Thursday, June 18, 2009

Book Review: Zen in the Art of Archery

A few years ago, a friend recommended Zen in the Art of Archery to me. I bought it quite awhile ago, but until this past spring, it was sitting on my bookshelf collecting dust. This spring I read it, and apparently it then sat in the back of my mind without review collecting proverbial dust.

An inspiring review right there, to be sure.

While the book was interesting enough to read, it was not especially captivating in any manner beyond a cute personal narrative.

The book's primary purpose is to tell the story of the author's journey to become a Zen master through the art of archery. In doing so, it seeks to explain the philosophy of Zen, namely that through mastery of an art to such a degree that it can be done without conscious thought (thus becoming "artless") one transcends the material world and frees one's mind to reach higher states of consciousness.

Most of the book is the author making mistakes and being too conscious of his own actions and his master rebuking him with cute riddles and analogies. These are thought provoking, certainly, but in no way convincing of the "truth" of the religion.

The most impressive feat along these lines is an example of the master hitting a target dead center in a darkened practice room. Certainly inspiring, but this would seem more an impressive example of muscle memory and familiarity with one's own practice area than any transcendental physicality.

Rather, that (and the rest of the book) would only seem compelling to those already lacking an inherent skepticism or any critical thought. Indeed, the author at one point goes so far as to mention that it's only convincing if you already believe. Echoes of the Christian motto that you have to open your heart. It was a fun read and a good introduction to the religion, but fails to be anything more.

Heavy in the Halo

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIf you've been following my blog a long time, you may remember a post on stellar evolution that was responding to some rather silly claims made by some Creationists. One of the claims was that the universe must be young, because we see young, massive stars where there's no gas and dust to form them. The example he used was near the galactic center. My response then (and still is) that this makes the rather ignorant assumption that stars stay where they're formed.

The center of the galaxy is a very messy place and this is certainly not true. The massive black hole swings stars far and wide.

Meanwhile, the center of the galaxy isn't the only place we find these peculiar stars. They're in the halo of the galaxy too, far removed from the disk of the galaxy. In many instances, this isn't that much of a problem. The stars we find way out there have velocities that are too high for them to have remained in the disk, indicating they were indeed flung out by either a close binary reaction with another star, or in the case of some of the exceedingly fast ones, by our galactic black hole.

However, for some of the most massive stars, their lifetimes are shorter than the amount of time since they were thrown from the galaxy. In other words, if we track backwards, the stars didn't exist when they were last in the galaxy!

Uh oh.

Is is possible that these stars actually came from a satellite galaxy like the Large or Small Magellanic Clouds?

Not likely. Their spectra show their chemical composition is more likely related to our Milky Way than any of our neighbors.

So what's the story?

The outer reaches and inner disk aren't the only place we've seen stars of masses and lifespans that don't fit. Nearly three years ago, I mentioned another one: blue stragglers in globular clusters.

In globular clusters, all the stars tend to form in one big burst from one big cloud of gas and dust. This means that their chemical composition and age are effectively the same. The only thing that will determine their evolution from their on out, is their mass. The massive ones peel off the main sequence first and slowly die towards the less massive ones (see this post for more on this topic).

Yet in several globular clusters, there are massive stars remaining on the main sequence when there shouldn't be. The notion here was that normal stars interacted, either by direct collision or mass transfer in a post main-sequence phase, which rejuvenated a star by giving it more mass and dropping it back on the main sequence.

Could such an explanation be possible for these odd runaway and hypervelocity stars?

The first question is whether or not there are any known runaway stars exist in binary systems in the first place. It turns out there are, but not many. Only about 1% of ejected stars appear to be binaries. However, many of these binary systems have very short periods (<5 days) which indicate a very close pair. This is perfect for mass transfer or instability such as predicted by the theory.

Additionally, many individual high mass stars like these have strong cases to make for their binary birth. Some are still binaries where one star is significantly more massive than the other with periods of closer to 10 days. More need to be observed to get a really good feeling on whether or not this possibility is right, but statistically, it works out pretty well on the theoretical level.

Perets, H. (2009). RUNAWAY AND HYPERVELOCITY STARS IN THE GALACTIC HALO: BINARY REJUVENATION AND TRIPLE DISRUPTION The Astrophysical Journal, 698 (2), 1330-1340 DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/698/2/1330

Monday, June 15, 2009

Bento lunch

A few weeks ago, I moved in with my girlfriend. Since this meant moving back to St. Louis from Kansas, I'm still looking for a job. In the mean time, my girlfriend is paying the bills and everything else.

In exchange. I have to do all the cooking. Given I've been cooking since I was 12, this is pretty easy for me. But to make things interesting, I've been sending her to work with Japanese bento lunches for the past 2 weeks.

I haven't done anything too fancy yet, but I'm getting there.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

You're doing it wrong.

Although I don't often say too much about it, there's more forms of dangerous pseudo-science out they aside from Creationism. The anti-vaccination movement is one that seems to be growing a lot recently (or is at least getting more attention) that I've been growing pretty concerned with.

Another is the recent actions of the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). While I, nor anyone else I know has a problem with a good back rub to relieve some stress, Chiropractors and those they dupe seem to be under the delusion that spinal alignment fixes all sorts of problems. The evidence simply does not support this.

So what happens when a prominent figure points this out?

If you haven't been following the story of Simon Singh at Bad Astronomy, go do so. In short, instead of actually presenting their evidence in court when their practice was called for what it was ("bogus"), they decided to sue.

And against all reason, they won.

The decision is obviously being appealed, but the entire assault against honest inquiry via abuse of the legal system is staggering. And fortunately, a lot of people seem to be realizing it.

In response, the Vice-President of the BCA wrote an article in New Scientist entitled In Defense of Chiropractic. And boy did he bungle it.

His first claim is that no real Chiropractor actually believes they can treat entirely unrelated illnesses like asthma, digestive disorders, infant colic, menstrual pains, sport injuries, tension headaches, and migraines.
[The criticism] has the clear intention of suggesting that modern chiropractors cling to the 19th century idea that spinal misalignments are responsible for the majority of diseases. While a tiny minority retain this view, most are aware that such claims have long since been debunked.
Orly? Then why, according to they very article that the "defense" was responding to did the author point out that the illnesses I just referred to are, in most cases, believed by more than half of Chiropractors to be treatable through their profession?
A 2004 survey by the UK General Chiropractic Council revealed that most chiropractors believe they can treat asthma (57 per cent), digestive disorders (54 per cent), infant colic (63 per cent), menstrual pains (63 per cent), sport injuries (90 per cent), tension headaches (97 per cent) and migraine (91 per cent). According to a 2007 survey, 69 per cent of all UK chiropractors see themselves as more than just back specialists, and 76 per cent consider Palmer's original concepts to be "an important and integral part of chiropractic".
Oops. Either you're lying or didn't do your homework.

Meanwhile, the evidence suggests that he knows he's lying. And the BCA is hurriedly trying to cover it up. Sounds like the guys over at Uncommon Descent.

But the bungling doesn't stop there. The author then tries to justify the notion that Chiropractic medicine is safe. How? By saying it doesn't cause stroke:
Claims that chiropractic is dangerous overlook two recent pieces of research. One found no causative association between chiropractic manipulation and stroke. The other concluded that the incidence of stroke after chiropractic was no greater than after a consultation with a general practitioner
Well huzzah!

So it doesn't make things worst (most of the time). But that still doesn't mean it makes things better which is the claim that Singh was making in the first place.

But even if it doesn't directly harm people, it does indirectly by making people think that they're going to get better through this bogus treatment. They forgo treatment that actually does solve the problem. And that's when Chiropractic treatments, faith healing, and all the other "alternative medicines" stop being just silly, and suddenly turn dangerous.

Of course, the author's mouth is so big, he has to shove his foot in it a few more times. He claims:
[Critics overlook] the fact that many accepted medical interventions have little or no research evidence to support them.
Translation: "Woot! We don't have to have standards because lots of other alternative practices don't either! If we can drag everyone down to our level we can all win!"

Pathetic. Sounds just like Creationists trying to abuse the term "theory" to try to get themselves on the same level as honest science.

I'd love to see patients form a civil action lawsuit against the Chiropractic association under the notion that, aside from a placebo effect, they been hoodwinked to pay good money for a treatment which provides no discernible benefit in most cases.

So, dear BCA, if you think that's a real defense, think again. You're doing it wrong.

Friday, June 12, 2009

This is why you fund science

NASA keeps a magazine devoted to spinoff products. Spaceref discusses a new one from the Mars missions that has the potential to liberate resources from rocks that were previously trapped in them.

This is why we should fund science. It's not just to satisfy our innate curiosity (that's why the scientists do it). You never know what unexpected benefits research will churn out. Those spin offs can improve our quality of life.

That's gotta sting!

Phil's been talking a lot recently about meteors. Most notably, he pointed out just how unlikely it is for a plane to be hit by one. But what about a person?

Back in 1954 a woman was hit by a fist sized one that crashed through her roof while she was sleeping and left a good bruise, but didn't leave any real injuries.

But this past week, a UK boy was hit by one without the luck of a roof in the way. This one left a nasty scar.

Meanwhile, I'm skeptical about the claims of speed the article has listed. 30,000 mph? Seriously? And just left a scar? The muzzle velocity of high speed guns is only 4,000 mph. 30k mph is a perfectly respectable speed for a meteor before it hits our atmosphere, but they slow considerably.

Additionally, I think the chance of getting hit by a meteor is far less than "one in a million". I think that's just their innumerate way of saying "very unlikely".

Despite the sloppy journalism I've come to expect from science, it's still a pretty monumental occurrence. It's good to hear the kid's into science and hopefully this event will promote an interest that lasts as long as that scar.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Fuzzy blob = ghost

Here's another case of unbelievably stupid credulity.

A security camera catches an image of a fuzzy blob. Those looking at it can't figure out what it is. Therefore, it's a ghost.

Forget the possibility of internal reflections in either the camera itself or the dome covering the camera. Forget that it "jumps" as it moves up the chair, just as a light source shining on it would. Forget common sense.

Instead, the unknown must be personified. In fact, so much so, that little blob of light gets a name. It moves to a chair so it must be "sitting".


How sad it must be to be so scared of the unknown that the only way to deal with it is through fantasy instead of honesty.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Mythical Pictures

Although people frequently claim photographic evidence of flying saucers or aliens, skeptics like me an Phil Plait have (what should be) a simple request: Give clear pictures. Not fuzzy blobs, or poorly contrasted images, or lights with no reference in a dark sky. With all the technology available, it shouldn't be that hard.

In fact, just to demonstrate how simple this should really be, check out this article. It includes a beautifully framed, focused, and lighted image of a bear that's so rare, it's reported it was thought not to exist.

I'll admit the photographer was a professional and taking good pictures is his job. But then again, you'll have to work pretty hard to convince me no professional photographer has ever gone after UFOs.