Starts With A Bang! » Random Stuff Ethan Siegel's blog/video blog about Cosmology, the Universe, and everything else Sat, 04 Apr 2009 20:12:38 +0000 en Weekend Diversion: It’s like going to Mars Sun, 29 Mar 2009 23:43:38 +0000 ethan So, to send a crew to Mars (round-trip), you need them to commit to being completely isolated, with only sporadic communication with Earth, for two years at minimum! And that’s assuming you take the minimum time to get there and back, which means you’re only on the surface for 14 days! Since Mars has about a 25 minute time lag on round-trip communications, you’re going to be very isolated from the world. Which prompts scientists to ask the question: will you go crazy?

Well, to answer this question, they are putting 6 people into an enclosed space with enough supplies and gear to ensure survival, but with no outside contact! They’re going to do this for 90 days, and then, if that works well, a longer experiment where they do it for 520 days! Looking for a job? It pays $6,500 a month!

Because one of the things that there hasn’t been much research on is on the psychological stability (or lack thereof) of a very small group of people being, for an extended period of time, not only isolated from society, but isolated in a small, cramped, enclosed, dark space. Right?

Oh. Right. Submarines. Wouldn’t have thought of that one.

No, there are differences, and the research is useful. I know that. Just wanted to share a neat little bit of news with you this weekend.

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!

Weekend Diversion: f my life Sun, 22 Mar 2009 18:16:44 +0000 ethan
Schadenfreude (IPA: [ˈʃaːdənˌfʁɔʏ̯də]) — largely unanticipated delight in the suffering of another which is cognized as trivial and/or appropriate.

Every once in awhile, everyone has a bad day. I had one on Wednesday, where nothing seemed to go right the entire day. And sometimes, immature though it is, it just makes you feel like you’re not alone when you realize that other people are having lousy days as well. Some of those people’s days get so bad they’re absurd, and when that happens, it can even make you laugh! Right, Nelson?

Well, I’d like to introduce you to the newest addition to my links section — — where you can get your daily dose of schadenfreude in categories such as love, money, kids, work, and health. You can also vote on whether the person deserves your sympathy or whether they got exactly what they deserved. Some of them are sad, some of them are disgusting, and some of them just make you squirm. And some of them really make you think, “Man, I’m glad that’s not me.”

Today, I saw an elderly man fall in a crosswalk, so I jumped off my bike to help. As I helped him across, the light turned green. At that point I noticed my phone had fallen out of my pocket in the street and was run over by several cars. I then watched across a 6 lane street as someone stole my bike.

Today, I was reported to my principal because someone caught me shooting up at the cafeteria lunch table and as a result I have been suspended from school. I am a diabetic, I was giving myself insulin before I ate crappy school food.

Today, I texted my college boyfriend to tell him how terrible I felt about cheating. He replied saying he was so relieved because he had been cheating on me with a girl in his dorm. I was talking about my math exam.

And some of them make you think, “Wow, you’re a total fool, and this is your comeuppance!”

Today, I was a TA for a history class and the class was taking a test. About halfway through, I noticed one kid had a small piece of paper in his hand. I ran up the row, grabbed his test, and ripped it into four pieces. Then I took the note from him. It said “I believe in you, -Mom.”

Today, I went to a movie with my boyfriend. In the lobby, I asked why the glasses were not working. I said, “Do they only work inside the theater?” My boyfriend replied, “3-D glasses just work inside the movie, everything else in the World is pretty much 3-D.”

Today, my mom came to me and asked if I had drank her wine. I’m 16, so I lied and said “no”. The next morning there was a DVD on my bed labeled “pool house security cameras- love mom.” It was a video of me downing two bottles of red wine and having sex with my boyfriend.

And for whatever that says about me, sometimes it makes me feel a little bit better for having read these. Have a great, schadenfreude-filled weekend!

Weekend Diversion: One trillion dollars! Sat, 14 Mar 2009 15:20:15 +0000 ethan Some people have a hard enough time wrapping their head around large numbers when it comes to astronomy. I’ve tried to explain orders of magnitude before, but perhaps this explanation (courtesy of Landon) will serve us better. When you look out at a clear night sky and see all those stars twinkling against the blackness of space, you’re only seeing a few thousand stars.

Which, of course, is not only way too many to count, but is only about 0.000001% of the stars in our galaxy. You see, we have something like 400 billion (that’s 400,000,000,000) stars that make up our Milky Way galaxy.

These numbers are really hard to imagine. So let’s show you, with a little bit of money — okay, a ridiculously large amount of money — how to get a handle on numbers that are this large. Let’s start with a simple US bill, the largest bill in common circulation, the $100 bill:

For my wife and I, this is enough to buy about 4 days worth of groceries. A fair bit of money, but nothing that’ll change your life. Now, we’re going to go up by a factor of 100. What if, instead of just one of these, I had a stack of 100 $100 bills, totaling $10,000?

Well, now we’re talking! This is about a year’s worth of rent for my entire living quarters, a pretty sweet deal! It’s a lot of money, to be sure, and it still fits in your pocket. But, let’s not stop here. Let’s go up by another factor of 100. What if we took 100 of these stacks of 100 $100 bills each, to bring us up to a cool $1,000,000?

Oh, look, someone just left a million dollars lying around on the street! Not something you could fit in your pocket anymore, but you could easily fit it into a purse or a grocery bag. This is about as much money as the typical American family makes over the course of 18 years. This is about enough money to take 10 crazy adventure tourism trips, such as going to Antarctica, Mt. Everest, or outer space. Yes, a million dollars is a lot of money. But we’re just getting started. What if we increased this by another factor of 100, so that we had 100 of the stacks we have right now?

One hundred million dollars. $100,000,000. As much money as Alex Rodriguez makes in 4 years. As much money as I will make, at my current job, in a little over 2,000 years. This is about the GDP of a very small Caribbean island. And enough to make a very impressive stack on a standard palette. Let’s just go up one factor of 10 this time, to one billion dollars:

$1,000,000,000. So hard to fathom. This is the GDP of a reasonably-sized country like Guyana, which has over 800,000 people living in it, or about the population of San Francisco. And enough to make 10 large palettes of this. But this is enough money to buy and build the dynamic tower skyscraper, and to still have enough left over to buy a major league baseball team. A ridiculous amount of money, to be sure. But I asked about one trillion dollars, didn’t I? That’s 1,000,000,000,000 dollars. If we had the same palettes, double stacked them, and laid them out, what would $1,000,000,000,000 look like?

And that, my friends, is just about how big our stimulus package is. Yikes. One trillion dollars.

On that note, have a great weekend!

I’ll Make Ya Famous! Thu, 12 Mar 2009 18:17:03 +0000 ethan Well, it was bound to happen. We’ve been around for just about 14 months now, and as of right now, we have 306 posts (including this one), 1,735 comments, and 271,834 pageviews. Not bad for something that started, legitimately, because I was simply interesting in telling you about these things — astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, and the Universe — that I found too fascinating to keep to myself.

Things like planets and stars:

Like galaxies and clusters of galaxies:

and like dark matter, dark energy, and the effects of gravity.

Well, I’ve really enjoyed doing it so far, and I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading it! Because I have news for you. Ever hear of ScienceBlogs?

One of my favorite science blogs, The Intersection, lives there, as do many others, such as one about (mostly) quantum physics, one about science, society and politics, and a uniquely irate biologist. Well, guess who’s been invited to move over there?

That’s right, kids; someday soon, Starts With A Bang will be joining forces with Scienceblogs to help bring you all the stories you’re used to seeing here. But I need some help — I need a banner! I can make one myself, but I’m not nearly as artistic as many of you are. So, let’s have a banner-designing contest, and the winner will get their banner for the new Starts With A Bang displayed all over our new site! The only restrictions are that it must display the words “Starts With A Bang” somewhere, and it must be 756 x 95 pixels. The best I can do on my own is something like this:

But this is your chance to help out; send suggestions and submissions to me (address is on the Q & A Page), and I’ll let you know when the big switchover takes place!

Weekend Diversion: You Wanna Know Why? Sat, 07 Mar 2009 20:42:09 +0000 ethan Henry Rollins. Liar. Beavis and Butthead. And thanks to the power of youtube, I present, for your viewing pleasure:

Has missing the point of everything ever been so entertaining as when these guys do it? Thank you Mike Judge, for Office Space, for King of the Hill, for Brawndo, and most of all for this brilliancy.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and enjoy this week’s Carnival of Space in your spare time!

A Myth from Your Dentist? Mon, 02 Mar 2009 21:41:16 +0000 ethan One of the beautiful things about facebook is reuniting and catching up with old friends that you haven’t seen in a very long time. Caroline was one of those people for me, someone I knew in high school and thought was awesome, and just lost touch with when we went off to our separate colleges. Well, Caroline has a few “scientific” interests that she shared with me:

That’s right, folks. She’s clearly interested in the science of clean teeth. Specifically, she wanted to know about Ionic Toothbrushes, and whether they really do anything useful or whether it’s solely a marketing ploy. (Although, personally, I’m pretty sure that Caroline is much more likely to fall for the McConaughey marketing ploy.) She says:

I knew someone who used an ionic brush to brush their teeth by opposite polarity, because plaque has a + charge. Then i told my dentist friend who discussed it w/ his collegues, and they agreed the only way to rid of plaque was by mechanical removal. Is the ionic brush a scam?

So, I did what any reasonable person would do. I went online to look for an explanation of how it works. Here’s what I found:

Is it clear yet? No? Looks like I’ll have to give it the ol’ SWAB scientific treatment here, with a little bit of science you can do in your office. The idea is that plaque is stuck to your teeth via the electromagnetic force, which is true. Plaque is mostly made of bacterial cells, and as you may have learned, all cell membranes have a positive charge on their outer surface.

You can test this! Take two pieces of scotch tape, and tape them down to the desk/table. Lift them up quickly, and they’ll rip electrons up off of the table, giving them both negative charges.

You can either move them close to each other, and watch them repel one another. Or, you can bring one of the pieces close to something with a cell membrane, like your hand. It will attract your skin, which tells you that the cell membranes on your skin are positively charged!

So now that you’re convinced that plaque bacteria (above, and eww) are positively charged on their surface, and they stick to your tooth enamel, how do we get it off? Well, brushing your teeth is a great idea, it certainly helps, but most people aren’t thorough enough to do a good job of cleaning their teeth with mechanical power alone. So what do we do? We put negative ions in your mouth, to help get the plaque to let go from your teeth. People don’t like the idea of ions in their mouth, so we give it a different name: fluoride. Which is great for not only toothpastes and mouthwashes, but also as an additive to water in general, so that when you drink tap water, it helps clean your teeth!

So now, what about this magic ionic toothbrush? The idea is that electrically charged things will be more likely to stick to whatever has a bigger charge. So if your tooth is negatively charged, it attracts plaque. If the toothbrush head has a bigger negative charge, the plaque will go to it instead of your teeth. Simple idea, right?

The big question, of course, is how effective is it? You still need to brush your teeth, of course. But it doesn’t work nearly as well as a fluoridated toothpaste does. The charge stays localized on the toothbrush, instead of covering your mouth like a sudsy, fluoridated toothpaste would. But if you have no toothpaste, the ionic brush will, in principle, work better than a regular brush on its own. Take note that this means the explanation of how the ionic brush works on Caroline’s site is not right.

But if you are, like me, someone who brushes their teeth with toothpaste every day, will this help? Well, their advertising says “up to 48% more plaque removed” followed by an asterisk. What does that asterisk mean? It doesn’t say. My recommendation is that if you want to use less toothpaste (or you can’t use it, for some reason), this is a good option. But otherwise, save your money and just use toothpaste (and drink your fluoridated water) like everyone else with healthy teeth.

On a personal note, I’ve still got all 32 teeth and have only had one cavity in the past 10 years. Brushing with a fluoride toothpaste, flossing every day, and drinking 3-4 litres of tap water a day are my only secrets. I don’t believe anecdotes as proof, but there it is anyway; anyone know anything more about whether this is more effective than a placebo?

Weekend Diversion: Watchmen in IMAX! Sun, 01 Mar 2009 17:12:56 +0000 ethan I haven’t read comic books regularly since I was about 14. The idea of superheroes always intrigued me, for the simple reason that the problems we face in ordinary life often seem very taxing for us ordinary people to deal with. I always liked heroes with great power, great responsibility, and ethical dilemmas that they had to choose their way through.

But about a decade later, as an adult, I came across Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, and was sucked in to this story about Dream, AKA the Sandman, and his family, his conflicts, his loves and the things he must endure:

And although I liked it tremendously, I shied away from the other graphic novels, mostly because they were about characters I didn’t affiliate with, like Superman and Batman. But I’d seen movies like Sin City and 300, and was very impressed with the visuals, if not with the actual stories. And then I saw this trailer:

And Tony “T-Bone” Wilson, if you read this, I know you told me about Watchmen years ago, but no, I wasn’t paying attention. But I started reading the graphic novels (series of 12 comics) that the movie is based on, and it’s really fantastic. It starts out with the death of “The Comedian”, Eddie Blake.

And a dark world unfolds, at the height of the cold war, with costumed superheroes being hunted. One of the heroes, Dr. Manhattan, gets disgraced and leaves in exile:

While another, Rorschach, decides to investigate the murder. We learn that many of these heroes have been around since the 1930s, but they all appear to be normal (mostly) people, and just as fragile to murder as anyone else. What will Rorschach find?

It’s a great story and the trailer looks visually stunning. The movie comes out, in theatres and IMAX, next weekend. You know I’ll be there. You know it.

Weekend Diversion: Ballet Etiquette Sun, 22 Feb 2009 19:46:21 +0000 ethan Since the recession has hit, the performing arts have been really struggling to survive. I think that makes this one of the most important times to patronize the arts, if you have any interest at all in them. This includes theatre, symphony, and dance.

Well, last night was the premiere of a new performance at the Oregon Ballet Theatre, Christopher Stowell’s direction of Lambarena.

This was not only the company premiere of the show, but the second act was also the world premiere of a newly choreographed dance routine to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which was really fantastic.

The ballet is really a neat place to go, since you get to see dancers in legitimately peak physical condition performing extraordinarily intricate and precise moves with stunning grace. It’s wonderful not only to watch the individual performances and stories unfold, but also to marvel at the amazing technical skill required to make something so difficult look so effortless.

Everyone gets their own thing out of watching a performance like this, so I won’t bore you with my interpretation. I will, however, bore you by telling you what doesn’t belong at the ballet:

Your baby. I don’t care how quiet, well-behaved, or precious your child is. If your child is under three, do not bring it to the ballet. In fact, on the information sheet that comes with your tickets, it has the following four disclaimers:

  • No refunds
  • Programs subject to change
  • No children under 3 except at The Nutcracker
  • All attendees must have a ticket

We had about a 15 month old sitting in front of us at the ballet, and the best thing that happened for our enjoyment was when we told the mother to remove her child. And my darling wife was absolutely right: a ballet is no place for a baby.

“Seriously, WTF???”

So please, support your local, county, or state performing arts endeavors. But get a sitter.

Weekend Diversion: Hallelujah x 3 Sat, 14 Feb 2009 16:01:17 +0000 ethan I can’t believe that it’s been over a year, and I’ve so rarely taken the opportunity to write about one of the great loves of my life: music. How do I know that I truly love it? The same way I know I love anything; I have the same feelings for everything and everyone that I love. I want to learn about it, to be able to create something valuable for it, to experience it, to get continually deeper and further into it, and to have it always — despite all the ways its involvement with me will change over time — be an important part of my life.

This Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share with you a little bit of one of my favorite songs, and perhaps show you how an artist can take a song and totally change the way you feel after listening to it. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I give you three versions of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, an epic song that covers emotions like love and sex, biblical stories like King David and Samson, struggles within that end in both victory and defeat, and religious topics like blasphemy and salvation.

When I listen to Leonard Cohen’s version, I’m overwhelmed by the gravity of his version, and how ultimately he fails to be satisfied by this powerful thing he’s experienced. He even gets drowned out by a choir in the chorus of his own song:

With the very same song, the late Jeff Buckley makes me feel something entirely different. He sings so sincerely that it seems naïve, and yet that very sincerity makes me believe that there’s going to be a positive outcome to this experience, and that everything he sings about really gave him the feeling of simultaneously being safe while being overwhelmed by a force greater than him:

And finally, K.D. Lang’s version seems to me like it’s the most personal, like she’s singing about a love she wants to be satisfied with, and almost is, but can’t quite convince herself that there isn’t something better she hasn’t found:

My apologies to those who have done other, fantastic versions of this song that I’ve overlooked. I hope that everyone who reads or listens this finds something that you can connect with here, and those of you who are very lucky will, like me, find that you can connect with all three artists in some way. (Even if it’s not the way they intended.)