Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Flying Spaghetti Monster offers his divine protection...

For your IPOD:

Makes me wish I had an IPOD....

Big, Bigger, Biggest

Today I found a nice new image from the Cassini probe over at Saturn that I think is worth commenting on:

This image shows Saturn's largest moon, Titan (background), as well as the outermost edges of Saturn's rings, and the dimunitive Epimethus (below rings).

The reason I feature this is because it's an excellent portrait showing a small glimpse into the vast range of scales in the universe. All the objects shown are orbiting Saturn, which is in turn orbiting the sun, which in turn orbits the center of our galaxy, which is part of a much larger cluster, which is still only a tiny part of the universe as a whole.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Here. There. Everywhere! (Part 5)

So far in my installments of "Here. There. Everywhere." I've discussed missions to Mercury, Mars, Saturn, and the Moon. But there's one more NASA probe that's headed to another part of the solar system. The New Horizons mission is currently headed to Pluto. This will be the first probe ever to have visited this planet. However, this is only part of the mission, as I'll discuss later, and is only a flyby.

As with the MESSENGER probe I discussed last time, New Horizons will be taking awhile to get out to the far reaches of the solar system, arriving in 2015. But while this seems leasurely, it's still the fastest probe to date. New Horizons reached the distance of the moons orbit in a scant 9 hours. For comparison, it took several days for the Apollo astronauts to traverse the same distance.

So what do we know about Pluto currently? The answer is, not much. Even the best telescopes available, ie. the Hubble, can barely show Pluto as anything more than a fuzzy speck.

It was originally discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh and named by Venetia Phair. It was immediately given the title of planet because Percival Lowell had predicted that perturbations in Neptune's orbit indicated another planet further out. Perturbations in Uranus' orbit had led to the discovery of Neptune. However, Pluto only happened to be near the expect placement of the mystery planet but did not have enough mass to be the actual cause. This perturbation has lead many conspiracy theorists predicting that the missing planet is still out there.

However, this designation has recently become a hot topic of dispute. One of the major reasons for this is the recent discovery or similarly sized objects at even greater distances such as Quaoar (2002), Sedna (2004), and "Xena", formally named (2005). Quaoar and Sedna are slightly smaller than Pluto, while Xena is slightly larger. (NOTE: Xena is only the informal name and yet to be approved by the International Astronomy Union. Its current official designation is 2003 UB313) This has sparked a debate about what should be called a planet.

The general consensus today is that Pluto, if discovered today, would not be deemed a planet and instead would be considered a Kupier Belt Object (KBO). However, the last I heard, Pluto was going to retain its title as a planet for historical reasons. (Astronomers love historical significance which explains why the magnitude system runs backwards as well as being annoyingly logarithmic.)

The Kupier Belt has long been hypothesized as a repository for icy bodies that orbit at great distances from the sun. Although, until recently, these bodies had never been observed. Yet their existance stood on solid scientific ground. The reason for this is because short period comets all had their greatest distance from the sun in around the same region. However, the discovery of objects like Quaoar, Senda, and the tenatively titled Xena, has shown that there truly is a Kupier Belt.

Ironically, several young earth creationist websites still try to use an argument that the solar system must be young since comets would all evaporate if the solar system were older than a few thousand years. To justify this they've had to ignore the Kupier Belt and have previously dismissed it claiming none have been observed.

Eventually, the New Horizons mission will fly by Pluto and head to explore this Kupier Belt. However, it will first drop studying Pluto, it's moon Charon (which is almost the same size as Pluto making it more of a double planet if anything), and its two newly discovered moons.

While it may seem odd that such a small planet could have things orbiting it, it's not uncommon. In fact, even some asteroids, such as Ida and its sattelite Dactyl.

But overall, know one knows what we're going to find at Pluto and beyond.

So that's all of the NASA probes currently headed around our solar system. In my next astronomy lesson, I'll quickly talk about the European Space Agency's Venus Express that was recently launched. From there, I think it might also be fun to touch on some of the earlier probes that have long since disappeared. From there, I expect I'll want to discuss how astronomical images are created and how science is actually gleaned from them. But we'll see where things go.

The War on Video Games

Republicans love their wars. Wars on terrorism. Wars on science. Imagined wars on Christmas...

But one of the other battles they love to fight is on video games. Many people have heard of wingnut Jack Thompson who wants to blame every social ill on violent video games getting into the hands of children. The least we can say for him is at least he's not taking the trendy route and blaming it on Darwinism, or evil atheists.

However, Jack's still more than a bit off his rocker given that he seems to hold the game companies at fault when it's parents buying their children video games that carry ratings just like movies. This is like saying that Paramount should be held liable when a parent takes their child to an R rated movie.

But Jack doesn't seem to care much for personal responsibility. In fact, in 2005, he offered to donate $10,000 to charity if a game company would "create, manufacture, distribute, and sell a video game in 2006" that allowed the player to take on the role of Osaki Kim, a father whose 14 year old child was beaten to death by another kid that played video games, taking his brutal vengence on the game industry.

And what do you know, someone took him up on his offer. But Jack ducked out saying his offer was satire. So the good gamers over at Penny Arcade made good on Jack's offer and donated the $10,000 in his name.

Jack's response? Attempt to have the creators of Penny Arcade arrested for harassment. To bad it never panned out for him. That was all back in October of 2005.

However, while Thompson has faded from the limelight since then, others have picked up his banner and continue to try to shift the blame of who should be responsible for what children consume.

Rep. Joe Baca Sr. is calling for video game manufacturers to clarify rating systems claiming that they intentionally mislead parents. As Les over at Stupid Evil Bastard points out, Mr Baca must not have read the rating labels already applied as they're quite clear:

Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.

Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

I've gotta go with Les on this one and say, "How is this not clear?"

And to make things even more clear, games contain even more information explaining precisely which of the many possible things they contain, such as Call of Duty 2 (rated T) being listed as having Blood, Mild Language, Violence.

Meanwhile, more violent games, such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (rated M), are explicitly listed as having Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs.

Again, how is this anything but clear?

How much more do these people need? Does the game need to read its warnings aloud to them?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Defending the Wedge? I don't think so.

I had a bit of free time recently, and someone sent me a link trying to wave away the infamous "Wedge Document". So, being that I'm forever the sucker, and hoped that the DI actually had something intelligent to say, I read it.

There was not a single piece of merit.

So below is my review of their garbage:

I'm amazed at how many time the DI feels it necessary to remind readers it's a "scientific theory". Yet on page 2, they slip in that their scientists are "working to develop". Note the present tense. They're working on it, but have not yet achieved anything.

Later on that page, they admit that their goal is to "challange scientific materialsim" and show "favorable implications for theism". This goal is to attract "potential supporters". So when seeing that the DI flaunts the religious implications, why do they then cry when people assosciate it with religion?

On page 3, they quickly reverse their story claiming their "theory" is backed up by scientific evidence. Wait... What evidence?

It's also amusing that later on page 3, the DI claims that "without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade." Ironically, the DI has failed at all three of these criteria.

In the next section, still on page three, they then admit, as Behe did, to wanting to ignore the tenents of science in that they wish to disregard "methodological restrictions on the interperative freedoms of science". Translation: "We want to make the results mean whatever we want and don't like that the rules prevent this." Again, the DI shows its excellent scientific methodology.

To drive the irony meter even higher, in the very next sentence, they claim that they are not trying to dismantle the scientific method.

They then go on to claim that their intentions weren't secret in any way. This is contrary to the fact that the DI denied that the Wedge Document was even something that they had written for several years.

They claim that having a Jewish president somehow exempts them from promoting a religious agenda. Sorry buddy. Judiasm is a religion too.

Next they claim that they promote the discussion of controversial issues in science classrooms. If they actually did this, I would find this statement to hold merit. However, there are several real controversial issues that are hotly debated by scientists, yet the DI has never bothered to promote them. Instead they only promote the "teach the controversy" mantra for their one selective hypothesis. Yet, as has been shown several times, there is no scientific controversy.

On page 6, they ask the question on what is the scandal in their fellows supporting the notion that God created man and this concept is historically shown through several actions. If this were truly all the document said, I wouldn't have a problem with that. However, the DI is working to promote this theistic concept.

Their next quote promotes the general DI position that evolution is somehow anti-God and thus must be dismantled. Wrong again. Darwin and the like say nothing about God.

Next, they say: "Materialism is a dehumanizing philosophy that has been used to justify genocide, infantcide and eugenics, among other evils". Replace "Materialism" with "Religion" and you get a completely true statement. However, their original statement is questionable.

On the next page, 7, they claim they are attacking Darwinism. Early on they claimed that this was a philosophy. Yet now they claim it's a scientific theory, yet they're not attacking science. Wait guys. Which is it? Pick a story.

They claim they are attacking said theories with "appropriate scientific methods, canons of reasoning and evaluation and, most importantly, scientific evidence". Yet they already admitted to disregarding the scientific method. Their doublespeak is impressive.

They also say challenging a particular scientific theory does not constitute an attack on science. However, keep in mind that they are trying to rewrite the definition of science to include the supernatural and untestable. They've already won over Kansas in this pursuit. Thus, I'd say it is a clear attack on science.

Additionally, they claim that thinking this is an attack on science "is to misrepresent science profoundly." Their definition of science being one that allows for astrology. Who's doing the misrepresenting here?

Still on page 7, they make the claim that "many of our scholars and scientists have been pressured to affirm neo-Darwinism", yet decline to say in what manner. I greatly suspect that they misuse their terminology here and instead mean to say that they "have been pressured to tolerate". There's a world of difference that few militant theists seem to comprehend.

In their next paragraph they begin: "the 'Wedge Document' makes clear that we are advancing an intellectual challange to a philosophical perspective". Wait... didn't you just say Darwinism was a scientific theory? And you're promoting an "intellectual challange"? What happened to the science?

Pages 8 and 9 are nothing but a hypocritical rant in which they claim that Darwinists don't distinguish between a theory's basis, and its implications. Yet this is precisely what they are doing: attacking the scientific base because they don't like the imagined implications. However, ID does not have a scientific base. Instead it just wants to promote God friendly philosophy. Dispite the DI's claims, scientists do recognize this distinction which is precisely the reason they have no tolerance for ID masquerading as science.

By page 10, they're into the tired arguments of "irreducible complexity", "fine tuning", and "specified complexit" which I won't bother going over again. Instead it gets a simple rolling of the eyes. They call bad science a scientific discovery which will earn another roll of the eyes.

In the next paragraph they say "Motives don't matter in science. Evidence does." This is normally true. However, when your evidence is clearly comprimised by your motives, such as making God friendly science, the motives do become important.

They then use their favourite Dawkins quote again. Time to roll our eyes again. The key here is that Dawkins based his beliefs on the evidence. The quote shows that evolution (coming before) made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist (coming after the evidence). ID does this the other way around, seeking evidence to confirm their biases.

By page 11, they're calling Darwinism a theory again. Can't seem to make up their minds can they? They then use their evolution strawman to finish off the section.

So while the article said alot, it was filled with misworded statements, doublespeak, and constant flip-flopping.

Nice try, but unconvincing in any regard.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Here. There. Everywhere! (Part 4)

In my previous posts on this topic, I've discussed probes that have been visiting Saturn, Mars, and one headed shortly for the moon. However, there's still many places left to explore in our solar system. Currently there are two more probes headed to opposite ends of the solar system. One is known as MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) and is headed for Mercury. Another is known as New Horizons and is headed for Pluto.

For now, I'll only be talking about Mercury and its probe. Although Mercury can be viewed by the naked eye, it's still a rather difficult object to find for a few reasons. Cheif among these is, that since it's orbit lies within our own, it never strays to far from the sun. This means two things:

First that it will only be visible shortly after sunet or before sunrise which makes it easy to lose in the twilight.

The second reason has to do with the amount of visible surface lit in relation to distance. Since brightness falls off as the inverse square (ie, doubling the distance would make the object 1/4th as bright) we would like to view Mercury as close as possible. However, for Mercury to be its closest, this would mean that it were directly between the Earth and Sun. This means we would not see any of the surface lit. The best balance turns out to be when Mercury is at what's known as "greatest elongation", which means its as far from the sun in the sky as possible. But even at this point, only half of Mercury's visible surface is lit.

Additionally, Mercury isn't the largest of planets. Nor does it have a terribly surface reflectivity (albedo). All of this combined makes Mercury a rather tricky target.

That being said, if you know where to look and when, Mercury is possible to spot with the naked eye. However, even though a decent sized telescope, it's not much more than a bright disk. Mercury has been known since ancient times, although it wasn't until relatively recently that it was known to be a single object. Since it can appear both in the morning and the evening, Mercury had two names: The Morning Star (Lucifer) and the Evening Star (Noctifer).

Yet dispite having known of its existance for a very long time, little is still known about Mercury since only one previous spacecraft (Mariner 10) has visited the diminutive planet. Mariner 10 never entered into an orbit around Mercury though. Instead it merely made three flybys. During this period, Mercury had the same side of the planet facing the sun, so only ~45% of the planet's surface was actually mapped.

Thus, MESSENGER will be the first probe to actually enter into an orbit around Mercury. But although it was launched in August of 2004, it will not enter orbit until 2011. For those of you quick with math, you will realize this is almost 7 years to traverse a relatively small distance. Why so long?

The reason has to do with another important body in our solar system: The Sun. The sun has a massive gravitational influence. The further one is from it, the greater one's gravitational potential energy. By moving closer, that potential energy will get transformed into kinetic energy. Thus, by the time MESSENGER got to Mercury, it would be going far to fast to even latch on.

Therefore, that extra energy must be bled off in some way. To do that without having to constantly have the breaks on, the mission designers put MESSENGER into a long looping orbit that would burn off some of the energy as it falls towards the sun, and adds energy so that MESSENGER can catch up to Mercury as it orbits.

Therefore, MESSENGER will make several passes of Venus, Earth, and Mercury itself. Recently, MESSENGER made its first flyby of Earth and took a series of images like this one:

The entire series of images has been made into a very nice animation that can be found here.

Eventually when MESSENGER reaches Mercury, it has several science goals as well. These include determining more about Mercury's chemical composition (specificly why its density is so high), as well as studying its extremely weak magnetic field and tenuous atmosphere. It's also thought that Mercury may have water near its poles.

But all of this will have to wait till MESSENGER arrives in 2011.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Hubble Turns 16

Today was the 16th birthday of the Hubble telescope. To commemorate it, the Hubble team released this image of a galaxy known as M82:

M82 is one of my all time favourite galaxies for some reason so such an astounding picture really made my day. Eventually, I intend to write up a lengthy post about it as it's a very interesting place. However, I'll hold that off until I've finished writing about the things going on in the solar system as well as a few other topics that help to establish a better understanding of the topics necessary for a detailed description of this dynamic galaxy.

But I wanted to post this picture for everyone to see and to wish Hubble a sweet 16!

The other side of the coin.

I recently stumbled across this article from John D Barrow or Cambridge University.

Creationists and ID proponents frequently claim that science flies in the face of religion. Various officials (such as Steve Abrams) have even been known to say that people should have to choose one or the other. However, this bit of insanity is refuted by such things as the Clergy Letter Project.

But this compatibility of science and faith is the topic about which Barrow writes. His article is wonderfully summed up by saying:

In all the science we pursue we are used to seeing progress. Our first attempts to grasp the laws of nature are often incomplete. So, in our religious conceptions of the Universe, we also use approximations and analogies to have some grasp of ultimate things. They are not the whole truth but this does not stop them being a part of the truth: a shadow that is cast in a limiting situation of some simplicity.

Although I do not feel that there are magical metaphysical realms with omnipotent dieties, I freely admit that if there is, science is unable to comment on them in any regard. This is where faith is irreplacable and truly belongs. It need not shove itself into the "gaps", because it already occupies in important position in our lives: on the other side of the coin.

A slap and an echo

In his blog, Pat Hayes alerted us to this blog article that concerns a brief review of a new creationist propaganda video. While both articles discuss the creation vs. evolution aspect, I think there is something else that has been overlooked by both entries.

The blog notes that this new video is intended to "slug atheists over the head". This comment seems very familiar to me. In fact, it's strikingly similar to a comment Dr. Paul Mirecki made late last year concerning a course he intended to teach which identified Intelligent Design as mythology. In a message to the Society of Open Minded Atheists & Agnostics (the group for which he was the faculty sponsor), he stated that the class would be a "slap in their big fat face", in which "their" referred to "fundies" or Christian fundamentalists.

In Mirecki's case, the story was leaked to the media by a conservative columnist from KC who had joined SOMA's Yahoo list serve with the intent of digging up as much dirt as he could. Once this quote was leaked, the media had a field day, and as expected, the cries of "religious persecution" were sung across the state. Senators demanded the class be cancelled and threatened to cut KU's funding as a result. Eventually, this entire story culminated with Dr. Mirecki being assaulted on a road side.

So my question is this: Why the double standard? Why is it unacceptable for Dr. Mirecki to make such a comment in a semi-private forum, yet the media hasn't decried a nearly identical comment from the religious right? Should we expect the author of that comment to be beaten on a roadside?

To me, this attitude of "Do as I say, not as I do." is appauling. It's this sort of thing that makes it clear to me that Christians have no reason to feel persecuted since they enjoy far more free speech than any atheist.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

More on the Persecution Complex

I recently stumbled across this article complaining about how a bargin bin table at Costco had books like the DaVicni Code in which the myths of Christianity are critically analyzed. The author claims that this is an inappropriate way for Costco to greet its Christian customers.

However, as the very first commentor points out, 5 of the 7 books are in the top 300 sellers list on Amazon. Thus, perhaps, instead of wanting to piss off their Christian customers, they're simply offering books that are known to sell well at a time when interest in the topic is likely to be high. But that can't be right. It must be a deliberate attempt to mock Christians.

And amazingly enough, the author points out that the seven anti-Christian books he was able to find were an a 40 ft long table full of books. I'm wondering how many more books were loaded with pro-Christian rhetoric. I know at my local groceries, the check out aisles are full of books proclaiming the goodness of God. Only in a small note at the end does the author admit that this Costco carried the American Gospel and NIV bibles as well as study companions.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Jesus predicted that he would be denied. I predicted the Gospel of Judas would be. What do I win?

Just after the announcement of the translation of the Gospel of Judas, I mused that it would be rejected out of hand, and I was right.

This article goes on with the standard claim that it is somehow an attack on Christianity because it was released near Easter. Taking off the ruby colored glasses of fundamentalist perseuction, this seems more to be an attempt to promote interest when spiritual interest would be high.

But the inanity doesn't stop there. The author goes on to suggest that secularists are attempting to justify treason! Perhaps I'm mistaken here, but treason suggests that one is going against the wishes and rules set forth by the person or system you would betray. The newly found Gospel claims that Jesus asked Judas to turn him in, thus, there's no betrayal at all. Instead, it suggests the faithful following of superiors. Saying that Judas betrayed Jesus although Jesus asked him to would be akin to saying the government sending in armed troops to quell a riot would be treason since it does harm, dispite that it was requested.

Yet for all the banter in the article, it manages to still address one key issue: The legitimacy of the text itself. These zealots ignore the text because it clashes with their preconcieved notions that were dictated at the Council of Nicea. Everything else it seems, is hedonistic and worthy of outright rejection.

Here. There. Everywhere! (Part 3)

Tonight, I think it's time to do a little bit of discussing about what's going on in astronomy with the moon recently. More than one person that knows I'm an astronomy geek has heard the news that we're planning on crashing a probe into the moon.

I'll discuss how, when and more importantly why a bit later, but first I think it's important to give a bit of background, since the moon is pretty cool and all.

As most of you should know, the US has landed on the moon beginning with Apollo 11. From there, several more Apollo missions (up through 17) landed on the moon, with the obvious exception of Apollo 13. And then after 17, NASA's funding dried up due to Americans losing interest now that the Cold War was ending.

As Commander Gene Cernan (who I had the fortune of meeting 2 years ago) left the moon, he said: "As we leave the Moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I'd just like to record that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. Godspeed the crew of Apollo Seventeen."

Since then, man has not returned.

However, president Bush is looking to change that. Nearly two years ago, Bush announced his bold "Space Vision". In short, he planned to retire the current shuttle fleet which is incapable of getting beyond Earth's orbit, by 2010, and replace it with a "Crew Exploration Vehicle" (CEV) which would be able to take astronauts to the moon by 2020.

In preparation, new rovers and orbiters would be sent to the moon to find suitable landing spots. The eventual goal is to land humans on Mars and the moon will be used as a "stepping stone" in which to practice our technology. Another goal is to establish a colony on the moon. These robot scouts would attempt to find suitable locations which would later be followed up by human explorers.

However, before I discuss what's being done to accomplish these goals (and how smacking a massive probe into the moon at several miles a second), I feel obliged to discuss why I, and a very large number of others, are extremely dissatisfied with Bush's "vision".

As with many things, the issue comes down to funding. NASA's current budget is just over 16 billion per year. However, nearly 6 billion of this is eaten by the shuttle fleet alone! So that leaves 10 billion for everything else. Which is a lot. NASA is also responsible for operating a large number of satellites (including the venerable Hubble), as well as earth based observatories, and a very large number of research grants, among other things.

To fulfill this "vision", NASA will have to seriously reallocate its funds, which will significantly slash funds for scientific ventures such as the ones I'm involved in. This has left us research astronomers rather annoyed. It's likely to be a large factor in the uncertain fate of the Hubble, as well as the on again, off again funding of the astrobiology program.

In addition, Bush also plans to abandon the International Space Station as soon as its completed (and likely only because we're obliged to due to our agreements with other nations on the matter), given that we won't have a shuttle capable of accessing it until the new CEV is finished. Without the US providing access, Russia will be the only other country capable of taking astronauts there. This has caused the space agencies of several other countries to be rather annoyed with the sudden change in plans.

And even with the reallocation of the majority of NASA's funds, many critics argue whether or not that will be enough to accomplish Bush's vision. Back in the 1960's the Apollo program recieved a generous 1% of the national budget. Yet today, even with inflation, NASA recieves barely a fraction of that.

Aside from the economic reasons behind this, I'm personally skeptical of the president's motivation in these matters. When the president proposes limiting stem-cell research, promotes Intelligent Design, and otherwise hinders science as a whole, this move to shoot for the moon seems like little more than a cheap shot at appeasing science minded voters.

But regardless of my feelings, or the feelings of many other astronomers, Bush's plan is still moving forward. And while I may feel that it's not the best course of action for our dollar, it is still slated to produce some very interesting science.

Since one of the goals is to set up a possible colony, or at the very least, a long term station, finding suitable places is a high priority. The landing area should be flat enough that the lander won't have trouble landing. Any resources at the site would also be beneficial. Chief amongst these is water.

"Water?!" you say. Yes. Water. Since water is vital, yet extremely heavy to carry (and thus expensive), finding a place where water may be avilable would be a huge asset. Previous chemical mappings of the moon have revealed that the moon contains large areas that have hydrogen. But pure hydrogen is a gas. And a very light gas at that. Thus, any hydrogen in gaseous form on the moon would simply float away like any other atmosphere the moon would have, given how puny it is.

Thus, for hydrogen to be present, it must be locked up in something. Water (H2O) is excellent at doing just this. But as of yet, astronomers aren't sure if that hydrogen really is water. Thus, we'll have to find out.

To map the surface with extremely high resolution, NASA is planning on sending a new orbiter called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which will map the surface at unprecedented detail. To get it there will require a powerful rocket. But NASA is good at those. In fact, they're so good, they actually had a little bit of room left over.

To fill the extra seat, NASA asked for submissions of ideas. While it recieved a fair number, the one that won out was a repeat of the Deep Impact mission. Deep Impact slammed a giant impactor into a comet at 23,000 mph.

This seems a crazy thing to do, and when I discuss this mission, people are always stunned and ask "Why on Earth would we do something like that?"

My sarcastic response is always "To see if it has a cream filling." Ironically, this isn't far from the truth. Since interesting material is frequently burried, the easiest way to do some excavation is with a massive impact. The impact sends out a gigantic plume of material which can then be studied by a following spacecraft that will analyze that proverbial cream filling.

This is the same idea for the lunar impacting mission which has been dubbed LCrOSS. The mission is scheduled for launch in 2008. The impact is expected to create a crater about 1/3 the size of a football field and may be visible by telescopes here on Earth.

So that's where we stand on getting back to the moon at this time. Although I'm disappointed at seeing funding slashed in the fields I plan to study, this mission should still produce some exciting science that I'm anticipating.

And since this post didn't have any pretty pictures, I'll leave off with this one, taken from Apollo 8:

Failures at preaching to the Choir to the choir & Yo' Momma jokes: ID supporters newest tactics

It seems like DaveScott over at Uncommon Descent seems to think that the right to free speech somehow exempts Hovind from having to file for a permit.

However, it seems even those that support Intelligent Design are as ignorant as DaveScott in thinking this is true. His own readers hung him out to dry.

So what does DaveScott do? Starts making "Yo' momma" jokes about his readers. His intellectual prowess and maturity is astounding.

Nothing New

In both the Lawrence Journal World and the Kansas City Star have run articles today concerning the "playing of the system" that many states have been doing in reporting test scores for the So Child Left Behind act.

As many know, the NCLB act requires that students be tested to determine whether or not children in states have been meeting the benchmark goals set forth by the act. Should schools not meet these benchmarks, their funding can be slashed as well as other punishments.

But to avoid these sanctions, schools have been exploiting a loophole to avoid the reporting of scores that may otherwise hinder their progress. Rules allow for the schools to exclude scores of certain minorities if the school does not have a significant percentage of a given minority. However, in many cases, this allows for as many as 30-50 students from a given school to be excluded. Across the state of Kansas, this allows for thousands of students test scores to be excluded if their scores don't help the school.

This isn't only common in Kansas though. In Texas, over 65,000 asian and Native American students are excluded. Other states have similar statistics.

But this isn't the first time that has happened. Before NCLB was enacted as a national policy, it was first enacted in Texas while Bush was governor. Even then, school districts cheated the system by excluding students from minorities or students with special needs.

You'd think that the program failing to improve the school system in Texas would have been an indication that it had some serious flaws that should be fixed. But it seems that Bush doesn't care to take a hint before shouting "Let's roll."

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Here. There. Everywhere! (Part 2)

Earlier, I made a post about all the fun stuff going on over at Mars right now. But as I stated in the beginning of that post, that's far from the only extraterrestrial expedition going on right now.

Also of note is the Cassini spacecraft which is off at Saturn. It arrived there in June of 2004 and has been returning some excellent data, and more importantly for those not in the field, pictures.

One of my favourites is this one:

The thin blue line across this image is Saturn's rings viewed edge on. Visible also, are a few of Saturn's moons (which ones I'm not sure).

Saturn's moons are of special interest as well. One of the most interesting ones is named Titan. For a long time, astronomers have known that Titan has significant atmosphere. In fact, it's atmosphere is 60% greater than Earth's! And even though it's classified as a moon, it's larger than either Mercury or Pluto.

But although Titan does have a noteable atmosphere, it's not about to be a vacation spot any time soon. Being that it orbits along with Saturn at 9.5 times the distance from the sun that the Earth does, it's a chilly place. Additionally, that atmosphere isn't going to be good for your health. It's composed mostly of nitrogen. The ~2% that's not is complex molecules such as ethane, acetylene, and propane, as well as a little bit of argon, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and others gasses.

Quite often, when people hear that Titan's atmosphere contains such volatile gasses, they ask if is going to explode. The answer is no. To ignite such gasses requires the presence of oxygen which is non-existant on Titan.

But that's not what makes Titan interesting. It's possible that there's actually liquid on Titan's surface. Not liquid water of course (it's far too cold for that), but instead, liquid ethane. The reasoning behind this has to do with the requirements for various chemicals to be in different states. The main determinants of the state of a compound are temperature and pressure (some of you may recall something called Standard Temperature and Pressure, STP, from your high school chemistry courses).

These two properties work against eachother. The higher the temperature is, the more likely a given chemical is to be in a vapor form. The higher the pressure is, the more the chemical will be in a dense liquid or solid state. Each molecule has its own specific balance of these to determine forms. But it just so happens that at Titan, the pressure and temperature are just right for ethane to be in liquid form.

Thus, astronomers suspected that Titan may actually have complete oceans of ethane. Images from wavelengths of light that could penetrate the hazy atmosphere showed large dark spots that appeared to be extremely smooth like just such an ocean would be. One of those spots can be seen in the upper left of this image:

So what's the best way to find out if this is true or not? The obvious answer is to go there. That's why the Cassini mission carried along a small lander called Huygens. Given that it was possible that they would be landing in an ocean, the lander was designed to float. This lander was dropped off at Titan and parachuted through the atmosphere and returned the first images from the surface:

Hardly the exciting dynamic surface that we were all hoping for. But that's not the only picture the lander took. It also took a large number of pictures as it parachuted down.

In this, we can see the lighter land area, which is positively filled with features very similar to drainage canals on Earth. These features all head to lower altitudes where there's a large dark area that is relatively featureless. This implies that the canals have emptied their liquid into a basin, which evaporates after eroding the surface, which accounts for the featureless appearance. Thus, it appears that, although Titan isn't going to be good for going swimming, you might have to bring an umbrella if ever we visit.

When Cassini was first launched, it was thought that most of Saturn's other moons were rather bland. Many of them were quite large, but lacked the interesting, large scale features of Titan. Moons such as Enceladus appeared to be featureless discs:

However, on getting there, Cassini discovered that these moons were far more interesting. Iapetus was one of the first moons that caught a bit of attention. It had long been known to have some rather irregular constrasts on its surface in which a good portion of the surface was significantly brighter (the measure of how well an object like moons reflect light is called albedo) than the rest. This became even more striking when the first close up pictures were returned:

Another thing that was gleaned from these images is a strange ridge along the moon. The combination of these two features led astronomers to believe that Iapetus had undergone a massive impact. The bright spot would have been caused by freshly revealed material that had not yet had time to be dirtied. The ridge would have been the shockwave that propagated through the moon until resolidifying.

But this wasn't the only interesting feature that was discovered on Saturn's moons. Enceladus, ended up having deep grooves in the surface:

These grooves ended up becoming very important last month, even grabbing the front page on a local newspaper or two. The reason: jets of liquid water spurted from them. While at least two moons of Jupiter are known to have subsurface oceans of liquid water, no one had suspected that Enceladus harbored such a secret. However, unlike with Jupiter's water filled moons, Enceladus' water must be close to the surface in order to erupt as it does. This gives astrobiologists an exciting new prospect in the search for possible extraterrestrial life.

Although other moons have interseting features, those have been the major highlights thus far. But Cassini's mission is far from finished.

So that's it for tonight. In my next update on what's going on around the solar system, I'll either be talking about what's happening at Venus, or some interesting plans for the moon.

NOTE: All images in this post are copyrighted to NASA and/or their respective creators.

Are atheists really the ones pushing for the removal of religion from the public sphere?

Many conservatives claim that evil secularists (especially us darn atheists) are out to remove religion from the public sphere. That's obviously why such God-hating atheists like Nedow are constantly starting lawsuits to get religion out of schools and government.

While it's certainly true that atheists frequently do attempt to uphold the separation of church and state, I think it stands to actually see if they're the most frequent belief system pushing for it, or if, in fact, those of theistic beliefs do so even more frequently.

To answer this question, I found a list of court cases concerning church/state separation. I limited my inquiry to those that actually reached the supreme court since many earlier ones that never did stood to be overturned or were eventually consolidated with others. In chronological order, here's my findings:

Everson v. The Board of Education of the Township of Ewing
Unspecified “tax-payer”

Torcaso v. Watkins

Engel v. Vitale
10 parents of which an unknown number were religious

Epperson v. Arkansas

Abington Township School District v. Schempp
Unitarian (consolidated with Atheist in Murray v. Curlett)

Lemon v. Kurtzman

Wisconsin v. Yoder
Amish (supported legally by a Lutheran lawyer)

Wallace v. Jaffree

Edwards v. Aguillard
Various teachers, parents, and religious leaders

Lee v. Weisman

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe
Mormon & Catholic

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow

McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky et al.
7 plaintiffs of unknown religious affiliation

Kitzmiller v. Dover
11 parents of which an unknown number were religious

Van Orden v. Perry

So it turns out that of 8 of the 16 cases involved those with theistic beliefs as plaintiffs.
(NOTE: I have included those cases which say something to the effect of "an unknown number of which were religious". In my searching I found that articles would not specify how many of the frequently multiple plaintiffs, held a religious affiliation.)

When we count the number of cases started by atheists, we find that only two cases fit this criteria.

The rest of the cases (6) I couldn't find any information on the plaintiffs (
If anyone knows of the religious affiliation of the cases I have marked as unknown, please let me know so I can update the information).

So looking at the breakdown from these 16 cases, 50% of cases reaching the Supreme Court are started by people with religious affiliation. Only 11% are not. The remaining 39% were undetermined.

Tennessee's Second Class Citizens

I don't think anyone was surprised when a national survey pointed out that atheists are America's most distrusted minority. But really, we atheists, along with other minorities, shouldn't complain too much. After all, it's not like we don't enjoy equal rights and equal opportunities under America's laws. Right?

. In Tennessee, the state constitution prohibits anyone from holding public office that "denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments". This doesn't just discriminate against atheists. Also many eastern religions are banned from holding public offices.

And it doesn't stop there. It also dicriminates against clergy even in the religions it would allow:

Whereas ministers of the Gospels are by their profession, dedicated to the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions; therefore, no minister of the Gospels or priest of any denomination whatever shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature.

Thus, to hold office in Tennessee, you must be a Christian or Muslim and not be a member of the clergy. I would say I expect a constitutional challange at some point, but given America's religiophobic attitude towards non-Christians, it's so rare that they would even get nominated by their parties that no challange to the law could foreseeably occur.

However, were there ever to be a constiutional challange of this law, I have a good feeling it would be found unconstitutional under the precedent set forth in Torcaso v. Watkins.

Friday, April 14, 2006

North Carolina school gives special privlidges to Christians

Back in high school (like it was a long time ago), I can recall modestly dressed old men standing outside when school let out waiting to distribute their Gideons bibles. They were always kind, and most people returned their kindness and politely refused, took one gratiously, or courteously debated them. Yet of all this, the Gideons people were always confined to the public sidewalks outside the school.

However, it seems that this isn't enough for a school in North Carolina. The school board there recently decided that it should be allowed for the Gideons distributors to actually enter the school grounds. This goes against the school's current policy which states" may not be generally distributed by religious groups to students at school."

Chairman Shirley Babson comments that, "I just believe that we do live in a free country, and that means Christians are free too."

I honestly wonder if she'll feel the same way when other groups try to utilize their freedom. Perhaps a local Satanist group should see if they can enjoy the same rights.

She continues, saying, "I'm very concerned about the moral decline of our country, and I believe it comes on not basing our ethics and morals on what the Bible says."

I find this comment interesting given that fundamentalists frequently claim that morals should come from the home. That's the excuse given here in Kansas frequently in removing sex ed from classrooms unless parents "opt in". It's also frequently used against evolution when ID proponents claim that evolution encourages atheism. I'm sure that children are getting their dose of religion at home, as well as their weekly boosters at church. So I'm not quite sure why such people feel the need to contradict the claim that morals are best left to parents by trying to insert spiritual and moral guidance into schools.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has already written the school board pointing out that "The First Amendment requires public schools to remain neutral on religious matters, and respect the legal rights of parents to direct the religious upbringing of their children" and "Rogue school boards cannot be permitted to undermine our Constitution and proselytize small children." They have also promised a lawsuit should the school board not reverse its decision.

Even Christian universities don't want 'em

It seems that even universities that are looking to establish themselves as based on Christian principals don't want ID assosciated with them. ID websites have recently been abuzz with the usual claims of persecution when the Baylor University recently denied tenure to Francis Beckwith.

Obviously ID supporters claim that it is because of his association with the Discovery Institutes. Others suggest that it has to do with his more general fundamenatlist Christian approach. However, the university denies both of these claims.

The folds over at Uncommon Descent seem to think that, since the school claims to be "affirming and deepening its distinctive Christian vision", it must support Intelligent Design.

I'm not sure why ID folks seem to get this impression that Christian simply must mean that you love Intelligent Design, especially given how frequently they deny the claim that their "theory" is motivated by their Christian beliefs. To quote one of the commentors over at UD, "Why do see in my mind images of Pinocchio’s nose growing longer?"

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Here. There. Everywhere!

Last night, after finishing teaching my astronomy lab, I was headed home when I ran into a classmate. We got to talking about all the things going on in research in the solar system right now. She hadn't heard much news, given that she's much more studious than I tend to be, and don't keep up with these things. However, until last night, I'd never really put it all together and realized how much is going on in spaceflight at this moment.

As most people know, in 2003, a pair of twin rovers named Spirit and Opportunity were both launched to Mars. They landed there in January of 2004. Their goal was to attempt to discover if Mars had ever contained liquid water.

Through various methods, the two rovers quickly accomplished this mission. The first major clue was that the rovers found vast amounts of a mineral known as hematite, which is only known to form in the presence of water. More interestingly, the hematite was found in small pellets, about 1 cm in diameter, and were nicknamed blueberries.

Aside from the discovery of hematite, various salts were also found that require liquid water to form. Another important clue was that the surface of mars shows signs of crossbedding which again, only happens in the presence of liquid water.

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers were only intended to last 3 months. Currently, they're coming up on 2 years of operation on the red planet.

But Spirit and Opportunity aren't the only goodies over at Mars right now. Recently, a new orbiter, known as the Mars Reconnissance Orbiter fell into orbit and is mapping the entire surface at unprecedented resolution. To illustrate just how amazing this resolution is, I'm going to steal a page from the Bad Astronomy Blog.

Here's one of the earliest pictures from MRO:

There's a fairly small crater in the lower left corner that the Bad Astronomer enlarged to get this:

Doesn't look like much, but this crater is actually only 30 meters across! That's tiny! For comparison, the Bad Astronomer posts this picture he found on Google maps of something similar sized on Earth so we can get some idea of comparison:

Keep in mind, this image was taken of Mars. On Mars' closest approach a few years back, I had the opportunity to observe it with a 16" telescope (that's pretty damn big for those of you that aren't familiar with astronomical instruments). Even then, it was only about the size of a quarter held at arm's length. I was impressed that I could easily make out the polar caps as well as seveal light and dark features. But those features are all thousands of km in size. And here we are being able to resolve objects down to only a few meters across.

Simply amazing.

That's all for tonight, but I'm going to continue along this line and over the next few day, post about all the exciting things that are going on at several other places in the solar system including, Venus, the moon, Saturn, and probably more.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Is ID really an "attack on science"?

I hang out on a good number of message boards that discuss Intelligent Design and the like. On them, there is a general consensus among the science minded that ID is possibly the most dangerous part of a full scale attack on science.

However, the question was recently raised on how we define this "attack on science".

In and of itself, Intelligent Design is not an attack on science. It is a intellectually bankrupt attack on a particular branch of science, but not science in general.

So why do we still maintain that science is under attack?

Aside from ID, there are more than just this simple assault. Although it is often assosciated with ID, many people presume to challange the entire concept of methodological naturalism which posits that science can only look for non-supernatural causes for events given that supernatural ones are beyond testing. Their argument is that excluding these possible explanations limits what science is able to explain and thus, it will yield false results if the true answer lies outside the scope of investigation. This is surely a valid critisizm in that regard. However, if science is not able to answer something conclusively, it does not place the prohibition that philosophical or religious methods of inquiry must be banished.

This prong of attack has been very prominent recently, being manifested in Behe's admittance that, to include Intelligent Design as science, one must also include other non-naturalistic methods of investigation, such as astrology. Of course, that is only one person's opinion and not truly a credible threat. So what is a credible threat? The recent action of the Kansas school board, removing the stipulation that science seek only natural explanations, a position that will be taught to thousands of children, is a credible threat to science.

And keep in mind that this is not just biology that this redefinition is threatened by, but the foundation upon which all scientific investigation is founded. This means the damage moves far beyond biological sciences, but extends into chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, etc...

Aside from these attacks, the attacks on the rest of the scientific fiels are also mounting. Dembski's recent hasty actions in ratting out an opinion with which he agreed to Homeland Security is an example of this. The censoring of scientists at NASA by unqualified media relations people ganining their job through cronyism is another. The long standing Young-Earth-Creationists make their attacks on far more fronts than just biology, as do non-religiously motivated anti-scientists, such as the moon hoax theorists, planet-X theorists, and others.

So, in short, Intelligent Design does not constitute an "attack on science" any more than a cough constitutes a flu. However, when combined with the sore throats, the fevers, sneezing, and other symptoms, the diagnosis can be firmly established: Science is under attack.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Verification comes so soon...

Remember in one of my recent posts where I said that "persecution" to a fundamentalist, means not giving Christianity special privlidges? Well, it seems the persecution card is what fundamentalists at Dino Adventure Land are crying because their site has never filed for any sorts of permits.
"This is pure religious persecution," said Glen Stoll, who works closely with Hovind on legal issues.

I don't believe that the bible says anything about filing for permits as something that Christians should avoid. Nor is paying taxes. Thus, jumping up and claiming they're against your religious beliefs isn't going to work. Apparently, the state of Florida agrees with me:
"Scripture also says 'Render unto Caesar what Caesar demands.' And right now, Caesar demands a building permit," County Commission Chairman Mike Whitehead said.

If you want to submit yourself to God's rather arbitrary and non-sensical laws, that's fine. But as long as you're here, you have to follow these laws too.

And this isn't the first time Hovind's been in legal trouble.

According to Wikipedia (most reliable source on the internet, I know...) Hovind tried, unsuccessfully to file for bankruptcy in 1996 in order to avoid paying taxes. But he was found to have lied about his income and posessions.

In 1998, he attempted to avoid payments by claiming he could "revoke all signatures" on all documents he'd ever signed agreeing to pay.

In 2002, he tried, again, to file for bankruptcy and attempted to sue the IRS for harassment. IRS agents then raided his home and confiscated financial records. He was found to not posess any busisness liscences for any of his ventures and was making deposits totalling well over $1 million annually.

But apparently, forcing an American citizen to follow the laws, the same laws that every other American must follow, regardless of religion, is somehow persecution.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Eclipses, and Transits, and Occultations: Oh My!

A few days back I posted a wonderful picture of the recent total solar eclipse taken from the ground. This one is taken from a slightly different vantage point: the International Space Station.

In this, we can see the darker central shadow, which is called the umbra. In this corridor, it will be possible to view the eclipse as a total eclipse. Around it is a fainter shadow where some light is still getting through. This part is known as the penumbra. If the eclipse is viewed from here, the moon will only cover part of the sun.

But Earth isn't the only place eclipses can occur. Eclipses can actually occur on any body that has a satellite large enough that it's angular size is greater than, or equal to, that of the sun when viewed from that distance. This means that Jupiter's largest moons, known as the Gallilean moons, can all cast shadows that would be percieved as eclipses if viewed from below.

Meanwhile, in other places, like Mars, the satellites will be too small to completely cover the sun. Thus, the object will only partially block the sun. For example, here's Phobos going across the Sun as viewed from the Opportunity rover which is still working away on the surface of Mars:

Events such as this, in which one object passes in front of another, but does not completely block it, are called transits.

Another type of event that is similar is called an occultation in which a large object passes in front of another (excluding the sun and moon). This happens occasionally with the moon passing in front of various stars and on rarer occasions, planets.

That's all for today's astronomy lesson.

"Christianity: Child abuse? A Virus?" OR More of the Christian Persecution Complex

The American Chronicle has an article up, responding to some quotes by our favourite Richard Dawkins. However, while the writer has a lot to say, it's readily apparent that none of it is worth anything. As usual, the author takes quotes and creates ridiculous arguments from them by putting meaning where there is none, all in an attempt to feel persecuted.

If someone had predicted thirty years ago that “gay” marriage would be legalized in some American states (and all across Canada), many in the church would have scoffed at the possibility.

If someone had predicted sixty years ago that prayer, Bible reading and creation would be thrown out of America’s public schools, well, most in the church back then would have also thought it to be ridiculous.

But ... they have happened!
It did?! Oh no. Too bad our government doesn't listen exclusively to "people in the church", although they come pretty damned close...

If America continues on its present course of abandoning the absolute authority of the Word of God...
The "absolute authority of the Word of God" is nowhere in our laws or constitution. In fact, such things are expressly forbidden. Therefore, it's rather hard to abandon something that was never there in the first place.

...and teaching generations of students that they are the result of random natural processes...
Ah the good 'ole "evolution is random" strawman.

Christians who teach their children to believe that God created in six days will have those same children taken away ... and the parents will be arrested for “child abuse.”
Ooh... interesting accusation. Can the author back it up?

The author then quotes Dawkins:
It’s time to question the abuse of childhood innocence with superstitious ideas of hellfire and damnation. And I want to show how the scriptural roots of the Judeo-Christian moral edifice are cruel and brutish.

What in the 21st century are we doing venerating a book (the Bible) that contains such stuff?
I think it's a fair question. As much as fundamentalists cry that Islam is a religion of hate and cry for it to be looked down upon, they seem inherently blind to the bigotry their own scriptures promote.

As you read such comments from atheistic evolutionists, you can see that it can often get quite emotional for them when they attack creation and intelligent design - and get very upset when the arguments against evolution are presented (especially in public school science classes).
Given that there's no legitimate arguments against evolution, I think it's understandably so that we're more than a bit put off by the incessant harping on distortions of reality.

While many secularists say that creation should not be allowed in public school science classes but should be relegated to the religion or philosophy class, a school in California was threatened with a lawsuit because the topic of creation as taught in a new philosophy course. The school dropped the course.
This is another perfect example of giving partial truths that fundamentalists are so fond of that I noted in an earlier post. A school in California did indeed propose to teach an Intelligent Design class as philosophy. However, looking at the proposed syllabus, material, and instructor, it was clear that this entire class was a sham. The teacher had no qualifications and merely wanted to show videos from such groups as Answers in Genesis without enough knowledge to either affirm or refute them. Additionally, the course was extremely one sided and offered no chance to "teach the other side". Ironic that this is what fundamentalists use as their mantra and then quickly abandon.

It was for these reasons that the course was cancelled. Not because Christianity is banned in philosophy classes. Quite the opposite. Many schools offer courses in comparitive religions. Sadly for fundamentalists, they will teach many religions and not just preach Christianity.

Christianity is now marginalized in what was once the greatest Christian nation on earth. And the more control that secularists grab in this nation, the bolder they will become (following Dawkins’ example) in applying their atheistic philosophy - which simply cannot tolerate Christianity and its absolute morality.
Wrong again. What we secularists can't tolerate is fundamentalists imposing that absolute morality on everyone else.

Yes, it could happen one day. ... your children or grandchildren may be accused of child abuse because they teach the Bible to their children.
This was the original argument, but given that the author has failed to connect current times to this, it's a little logical fallacy known as the slippery slope.

Amusingly enough, the article ends off with an unsurprisingly commmon to these types of people, sales pitch:
If you and your children would like to become knowledgeable, informed and really armed with the truth of God’s Word found in Genesis, consider purchasing the many books, DVDs etc, from the many wonderful authors that are available from this very vitally needed and important ministry.
Sorry buddy. I'm not buying.

Also I find the author's bio rather amusing when it states:
Bill has his P.H.D in self-education. It was necessary since his earlier public school education betrayed his potential to think and learn.
I'll just leave that one to speak for itself...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

NCLB Leaves Schools with Catch 22

It seems officials are intending to actually enforce a provision of the No Child Left Behind act stating that schools that are not meeting the benchmarks set forth by the NCLB act, must inform parents that their child has the option to recieve free tutoring or to transfer to another school altogether.

While this sounds like a wonderful idea, letting parents know their rights in regards to their children's education, but sadly, fails to live up to the good intentions such things have (a common trait of NCLB). The biggest problem is that schools recieve funding based upon enrollment. Thus, if students transfer out, enrollment goes down and thus, funding gets cut as well. Schools that would fall under this provision (ie, the failing ones) will already be the ones that do not see enough funding.

Thus, underfunded schools are being threatened with either having funding cut further for trying to keep students by not informing parents of their right, or having their funding cut for not maintaining students. Of course, there's always a third option: Schools can always refuse to participate in the NCLB program and have all of their funding cut.

Gospel of Judas

It seems there may be one more gospel to add to the list of the non-cannonical ones. According to the finding, a series of gospels found in the 1970's has been carbon dated to be from about 300 AD. While this certainly puts it after the time it would have been written, it is believed to be a copy from an earlier document which was believed to exist due to a reference from a bishop in 180 AD.

The new gospel is written by Judas, the disciple that betrayed Jesus and apparently reports that this was done at Jesus' own request.

So where does this gospel fit in the timeline of the writings of gospels? The cannonical gospels were all written between ~65AD and ~120AD. Thus having a text that is being written about by bishops only 60 years after the Gospel of John was written makes it likely that is authentic.

But for those that don't know, there's more than just the four gospels that made it into the Bible. Others, such as the Gospel of Thomas, may very well predate even the earliest of the cannoncial gospels, while others, like the Gospel of Mary (which is the basis for the DaVinci Code), give a very different view on the events that took place during the time period.

Yet neither of these texts are accepted as "true" by any of the main branches of Christianity (at least that I'm aware of). Similarly, I expect that this newly discovered Gospel of Judas shall be quietly shuffled off to the side by priests, and only a topic of interest for religious scholars.

To me, this would be akin to trying to read a novel with only the Cliff Notes and presuming that they're adequate. In astronomy, this could be compared to studying the universe only in the optical wavelengths dispite the many more we know about today. To me, if a tool is available to gain insight, there is no reason not to use it.

Unless your goal isn't to gain insight of course. It is precisely this reason that Creationism and it's younger brother, will never pass as science. As Behe proved on stand at Dover, such people aren't truly out to use the tools they have available to them, which is why Behe was forced to admit that he has never tested a single one of his hypothesies on irreducible complexity (as if you could really test such an assumption anyway).

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tik-taalik - Toe?

It looks like researchers have found a "missing link" between sea animals and those of the earliest ones on land. The newly discovered creature is similar to a fish, but has bones in its fin that are similar to the legs of early land animals.

Yet, while it's certainly an exciting find, I'm reluctant to call it a missing link. While I would certainly concede it is a link, there are many species that already bridge this gap. While anti-science propagandists frequently claim there are no transitionary fossils, this is far from the truth.

I think the most interesting way I've heard this put, is from a talk given by Kenneth Miller at Case Western University, in which he discusses this very topic starting at time marker 31:23.
He first presents a statement from the National Academy of Sciences in 1999 stating:
So many intermediate forms have been discovered between fish and amphibians, between amphibians and reptiles, between reptiles and mammals, and along the primate lines, of descent that it often is difficult to identify categorically when the transition occurs from one to another particular species.
He then goes on to tell of a colleague, Christine Janice of Brown University, who attended a conference in which there was heated debate over the discovery of 11-12 new fossils from the Powder River basin were having to be categorized and "almost fist fights broke out among the scientists arguing as to whether or not these fossils should be called mammal like reptiles or reptile like mammals."

However, the next point he brings up, and the one which leads me to believe that the new discovery is not especially monumental, is that it was well documented that whales and dolphins evolved from terrestrial mammals. For many years this was considered ridiculous and various drawings of strange half breeds were made in a sort of ridicule of this theory.

And then they discovered the fossils of just such creatures were discovered, such as the amublocetus natans (trans: walking whale that swims). So what does this show us? Evolution has made successful predictions which is one of the most compelling proofs a theory can offer.

But it didn't stop there. For this transition to occur, the structure of the inner ear would have to have changed significantly to make the transition from hearing in air, to hearing in water. And surely enough, more intermediate forms were discovered proving exactly this. So this leads to two successful predictions for a transition that seems more than a bit improbable. And all this from transitionary fossils that aren't supposed to exist.

However, I do note that this transition is in the wrong direction (ie, land to water instead of water to land), yet being able to successfuly go one way makes it all the more plausible that it can go the other.

And just in case you forget that there's numerous other transitionary fossils out there, be sure to check out a rather extensive list at talkorigins.

Persecution = Refusing to give special status?

The Christian Persecution Complex seems to be hard at work still. It seems John Moranski, a born again Christian working for General Motors as a desktop computing architect, has filed suit against the company because they would not sponsor a religious group he wished to form.

In 1999 GM began sponsoring what it called an Affinity group program in which they sponsor groups that would in some way support diverse employees, improve performance, and better serve diverse market segments. It was also stated that they generally form "
around an aspect of common social identity that influences how others see them at GM."

Under this program many religious groups, not just Christian were denied. Additionally, ones that would be formed around common interests such as golf, were also denied.

But how dare GM try to keep someone from forming a Christian group! That's religious persecution!

As usual, Moranski sued with the claim that somehow, not helping promote religion served to promote the opposite, once again, the distorted black-and-white world of false dichotomies that such people live in.

Fortunately, things are not so bad that our court system has been infiltrated by such people. The case was dismissed, appealed and dismissed again.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Can't make yourself look good? Then make someone else look bad!

It looks like American Enterprise has an article up regarding the Dover case that's pretty typical of the blame shifting and uninformed statements that generally plague ID supporters.

It starts off:
If the ACLU happens to sue your small hometown and then demands $1 million dollars for their lawyers, would you call them generous and charitable? Strangely enough, that's exactly what they’ve done to the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania.
Why is it that the religious right always try to villanize the ACLU? Furthermore, are they unaware that the ACLU cannot sue anyone? It is the parents that must file the suit and it's merely the ACLU that represents them. Also of note in this clip is that they say the ACLU is demanding $1 million for their lawyers. This is, as expected, a partial truth. The ACLU is requiring that the Dover School Board pay $1 million, which covers not only the lawyers' fees, but also the court costs. Furthermore, they're not demanding it. It's what they were awarded by the judge. Except that it's not. The judge in this case actually ordered that $2 million be paid for the fees, but the ACLU waived half of it. I'd call that generous.

Later on, the article continues:
The policy also required school administrators to read to students a statement mentioning problems with Darwin's theory and refers students to school library textbooks discussing the theory of intelligent design.
Again, a slanted view on the truth. The policy originally required teachers to read the statement. This was after the teachers had unanimously denounced the curriculum change. The reason administrators were going to read the statement was because the teachers "opted out" of reading the statement. The next part about "school library textbooks" is true on the surface, but readers would do well to remember that these books were specifically purchased for this curriculum change and were paid for by collecting donations at a Church of one of the school board members (who later lied on stand at the trial and said he did not know where the funding for them came from).
Ironically, the policy itself wasn’t favored by such leading proponents of intelligent design as the Discovery Institute, which opposes mandating the topic in public schools and repeatedly urged the Dover board to repeal its policy well before any lawsuit was filed.
This is a fairly popular claim, that the Discovery Institute was opposed to the Dover School Board's actions. However, the Discovery Institute actually encouraged the teaching of Intelligent Design there until they realized the school board had mangled their project.

From there, the article goes on to try to make a claim that the C.A.R.E.S. group that swept the elections, is somehow in cahoots with the ACLU, trying to make them money, because their first action wasn't to rescind the flawed policy which could result in the case settling out of court and potentially cost less money.

However, there's one major flaw in that argument: The trial ended in October, more than a full month before the first meeting of the new school board. All that was left was for the judge to issue his ruling. Thus, the chance that the school board could save much, if any, money for the school is questionable. Furthermore, if the ACLU is really as evil as the article tries to claim, settling out of court is no guarantee that any money could be saved, given that the ACLU could still demand the same amount for fees.

So overall, this article looks like another cheap conspiracy theory.

Lastly it ends with this wonderful logical fallacy:
over three quarters of [the public] want intelligent design taught alongside Darwinism in schools.
Can you say "argument ad populum"?

Do as I say, not as I do...

Many people, myself included, think that people like Phelps that are outspoken about the evils of homosexuality do so because they are terrified of their own deeply rooted homosexual tendancies. It's the religious right that rails against homosexuals, yet are the same ones that have commited the most heinous crimes involving sodomy, such as the scandals in the Catholic Church in which those involved were not punished, or if they were, only very lightly.

This trend of "do as I say, not as I do" seems to be the rule for the religious right. In a recent case in Arizona, a camp counselor sodomized 18 boys, ages 11-13, using flashlights and broomsticks. The culprit was intending to go on a mission to preach the word of Jesus next year.

To make matters worse in this case, the person responsible is getting off with almost no punishment. The prosecutors are only seeking a mild sentence with little to no jail time and changing the charge to only one count of assault instead of 18 of sexual assault against minors. Why? Because the person that commited the act is the son of the presdient of the Arizona senate...

Monday, April 03, 2006

So I figure that's enough ranting. Now for a reminder of why I love astronomy:

(Click to enlarge)

This image is of the solar eclipse earlier this week. Solar eclipses occur when the moon comes between the Earth and Sun. However, there's more to it than just that, otherwise we'd have a solar eclipse every ~28 days (one full lunar cycle).

When viewed edge on, the plane in which the moon orbits is slightly tilted in relation to the plane the Earth and Sun lie on (hence the reason the shadow moves along a different line in the sky than the sun, intersecting only at the one point). Because of this, most of the time, when the moon is on the line between the Warth and the Sun, it is simply too high or too low to cause an eclipse.

Sometimes it's between the point where it's too high or low and the point where it will completely come in front of the Sun. In this case, the moon will only cover part of the Sun and the result will be a partial ecplipse, such as this one I photographed in Spring 2005.

Additionally, the moon's orbit around the Earth is not perfectly circular. It is slightly elliptical. This means that at some points in its orbit, it further than other points. As common experience should tell you, ther further away an object is, the smaller it will look (which is why the sun appears the same size in the sky as the moon dispite being millions of times bigger). Therefore, since the moon is further away, it will be smaller, and may not cover the sun entirely. This is known as an annular eclipse in which the moon will be silhouetted on the sun leaving a ring (such as in this picture).

Thus this image is an extremely rare "total solar eclipse" in which the moon completely covers the full disk of the sun. But what's all that fuzzy stuff around it in the center one? That's called the corona and is essentially the sun's extended atmosphere which is shaped by the Sun's immense magnetic field. It's actually always there, but it's extremely faint in comparison to the sun, so we can't see it unless the sun is somehow blocked out, as in the case of a total solar eclipse. It is primarily composed of the nuclei of ionized hydrogen atoms.

You may also be wondering why you didn't happen to catch this eclipse given that it only happened a few days ago. The reason is that this one only happened to be visible from regions of northern Africa and the Middle East. You should not be asking yourself, "why only such a small location given that half the Earth can see the sun at any time?" The reason for this is something called parallax. In the scenario of a total eclipse, only the locations directly below the center of the moon will see the eclipse. Locations slightly further away will be viewing the event from a slightly different angle.

While this wouldn't seem like it would play much of a difference, try a quick experiment. Imagine your left eye is someone standing in southern Africa and that your right is someone standing in England. Close one eye and hold your fist out in front of you and cause it to eclipse something on the other side of the room (or outside if possible, the further away the better). Make sure the object you choose is just barely covered by your fist. Now without moving your arm, change eyes. You'll notice that your fist is no longer covering the object at all.

This effect that you have just observed is precisely what happens in the case of an eclipse for different observers and is what astronomers call parallax (Parallax also has many other applications in astronomy such as directly measuring the distance to a great number of stars to extremely high precision thanks to the HIPPARCOS satellite). This quick experiment is also reasonably close to actual scale in terms of angular sizes and relation between sizes for the earth and moon. The distances between objects and true sizes aren't even close, but those don't matter in this case.

So you're probably wondering why there's the strange disjointed path. After all, we never see that. There's only one sun in the sky. This image is actually a compilation of 18 images taken ~3 minutes apart (and presumably one more to use as the beautiful background). I can say that these were taken ~3 minutes apart because of the spacing of the suns.

In 24 hours, the sun makes a full 360º path around the sky. Thus, converting hours to minutes and dividing, we find that the sun moves 1º every 4 minutes. Although it doesn't seem that there's any scale marked on this image to permit me to figure out how many degress there is between each image from which to figure out the time between images, there actually is a very easy one: the sun itself.

Both the sun and the moon have an angular size of 1/2º. That means that if the little suns were butted right up against one another, it would have traveled 1/2º between images, which in turn implies that it would have been 2 minutes (4/2) between each image. Since there's a little more space, roughly 1/2 of a sun width (ie, 1/4º), I can estimate there was approximately another minute between pictures. Thus 2 + 1 = 3.

So ultimately 18 images of the sun were taken and then reassembled to produce this dramatic image. While in and of itself it is quite stunning, a closer look reveals more information than meets the eye. This concept is one I feel is important to keep in mind in the sciences. Things are not always what they seem to be at a first glance. If this wasn't the driving concept behind science, we would still hold with many ridiculous ideas such as the Earth being flat, or alchemy, or perhaps more relavant today, intelligent design.

Image copyright: Stefan Seip
Found via: NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day

Update: The original version of this post contained erronious math which was noted by reader, Benjamin Franz, in the comments. I have corrected my math here, but wanted to make sure he was given due credit.
This post is current.

Looks like Dembski is up to some radically stupid new tricks. For those that aren't familiar with the background of this story let's first introduce the new players:

Dr. Eric Pianka is a professor at University of Texas Austin. He is freqently called by his moniker "Dr. Doom" due to his doomsday predictions that can be quite graphic as to a looming epedimic that will destroy most of the population of Earth.

However, there's some out there that feel that Pianka is doing more than predicting and they have formulated conspiracy theories to explain that he is in fact plotting some sort of secret biological warfare, dispite the complete lack of evidence. However, we know several people that like theories without evidence. Just as long as the pet theory is supported by people with lots of money they'll support it. Forrest M. Mims III happens to be one of those people that's got lots of money and is well known (he's the guy that writes how-to's on electronic circuits frequently available at Radio Shack) and he supports this theory that somehow, Dr. Doom's predictions somehow equal actions.

So now we come to Dembski, our favourite mathematician turned loony. It seems Dembski thinks that Dr Pianka is such a threat, that it is his civic duty to report Pianka to the Department of Homeland Security.

In his blog he writes:
Could Pianka be charged with terrorism/conspiracy to commit a terrorist act? What happens if a student actually takes his suggestion to heart and kills a bunch of people? Why shouldn’t we think that Dr. Doom himself would commit the act of human destruction he is advocating? How is what he is saying any different from somebody at an airport saying that he plans to plant a bomb there. Note: This is not a matter of saying he actually has planted a bomb but saying that he plans to plant one — that surely would be enough in the current climate to get him arrested. So what about Pianka? At what point do his remarks advocating human destruction constitute a terrorist threat that get him arrested? And if not arrested, how about committed?
So let me get this straight Billy. If someone preaches that the end of the world is coming and they might actually be someone relieved, they're a threat to this country and potential terrorists? If that's true, then perhaps we should consider that the hundreds of thousands of Christians over at Rapture Ready need to be arrested for being potential terrorists. And how many millions have gobbled up the Left Behind series? I bet they're all gleefully anticipating the Armageddeon.

But that's all a bit of hyperbole. I doubt anyone sane would advocate that.

Except that's precisely what Dembski has done. I could simply brush him off as insane, but these actions seem a little too intentional for me to do that so quickly.

Instead, Dembski's latest trick is just another of the ID crowd's attacks on science. They don't want to hear about evolution so they try to replace it with stealth creationism or at the very least, make up false critisisms to make unwitting citizens think evolution is a flawed thory.

Dr. Pianka's views also don't mesh with their biblical outlook, so they attempt to censor him by branding him a potential terrorist (wait... didn't I just post something about the ID crowd whining that they're the ones being censored?). So what's going to be next? Censoring scientists that speak about the dangers of global warming? Oh wait... they already have.

So where is this attack on science going to end? From what I'm seeing, these anti-science revolutionaries intent is to remove anything that conflicts with their worldview. And they'll use any methods, from lying, to censorship to accomplish it.