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Weekend Diversion: A Closer Look at the Veeps

August 31, 2008 on 3:06 pm | In Politics, Random Stuff | 17 Comments

What’s more important to you, dear reader? We have Joe Biden and Sarah Palin to look at and scrutinize now. Neither one of them looks so bad on the surface:

There are plenty of places where you can get loads of information about either one of them, starting with wikipedia pages. But I’m going to put all of the positive things either one has ever done aside, and tell you the one thing that I think is worst about each of them.

1. Sarah Palin: I had a tough time with her anti-abortion rights stance, but there’s something about her politics that I found far more distasteful. She is for the state-sponsored teaching of ‘creation science’ in public schools. This was a major issue during debates in her run for Alaska’s Governor two years ago. From the Anchorage Daily News:

The Republican Party of Alaska platform says, in its section on education: “We support giving Creation Science equal representation with other theories of the origin of life. If evolution is taught, it should be presented as only a theory.”

And lest you think this is just the party, let’s quote from Palin herself:

Healthy debate is so important and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And you know, I say this too as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject — creationism and evolution. It’s been a healthy foundation for me. But don’t be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides.

Remember, this is about what gets taught in science classrooms. So it’s okay to teach things that aren’t science, scientifically based, and without scientific foundation in science classrooms? You want to teach something in science class that’s so far off base that there’s no scientific basis for the debate?

I could understand, on one hand, if you wanted to debate Lamarckian evolution vs. Darwinian evolution, where there is a scientific debate and a conclusion. But if she’s been taught evolution and creationism, thinks they both belong in science classrooms, and thinks she has a healthy foundation, I don’t want that kind of delusional thinking in the White House. At least, not for yet another term. (Ooh, BURNED you, Bush!)

In fact, I’m really proud of former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles‘ response:

The reason why is we don’t want politics in our science. We actually want more science in our politics. We don’t want to just teach all things because it may be politically correct. We want to teach the best science there is, and there is overwhelming evidence, there’s almost incontrovertible evidence that evolution is the science that, that we know. And that’s what we should always teach, to never compromise on the principles just because it’s politically popular.

2. Joe Biden: I grew up in the northeast. And although I was only 10 at the time, the 1988 election is the first election I actually remember pretty well. In fact, I remembered seeing Joe Biden on television. And thanks to the power of the internet, I can actually find the television clip and bring it to you! Watch it if you like, and take note of two things:

First off, Joe Biden is a jerk. There’s no reason ever to talk down to another human being like this. Listen to Joe’s words:

I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect. I went to Law School on a full academic scholarship; the only one in my class… and I’d be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours to be quite frank.

But the rest of his speech is pretty good, although, again, I wish he weren’t such a jerk about having his authority questioned. The thing that I find surprising, and I mean really surprising in all of this, is what happens if you look at him. Look again: 1988 to the left, 2008 to the right.

Joe Biden was bald, and clearly has had some type of hair transplant surgery. Ironically, it appears that all photos of the pre-surgery (i.e., bald) Joe Biden are no longer available online.

So, here are your candidates with their worst flaws (IMO) exposed. Now it’s up to you to decide. Tell me what you think!


Q & A this Friday: Good Questions?

August 29, 2008 on 7:25 pm | In Q & A, cosmology | 2 Comments

So someone finally asked me a question on my facebook page, and it’s actually pretty interesting. Natasa writes in, and asks the following:

I always considered that it is more important to ask the right question rather than finding answers to stupid ones. So, I wish to know, what is the major thought (if there is any) that leads you to ask your questions about science and the Universe?

This is a really philosophical question, and it’s a fair one to ask. After all, I have very different interests than most of the other scientists and science writers out there.

There are some that inherently love a single subject, like astronomy, biology, or geology. And I can’t fault them for that, because they are inherently interesting, and I love learning about how things work. But that’s not what really drives me.

There are others that find joy in working on one particular problem. For some it’s very general, like figuring out how galaxies form, and for some, it’s very specific (and sometimes esoteric), like investigating what the best way to grow long and sturdy carbon nanotubes is.

And for still others, it’s like being a newscaster (or an unscrupulous lawyer). Things happen all the time, and so they try to figure out what people will be the most interested in, and go after that.

I don’t feel like I fit neatly into any one of these categories. So let’s cut to the chase: how do I come up with the questions I ask about science and the Universe? The physical Universe, to me, is the most complicated puzzle ever devised. There aren’t just billions and billions of particles that make it up, there are about 1090 of them, if you count every electron, quark, neutrino, and photon. And yet somehow, the same few things keep happening. Stars form everywhere there’s enough matter; they formed billions of years ago, they’re forming now, and they’ll still be forming billions of years from now. Planets form around them, and molecules organize themselves in the same familiar patterns. The same phases of ice form everywhere, the same organic molecules spontaneously arise, even in space.

And then we have the Earth. Overflowing with life, all of it in competition for the resources that allow it to continue, thrive, and replicate in its surroundings. And somehow, we exist. With our minds, with our self awareness, with all the things we can do and think.

Well, this awareness is where I get my questions from. What kind of place is this? How does the Universe, which started out as just a super-high-energy soup of plasmas and radiation, wind up as this ordered, structured place that not only allows us to live in it, but gives us clues that allow us to understand how it got to be that way? What are the rules that it follows? And what are the questions that we still don’t have a complete explanation for?

Natasa, when I come across something like this, that’s what I consider a good question. That’s the type of thing that I can think about for days on end: what binds galaxies together, what makes the Universe expand, what started the big bang, the creation of matter in the Universe, how gravity works, and what the fate of the Universe is. I hope you and all my other readers continue to ask me good questions about topics like this and whatever else you’re interested in, and I’ll continue to do my best to bring you the best answers I can find.

And also, of course, to make it entertaining…


Dark Matter: More Irrefutable Evidence

August 27, 2008 on 5:29 pm | In Dark Matter, cosmology | 24 Comments

A lot of people don’t like dark matter. It’s a crazy idea, after all. Think about everything in your experience: the skies, the sea, you and me, along with the Earth, the Moon, the Sun, and everything we see.

It’s really beautiful, isn’t it? And yet dark matter tells us that for every atom of normal matter in the entire Universe, there is five times as much dark matter, or matter that isn’t made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

How do we possibly know this? Well, all matter has something in common: gravity. No matter what you’re made of, if you have mass, you exert a gravitational force on everything else in the Universe. But if you’re made up of normal matter (remember: protons, neutrons, and electrons), you can also emit light under the right conditions. The Sun does this, for example.

So how can we find dark matter? Let’s take the biggest things in the Universe: clusters of galaxies. These are regions of space that have hundreds or even thousands of galaxies the size of our Milky Way in them, and all told they weigh over a quadrillion times as much as our Sun. It would make a great experiment if we could smash two of them together. Because the normal matter should stick together and heat up, and emit X-rays. But if there’s some other type of matter, something different from normal matter, it should just pass right through everything, right on through the other galaxy cluster, like an object in motion remaining in motion. So we look for two clusters of galaxies colliding:

Ladies and gentlemen — BEHOLD! I give you exhibit A, known as the Bullet Cluster. This is two clusters of galaxies colliding, and you can see the individual galaxies here. The pink is the X-ray gas, and you can see that’s where the normal matter collided, stuck together, and emits powerful light in the form of X-rays. But the blue, that’s where all the mass is. From a phenomenon called gravitational lensing, we can measure how much mass there is in a certain region of space. And as you can see, we find that most of the mass is not where the normal matter is.

But we are responsible people, us scientists, and we like to have more than one example before we draw a conclusion. And so I offer you exhibit B, cluster Abell 520:

BEHOLD! This is a cluster in the later stages of merger, so that some of the dark matter has had a chance to come back around to their mutual center of mass. Still, the light coming from the normal matter doesn’t trace where the mass is.

So we’re getting close, but can we find an example of this far away? Can we find a very distant cluster that has these same properties? Let’s take a look at a very special cluster: MACS J0025.

Looks like a big honking cluster, and it contains over 1,000 galaxies and weighs in at over a quadrillion solar masses. A big one, for sure. But where is all the mass? Let’s take a look at the gravitational lensing data and see (in blue false color) where it is:

Ahh, it looks like just two lobes, one towards the left of the image and one towards the right. Well, if these were two clusters that just collided, that would be all the matter that just passed through the center. Except normal matter doesn’t do that! It collides, sticks together, and heats up. What if we took our big X-ray observatory, Chandra, and looked at this cluster. Would we see X-rays coming from the middle? Where there’s very little mass?

ha-HA, we do! So when we put all these together, what do we find? Could the normal matter explain all the gravity we see, or do we need something else; some new type of matter? Ladies and gentlemen:

BEHOLD!!! It’s dark matter, different from normal matter, not made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, but full of mass and exerting a gravitational force nonetheless. There are some awesome animations up at the Chandra Website, which I highly recommend to you.


Olympic wrap-up: The Water Cube

August 25, 2008 on 7:58 pm | In Physics | 19 Comments

Alright. We all saw it happen. This guy is leaps and bounds above everyone else in his sport. He eats lightning, he craps thunder, and it isn’t a question of whether he’s the best in the world or not, it’s a question of whether he’s better at swimming than anyone ever was at anything:

Michael Phelps. Eight events. Seven world’s records, one American record (the first 100m of the 4×100m freestyle relay) and one olympic record. There’s no doubt that he’s just that good.

But what’s the deal with those times? It’s not like he’s the only one blowing world’s records out of the pool. At the end of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, there were 21 events that had new World’s Records in swimming. This is not only a lot, this is more than half of the events for which there are world’s records in a 50m pool!

Well, what’s the deal? Is there something special about the Water Cube, the venue where these records were broken? Oh, you bet there is. And it isn’t the exterior that I’m talking about; let’s take a close look at the pool inside to see what’s really happening:

Water is tough to swim in. You splash around, you disturb the water, and what happens? The waves and currents bounce around, splash off the sides and bottom, and affect everything on top. Where does this have the greatest effect? In shallow water.

Ever go to the beach? The waves break and crash where the water is most shallow; you go farther out away from shore, and because the water is deeper, you don’t get waves crashing unless there’s a sandbar.

But if you make the water deeper, the waves appear smaller, and cause fewer disturbances in the water. And if you make the walls farther away, the energy has a larger volume of water to dissipate over.

So if I sent water waves out into deeper water, they would be smaller in height and affect the water less. Kinda like this:

What makes the water cube so special? It was designed to take advantage of this, and did it ever. This pool is 25% wider and 50% deeper than normal Olympic-sized swimming pools. Wider, deeper pools means not only is there less water disturbance from swimmers swimming in it, but the water settles down faster, so that by time the swimmers come back for their second lap, the water’s already calm from the first one!

So what’s the conclusion? It isn’t just the swimmers; it’s also the pool. And a little bit of physics.


Weekend Diversion: I did what this weekend?

August 24, 2008 on 2:08 pm | In Random Stuff | 8 Comments

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