Archive for February, 2009

Where’s the matter?

February 26, 2009

Another chunk of matter has been found, via the absorption of x-rays by Oxygen VII ions. Basically, it is intergalactic ionized gas. From the link:

Now David Buote, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Irvine, and an international team report the detection of x-rays absorbed by such missing ordinary matter. Using NASA’s Chandra telescope and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton, the team spotted this gas along a portion of the Sculptor Wall, part of a large assemblage of galaxies some 400 million light-years away. Oxygen VII between the galaxies absorbed x-rays coming from an energetic galaxy behind the Sculptor Wall. Buote gives their detection a 99.7% chance of being correct.

The team’s observations, which will be published in the 20 April issue of the Astrophysical Journal, appear to be “well-planned, careful, and pretty convincing,” says Michael Vogeley, an astronomer at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the study. “The finding that much of the regular stuff is WHIM-sical and that it is associated with the largest-scale structures seen in galaxies is a confirmation of the basic picture of how the regular stuff in the universe is predicted to behave in such a universe.”

Still not enough to negate the need for dark matter, but a good observational result.

Lighten down

February 25, 2009

Obama gave his State of the Union speech tonight (as I type this). I thought it was somewhat enlightening. As I’m sure much more can be found across the intertubes to shed more light on his speech, I thought I’d talk instead about too much light.

From Der Spiegel, we have a well written article on a subject near and dear to my heart. Light pollution. I knew light pollution was bad in the States (I saw maybe 10 stars during my run tonight. Granted, I live in street lit suburban area.), but I did not know it had gotten so bad in Germany. A scroll down the Wiki (looking for somebody to clean that up, by the way) illustrates how bad it really is there.

Of course, it is also pretty bad here in the States, at least anywhere where there is a significant population density. One of the treasures lost is the view of the stars. No big deal one might say. Consider that the universe holds at least hundreds of billions of galaxies. Galaxies vary in size, but totaling everything up, it seems that there may be 70 thousand million million million stars. How many can we see with the naked eye varies, but one resource puts it at 1500 or so, with low light pollution (with a couple of galaxies thrown in for good measure. I’m thinking Andromeda, but they referred to M101), This tiny infinitesimal fraction of the whole cosmos visible to the us with our eyes alone makes this view very precious. Even then, given distances to the stars, what they are, and our implied relationship to the cosmos inspires a a life of wonder and a driving curiosity to learn more. One might be given to think that our seeming determination to wipe out even this view is a measure of arrogance.

It is not just the resource of starry nights that is at risk. From Der Spiegel:

For eons, all life on earth has been shaped by the constant cycle of day and night. But in many places, night has been lost. This loss, says IGB director Klement Tockner, “entails a dramatic reduction in biodiversity.” According to Tockner, the adverse effects are especially noticeable in bodies of water, where “the light shining in promotes algae growth and changes the food web throughout an entire lake.”


Billions of insects die on streetlights each year or in the webs of the spiders that live on these lights in unnaturally large quantities. Many birds flying at night become confused by the light smog and collide with brightly lit high-rise buildings. Light-sensitive frogs stop their mating activity, thereby producing fewer or no offspring. Freshly hatched sea turtles crawl toward the light on streets instead of into the ocean. Salamanders remain hidden longer than usual, because of insufficient darkness, which deprives them of the time they need to search for food.

There are also adverse effects to us humans as well.

Now that I’m sure I’ve convinced you there is a problem, be sure to check out The International Dark-Sky Association. The web site has excellent discussions on reducing light pollution including using lighting fixtures that minimize glare and so on.

California education woes

February 24, 2009

A new report from UCLA shows significant problems with California’s education system.

The report, issued by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA) and the University of California All-Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (UC ACCORD), finds that systematic inadequacies and inequalities in the public education system leave California students from all backgrounds unable to compete with their counterparts in most other parts of the country.

Also From the report:

The research also reveals a “restricted flow” through the “mathematics pipeline.” The progress of California students through the middle school and high school math curriculum is hampered by students’ lack of access to small class size, rigorous coursework and well-trained teachers, according to the report. This restricted flow makes the No Child Left Behind Act goal of universal proficiency in math by 2014 nearly impossible to reach for most California schools.

Finally, the report reveals worse educational outcomes for California’s class of 2006 than for previous classes. The consequences of poor learning conditions were greater for young people in the class of 2006 because they were the first to face the California High School Exit Exam’s “diploma penalty.” California graduated a smaller proportion of its ninth-grade cohort in 2006 than in any year since 1997.

I also heard about this report on NPR during the drive home. One of the coauthors stated that fewer kids are also going on to colleges after high school, in spite of higher expectations from parents.

This is bad news, particularly in the face of budget cuts for education that recently passed (nearly 10 billion dollars of cuts for education).

Altogether, this does not bode well for the future of California. Given our tendency here in California to be trend setters, it probably doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country either. We need a well educated populace to further drive progress and the economy and to maintain a relatively healthy democracy. Of course, throwing money at problems doesn’t automatically fix them. In the same vein, one can look for creative solutions that require less money.

We need to be thinking about what form those solutions may take. Certainly, as Obama constantly stresses, parental involvement needs to play a significant factor. In addition, perhaps a volunteer tutoring program could also be something many of us could do. There are also mentoring programs in which one can be involved. We should also think of ways in which we can show kids that math and science are relevant to their lives and be able to convey some of the excitement one can get by being able to use them to solve other problems. To tie the various subjects together to show how they can solve larger problems.

Of course, we now have this problem to solve about fixing education. Let’s see some ideas flowing.

Flying saucers

February 23, 2009

A somewhat sensationalist sounding article appeared in concerning a book called The Mystery Behind Real Flying Saucers. Written by one of the coauthors, Jon Rogers, it explores the rise of interest in U.F.O.s and “flying saucers”.

Could today’s widespread belief that flying saucers are extraterrestrial spaceships be the result of an unintentional, civilian conspiracy? One that created real flying saucers in order to achieve its end?

The use of the word unintentional sort of undermines the usage of the more exciting word, conspiracy. In fact, on a bit more reading, the book does seem to take the more sober approach. It’s probably no surprise that much of the craze was fueled by media (news, movies, etc.) feeding to people what they wanted to buy. We humans have, in general, always wanted to seem to think there was something bigger out there, perhaps something of which we are part. This is probably, in part, what contributed to religious desires. If forced to speculate, I would guess that this was an evolutionary byproduct of being part of a larger society, a good survival technique for smaller hunter gatherer tribes in a hostile environment.

So, what about U.F.O.s? I believe they exist. I myself have seen phenomena I could not identify. I can reasonably guess things that I have seen though. Usually they’re planes. Just recently, driving home, I saw a U.F.O. It was brightly lit, and from a distance, looked like something from Close Encounters. It appeared to be hovering and doing some strange maneuvering (at least the long curves in the road on which we were driving made it appear so). As we drove closer to home (and to the object) we could finally see that, in fact, the strange object was a colorfully lit advertising blimp. There are also new strange atmospheric phenomena that we are still discovering. Simply because I can not identity some light I see in the sky does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that it is a spaceship piloted by extraterrestrials though. Usually further investigation reveals the natural source, and if not, there was probably not enough data to make any type of conclusion. Given the vastness of space and the great cost of its exploration (that’s just physics, really) makes the alien hypothesis extremely unlikely and, given the success of natural explanations, it seems reasonable to expect such explanations for the more difficult problems as well.

I do think it very likely that there is extraterrestrial life out there, maybe even some of it purposeful and intelligent. We need to further investigate Mars and I have long wanted a Europa exploration. But, the possibility of any intelligent extraterrestrials visiting us is probably less likely than me winning the lottery. But it does make for a fun story.

Early particle physics

February 20, 2009

Somebody sent me this from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and I thought I’d share.

The beginnings of particle collecting.

The beginnings of particle collecting.

The clothing suggests to me that was particle physics in the 1800’s, in contrast to the 1700’s as claimed in the original caption.

Mr. Obama, build up this wall!

February 18, 2009

A recent perusal of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has a recent article detailing Obama’s apparent reluctance of reversing Bush’s allowance for religious organizations to keep hiring discrimination even in the face of receiving government support. As noted, this was also reported in the LA Times.

From Americans United, Rob Boston writes:

As a candidate, Obama promised to end the noxious Bush order allowing religious discrimination in tax-funded programs. The rules that Bush overturned with his directive, I should note, were put in place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt; they were one of the nation’s first efforts to get serious about civil rights protections. Roosevelt was right to put that order in place, and Bush was wrong to change it. Americans United intends to keep pushing until Obama understands that.

Excellent for Americans United; I can always count on them. I understand the motivation to help those who are helping others, but if an organization is to receive federal dollars, they need to follow federal guidelines. To not wish to work with someone qualified simply because they may believe differently than you is childish. It is, as Paul writes, time to put away childish things. The important thing is to get the work done.

In fact, there are many secular organizations the government could be helping. To supply funding to religious organizations, no matter the motivation, undermines the wall of separation between church and state. I do not think that theists would appreciate the possibility of government intrusion into their religion, and many of us do not appreciate religion intruding into our government. These are two tastes that do not go well together. Historically, this mixture has been fraught with peril and horror. So it would be better to just do away with the government supported faith based initiative completely. Mr. Obama, build up that wall! (To be clear, the wall is already there. It needs to be made impermeable. But, “Obama, make that wall impermeable!” seems to lack some of the dramatic oomph.)

While you are at, President Obama, you may want to consider giving up smoking. It will help your basketball game.

Of lambs and prayer in schools

February 17, 2009

A chain letter made itself into my in-box a few days ago and seems to be getting around everywhere. The main text of it you can see here and scattered around the intertubes here and there. Apparently there’s even year 2000 version. To save clicking time, here it is:

Mary, had a little Lamb
Mary, had a little Lamb,
His fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The Lamb was sure to go.

He followed her to school each day,
T’wasn’t even in the rule.
It made the children laugh and play,
To have The Lamb at school..

And then the rules all changed one day,
Illegal it became;
To bring The Lamb of God to school,
Or even speak His Name!

Every day got worse and worse,
And days turned into years.
Instead of hearing children laugh,
We heard gun shots and tears.

What must we do to stop the crime,
That’s in our schools today?
Let’s let The Lamb come back to school,
And teach our kids to pray!

It is said that 86% of the World’s people believe in God. Why don’t we just tell the other 14% to be quiet and sit down?

Aw. The emotional strings are tugged. Can’t we allow the Lamb back in school? Let’s examine this a tad more closely. Is the writer of the chain-mail implying that kids can only learn to pray at school? Is there some reason they can’t learn to talk to imaginary beings at home or in the church? I must also be missing the critical thinking element that shows causation between lack of school prayer and school problems. Let’s further probe the implications here.

The 86% figure of the “World’s” people believing in God looks like it was a recent addition to this chain email compared to other versions I’ve seen on the web. As was the request for us atheists to, in other words, shut up. They seem to be saying that 86% of the world’s population, being theist, will be on the side of prayer in school. helps us out by breaking this down a bit further. It looks like 33% of the planet’s inhabitants claim to be Christian. In addition, we have 19.6% Muslim, 13.4% Hindu, “non-religious” at 12.7%, and we eventually get to atheists at a too small 2.5%. Lumping the big three together gets us at 66% (I’ve neglected Taoists, Buddhists, Chinese folk religions, etc. for space). Indeed, it does look as though a majority of the world’s population is still theistic in some form or another. So, to be fair, 33% of school days should be have a Christian prayer (dividing that up among the various denominations and sects, I imagine), 19.6% Muslim prayer days, and 13.4% Hindu (probably again divided up among devotees of Lakshmi, Shiva, Ganesha, Vishnu, etc.). Of course, divide up the rest of the days among the various other religions according to percentage. After all, to single out one prayer type would be government official recognition of one religion and that is unconstitutional. Perhaps it should be done by the majority of the local population? This would be a tacit and hurtful exclusion of others with minority religious beliefs. Would Christian parents be fine if their community had a large influx of Muslim immigrants so their local schools now had to do Muslim prayers? Somehow I suspect that the agenda is “freedom” of having unconstitutional school sanctioned Christian prayer.

As for the call for free thinkers and unbelievers to sit down and be quiet, that is the one thing we can no longer do. If anything, we need to become more visible. The fact that chain emails like this are being distributed, and, in fact, actually taken seriously, is reason enough.

Back to the beginning–origin of life

February 16, 2009

One of the complaints I often hear from otherwise knowledgeable doubters of evolution is that science has not found out how life got started in the first place. This is invariably followed by there needing to be a supernatural cause. To use a crude analogy, if I find rat droppings in my house, but can’t see how the rat could have gotten in, this does not inexorably lead to a conclusion that a divine Rat Placer put the rat there. It just means that I haven’t found out yet how the rat got in. On the question of the origins of life, we have a difficult problem, to be sure. The fact that a problem is difficult does not necessarily mean that the solution is supernatural.

What makes the problem difficult is that there are a daunting number of variables. We don’t know precisely where molecules first started utilizing energy to reproduce themselves, or precisely what the environment was like in which it happened. The whole planet was the stage with varying environments and billions of molecular reactions going on for nearly a billion years. We can make some reasonably educated guesses and go from there though. Of course, even if we succeed in creating synthetic life, there could still be some uncertainty if what we produced was what actually happened. There could perhaps be a multiplicity of ways for things to get started. That doesn’t mean we stop looking though.

So, it was interesting to see this recent article from on this very question.

“I look at the origin of life as the result of combinatorial chemistry on a global scale,” said Deamer, a research professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSC who is also affiliated with the Department of Biomolecular Engineering in UCSC’s Jack Baskin School of Engineering.

The power of combinatorial chemistry lies in the vast numbers of structurally distinct molecules that can be synthesized and tested at the same time. Similarly, conditions on the early Earth allowed not only the synthesis of a wide variety of complex organic molecules, but also the formation of membrane-bound compartments that would have encapsulated different combinations of molecules.

“We have made protocells in the lab–artificial compartments containing complex systems of molecules,” Deamer said. “The creationists charge that it’s too unlikely for the right combination to have come together on its own, but combinatorial chemistry gives us a better way to think about the probability of life emerging from this process.”

In other words, the space of chemical combinations that could have gotten life started is enormous. As the molecules became organized and utilized resources for growth and reproduction, a confined space, as the article goes on, means that there will be competition for resources. It is evolution at the biochemical level. Some chemical strategies will be more successful than others.

It is interesting that membrane bound compartments were mentioned as one of the pieces of the puzzle needing to eventually fit. Not too long ago it was proposed that the function of the cellular membrane may have been performed by sheets of mica (also discussed here. It is interesting speculation. From the article:

Hansma says that her “soup and sandwich” mica hypothesis is supported by several lines of evidence, including the many chemical and physical similarities between a cell interior and the space between mica sheets. For example, both environments are potassium-rich and negatively-charged. Such similarities suggest that mica “would have provided a very hospitable environment to the earliest biomolecules,” says Hansma.

In addition, the confined spaces formed by mica layers would have provided the isolation needed for Darwinian evolution. What’s more, the expansion, contraction and movements of the mica sheets caused by temperature changes and ocean currents would have helped rearrange molecules and trigger the formation of bonds between them, as required for life to originate.

The mica boundaries could have acted as de-facto primitive membranes. It is an intriguing idea, but since Hasma first proposed this a couple of years ago, I haven’t read anything else about it. I would be interested to see any experimental results with likely chemical combinations between mica, in effect trying to emulate those possible early Earth conditions. It’s stuff like this that makes me want to build a lab in the garage. Then, of course, get funding, hire a team and find collaborators, make a clean room to make sure everything is sanitized (including the mica) to rule out false positives, etc. etc. It’s hard to be a mad scientist creating life these days.


February 13, 2009

Yup, at 3:31 PST (my time), I will have to raise a glass (of coffee, still at work) and drink a toast to when Unix computer clocks will reach 1234567890–1.2 billion seconds elapsed from January 1, 1970, the official beginning of the Unix epoch. So, perhaps you too are counting down to the countdown.

I’m still not sure what to call this artificially significant time. Numerical sequence day/time? Number time? The poster of the original link was correct though. It is amusing that this is all significant because we have 10 fingers and 10 toes. An octopus would probably go octal, of course. Would we have already celebrated 11145401322?

Speaking of 21st century opportunities

February 13, 2009

As I’ve mentioned previously, science and technology funding can play a vital role in helping to stimulate the economy (it also looks as though NSF and DOE science funding was mostly restored in the stimulus package, which is a very good thing). Along those lines JPL will be hosting a high tech conference March 3-4. From the link:

Attendees can participate in “how-to” workshops, meet with industry representatives from companies and agencies such as NASA and Lockheed Martin, and make use of individual counseling to discuss potential business opportunities with exhibitors.

More information on the conference can be found here. At previous conferences, about 900 small business owners were in attendance. So, if you think you or your business can make some high tech contribution (transportation, computer technology, aerospace, etc.) for the future and make some money doing it, definitely think about checking this out. At $140 per person, it is not entirely cheap, but a lot less expensive then other conferences I’ve been attended.