsourcing American jobs to other nations. Job creators, my ass.

The tone of Obama's announcement may signal that he has at last come to his senses, and realizes that placating the far right only empowers them. Obama may have had the best of intentions in trying to meet the radical right halfway, but the radical right never had any intention of reciprocating. It is time to stand firmly for democratic principles, not on plutocratic rule for profit. The Republican party allowed itself to be hijacked by the Tea Party. Let them live with the consequences. John Boehner is a coward for allowing it to happen.

By the way, lest there be any doubt about the need for protecting social service programs, a simple graph (see below, click to enlarge) should suffice to remove that doubt. Conservatives would have us believe that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, job training and other programs (which benefit the poor and middle class, but not the rich) are a drain on the nation's economy and need to be cut. Au contraire. As the graph illustrates, it is precisely the establishment of such programs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt which effectively ended the Great Depression in 1933, long before our 1941 entry into World War II.

The myth that war stimulates the economy is pervasive, and false. More recently, the post-9/11 war on terror has "compromised America's basic principles, undermined its economy, and weakened its security", all to the tune of trillions of wasted dollars, hundreds of thousands of wasted lives, and the loss of American credibility and prestige globally, according to an analysis by Joseph E. Stiglitz. We should never have engaged in hostilities in Iraq in the first place, and counterterror operations in Afghanistan have been bungled beyond all recognition. We have succeeded in creating anti-U.S. animosity in the region, and spurred the creation of tens of thousands of new terrorists. It has been an unmitigated and foreseeable disaster, abroad and here at home.

19 September 2011


Serotonin and aggression. According to new research from the University of Cambridge, "fluctuations of serotonin levels in the brain, which often occur when someone hasn't eaten or is stressed, affects brain regions that enable people to regulate anger .... the research revealed that low brain serotonin made communications between specific brain regions of the emotional limbic system of the brain (a structure called the amygdala) and the frontal lobes weaker compared to those present under normal levels of serotonin. The findings suggest that when serotonin levels are low, it may be more difficult for the prefrontal cortex to control emotional responses to anger that are generated within the amygdala."

Stress and diet are only two of a range of factors which influence an individual's predisposition to anger and aggression. Still, the more we understand about the anatomy (structure) and physiology (function) of our bodies, the better prepared we are to make informed choices about lifestyle in general, and behavior in particular situations.

Calories. Thanks to my friend Tess for this essay on metabolism and diet. Dr. Mark Hyman starts by posing the rhetorical question, "what is a calorie? A calorie is a simple unit of energy. It is defined as the quantity of [heat] required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree [celsius] at atmospheric pressure." Our bodies intake calories in food, and we burn calories through metabolism. So if one is attempting to lose weight, then one ought to be able to simply limit one's intake of calories, right?

Not necessarily. According to Dr. Hyman, "The calories you eat are absorbed at different rates, have different amounts of fiber, carbohydrates, protein, fat, and nutrients ~ all of which translate into different complex metabolic signals that control your weight .... the kinds of calories you consume have a big impact on how much fat you gain, because different kinds of food are metabolized in different ways."

The essay goes into greater detail on how this works. I found it to be very informative, especially in light of my own experiences with weight loss. One method (when I was young and naive) was simply to fast, intaking nothing but water and fruit juices. No surprise that when I stopped fasting, the weight returned. I undertook a much more successful method at age 57, when my weight reached a lifetime high of 200 lb. (compared to 155 lb. in high school). I chose a target daily intake of 1200 calories, aiming for a gradual but sustainable weight loss of 1-2 lb. per month. This method worked quite well for me. At 5 feet 9 inches, my optimal weight range according to the body-mass index (BMI ~ see the chart here ) is 131-160 lb. The closer to the lower end of one's personal range, the healthier one generally is. I'm now at 140 lb., and able to sustain that weight easily by eating well and exercising daily.

CPR. Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training has long called for alternating rhythmic chest compression with artificial respiration, in order to restore spontaneous blood circulation and breathing for someone who is in cardiac arrest. Everyone should receive recurrent training in both CPR and first aid, available in most communities through the Red Cross.

Fairly recently, CPR procedure was simplified to include only chest compressions, presumably to accomodate untrained rescuers. Here is a brief video demonstrating the revised technique, dubbed continuous compression CPR. I confess to a certain degree of doubt ~ far better, in my mind, to be recertified throughout one's adult life, than to let that training lapse. If you click on the link and look at the comments below the video, you'll find an important warning. "It is indispensable that continuous compression CPR be applied only if the victim shows clear signs of heart failure. In an emergency, that is not always an easy call for an uninformed person to make. Continuous compression CPR will aggravate the problem or hasten the death of a victim who is suffering from internal bleeding, from stroke, or from profuse bleeding from an external wound."

Good point. All the more reason for everyone to become informed. There is no substitute for proper training. That is part of our responsibility to ourselves, to our families, and to society.

17 September 2011


Here's a followup on my Thursday report on the discovery of Kepler-16b, the first confirmed instance of a planet orbiting two stars (see image above). NASA's announcement (received after I posted my own) provides further details ~ "This discovery confirms that Kepler-16b is an inhospitable, cold world about the size of Saturn and thought to be made up of about half rock and half gas. The parent stars are smaller than our sun. One is 69 percent the mass of the sun, and the other only 20 percent. Kepler-16b orbits around both stars every 229 days, similar to Venus' 225-day orbit, but lies outside the system's habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface, because the stars are cooler than our sun." The NASA announcement also introduces a term new to me ~ circumbinary, referring to a planet orbiting two stars. Cool.

Where the NASA description is somewhat dry and academic, Jennifer Ouellette's version Twin Suns Better Than One? is much livelier and more fun to read. Her tone is more conversational, with the bonus of providing more background on how planets are formed. Her less didactic approach is consistent with the mini-bio accompanying her Scientific American blog ~ "Jennifer Ouellette is a recovering English major turned science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large." Which might explain why she's one of my favorite science writers.

Expanding our focus, Matthew Bailes released an article this week which caught my eye ~ Diamond Planets, Climate Change, and the Scientific Method. Yes, his team has indeed discovered a planet that is made of diamond. The truly useful observation Bailes makes, however, is that there is no difference between the validity of discoveries in astronomy (which are rarely questioned or challenged, except perhaps by fellow astronomers) and the validity of discoveries in anthropogenic climate change (which are regularly questioned and challenged by the media and by individuals with little or no scientific training whatsoever, a very peculiar form of psychological denial). Bailes points out that the scientific method is employed in all science disciplines ~ "We make observations, run simulations, propose and test hypotheses, and undergo peer review of our findings. We get together and discuss and debate our pet theories, become friends and form a worldwide community. Of course we all make mistakes. But eventually the prevailing wisdom of the community triumphs and the field advances."

One consequence of our planet's global warming is the slow but inexorable rise in sea level, which has been documented for several decades. Among the first to face dire consequences are low-lying Pacific Island nations, which face inundation and the need for entire populations of human residents to relocate. This is but a precursor of the effects which will be felt in coastal areas around the globe, during the 21st century and beyond. Think about the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, multiplied across hundreds of cities and dozens of nations. Now realize that it could all have been avoided. Climate scientists have issued warnings about the effects of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions since the 1980s. Sad to say, among the world's advanced nations, the U.S. remains among the last to publicly acknowledge the dangers, much less take radical steps to minimize them.

Well, from space perhaps our planet won't look much different. Witness the photo of the Southern Lights taken from the International Space Station by NASA astronaut Ron Garan (see image below). The constellation Orion is clearly visible. Thanks to Sheril Kirshenbaum for the link.

16 September 2011


I offer this brief essay by Emily L. Hauser for your consideration ~ particularly the next time you overhear (or are tempted to utter) a verbal put-down which references the other person being female (whether or not they are), or references female body parts. I've been a feminist for forty years, and minored in Women's Studies for a time as an undergrad. It amazes me that we still allow insults like "you throw like a girl", or calling someone a pussy, to continue. What are we thinking? Women scientists, police officers, political leaders, musicians, astronauts, pilots, chefs, artists, physicians, attorneys, and actors have proven that there is no field of endeavor (with the possible exception of childbirth) at which either gender can claim superiority.

Any negative expression which denigrates an entire group of people, whether it is based on gender, race, religion, sexual preference, or nationality should long since have been purged from our rational brains, not to mention from the lexicon. An insult which reduces a woman (or a man) to her/his genitalia is simply witless.

And puh-leaze, do not come at me whining about having to be politically correct. That's a cop-out. We are responsible for our thoughts, our assumptions, and our words and behavior. Most of my best friends are women, with good reason. They are less burdened than men are by the testosterone-driven need to make themselves feel better by making someone else feel worse. If you are male, disenthrall yourself of the assumption that you are inherently better than women. If you are female, never put up with that nonsense. It is up to each of us to claim the best parts of both gender stereotypes, and discard the rest. Doing so is seeking out androgyny, in the sense of seeking out equality. Our better natures demand no less.

15 September 2011


There are billions of double-star systems, aka binary stars, in our galaxy. In such a solar system, one star may orbit the other, or both stars may orbit a common point or pair of points. (Check this Wikipedia link for several very interesting images and animations, as well as for information on the genesis and makeup of such systems.) Because of the intensity and variance in the light emitted by pairs of stars, we have not detected a binary star with an orbiting planet.

Until now. The NYTimes reports that NASA's Kepler telescope has definitively shown a planet orbiting two stars at once, at a distance of 65 million miles from the pair (about 70 % of the distance from the Earth to our Sun). Besides the gee-whiz factor, planet Kepler 16b ~ nicknamed Tatooine after the Star Wars home planet which also orbited two suns ~ is forcing astrophysicists to reexamine their assumptions about the ground rules for planet formation. "It was long thought that for its orbit to be stable, a planet belonging to two stars at once would have to be at least seven times as far from the stars as the stars are were each other." Kepler 16b is half that theoretical distance from its stars (see artist's image above, click to enlarge).

Life remains full of surprises and undiscovered knowledge ~ whether on the ocean floor, in tropical rainforests, in near or outer space, even in our own bodies. It is moments like this that make the daily struggle worthwhile.

Here's another such moment. A calico cat names Willow disappeared from its Colorado home five years ago. Willow was discovered yesterday on a Manhattan street, and thanks to a microchip that was implanted when she was a kitten, she will soon be returned to her family, which includes three children and two dogs. Awwww. I'd never thought of a microchip implantation for my two cats, but now it's a serious consideration. Check out the link for a picture of Willow.

Finally, thanks to the ever-fecund Sheril Kirshenbaum for this bar graph (see below) showing the PhD gender ration within various fields of study. The headline? "How to choose which department happy hour to go to (when you're single)." Damn, I wish I'd known this when I was in college. But looking at the fields of study, the gender composition makes a certain amount of sense ~ more men in the sciences, more women in the arts and social sciences. In an ideal world it would all even out, but we're still working on that.

14 September 2011


One of the more disturbing aspects of the current debate over government budget-cutting is that the one area of investment which can least afford loss of funding (and which gives us the most substantial return for every dollar spent) is public science ~ that is, "basic scientific research funded by governments," which has led to breakthroughs in everything from medicine to clean energy, internet communications to weather forecasting, to expanding our knowledge of life and the universe.

Public Science Triumphs, an article at the website io9, illuminates how public science is under threat. "The U.S. government has pledged to deal with the nation's debt crisis by cutting social spending. On the chopping block are many social programs, including some of the country's most important government-funded science institutions like the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NASA's budget has already been slashed, eliminating thousands of jobs and threatening to kill the James Webb telescope that would replace the aging Hubble telescope. (See the chart above, click to enlarge.)

"Some areas of research will be hurt more than others ~ more money will be allocated to projects on 'cybersecurity', for example, while funding for climate research at NOAA will be cut .... Cutting science funding is a way of killing our future."

Exactly so. The U.S. is falling further and further behind the European Union, Japan, and even China in the quality and quantity of scientists and mathematicians we produce at our major universities. Similarly, we are falling behind in scientific advancements in everything from computer technology to clean energy to medical research. Given that the sciences receive such a miniscule portion of the total federal budget (see graph below), further slashing science funding is not only myopic, it is self-destructive.

The article goes on to spell out certain public perception myths about science funding, and counters those myths with fact. Among the myths ~

~ Public science is a partisan issue, and Republicans have always opposed science funding in America.

~ Grants for publicly-funded agencies like NSF and NIH wind up funding useless and questionable forms of research.

~ If we cut government spending on the sciences, private funders will step up to fill in the gaps, and they'll do it without all that wasteful spending.

That last observation needs to be nipped in the bud. Private industrial research has one goal in mind ~ profit. It is not accountable to the public, is not subject to professional peer review, and serves only the selfish goals of the companies funding the labs and the research. Case in point ~ medicine. Pharmaceutical research is a quagmire of secrecy, corruption, and greed, all at the public's expense. During the years of preliminary research, corners are cut to hasten the arrival of the desired drug. Then that drug, because it is patented, is offered for sale at exorbitant prices for a set number of years (seven? ten?) before generic versions are allowed to enter production. In the meantime, the public foots the bill. This is hardly a model for efficiency or frugality.

How much more productive it would be to end tax loopholes for oil companies, and to require the wealthy in this nation to once resume their fair share of the burden of supporting government. Not to mention bringing to a close our involvement in two fruitless and costly wars. As it is, we live in a country of welfare for the rich, and inadequate income, poverty, and unemployment for too many others.

13 September 2011


This burns my grits. The chart above shows a comparison of the salaries paid to faculty at U.S. doctoral-granting universities. Please note that as one descends down the chain of command, salaries decrease accordingly, from president/CEO to provost to dean to tenured professor to un-tenured professor to grad student. But wait ~ that last entry. Football coaches earn an average salary that nearly equals all the other categories combined. What?

Colleges and universities are in the business of educating students, preparing them for entry into their chosen careers. It has been thus for centuries, long before college sports became so insanely popular (approximately coinciding with the advent of television) ~ and so insanely corrupt. I'm talking financial corruption, and I'm talking ethical corruption. The lopsided homage paid to sports at our institutions of higher learning is all out of proportion to their importance in turning out educated citizens.

It's all a con game. Millions of young men and women of dream of parlaying their high school and college sports performance into the hope of being chosen as a member of a professional team ~ but the odds of success are tens of thousands to one. The media, the NCAA, sports fans, parents, college administrators, and the players themselves are willing participants, because no one wants to be the first to point out that the emporer has no clothes.

As with nearly any other logical disjunct in life, when there is a troubling situation, follow the money. College sports have evolved to become a major source of income ~ in attendance revenues, in alumni support for universities which field winning teams, in product endorsements, in media coverage. Where does all that cash go? Is it disbursed to academic research, to expanding libraries, to attracting promising young scholars in the sciences or the arts? Not really. It goes toward further enhancing the sports program, to outrageous salaries for coaches, to full ride scholarships and other (often hidden) benefits for players, to newer and larger stadiums, to drumming up fan support. A self-perpetuating cycle which does not serve the essential purpose of higher education, the raison d'etre for colleges and universities in the first place. This is totally FUBAR.

I can hear the counter-argument ~ college is merely a natural level on the progressive pyramid of advancement within a sport (see illustration below). But that holds no water, given the tiny percentage of players who will actually make it to the pros. It is a very lucrative fantasy, but it only comes true for a tiny percentage of the dreamers. The rest are merely pawns.

To purify the situation, to return our universities to their original purpose of education in both one's specialized field and in the broader liberal arts, not to mention returning college sports to their true standing as an amateur (unpaid) endeavor, I propose the elimination of scholarships for players, and the restructuring of salaries for coaches down to the level of tenured or untenured professors. If you're a student, you're there to learn. Playing on a team should be a privilege which is subservient to your broader education, not your primary reason for being in school. Budgets for sports programs should not exceed the budget of the smallest academic department in a given university, and sports financial proceeds should be deposited into the university's general fund, to which all departments would have access for meeting expenses.

Radical thoughts, bound to raise a howl of protest among sports fanatics. So think about this ~ what are college sports good for? Physical fitness and promoting a spirit of fair play? Hardly. They serve as a symbolic substitute for the human propensity for waging war. We get to go out there and "kill" the enemy, engage in multiple battles to prove our supremacy. On that level, we can be real and say sure, better a symbolic war than a real one. But keep money out of it. Better to foster equal enthusiasm for scientific research, for the arts, for turning out educated, well-rounded adults who understand quadratic equations and ecology and music and art and Spanish, above and beyond being able to quote the playing statistics of the next team on the playing schedule.

12 September 2011


Yesterday's post marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. was intentionally simple, meditative. Today's post is introspective as well, but in a different way.

U.S. Wasting Billions reveals that "The bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting concludes that between $31 and $60 billion spent on projects in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last ten years has been lost to waste and fraud. In Afghanistan, the commission found the United States is indirectly funding the Taliban as money diverted from U.S.-backed projects is paid out to militants to ensure safety." Your tax dollars at work.

In a similar vein, The Dead, the Dollars, the Drones: 9/11 Era by the Numbers presents in mind-boggling graphs depicting the ten-year trends in military spending, veterans spending, numbers of troops and numbers of special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military fatalities, drone flight hours, armored vehicles, wiretaps. In addition there are searing graphs depicting Iraqi death estimates, Afghan civilian deaths, and U.S. casualties from roadside bombs (see image above for Afghanistan alone). Your tax dollars at work.

Reviewing 9/11's Suppressed Images jolted me. It's not news that much of what happened that day and since has been hidden from the public (with varying degrees of success) ~ President Bush's clueless response to the initial news of the attacks, Vice President Cheney's hiding in a bunnker, taken together leaving the nation leaderless in its time of crisis; the spiriting out of the country of Saudi millionaires to their homelands (most of the plane hijackers were Saudis); et al. Stonewalling and whitewashes are nothing new. But on that horrible day, one detail which emerged burned itself into the retinas of TV viewers ~ men and women who fell or jumped to their deaths from the north and south towers of the World Trade Center. The number of these casualties makes up fully 7% of all victims who died in New York City. After one day, all photos and images of those falling were never shown again. Did the government and the media imagine that this would somehow lessen the horror?

Muslims Feel Growing Hostility as 9/11 Anniversary Approaches and 'Ground Zero Mosque' Is Built traces an American tradition as old as the republic ~ the oppression and abuse of perceived "others". But in this case the "others" are American citizens who happen to be Muslim. Before 9/11, there was virtually no physical or verbal abuse targetting Muslims. Overnight, Muslims became the victims of vicious attacks which continue to this day. Our self-perception as the multicultural melting pot of the world is at odds with the evidence of our ongoing xenophobia. Japanese-American citizens were victims during World War II. Today the scapegoat of choice is the American Muslim community. Black and white thinking simply does not serve us well, in a world of nuance and diversity.

Finally, here is a link to a series of thoughtful comments by members of the team of excellent journalists who contribute to the PBS series Washington Week, reflecting on the changes that have taken place in the ten years since 9/11 ~ changes in national and world politics, in how we think and how we behave, and in how we regard ourselves and each other. The videos are well worth watching to enhance our perspective, and to remind us of our common humanity, and our common cause in making the world a better place.

10 September 2011


No real commentary needed ~ A.V. Flox writes her own, superbly, in My Kid Found My Sex Toys and Is Asking Questions! What could be a situation of extreme panic becomes a genuine learning experiece, as A.V. offers her own thoughts as well as the insights of four of her women friends who are parents. She also includes more reading resources and a video featuring Dr. Laura Berman, a mother and her ten-year-old daughter answering questions about sex. The candor is light years removed from the layers of shame, silence, and ignorance which surrounded sex when I was a teenager, back during the Punic Wars. Thank you, A.V., for all that you do to make the world a better place.

09 September 2011


Closure ~ "a popular psychological term used to describe an individual's desire for a definitive cognitive closure as opposed to enduring ambiguity. It is a need usually provoked after experiencing an emotional conclusion to a traumatic life event, such as the breakdown of a close interpersonal relationship or the death of a loved one .... The need for closure varies across individuals, situations, and cultures. A person with a high need for closure prefers order and predictability, is decisive and close-minded, and is uncomfortable with ambiguity. Someone rated low on need for closure will express more ideational fluidity and emit more creative acts."

That's a summary of the pop-psych understanding of closure, which has more proponents among the lay public than among mental health professionals. The concept of closure is big among those who have something to gain from promoting it ~ funeral home directors, forsenic pathologists, relationship counselors, wrongful death attorneys, psychics.

In her book Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, sociologist Nancy Burns argues that closure "simply doesn't exist. [It is] a rhetorical concept, a made-up term .... The closure narrative assumes that grief is bad and that it's something that needs to end, and it assumes that closure is possible .... Grief is a difficult, messy experience and can be very painful .... You carry that loss and grief, but you learn how to integrate that into your life. We grieve for a reason. We grieve because we miss the person who died, or because of whatever loss we're experiencing. Our grief expresses how we're feeling and allows us to acknowledge that loss .... People don't need closure. That's just one way to talk about grief. You don't need it to begin healing and to find progress in learning how to live with a loss."

Burns' narrative resonates deeply within me. A culture fixated on tidy, feel-good endings is doing itself a disservice. To paraphrase Zorba the Greek, "Life IS ambiguity, only death is not." When we love someone and they leave us, it is only natural to grieve their absence. Over time, we learn to numb the pain in order to think more clearly about what to do with our lives now. The hole in our heart will always be there, since if healing were complete, we could conveniently forget about the loss. In doing so, we would forget about all the beauty and connection we once shared, all that we learned. And that would dishonor all that was good in the relationship or the situation we've lost.

I think back on exuberant experiences, on loving relationships with people and with animals, on material objects I once owned but no longer do, and I may wish those things were again in my life. I love them still, and ever shall. If that means exposing myself to a wistful moment now and then, I'll take it. Life is not meant to be lived in an emotional bunker. It is meant to be experienced openly and fully ~ even knowing that sometimes joy will end. We have so little time as it is. Closure? That will happen anyway, when we die. Why die prematurely, even a little?

08 September 2011


Imagine that the current world population of 6.9 billion people lived with the same density as a real city ~ how much area would we take up? Tim DeChant has worked out six visuals, showing the area occupied if we lived at the same densities as Paris, San Francisco, New York, London, Singapore, or Houston. A chilling thought, but one we should not dismiss as idle speculation. Our numbers began to experience exponential growth starting in the mid-1900s (see graph above, click to enlarge), when the population stood at 2.5 billion. Imagine ~ a 276 % increase in just six decades, my lifetime.

Amid all our worry and debate over the economy, climate change, unemployment, war, health care, and politics, it's easy to forget that human overpopulation lies at the root of every single problem we as a species face. As the Arctic ice sheet melts, people die of starvation, social minorities are persecuted, and the vast majority of citizens control only between 1-5 % of the nation's wealth, it is useful to recall that, oh yeah, we're doing it to ourselves.

And how we do it to ourselves is often quite devious. Zinnia Jones confronts one of the ways in which we mistreat each other (and ultimately, ourselves) ~ xenophobia. In Yep, You're a Bigot! she delivers a scathing analysis of anti-gay bias, but you could readily substitute any prejudice you care to name, be it by race, gender, religion, or nationality. Her oral delivery is a bit monotone, but her facts are on fire.

We are not born prejudiced. We learn our hatreds, fears, and biases from our parents, from adults while growing up, and from peers whose minds have been poisoned. Hateful values are a choice, and every day represents a new opportunity to make a different choice. Starting today.

07 September 2011


"Education is a better safeguard to liberty than a standing army." In their annual ranking of U.S. colleges and universities, Washington Monthly Magazine announced the following top ten schools:

1. University of California at San Diego (UCSD, see image above)


3. UC-Berkeley

4. Standford

5. UC-Riverside

6. Harvard

7. Case Western Reserve

8. UC-Davis

9. Jackson State University

10. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Perennial favorites like the University of Chicago (25), Columbia (26), Princeton (31), Yale (39), and Northwestern (67) were well out of the running for the top ten. The reason lies in the criteria for selection. Traditional metrics have included "graduation and retention rates, student selectivity, acceptance rates, standardized test scores, class rankings of incoming students, and student/faculty ratio." Washington Monthly takes a different (and I believe constructive) tack. Their sole criterion is contribution to the public good, broken down into three categories ~ "social mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and service (encouraging students to give something back to their country)."

The article's author takes exception to the change in emphasis, but I support it. American public and higher education has been declining in recent decades, producing less literate graduates or none at all. Falling back on traditional measures for quality schooling clearly will only perpetuate the problem, as U.S. students fall further and further behind their counterparts in Asia and Europe, particularly in the sciences and math. It appears to me to be a step in the right direction to recruit economically disadvantaged (but otherwise intelligent) students, to produce rigorous, innovative scholarship, and to encourage public service. "Ask not .... "

Well, we Americans may have our economic and political problems, but when it comes to being cool, in the eyes of the world we are the coolest. A social networking poll asked 30,000 respondents in 15 countries to rate the coolest nationality. After the U.S., Brazil, Spain, Italy, France, England, the Netherlands, Mexico, Argentina, and Russia rounded out the top ten. At the bottom of the list (in descending order) were Germany, Canada, Turkey, Poland, and Belgium. Obviously a descriptor like "cool" is highly subjective, but hey, we'll take what we can get.

Speaking of getting ~ and bringing us full circle back to the deficiencies in American education ~ thanks to Sheril Kirshenbaum for the link to a bar graph (see below, click to enlarge) showing annual federal spending per person on five budgetary recipients:

~ Medicare and Medicaid ~ $2,746

~ Social Security ~ $2,364

~ National Science Foundation ~ $22 (yes, $22 per year)

~ Department of Defense ~ $2,981

~ 10 years of 'terrorism wars' ~ $7,486

What does this say about our national priorities? Two social service categories account for 32.7 percent of the total. Science research funding accounts for 0.001 percent of the total. Two military categories account for 67.1 percent of the total, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hemorrhaging 48 percent of the total by themselves. Without those wars, and with a more streamlined military attuned to the needs of the 21st century, we would have no budget crisis. We could be paying down our national debt rather than bickering over raising the debt ceiling, nearly pushing the nation into bankruptcy in the process. The numbers don't lie.

06 September 2011


Thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for the link to this incident. Long story short, "A Catholic school student who identifies herself by the avatar name 'Nekochan' started an unofficial library of banned books that she runs out of her locker at school. She began to lend books to her classmates when her school banned a long list of classic titles, including The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, and Animal Farm .... Books are banned for many reasons, but in a lot of cases, such as Nekochan's, the complaint originates in religion .... Books are often banned by school boards whose only knowledge of the books is a brief, out-of-context quotation."

Banning books is reprehensible, as is any form of censorship. It is only one step below book burning as an expression of paranoid, dictatorial delusion. It is also self-defeating, since such prohibition tends to increase interest in the document in question. Case in point ~ J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, whose popularity and high literary regard were only enhanced after the book was banned in many schools in the 1950s.

It would be far more productive for concerned parents to themselves read controversial books to which their children are exposed, and then sit down with their children and discuss the merits or shortcomings of the writing and the ideas (listening openly to their children's point of view). It would also be instructive to remind ourselves that we condemn other societies for book banning (remember The Satanic Verses, or the book burning that took place in Nazi Germany?). It is unjust to maintain a double standard for ourselves.

Not many people of any age would have the insight or the courage to start an underground lending library for their peers. Nekochan, your parents should be proud of you. I am.

On a lighter note, here is a short video showing Dutch artist Theo Jansen and the kinetic (moving) sculptures he calls Strandbeests. Jansen's interest extends beyond aesthetic expression. With the thought of global-warming-induced rises in sea level in mind, he views these wind-powered automatons as possible prototypes for machines which "would toss sand in the air so that it would land on and augment the seaside dunes which protect the country from flooding." Here is a link to the abstract which appeared in The New Yorker. And here is a link to dozens of Strandbeest images, one of which appears below.