Saturday, March 28, 2009

Texas science battle fought to a draw

Well, it's over. I managed to listen to yesterday's entire meeting of the Texas State Board of Education without throwing anything at my computer, which was definitely a personal victory. I commented over on the TFN blog that there is no way I would have been able to keep quiet if I had gone down there, so it was a good thing I decided to stay in my office and listen to the live stream.

The next big fight will be when we adopt new textbooks in 2011. There is also a chance that the Texas Legislature will move to rein in the BOE. Although if we move from an elected board back to an appointed one, there are potential problems there too (depending on who gets to do the appointing, of course).

Since a lot of other people have already chimed in with news, round-ups and some early analysis, I'm just going to link to some of them.

* Science Takes Hit in Texas - Press release from the Texas Freedom Network

* TFN also points out that It Wasn't All About Evolution

* Phil's round-up from Bad Astronomy - Texas wrapup: Yup. Doomed.

* The Texas BOE roundup from PZ Myers points to a commentary at Science Insider: Creationists Notch Win in Texas Showdown

* Here's some good commentary, all the way from Denmark: Discovery Institute opens mouth, lies

* Josh Rosenau from Thoughts From Kansas writes a good summary and analysis. I had similar thoughts about compromise in politics being a good thing... but compromise in science education is not.

* And finally, an article from Salon - Texas on evolution: Needs further study

One more thing - big thanks go out to all of the scientists who came from outside the state to testify before the board, as well as the people from in the state who came to support proper science education. Lawrence Krauss spoke before coming to give this past week's physics colloquium (which I attended and will probably write up next week). And of course Eugenie Scott and the aforementioned Josh Rosenau came from the National Center for Science Education to try to give our Texas students the best shot at good science in their classrooms. We really appreciate your efforts.

Part of my job is doing astronomy education and outreach with school kids, and I can guarantee that I will be doing my best to get the right information out to them!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rare Earth?

In a happy synchronicity, the same week that I attended a lecture by Rare Earth co-author Don Brownlee, two posts on the same topic showed up on a couple of blogs I read. First was Kepler and the Rare Earth hypothesis from Chris Rowan's Highly Allochthonous, followed by A Habitable Zone by any other name… from Johnson R. Haas at The Planetologist. Go read their posts for much more coherent thoughts on this topic than I'll have.

The lecture was part of the M.E.L. Oakes Undergraduate Lecture Series, named for a physics professor who retired from the University in 2004. Dr. Oakes was very committed to undergraduate education (he was my professor for Waves and Optics) and when he retired, his colleagues established this lecture series in his honor.

Here are some of my notes and thoughts from Brownlee's lecture.

First off, a disclaimer of sorts - I haven't read the book "Rare Earth" yet (although it's on my Amazon wish list!). Brownlee co-authored the book with Peter Ward, a paleontologist who specializes in research into mass extinctions (particularly the K-T boundary event, if I remember correctly).

The lecture was more of an overview of the questions that need to be asked to determine whether or not we are a "rare earth". Since I haven't read the book yet, I don't know if they address how all of these odds stack up and determine just how rare we are. Although judging by the rest of the title "Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe", I think I know the answer.

I am one of those people who grew up with Star Wars, Star Trek and science fiction in general and I *want* to believe that the galaxy (or universe at large) is teeming with life, but I have to concede that the notion of complex life or civilization, might be pretty rare. Simple life may be far more common (even in our own solar system), but there is a long way from a bacterium to a dinosaur or Homo sapiens.

The two main questions Brownlee started with were "How typical is Earth?" and "What is typical?". There are two ends of the spectrum - either there are earth-like planets all over the place or we're just about the only one. These are the extremes though, and like with so many other things, the truth is probably some where in between. He brought up the additional question of why rarity is important - and I loved his answer. Rare means no Star Wars cantina. If the distance between planets supporting complex and intelligent life is too great, there will be no opportunity for contact and/or study.

Microbial life may be more frequent but complex animal life may be more rare. On earth microbes formed almost as soon as they could after the late heavy bombardment. Animal life took a lot longer to arise and is more picky about its environment and is much more easy to extinguish.

Another question he raised was "What is Earth-like?" and again supplied a memorable answer - like porn "you know it when you see it". He covered a lot of the common issues that we look at when trying to search for Earth-like planets - such as the habitable zone (distance from parent star), type of parent star (a hot, blue star will die before life can take hold) and type of orbit (more circular means fewer extremes in seasons). But one thing he brought up that I haven't thought of as often is the factor of time. Not just the time that it takes for complex life to evolve, but also the time that it takes to get complex elements from the death of the first few generations of stars after the Big Bang. There is also the time that during the sun's lifetime that earth is in a comfortable spot (for us, at least).

With the discoveries of other solar systems since 1995, we're also beginning to get an idea of how rare our solar system itself is, not just Earth. We've discovered the "Hot Jupiters", and we have to consider how the migration of a gas giant from the outer solar system (like in ours) to the inner solar system would affect any of the smaller, inner, rocky bodies. The new Kepler mission (which is addressed in the blog posts I linked to at the top), will start to give us some good ideas of what the planetary population is like in our neighborhood of the Milky Way.

Other factors in our "rarity" to consider are: our Moon, which creates tilt stability for the Earth (moderating our seasons), our position in the Galaxy (not too close to the center), Jupiter's position in the solar system (helping to protect us from some impacts). There are lots of factors that can change on Earth itself that would affect life: the salinity of the oceans, plate tectonics, mass of the Earth (gravity), right amount of carbon, the rock cycle and its effect on carbon dioxide. And there are the "wild card" factors, such as impacts or nearby supernovae.

When you start to look at all of these factors and how subtle changes in them might change the outcome of life on earth (as we know it), you can see where people might get the notion of a "rare earth". There are a lot of "fudge factors" which start to add up.

Brownlee also addressed challenges that our species (or considering the amount of time for some of these - whatever the intelligent species on Earth is if it isn't us) will face in the future. In the near-term there are issues of global warming and impacts, but these are things that can be dealt with through technology. We know that there are other intelligent species on earth, such as "Flipper" and "Lassie", but they can't save us from impacts. [This reminds me of a quote I once heard that the reason the dinosaurs don't still exist is because they didn't have a space program.]

There are also some long-term factors that we have no direct control over, such as the inevitable death of the sun. We can adapt to the changes for a while but in the end, Earth will either be a cinder or completely swallowed by the Sun after it has swelled into a red giant. [Phil Plait covered this nicely in a chapter in Death From the Skies.] Even before we get to that point, the movement of the continents will change ocean cycles, which will in turn change weather and climate. Again, we can't do anything to stop plate tectonics, but we can possibly adapt to the resulting changes.

Ultimately, whether we can prevent the impacts, adapt to changing climates or escape the earth for other worlds, we still have our ambassadors to the stars - the Pioneer and Voyager spacecrafts.

All told, this was a nice overview of the topic and it made me want to read the book. So many of the factors he touched on could have been entire talks of their own!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

My state is driving me crazy

I love being from Texas (I was even born on Texas Independence Day). But there are some things that just leave me shaking my head. And unfortunately I've been shaking my head a lot lately...

I was going to write up my own summary of all that has been going on, but this post at the National Center from Science Education already did a great job of it:
With evolution sure to be a hotly debated topic at the next meeting of the Texas state board of education, with a bill just introduced in the Texas legislature aimed at restoring the contentious "strengths and weaknesses" language to the standards, and with a different bill aimed at exempting the Institute for Creation Research's graduate school from the regulations governing degree-granting institutions in Texas, there's no shortage of news from the Lone Star state. NCSE, of course, continues not only to report on the antics of creationism in Texas but also to help concerned Texans to combat them: Texans wishing to express their concerns about the standards to the Texas state board of education, which is expected to have its final vote on the standards at its meeting in Austin on March 25-27, 2009, will find contact information and talking points in the Taking Action section of NCSE's website and on the Texas Freedom Network's website.

Read the rest of the NCSE post here and you can find information there about how to contact your SBOE rep if you're in Texas.

Unfortunately my representative to the Board is one of the looniest of the loons - Cynthia Dunbar. Regardless, I'm still writing an email to her ( which actually goes to the board in general, so it is worthwhile even if she won't vote in favor of science). I haven't had a chance to look into writing to members of the legislature about the two bills mentioned in the NCSE article, but I will do that as well if need be. I'm also hoping to be able to get down to the final vote on the science standards next week, but either ironically or appropriately, I have a calendar full of science outreach most of the week!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Astronomy from the sidewalks of New York

Spotted via Bad Astronomy, this New York Times article:
While Times Square is not known for star gazing — the celestial kind, that is — and few people would normally venture onto a pitch-black ball field in Inwood to see the constellations, two unrelated, if not unlikely, projects hope to turn the city’s night eyes skyward.

Jason Kendall, an amateur astronomer, and Katja Aglert, a Swedish installation artist, want to turn out the lights in different parts of Manhattan and, weather permitting, illuminate the night sky.

“How can you appreciate something you’ve never seen?” said Mr. Kendall, 41. “You’ll never get anyone to make the sky dark until you show them how beautiful it can be.”
...

“Hey!” Mr. Kendall said. “You wanna see Saturn?”

Wsam tentatively peered through Mr. Kendall’s telescope.

“I don’t believe it!” he exclaimed. “Saturn really does have a ring.”


I did a double-take when I saw the name of the name of the amateur astronomer - Jason Kendall - someone I know from work! He worked for our department as a TA, even though he was working on a degree in Drama at the time (he already had a Master's in astronomy from another institution). He was always great to work with at the public viewing nights and he taught me how to find the Ring Nebula in under a minute just by star-hopping in the constellation Lyra (once you know what you're looking for, it's actually pretty easy to find). I'm not at all surprised to see him doing something like this.

This article also reminded me of my one attempt to see something naked-eye from the middle of Manhattan when I was there in 2006. Now granted, it was a very hot and humid night and I was standing outside Radio City Music Hall, but the only thing I could pick out was Jupiter.

I also highlighted the exchange from the end of the article because I've found that showing someone Saturn in a telescope for the first time will almost always bring the same reaction. And after the initial reaction you get the "it looks fake!" or "it looks like a picture!" comments. Or "you're just hanging something off the end of the telescope" - said in jest. I always laugh and assure people that they really are looking at Saturn. It will be interesting to see the reactions when we're looking at it later this year and there are almost no rings to see.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Picture of the Week #31



The Hobby-Ebery Telescope at McDonald Observatory. December 2003.

This photo was taken from the TQ (or Astronomers Lodge as it is now formally known) at sunset. I only learned just a couple of years ago that the pink line visible at sunrise/sunset is called The Belt of Venus, which I thought was a lovely poetic name.

Monday, March 16, 2009

New camera!



A side-by-side comparison of my 2003 Canon point-and-shoot and my new 2009 Canon point-and-shoot (model SD780IS) that Dad bought me for my birthday (thank you again!). Finally I have a camera I can throw in my purse and not feel like I'm lugging around a lead weight!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

We are Wizards

I've been hearing about We are Wizards (a documentary about Harry Potter fandom) for a while now and thanks to Hulu, I was finally able to watch it. And, if you're in the US, you can watch it too!

I had two 'double-take' moments while watching it. The first was pretty early in the film when I realized that the footage from a live PotterCast they used was the one I attended! The second was while watching the segments with Brad Neely and I recognized that he was driving around my hometown of Austin, Texas. It's still a bit weird for me to see places or people I know on TV or in movies... which happens a lot more often than I would expect.

Skeptics' Circle #107

In an attempt to start posting more than just the Picture of the Week, here's a link to The 107th Skeptics' Circle over at The Skeptic's Field Guide! Maybe one of these days I'll actually have something worth submitting myself.

I'll be posting a write-up of a lecture I went to last week by "Rare Earth" co-author Don Brownlee. I also saw that Lawrence Krauss will be giving a talk the week after spring break, so I'll do a write-up of that as well.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Picture of the Week #30



Gemini VII capsule at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. September 2006.

From the information plaque:
Frank Borman and James A. Lovell Jr. lifted off aboard Gemini VII on December 4, 1965. Their primary mission was to show that humans could live in weightlessness for 14 days, an endurance record that stood until 1970. Their spacecraft also served as the target vehicle for Gemini VI-A, piloted by Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford, who carried out the world's first space rendezvous on December 15. These two achievements were critical steps on the road to the Moon.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Picture of the Week #29



The Eagle Nebula (M16) taken with the Prime Focus Camera on the 30-inch telescope at McDonald Observatory in 1998 (AASTRA participants took the images and then I combined them into the final color image you see here).