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Mars or Arizona?

March 31, 2008 on 12:50 pm | In Solar System | 18 Comments

Those of you who know me know that I’m unhappy living here in Arizona. The landscape and ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert, while beautiful to many, is too dry, rocky, and devoid of life for me to enjoy living here.

After my time here, I’ve decided that, were it somehow offered to me, I would probably pass on the opportunity to go to Mars. And so I present to you a little game I call “Mars or Arizona,” where I will show you some pictures, and you get to guess which ones are pictures of Mars and which ones are pictures of Arizona. Sound easy?

Well let’s bring on the pictures, and see if you can tell the difference?

Well? Were you able to tell which is Mars and which is Arizona? Sure, some of them may be easy, because there are living things in them, and the 6th one is easy, because that’s the Grand Canyon, but the rest may not be so simple. So, without further ado, here are your answers:

  1. Arizona (notice the plant in the middle?)
  2. Mars (Mars is typically littered with smaller, craggier rocks)
  3. Mars (an example of Martian dunes)
  4. Mars (because nobody expects three Mars in a row!)
  5. Arizona (do the dunes look like the Martian ones to you?)
  6. Arizona (the Grand Canyon)
  7. Mars (and is this then what you call the Martian Grand Canyon?)
  8. Mars (nice crater)
  9. Arizona (meteor crater — notice the trees dotting the lower portion of the rim?)
  10. Arizona (the blue sky gives it away)
  11. Mars (this is the rim of Victoria Crater)
  12. Arizona (part of the landscape near meteor crater)
  13. Mars (nice scarp)

Were you able to get all of them? So if you want to live on Mars, my recommendation is that you come to Arizona. We’ve got everything they’ve got, plus an atmosphere and life and water. Well, the life and water is relative…

Weekend Diversion: Karate Chops

March 29, 2008 on 2:05 am | In Random Stuff | 1 Comment

I remember being a kid and taking karate lessons. How cool was it to go somewhere for the purpose of learning how to kick ass? It was fun, of course, and one of the things you learned how to do was to attack (strike, kick, and punch) with your entire body, not just with your limbs.

Maybe the coolest parlor trick we learned was how to break a wooden board with our bare hands. (I remember surprising the hell out of Leon Hodge years later in High School by doing it in a history class one day; Hi Leon!) We also heard the story that the way this worked was that you compressed air molecules so much, so quickly, building up so great a pressure that you don’t even wind up touching the board with your hand; the air in front of it breaks it.

So here’s a little “mythbusting” for you:

Clearly, the “air breaks the board/block” theory is untrue. And how cool is slow motion?

…and then they came for me!

March 28, 2008 on 3:02 pm | In Evolution, Politics | 9 Comments

There’s a movie coming out on Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Evolution, called Expelled, and it’s narrated/hosted by Ben Stein (right), a TV/film personality who is an overall intelligent guy (and used to have the TV show Win Ben Stein’s Money), and used to be a Nixon speechwriter. Politically, he’s quite conservative (for example, immediately following 9/11 he gave a speech where he called abortion “the worst form of terrorism”), but this movie is apparently one of the worst abuses of science since What the Bleep do We Know?! came out.

The movie has an innocuous enough premise: is Intelligent Design a valid alternative to Evolution, and if so, is it being suppressed? I was curious to see it, until I started hearing about the content of the film. It’s apparently so galling that there is a website,, committed to exposing the lies and underhandedness in the film. Apparently, the holocaust is referred to numerous times as well, equating evolution with the final solution.

But what’s missing from the film is a definition of intelligent design, a definition of evolution, and the evidence for and against both sides. While you all know I’m not a biologist, evolution holds a special place in my heart, and I consider myself an amateur enthusiast on the topic. But what it boils down to is that ID basically states that life was created by a purposeful designer, because it is too complex to have evolved by natural mechanisms alone. Evolution states that natural selection, operating in the face of mutation, reproduction, and limited resources, chooses some organisms for survival instead of others, and that this natural process explains the world teeming with life that we have today. The evidence for the validity of evolution is overwhelming, so much so that the only “failures” one can point to are incomplete fossil records (geological gaps, basically), controversy over the exact mechanism of variations and natural selection (gradualism or punctuated equilibrium), and a failure to explain the origin of life, which is a separate theory, known as abiogenesis. But apparently none of this is stated in the movie, all that’s stated is that bigoted scientists are suppressing a real controversy. Might as well just go to The Onion for news like this.

This is actually a very personal issue for me. You see, evolution is not just a remarkable story, and it’s certainly not just a scientific theory. It’s the autobiography of the natural world. It’s the story that life tells us about itself. And what I study, cosmology, is the story that the Universe tells us about itself. If evolution is under attack for taking an active God out of the design of life, what do you think I have to look forward to, taking an active God out of the design of the entire Universe? I will not wait for them to come for me; I am speaking out now against the evil that is the perpetuation of misinformation. Intelligent Design is a hypothesis that has been scientifically falsified so far as it has been stated in a testable fashion, while Evolution has held up as the valid mechanism to explain the diversity of life in every test ever performed over the timespan of more than a century.

And I’m not going to lie, I’m curious to see the film for myself to find out just how bad it is and what we’re up against as communicators of truthful, valid information. But I cannot endorse it or support it, and instead I encourage you to follow the links set up at the site below, and to get informed about the issues. And finally, do not support this movie!

Still here? Have a hankering for more space stuff? Check out this week’s carnival of space!

Will Physicists Find God?

March 27, 2008 on 2:05 am | In Quantum | 29 Comments

WARNING: Sensationalism ahead! Are you kidding me, Newsweek? They really titled their article Will Physicists Find God? Presumably, the title is named because physicists are searching for the Higgs Particle, and the title is taken after Leon Lederman’s (mediocre, IMO) book, The God Particle. Leon’s a pretty humorous guy, and was told by his Editor (according to him, anyway) that he couldn’t name his book, “The Goddamned Particle,” which is what he called the Higgs, so he shortened it.

For better or worse, the article is an interview with Steven Weinberg (left), one of the most illustrous living physicists. Steven is a Nobel Laureate and a huge figure in both the communities of theoretical particle physics and theoretical cosmology, having made tremendous contributions and written very important books and textbooks on both topics. (His book The First Three Minutes is still one of the best popular science books I’ve ever read.) He also went to the same High School as I did, albeit 46 years earlier.

The interview, however, is more annoying than anything else. Why? Because Steven Weinberg is very prominent, philosophically, as an Atheist. And like many scientists who are atheists (and I find this unfortunate), he has copious amounts of vitriol for religion in general. And the interviewer lures him into talking about that from the get-go. And he bites. Here’s an excerpt:

After this experiment, will we have a final theory of how the universe was created?

It is possible that this experiment will give theoretical physicists a brilliant new idea that will explain all the particles and all the forces that we know and bring everything together in a beautiful mathematically consistent theory. But it is very unlikely that a final theory will come just from this experiment. If had to bet, I would bet it won’t be that easy.

As we come closer to developing an ultimate theory of the universe, how will this impact religion?

As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death, all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn’t contradict religion, but it does takes away one of the original motivations for religion.

This is reasonable so far, but she really goes after his religious positions, asking the following questions at various points:

  • What about possible contributions toward finding a final theory? Would that upset religious believers?
  • But won’t some people expect to find the presence of a grand designer in that final theory?
  • Are they also going to be disappointed about our position in nature, our purpose?
  • Do you think most people have that kind of courage?
  • At some point will it be possible to find proof that God or the Ultimate Designer does not exist?
  • Would it be accurate to say that you are an atheist?
  • Could something found in the Large Hadron Collider or in future experiments make you change your mind?

The problem I have with this type of interviewing is that it really assumes the following tension: you can have science, or you can have faith, but if you accept what the natural world is telling us about itself, you have to reject everything about the divine world. Now Weinberg doesn’t make this statement (but there are plenty of science bloggers out there who do, and I find them way out of line), but that’s really what this article is about. It started with Galileo, it continued (and still continues) with Darwin, and seems to have gotten worse.

As a cosmologist, I have no qualms stating that the laws of science do an excellent job of explaining how life as we know it on Earth evolved to be the way it is, beginning with the Big Bang and following the (sometimes simple, sometimes not) laws of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. But does that mean that there are some things, in principle, that are unknowable about the Universe? What if I told you that there are some questions science can’t answer, because, for instance, there isn’t enough energy in the Universe to figure them out? I don’t have the answer as to where the Universe came from, where the laws of nature that govern it came from, and I don’t know that science could ever provide those answers. But we answer what we can, and if we’re responsible scientists, we don’t draw conclusions about the things we have insufficient information about. I wish that were easier for people to understand.

Somethin’ Neat about our Galaxy

March 26, 2008 on 8:42 pm | In Dark Matter | 3 Comments

So last week I was up at Pacific University in Portland, OR for a job interview. As part of a faculty interview, you have to lecture on a topic for undergraduates, but they give you the topic just a couple of days before. My topic was Gauss’ Law, which talks about the relationship between an Electric Field and an Electric Charge. Well, the same law holds for Newton’s theory of Gravitation with a gravitational field instead of an electric field and a gravitational charge (i.e., mass) instead of an electric charge.

So I’m at work today thinking about this, doing the thing I do messing around with Dark Matter, and I asked the question:

If I applied Gauss’ Law to our solar system within the galaxy, how much mass would it “see,” and how much of that is normal matter vs. how much is dark matter?

So, I took the best measurements and simulations that were available, and calculated it! Well, the part of the galaxy we “see” is all the mass within a sphere of radius ~8 kpc (the distance from the center of the galaxy to us) centered on the galactic center. And that turns out to be about 90,000,000,000 Solar Masses. Guess what? That’s less than 10% of the mass of our galaxy! So over 90% of the mass in our galaxy is invisible to us gravitationally. What’s more, of the stuff we can see gravitationally, about 3/4 of that, locally, is dark matter. So even where we are, in the inner regions of our galaxy, the normal matter visible to us gravitationally is only about 2% of the mass of the galaxy! (And a large fraction of that is concentrated at the central bulge.)

Just a quick note to share with you about my day!

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