Starts With A Bang! » Politics Ethan Siegel's blog/video blog about Cosmology, the Universe, and everything else Sat, 04 Apr 2009 20:12:38 +0000 en The Math of Marriage Sat, 28 Mar 2009 04:44:46 +0000 ethan There was a question on the straight dope message board today that was way too interesting for me to pass up. But it took a long time to crunch the numbers for it, so this post is late!

Someone named Richard Parker wants to know whether he should get married… using math. He writes:

As most of you are likely aware, our federal income tax system imposes a marriage penalty on some couples. If both individuals are making similar income at certain levels, then the combined income will put them in a higher joint bracket (or married filing separately bracket) than if they filed a single taxpayers.

What I want to do is evaluate what potential incomes result in what penalties.

Well, after doing a bit of research on this, I’ve discovered that there are a bunch of other reasons to either get or not get married, both financial and personal, and I’m telling you now that I’m putting those aside.

All I’m looking at is the following: given a certain amount of federally-taxable income for two people, what governs whether, for income tax purposes, they should be married or single? Now, I’m not an economist, but I’m scientifically trained, I’m excellent with numbers and statistics, and I’ve got some interesting findings for you.

First off, there are only two factors that matter for how much you pay in taxes, given two people and a certain amount of taxable income.

1.) How much total income there is. More income = more taxes, and once you pass certain thresholds, the tax rate you pay continues to climb.

2.) How the income is split between the two people. If one person earns 95% of the household income and the other earns 5%, vs. if one earns 45% and the other earns 55%, you may come to two very different conclusions.

So let’s see what happens for low joint incomes, and just go up, and see what we can learn about marriage and federal taxes.

$20,000 joint income: if one person makes significantly more than the other, you should definitely get married, as you wind up in a lower tax bracket. If you make roughly even amounts, it doesn’t matter either way. What if you’re doing a little better than 20k a year?

$40,000 joint income: the disparity has to be pretty large. If one person is pulling in about 80% or more of the household income, then you save money by being married. But if not, there’s not really any difference.

$60,000 joint income: this is really the start of what I’ll call the “sweet spot” for people to get married. Again, if you have identical taxable incomes, there’s no difference between being married and single. But if there’s even a 60/40 disparity, it’s better to be married. Remember this for tax purposes: if one person works and the other doesn’t, it’s always better to be married!

$80,000 joint income: This is still part of the sweet spot for marriage. No marriage penalty, big bonuses for being married if there’s an income disparity. And this continues, but really the $60-80k range of taxable income is where it’s usually significantly better (for tax purposes) to be married.

$100,000 joint income: well, it’s much better to be married if there’s a big income disparity, as you can save thousands of dollars over being single. But unless one of you is out-earning the other by better than 2 to 1, there isn’t going to be any difference that you’ll see.

$125,000 joint income: and at $125,000 in joint income, it’s pretty much the same deal. So, so far, and in fact all the way up to a joint income of $137,050, it is never worse to be married for tax purposes. And if there’s a big income discrepancy between partners, it’s far better to be married than it is to be single. But above $137,050, you start to see something called the marriage penalty.

$150,000 joint income: pretty much the same deal, unless you and your partner bring in roughly the same income! Suddenly, if I make $75k and my partner makes $75k, we’d save $500 on our federal taxes every year by not being married! And the marriage penalty gets more significant at higher incomes:

$200,000 joint income: around $1,000 at this income level.

$250,000 joint income: around $3,000 at this level. By this point, it’s only going to get worse. The marriage penalty has been getting worse, to be sure, but have you also noticed that at large income disparities, like 95%/5% splits, you can save around $5,000 by being married? This number has also been going up, significantly, in all of our charts. Let’s go further:

$300,000 joint income: the marriage penalty starts to get more and more people, now. Unless there’s an 85/15 or more split in income (which means one of you out-earns the other by at least 6 to 1), you are looking at a penalty, just for being married, of over $5,000! But, on the other hand, if one of you doesn’t work at all, you can save over $7,000 just for being married!

$400,000 joint income: this crosses over into the highest tax bracket. Whether you’re married or single, the highest tax rate comes for those earning over $372,950. The marriage penalty is close to $10,000 here, and doesn’t go away unless one out-earns the other by 10 to 1!

$500,000 joint income: notice how the differences are pretty much the same as before. About $10,000 in “marriage penalty” for making the same incomes, but about $7,000 in savings for a one-income marriage.

$750,000 joint income: here you can see that, while the savings never gets better for one-income marriages, the marriage penalty continues to get worse for very large incomes, both in terms of who has to pay it and in terms of how much it is.

$1,000,000 joint income: and finally, the marriage penalty bottoms out here. The marriage penalty is, maximally, about $15,000 a year for the wealthiest Americans. Which is, honestly, enough reason for many people not to marry someone with similar earning power to themselves.

So the overall conclusion? If you’re making under $137,050 of joint taxable income this year, it won’t hurt you at all to be married, and it may save you money if one of you is making more than the other. But, if you’re making more than that, being married will hurt you if you have roughly the same incomes, but will help you immensely if one of you makes virtually no money compared to the other. So feel free to use the charts all you like — and do whatever it is that respects marriage, money, and everything else that makes you happy — but now you can do it with this information in hand!

And the other obvious conclusion? I need to start making enough money so that I can start complaining about the marriage penalty!

Faith and Science: A Personal View Mon, 09 Mar 2009 22:55:03 +0000 ethan There are a lot of people reporting, right now, on the new memo that President Obama has just signed about science, stem cell research, and his administration’s policy:

Obama said scientific decisions should be based on facts, not ideology. He said advisers should be selected based on their credentials and experience, not their politics.

Now, there are very vocal opinions on both sides of this issue, and as you would suspect, I think that in matters of scientific research, every scientist must live with their own conscience, but that science exists to serve humanity, and the research we’re doing will doubtlessly serve to have a positive impact on mankind. Once one major cure or treatment comes out of stem cell research, whether it’s for cancer, Alzheimer’s, or diabetes, I think that the debate over stem cell research will subside when it’s clear that the benefits to doing it can be so substantial.

But instead of looking at it from an economic perspective, or even from an ethical perspective (I’m still tired from doing that last week), I’d like to look at the deeper, underlying issue: whether people can come closer to realizing truths about existence from either faith or science. I also think it’s worth asking yourself, at the end, whether there’s even a right or wrong answer to this.

So rather than talk about stem cell research, I’m going to address perhaps the most interesting question of all: the very question of our Universe’s existence. My friend Brian has a cousin who is a baptist minister, and today’s question comes from him, via YouTube:

Did the Universe have a beginning? …it seems that most cosmologists do believe that the Universe had a beginning. If this is true, and you believe this, then please explain how you, in your mind, resolve the idea of something coming from nothing, uncaused.

Now, let’s start with a little scientific information about the Universe itself. We turn our eyes, telescopes, detectors, instruments, and brains towards the tiniest subatomic particles and to the farthest reaches of the heavens to learn about it, and to listen to what it tells us about itself. (Semantics: I’m going to define our Universe, for this discussion, as consisting of every single particle and every little bit of space and time ever conceivably connected to us, either visibly or invisibly.) Here’s a basic rundown:

  1. The Universe is big. It isn’t infinite, though, it’s finite in size, at about 94 billion light years from end-to-end.
  2. The Universe is old. If you took the longest-lived thing ever on Earth and gave it 10,000 lifetimes in a row, it would be only about 2% as old as our Sun and Earth are. The Universe is “only” about three times as old as our Solar System is.
  3. The Universe has a lot of stuff in it. About 1,000,000,000,000 stars in each galaxy, and about 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the whole Universe. Considering each particle of matter and energy as a separate entity, there are about 1090 particles in the entire Universe.

All of this, combined, tells us that our Universe is tremendously large, tremendously old, and full of an incredible amount of stuff. It is truly vast. However, all of it is finite, including the amount of information in it. Does that imply that there’s an intelligent force outside of it that created it?

No. It doesn’t tell us that this isn’t the case, either. But it does tell us something profound about science; specifically, it tells us something about the theoretical limits of science. Let me give you an analogy, the exploding grenade:

If you watch the individual fragments of a grenade during (or even after) an explosion, because you know the laws of physics and how a grenade works, you can figure out where the grenade exploded, how powerful the explosion was, and what the grenade was made out of just based on what you see. You can even tell, if you’re extremely careful and understand the physics of grenade explosions really well, how quickly and in what direction the grenade was moving when it exploded.

But what you can’t tell, based on looking only after the fact, is how the pin got pulled, and by whom or what.

So, my contention is that if we want to know about the Universe, the best source we have is to look to the Universe itself, and see what it tells us. But if we want to know what caused the Universe, although there are things we can definitely learn a number of things about it, our total amount of possible scientific knowledge is limited by the amount of information available. For instance, we are mounting evidence and may be able to someday prove that cosmological inflation caused the Big Bang to happen, and created our Universe. But then you could ask, “what caused or created the inflating Universe that gave rise to ours?” Again, we can come up with some ideas about it, and possibly some signatures to look for (although there are presently no good ideas), but at some point, you run out of information. It isn’t that something came from nothing; it’s that something came, period. We simply don’t have enough information to say that it came either from nothing or from something else. And we certainly don’t have enough information to determine what the dynamics were that caused it to come into being in the first place.

When you have no information, science is useless. And at that point, all you have left is logic and reason, and those are your only weapons against the darkness of ignorance. Science can get us far, can get us so much further than we’ve ever been before, but even science has its limits. And hence, to the many atheists that read this site, I encourage you to respect the religious beliefs of others while steadfastly standing by the scientific truths that we have discovered to be valid and factual.

We ought to all be above petty bickering here, as I think everyone is seeking to understand our Universe’s very existence, and hence we must use all of the available tools. I encourage you to recognize that religious studies can be a logical, rational pursuit as well, and that both science and religion have limits to the truths they can uncover. This one in contention here — what brought the Universe forth into existence — is still obscure to all of us.

Pluto is a Planet — in Illinois! Sat, 07 Mar 2009 00:32:16 +0000 ethan I was going to write about something else today, but when I saw this story, I simply couldn’t resist. Apparently, the Illinois state legislature not only declared that Pluto is a planet like the other eight:

They also declared that March 13, 2009 is going to be the very first Pluto Day, in honor of the discovery of Pluto on March 13, 1930, by Illinois-born Astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh:

People talk about how small, insignificant, and far away Pluto is, and they’re right. But what they’re missing is just how lucky Tombaugh was to find it. Sure, there are many, many Kuiper Belt objects out there, and we know of lots of them at this point:

But after the discovery of Pluto, people searched, in earnest, for the 10th planet. It took a loooong time for the next Kuiper Belt object to be found. And when it was found, you know what it was?

Pluto’s moon, Charon! Do you know how long it took, after the discovery of Pluto, to find Charon? Almost 50 years! So yes, we know of many other Kuiper Belt objects now, and some of them are even more impressive than Pluto.

But Pluto holds a very special place as:

  • The first and only planet in our Solar System (even if it was only temporarily a planet) discovered by an American.
  • The very first Kuiper Belt object discovered.
  • The first trans-Neptunian object discovered.
  • And as being the 9th planet for about 70 years.

You know what I think about this? Good for Illinois. Good for them! This raises awareness of Astronomy, gives them something to be proud of and a great historical achievement to celebrate, and helps Pluto from fading into the obscurity that the other Kuiper Belt objects currently have to deal with.

So good for Illinois, good for Pluto, and good for you for not forgetting it. Someday, I would love for Pluto to be given a real, useful designation by the IAU, like “King of the Ice Dwarfs.”

Perhaps we’ll discover some wonderful things about it when New Horizons gets there; April of 2015, folks, and don’t forget to celebrate Pluto day on March 13th!

Random Ethics Question: Project Paperclip Tue, 03 Mar 2009 20:13:19 +0000 ethan Sometimes, when I come home from a long day at work and need to unwind, I start reading BBC News, and occasionally the news archives are more interesting than the actual present news.

Last night, I came across a really interesting read from 2005, about Project Paperclip, which was the US Government’s plan to bring the former Nazi scientists to America and use their knowledge and expertise to further the scientific and military enterprises we had going on here, and also to deny the Soviets that knowledge.

But this required giving amnesty to Nazis (and sometimes even former SS officers) like Werner Von Braun, Arthur Rudolph, Kurt Debus, and Hubertus Strughold. The atrocities that these men and their subordinates were responsible for are well-documented, and include the death of 20,000 slave laborers producing Von Braun’s V-2 missiles, freezing inmates and putting them into low-pressure chambers, and performing human experiments at Dachau and Auschwitz. Truly, these are some of the most despicable things that human beings have ever done to one another.

And yet, the Germans had an incredible amount of scientific, aeronautic/aerospace and military knowledge that we did not. Some examples? Supersonic rockets, nerve gas, jet aircraft, guided missiles, stealth technology, and hardened armor. All in 1945. So what was the ethical thing to do? What was the smart thing to do? And overall, what was the right thing to do? US Air Force Major-General Hugh Knerr’s opinion was the prevailing one:

If we do not take the opportunity to seize the apparatus and the brains that developed it and put the combination back to work promptly, we will remain several years behind while we attempt to cover a field already exploited.

So, for better or worse, about 700 Nazi scientists were put to work for the United States.

The technological advancements and scientific breakthroughs were numerous and swift, and over the next 25 years, Werner Von Braun had masterminded the Apollo program and the Moon landings, Arthur Rudolph had designed the Saturn V rocket, Hubertus Strughold designed NASA’s life support systems, and countless other technologies such as Cruise Missiles, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, and scramjets came as outgrowths of Nazi research. So as a counterpoint to one of the worst atrocities in human history, we also have one of the greatest achievements in human history:

That’s the story of what we did and one of the steps we took to get there. Did we do the right thing? Did we do the just thing? Did we do the smart thing? For me, the answers are yes, no, and yes. And I, for one, am glad I didn’t have to be the one to make that decision. What do you think?

And this last week, so much happened in space news that we not only have a carnival, we have a carnival sideshow as well; enjoy!

Weekend Diversion: Meet Cass Sunstein Sun, 18 Jan 2009 18:21:21 +0000 ethan Okay, so who is Cass Sunstein, and why should you care? He’s this guy:

27 years as a law professor and expert on Constitutional Law, Legal Theory, Administrative and Environmental Law. Most recently, he became the director of Harvard Law School’s Program on Risk Regulation. But the big news? Obama wants him.

He’s going to be the next head of OIRA, which is the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. I don’t know much about Sunstein; in fact, I only know two things about him. One: he’s superbly qualified in terms of credentials, experience, and the clout he has in his field. Two: he’s been accused of being an elitist. Why? Because he writes things like this:

…when ordinary people disagree with experts, it is often because ordinary people are confused.

Obviously being qualified is a good thing. Is being an elitist?

The word elitist has come to mean something in our vernacular that’s exceedingly negative: where power is concentrated in a select group of people with an outstanding amount of wealth, training/experience, or expertise. To me, though, elitism means making decisions based on merit. It means putting people with the appropriate expertise in position to make those decisions, and to make them informed decisions. It means going to experts in matters where the general public doesn’t have the expert knowledge or the ability to process it properly.


  • That you need to vaccinate your kids before they can go to public school.
  • That industries cannot go on continuing to pollute at the same levels they are now.
  • That the LHC should be turned on, because it isn’t dangerous to the planet.
  • That rehabilitation facilities do more to combat drug addiction than mandatory jailtime.

There are plenty of others, but the overall point is that the uninformed public doesn’t have the knowledge to dictate proper public policy. And this includes me. I’m not an expert on rehab facilities and their impact on drug addiction. I’m not an expert on whether there’s a link between vaccines and autism. But the scientific studies have been done, the results are in, and they’re conclusive.

And you know who I want interpreting the results? Those with the most merit. For lack of a better word, the elite. And I think Cass Sunstein, based on his record, is going to do a bang-up job based on his abilities and this philosophy.

I don’t want ordinary people with ordinary information making decisions that affect my life and my society; I want the best. When I started this blog a year ago (and it was totally my 1 year anniversary yesterday; happy anniversary, SWAB readers!), I didn’t think this was the country I’d be looking at. And now here we are, two days from Barack Obama’s inauguration. What can I say to everyone?

Thanks for reading, commenting, and most of all, for thinking. I have tremendous respect for everyone who seeks knowledge and learning, and I’ll strive to make this next year an even better experience for you!

Is Europe catching America in Space? Fri, 16 Jan 2009 21:29:41 +0000 ethan 10 years ago, this headline would have been absurd. 10 years ago, I went to my very first major scientific conference, and they had representatives from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and many other science organizations. One NASA representative was making the case for enhanced Mars exploration, focusing on manned missions, and accused the ESA of being woefully insignificant in terms of space exploration. The ESA’s retort?

Well, we did send that probe up to Halley’s Comet recently.

That was the Giotto mission, launched in 1985, and that was the biggest news the ESA representative could come up with, 14 years later.

Well, it’s a decade later, now, and the European Space Agency has made public their plans for this year. While NASA’s budget is overrun with huge, long-term projects that are running WAY over cost, like the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled for 2013 launch), Mars Science Laboratory (pushed back to late 2011), LISA (no date yet, but estimates are at least 2020), and the Joint Dark Energy Mission (tentatively slated for 2016), the ESA is doing some amazing things this year. Let’s take a look:

Soyuz Rockets: The ESA is going to start launching their own rockets, capable of launching missions to space, carrying supplies and astronauts (which they’re recruiting and training right now), and replacing the Space Shuttle when the US retires it in 2010. The new ESA spaceport in French Guyana will begin launching rockets this year.

William Herschel Telescope: This giant space telescope will be the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space. It will be more than twice as powerful as the Hubble Space Telescope and will gather light from frequencies never measured in space before. It launches in the spring of this year.

Planck Satellite: That leftover radiation from the Big Bang? The stuff that’s shifted into the microwave and is partly responsible for the snow you see on TV when you set it to channel 3? This new satellite is going to measure its properties more accurately than any satellite-based or terrestrial-based experiment before it. The last mission like this, WMAP, taught us precisely how much dark matter and dark energy there was, as well as when the Universe became transparent to visible light. This one is even more accurate than WMAP: and I’m very excited about what we’ll wind up learning from it! It also launches in the spring of this year.

Vega Rocket: Europe’s newest rocket is designed for small, quick, and frequent launches. It makes its first flights this year, and will give Europe consistent, guaranteed access to space.

Frank de Winne: Say hello to the very first European commander of the International Space Station, Belgian Frank de Winne. He becomes commander on May of this year, and will run the ISS and a five-person crew until November.

Studying the Earth: Three satellites, GOCE, SMOS, and Cryosat-2, will all be launched this year, measuring changes in the Earth’s ocean behavior, gravitational field, soil moisture, and land and marine ice thicknesses.

And what is our NASA highlight for 2009? Come on, NASA! Let’s hope a new administrator gets us some good results, a new and improved vision that addresses both long-term, large missions and smaller, short-term ones, and we get back on track!

Why is NASA a financial nightmare? Thu, 27 Nov 2008 02:35:35 +0000 ethan And I don’t mean to single NASA out, either. (The National Science Foundation has the same problem.) But there’s something very, very wrong with the way that the business side of these endeavors are run. Let me explain.

As scientists, our job is to learn about the Universe. To understand what the rules are that govern it, to figure out why things are the way they are, how they got to be that way, and where they’re going to go in the future. It takes a lot of training and hard work, and at the end of it, we hope to push the frontiers of our knowledge. Sometimes, that means trying to learn what the tiniest subatomic particles are made of:

And sometimes we try to learn what happens on the largest scales in the entire Universe:

And most of the time, we’re searching somewhere in-between those two extremes, trying to puzzle out another little corner of our Universe’s (and our own) existence.

The problem is, we’re scientists, not businessmen, and yet we require extremely expensive tools to experimentally push the frontiers of our knowledge. To get to smaller and smaller scales, we need larger and more powerful accelerators:

And to get deeper, fainter, earlier and farther in the Universe, we need more powerful, specialized and more expensive telescopes and satellites, such as NASA’s Beyond Einstein project:

And all of these things cost a lot of money. In NASA’s case, there are many more good ideas and proposals than there is money to fund them. Here’s a little perspective: NASA’s annual budget is 17.3 billion dollars for the current fiscal year. The stuff I care most about, these missions I’ve been writing about, is part of the chunk at the bottom that gets lumped in with “other science activities” in the chart below:

Now, the former second-in-command of NASA resigned back in April, full of furor over NASA’s inability to manage their budget. Earlier this week, he finally spoke up about it, and there’s another excellent writeup of this story online. Why is Alan Stern so mad?

The same reason I am. There’s so little money to go around, that when you make a mission proposal, cost is a huge factor. You absolutely cannot exceed $1 billion in your proposal, or you won’t get selected. The problem comes when people make an unrealistic proposal, it gets accepted, then they get part-way through their project and through all of their money, and ask for more. There is no more, so other projects get squashed or set back to keep the large ones funded. Two of the most egregious examples (taken from the NYT article):

  • Mars Science Laboratory: current cost is now is over $2 billion, more than triple its proposed cost.
  • James Webb Space Telescope: Proposed cost ~ $1 billion; current cost is nearly $5 billion. (This is the successor telescope to the Hubble Space Telescope.)

In summary, he says that the differences in internal accounting (i.e., “proposed cost” in 2003 vs. how much money was actually spent in 2007) was $5 billion. That’s an entire year’s worth of “other science activities”.

No wonder he’s upset. He was pushing for holding these atrocious accounting practicioners accountable, and reforming the system that continues to dig them into a deeper hole. What happened? Let’s look at his own words:

As a scientist in charge of space sensors and entire space missions before I was at NASA, I myself was involved in projects that overran. But that’s no excuse for remaining silent about this growing problem, or failing to champion reform. And when I articulated this problem as the NASA executive in charge of its science program and consistently curtailed cost increases, I found myself eventually admonished and then neutered by still higher ups, precipitating my resignation earlier this year.

Endemic project cost increases at NASA begin when scientists and engineers (and sometimes Congress) burden missions with features beyond what is affordable in the stated budget. The problem continues with managers and contractors who accept or encourage such assignments, expecting to eventually be bailed out. It is worsened by managers who disguise the size of cost increases that missions incur. Finally, it culminates with scientists who won’t cut their costs and members of Congress who accept steep increases to protect local jobs.

The result? The costs of badly run NASA projects are paid for with cutbacks or delays in NASA projects that didn’t go over budget. Hence the guilty are rewarded and the innocent are punished.

And there’s very little we can do, short of changing the way that NASA, the NSF, and other organizations like this do business. How would I do it? The same way any business does it. You write your proposal, you do what you proposed, and if you don’t or you can’t, you get sued.

Keep something in mind as you read this. I’m a scientist. I need this funding for my work to continue. And yet, we need reform so badly that I’m willing to jettison even my favorite missions if they can’t meet their promises responsibly. Otherwise we’ll wind up like the superconducting supercollider, a $1.1 billion hole-in-the-ground, because their proposed budget ($4.4 billion in 1987) was so unrealistic that when the real cost was realized (at least $12 billion in 1993), the plug was pulled. Want the plug pulled on NASA and the NSF too? No? Then hold us accountable for our actions and our budgets.

Weekend Diversion: A Class Act Sat, 08 Nov 2008 17:34:04 +0000 ethan It hasn’t been much in the news, but remember that it was not so long ago that someone came much closer to defeating Barack Obama than John McCain did:

Over the last few months, she certainly wasn’t much in the media, but she never stopped reaching out to her supporters and pushing for the country she wanted. And take a look at her webpage now, after the 2008 election:

Let’s hope that we have strong, courageous people leading the senate, and guiding the nation the way it was meant to be guided, from more than one branch of government.

It isn’t that Obama brought hope to many Americans, remember that. It’s that this election has helped us to find hope within ourselves. Have a good weekend, space junkies.

Random Raves: The Presidential Election Wed, 05 Nov 2008 06:15:10 +0000 ethan

Sometimes a picture says it all.

Weekend Diversion: Brak Obama Sat, 11 Oct 2008 16:08:38 +0000 ethan And the nominee for the Adult Swim party is:

From the Senator who brought you legislation that brought you all kinds of corn?

Better watch out, because the running mate pool is very shallow…