Thursday, November 27, 2008

Myth: Confirmed

ResearchBlogging.orgThe most recent XKCD proposes an interesting astrophysical scenario. It deals with something I've mentioned a few times on this blog before: Solar flares. If you haven't seen it, here's the comic:


Yeah right. A solar flare indenting the magnetic field to such an extent that the Earth's rotation causes an induced current in electrical cords.

No way that could happen.

Except that it did.

In 1859, a solar flare so powerful occurred that it shorted out telegraph wires causing fires on the desks of the operators in the US and Europe. In addition, it reduced the amount of atmospheric ozone by about 5% (Note to global warming deniers: This would only be a short term effect and human made ozone depletion is long term since CFCs don't readily leave the atmosphere).

So, amazingly this myth was confirmed nearly 150 years ago! So can I have Kari Byron do a guest post now?
B. C. Thomas, C. H. Jackman, A. L. Melott (2007). Modeling atmospheric effects of the September 1859 solar flare Geophysical Research Letters, 34 (6) DOI: 10.1029/2006GL029174

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I'm not sure I like this idea

New Scientist has an article up describing an attempt to meld science and Hollywood. Initially I liked the idea. How could I really be against getting better science into mainstream media?!

And then I remembered: The majority of science is mundane, boring, tedious number crunching. It's not exciting. It doesn't fit in Hollywood. It's like putting a round peg in a square hole. So what can be done to try to make the science exciting enough for Hollywood?

As I see it, there's two options:

1) Skip all the boring bits and get straight to the "Whiz Bang" bits and "Eureka" moments.


2) Find things that aren't really tested anyway and are crazy fringe science.

My problem with this is that either way, it's still misportraying science. The article gives a perfect example:
[MacFarlane] just finished making a Family Guy episode based on the possibility that there are multiple universes, prompted by a documentary he saw on the subject.

"I didn't really know that that was a real thing, that it was possible [and] being theorised about," he said. "So we did a story about it."
What's wrong with this? Where's the good science in multiple universe hypotheses? Where's the testing? Sure multiple universes sound good and sciencey, but when you get right down to it, it's not. It's a possible branch of science that's still in its infancy. It is a nice construct to start working from, and then develop ways to test it as we go, but chances are, like so many other things, it's quite likely that if/when we ever do test it, it will turn out to be bogus. And do we really want to be showing the public more bits of tenuous science that in all honesty, are pretty hollow?

While I see Hollywood's reasoning for doing it (it draws in the geeks), I also see the problem: It continues to confuse the picture of what science really is. We already have folks like the Discovery Institute hard at work doing that.

So while I appreciate the attempt from MacFarlane and Hollywood to put a bit more scientific rigor into their work, I just don't think it will work out too well for the simple reason that the two have very different intentions: One seeks to entertain, the other seeks to discover.

Meanwhile, I do like what the Zuckers said in the article about how science saved their daughter's life:
"They gave here a shot of insulin and this was like a miracle, because she was laying there on the examining table, and within a few hours she came alive again, her lustre came back," Janet Zucker said.
That's right. Science.Saves.Lives.

Religulous Review

Religulous has been out for a good while now, but I finally got around to seeing it last night. My overall impression of the movie wasn't overly impressed.

That being said, I think a good subtitle for this movie would be "Bill Maher preaches to the choir."

The large majority of this movie is going around to various religious people and showing that they (a) believe in things that are completely nuts like the virgin birth, or (b) are stunningly ignorant about their own religious history.

The reason that I say Billy is preaching to the choir is that it isn't likely that anyone that is religious sees anything wrong with this. They either see bogus miracles as truly miraculous, or are equally ignorant. As such, anyone that doesn't already agree with what Bill is saying probably won't get it.

And Maher doesn't even seem to care. Instead of trying to explain just why these people are ignorant, and trying to actually teach the audience something about what he's talking about, he just tosses things out there with no explanation. A perfect example is when Bill is talking to a Muslim about the view of many Muslims that anyone who challenges their religion should be killed. The Muslim says this isn't true and that it allows for discussion. Maher brings up the case of Salman Rushdie, and asks whether or not he deserves to be killed. The Muslim tries to waffle his way out and gives a non-answer worthy of the Discovery Institute.

I know who Salman Rushdie is. Maher knows who Salman Rushdie is. The Muslim Bill is talking to knows who Salman Rushdie is. But does the audience? Not exactly likely. I only know because SOMA brought him to KU a few years back. But Maher doesn't even try to take a bit of time to explain the situation. If you already know, then it makes sense. If you're not part of the choir, well, that part's probably lost on you.

Maher also seemed to use quite a few silly tricks when interviewing people. He'd ask a serious question and inevitably, the religious person would have to stop because they couldn't answer it. Of course, the way the editing was done, it makes me genuinely curious as to how many of the dazed pauses were legitimate and how many were edited in. I'd like to give the benefit of the doubt here, but some just looked staged.

Another trick Maher used to force people to slip up was to ask a legitimate question and then, when they tried to answer it, make a joke out of it. The natural response to this is to stop and wonder, "How do I respond to this? As a serious question, or to the joke?" Those forced pauses I'm sure were abused as well.

Maher also tended to go after some people with pathetically weak education and theology. Showing up to a trucker's church? Yeah. Insightful theology there Billy.

There were some highlights of Bill meeting with some better religious authorities. As usual, former head of the Vatican Observatory, Geroge Coyne impressed me with his honest and informed answers. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, was better than most but still made himself look like a twit without Maher even having to try. But perhaps my favorite person Maher talked to was a Catholic priest just after Maher got kicked out of the Vatican. This guy admitted that most of the religion was full of hot air and was extremely laid back about the whole deal. Why can't we get priests like him in the US?!

So overall, the show had its high points and low points. It was 90% Bill showing that religious people are, by and large, at least compartmentally stupid. But as I said before, to those that would see this as such are people that would already agree. Those that can't see this are the ones being made fun of.

But what about that other 10%?

This last little bit was what I think the real highlight of the movie was. It was mentioned right at the beginning, and then was the main point at the end. One quote summed it up pretty well. I know this isn't quite right, but the notion is, "It's a shame that humanity developed the ability to destroy the world before it developed the ability to be rational."

This is the point that I agree with wholeheartedly. For the first time in human history, we have the ability to destroy our entire species. With this horrible threat, we can no longer practice the naive rituals of non-thought, however comforting they may be.

I really wish this theme would have been worked far more throughout the film, and stronger connections drawn with the lack of critical thinking and the consequences its already wrought. Instead, Maher left the cause and the effect only connected with a tenuous slippery slope. I think the message is solid, but this movie did not do a good job of showing it. The only thing it did do, was provide a bit of schadenfreude for those of us that already get it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Sometimes, after I really haven't dealt with any Creationists in a good while, I start to forget just how intellectually bankrupt they are. I start to think that, maybe they really do care about things like evidence and that they're just confused about it or blissfully ignorant.

Or maybe they do want to use the scientific method, but just can't quite remember what it was because junior high was really just that long ago and they're much too busy studying the Bible to have time to brush up on even the basics of that which they criticize.

Or just maybe they try not to use logical fallacies, but can't quite get a grasp on what things like circular logic, equivocation, strawmen, and the like are.

And then I see a bumper sticker like this one.

And suddenly I remember; Creationists don't care about evidence; Creationists don't care about science; Creationists don't care about logic. They're just that dense.

My mistake for trying to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Thanks to oncolgist in the livejournal atheism group for the image.

Pareidolia: n + 16

Back from Nebraskon (will have a post on that later)! And while cleaning out my links folder today, I ran across this link I stumbled across awhile ago and never got around to posting!

Yep. It's more Jesus. And this time he's in a water stain on the ceiling in a weight loss center. He shows up because he loves you.... And he wants you to be thin.... And he needs your money...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What else has been going on

Last week I said one of the reasons I haven't been posting much is that there just hasn't been much going on besides politics and we're all sick to death of that. Another reason is that, now that I've graduated, I've been able to devote more time to other hobbies that aren't things I typically post about on this blog. I don't intend to make them a major portion of my blog, but it's worth mentioning.

In particular, I've gone and gotten myself a Netflix account. I've seen a few films I just missed in theaters that I wanted to catch (like the Simpsons movie), a few that are classics I've wanted to see for a long time (Seven Samurai) and quite a bit of anime (Full Metal Alchemist, Hellsing and Cowboy Bebop). Most of my evenings are spent, at least in part watching something from Netflix.

I've also been playing a lot of World of Warcraft. With the new expansion coming out this week, it's been more fun because many of the players that disappeared over the summer in my guild are coming back, so raids have been much more frequent and well attended.

For those that are interested, I have three characters I play regularly. All are on the Stormreaver. My main is Tiadara. She's my badass shadow priest. She enjoys short runs through Karazhan and playing mana battery for 24 other guys. Hot.

My second 70 is Ellobrosa. I don't tend to play him much anymore since Huntards are a dime a dozen so his main purpose is to help use his Track Humanoids skill to find those annoying Horde that just ganked my lowbies or guild mates.

Sebiole is my third character I play regularly. I got tired of not being able to find a tank so I'm leveling her prot spec. Not a terribly good idea. Sure, I have tons of health and don't die easily, but damn does it take forever for me to kill stuff.

So that's the digital persons I hide behind most nights I'm not out being social.

Aside from WoW, I've also been able to take more time to head to conventions. And by conventions, I mean convention. Sadly, there's very few in the midwest worth visiting. I did manage to make it to Archon 32 last month. It was pretty lame aside from the costume contest, but since costuming is what I go for anyway, I didn't mind. My gallery of pictures of the costumes is here.

I'll be at Nebraskon this coming weekend. It's looking like I'll be there as one of the official representatives of Naka Kon which is the Kansas City anime convention originally started by KU's anime club. I've been made a staff member of that so show up if you're in the area! I'll be running a panel entitled "The Science of Anime" which will attempt to answer questions like, "If someone were really falling the amount of time it took Naruto to shout that ridiculously long sentence, how far would he have fallen and how fast would he hit the ground?" It should be fun.

STEM & Women

Back when I was still attending MSU, I attended a regional meeting of of the Society of Physics Students (SPS). One of the topics was the number of females in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. The speaker challenged us to try to name famous women that had made notable contributions to our fields.

In astronomy, several names popped to mind: Margaret Geller. Annie Cannon. Maria Mitchell.

I listed those few I could come up with, but in the entire auditorium, I was the only student that could name a single one.

In a similar situation, while I was taking Calculus 2, my professor said that if the entire class could name three female mathematicians, he would cancel the final. All the students began flipping furiously through their textbooks for names, but only turned up one.

For anyone in the field, it's obvious that females are grossly underrepresented (astronomy seems to be one of the hottest scientific fields for women however), but the question has always been, "why?".

A recent paper from the AMS has taken a fresh look at this issue. What the paper describes is likely not surprising to most people; The most significant factors the researchers found was cultural views on such fields. In countries which do not afford women the same opportunities as males for mathematics education, women obviously are strongly underrepresented. However, when the ability is given to compete equally as with Title IX in the US, women become more frequent in the fields. Yet still not as represented.

Part of the reason, the researchers conclude, is that there remains some social taboo against such fields. Women from Asian and Indian countries are far more common in the STEM fields.

Another interesting note was that even in societies were math is seen as "geeky" and not an appropriate field for women, girls tend to do just as well as males in elementary schools. Only when social pressures start taking over in middle schools do girls start falling behind notably.

So how does the US stack up here? As you might expect with how poor I and other science bloggers have noted the US education system is in respect to science, it doesn't do too well:
Asian girls and white girls who are immigrants from Eastern Europe are well represented among the very top students identified in the extremely difficult mathematics competitions discussed here; it is only USA-born white and historically underrepresented minority girls who are underrepresented, underrepresented by almost two orders-of magnitude relative to Asian girls educated in the same school systems
Go go cultural taboos America!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Finally! It's over!

No more political commercials, debates, rallies, and everything else!

If everyone's been wondering where I've been the past few months, I've been taking a break from blogging. The election stole the spotlight from everything else, so there really hasn't been much to write on. The creationists have been shoved out of the spotlight. Astronomy news doesn't come as frequently anymore since I'm not constantly reading journals after graduation. So there really hasn't been much to say. And if there is, that crazy bald guy seems to always beat me to it.

But now all the political nonsense is out of the way, I'll try to post a bit more frequently.