Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My reading list

Since the topic came up of what's on my reading list, I figured I'd make a post to keep track of such things. I'll try to keep this updated.

Currently Reading:

  • The City & The City by China Mieville
  • Already read:

  • Science of Diskworld III: Darwin's Watch by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen
  • Finding Darwin's God by Ken Miller
  • The Neptune Files by Tom Standage
  • Parallax: A Race to Measure the Cosmos by Alan Hirshfeld
  • Myth of a Christian Nation by Gregory Boyd
  • Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman
  • Who Will Rise Up by Brother Jed Smock
  • God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
  • Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel
  • DNA by W. Craig Reed
  • Death From the Skies! by Phil Plait
  • Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennet
  • Your Inner Fish by Niel Shubin
  • Galileo's Daugher by Dava Sobel
  • Perfect Rigor by Masha Gessen
  • Only a Theory by Ken Miller
  • You Will Be Forced To Become Rich by FINIFID
  • Eerie Silence by Paul Davies
  • A Tear at the Edge of Creation by Marcelo Gleiser
  • Denialism by Michael Specter
  • The Sun's Heartbeat by Bob Berman
  • Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
  • Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins
  • The Gender Knot by Allan Johnson
  • Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
  • Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA by Daniel Fairbanks
  • Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
  • Einstein's Jury by Jeffery Crelinstein
  • Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless by Greta Christina
  • Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman & Ralph Leighton
  • At The Queen's Command by Michael Stackpole
  • Teaching Outside the Box by LouAnne Johnson
  • The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti
  • Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne
  • I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett
  • Manners and Mischief: Gender, Power, and Etiquette in Japan by Laura Miller & Jan Bardsley
  • Snuff by Terry Pratchett
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Redshirts by John Scalzi
  • Among Others by Jo Walton
  • Still on List:

  • When School Reform Goes Wrong by Nel Noddings
  • Not in Our Classrooms by Eugenie Scott and Glgenn Branch
  • Humanism for Parents by Sean Curley
  • Evolution vs. Creationism by Eugenie Scott
  • Misquoting Truth by Timothy Jones
  • Thank God for Evolution! by Michael Dowd
  • Edward Tufte's books on Data Visualization: Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and/or Visual Explanations: Quantities, Evidence, and Narrative.


  • Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind by Richard Fortey
  • Monday, January 28, 2008

    Looks like I was right

    Martin County was officially added to the list of anti-science districts in Florida. As PZ pointed out, the language used in their resolution is all too familiar; "just a theory", "one of many", "origins of life", "fair and balanced"....

    Definitely looks like someone is putting words in the mouths of school boards across Florida. I wonder who that could be. Certainly not the Discovery Institute! After all, they claimed not to have any involvement with Dover and they're such good honest people.

    Oh wait... That's right. The DI was in contact with Buckingham. They lied about that one. Oops.

    Sunday, January 27, 2008

    Pareidolia: n + 9

    Apparently Jesus has been rather busy recently because I haven't found any instances of pareidolia anywhere. However, it looks like he's back. And he's showing up in dumb places as usual. This time, Jesus miraculously appeared in the middle of a potato.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008

    Book Review: Misquoting Jesus

    Invariably, those that claim that evolution does not exist, that the Big Bang never happened and that a supernatural Creator is behind it all, have some sort of religious motivations for this. In many of those cases, this motivation is based on an assumption of biblical literalism and infallibility.

    Any person in their right mind could tell you that a book that was copied for 2000 years by people with religious and political agendas won’t remain the same. But since I’m an astronomer and not a biblical scholar, I’ve never been familiar with exactly what changed, and how it made a difference. I was familiar with some minor changes that had been noted and corrected in modern editions of the bible, but couldn’t come up with any examples off the top of my head. So seeing a book on this topic while I was perusing Border’s religion section caught my attention.

    In the introduction, author Bart Ehrman explains his history on the topic in which he first began investigating scripture with the view that it was inerrant since he became a born-again Christian. However, the more he investigated the history of the text, the more apparent it came that this was not the case. Not only are there minor changes to the words, but there are more major changes that are still present in modern editions that greatly affect the way scripture is interpreted.

    The reason texts changed greatly, especially in the early history of Christianity is made clear when Ehrman explains the methods of transcription: texts were copied by people who were frequently barely literate and in some cases, illiterate. Changes could easily be made by accident, or in some other instances, intentionally to push a specific orthodoxy.

    The latter chapters deal with the latter of those two situations. Ehrman explains that when Christianity first formed, there were many sects so different from what we today consider Christianity, we would scarcely recognize them. Some claimed that Jesus was completely human. Others, completely divine. Others that Jesus and Christ were two separate beings (the former being human and the latter a divine spirit that inhabited the former). Yet others that Jesus wasn’t God’s literal son, but “adopted.”

    In order to ensure that it was clear that Jesus was in fact God’s literal son, instances in which Jesus’ parents were discussed were often changed. Luke 2:33 originally read “his father and mother were marveling at what was said to him”, but since emerging views held that Jesus was born of a virgin, this was changed to “Joseph and his mother”. Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:23, when the angel descends to tell Jesus that he is God’s only begotten son are also alterations. Many early texts have the angel telling Jesus “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” which lead to the adoptionist interpretation. To also emphasize that Jesus was human (and thus his suffering actually meant something since it wouldn’t really mean anything to a divine being), an additional account was added to Luke 22 which breaks from the inflappable portrait of Jesus that Luke paints and has him emotionally breaking down, praying, and sweating blood.

    Ehrman also points out that in the early church, women played an important role and were even given duties of ministering. However, this also went against the orthodoxy view and texts were changed to oppose this as well. It is suspected that the famous passage from 1 Corinthians that women are to learn in silence and not speak without permission from their husbands is not original. Similar passages from 1 Timothy are also known to not be from Paul. Similarly, anti-Jewish sentiments were also introduced.

    Dozens more examples are included in the book and I won’t go through all of them, but the point is clearly made: The bible greatly differs from what the original authors wrote and is most certainly not infalliable. In fact, it’s changed so greatly that an early study by John Mill uncovered thirty thousand places where there were textual differences between manuscripts available to him. And this was leaving out minor changes of things like word order. Today, more than 50 times as many manuscripts are available and even more variations are known. To put this in context Erhman says that there are more variations than there are words in the New Testament.

    The appendix also contains a list of the top ten verses that weren't originally in the NT and include John 5:7, John 8:7, John 8:11, Luke 22:44, Luke 22:20, Mark 16:17, Mark 16:18, John 5:4, Luke 24:12, and Luke 24:51.

    Again, I’m not going to go through every point (and there are lots), but this book makes it amazingly clear that the New Testament is not immutable. It has been modified accidentally as well as intentionally to push certain interpretations for theological and political purposes. As such, basing laws, morals, and worldviews on something even more full of holes than creationists pretend science is, is downright pathetic.

    Monday, January 21, 2008

    Bad History Channel

    Usually I really like the History channel. Along with the Discovery channel and Court TV, it's one of the few channels that I watch frequently. However, I caught most of a show tonight that was just awful.

    The show was called "Last Days on Earth" and had a countdown of the "Seven deadliest threats to humanity. I first caught it as I was flipping through channels and the host said something about the Sun having 10 billion years left on its life. Nope. Solar mass stars have about 10 billion years in their main sequence lifetime (when fusion first begin until hydrogen is exhausted in the core).

    Their #7 threat was a Gamma Ray Burst within our own galaxy hitting us. This is certainly a possibility. In fact, the professor I'm doing research with this semester is part of a team looking at just that possibility and has found evidence that a GRB may have been the trigger for the Ordovician extinction.

    If a GRB nailed Earth, it would cause the ozone and diatomic nitrogen in our atmosphere to disassociate , reforming into nitrogen dioxide. This blocks out visible light, but lets through deadly UV light, and leads to acid rain as well. Not exactly fun. But nor is it exactly something to worry about.

    Even if a GRB did happen in our galaxy (pretty likely), it would also have to be aimed right at us (not too likely). Additionally, our galaxy is pretty dusty and the amount of junk lying around would block anything but the closest ones. Overall, a GRB hitting us isn't something that we need to worry about. Not a chance that this should be on any serious list.

    #6 was even dumber. This one was a rogue black hole passing by and sucking the Earth in. But the really big black holes are the ones that lurk in the centers of galaxies and we're plenty far away. No need for concern there. It's just the smaller ones we'd need to be concerned about. Such ones can exist out here in the disk of the galaxy, but since they'd some from disk stars, they'd be traveling pretty much the same direction, greatly reducing the risk of a collision. Sure, some would drift, but no need to panic here.

    But black holes aren't even the only objects that would drift as they orbit the galaxy. Stars, which can be just as massive, but are millions of times as common are the ones we should really worry about. And that's what really matters; Mass. Contrary to science fiction, black holes don't "suck". They have a gravitational attraction just like anything else. So something with similar mass would be just as dangerous. So if this show were really being serious about things, wandering stars are the real threat! Of course, black holes are much sexier than stars, so it's no wonder they're getting the spotlight. At the beginning of the intro astronomy classes, we conduct a survey to see what topics students are interested in and among the students that actually answer, black holes is by far the most frequent. Popular, but again, not a real threat.

    Some of the others weren't too bad. Supervolcanos are definately much more dangerous and probably do pose a serious threat as well as a deadly new virus and climate change. Although I also agreed that near Earth asteroids are also a threat that should make the list, the presentation of that particular one was botched yet again.

    One of the people they interviewed was an astronaut who claimed that the number of people looking for these objects was only "enough to staff one shift at McDonalds." While it may be true that there's not many people that are undertaking a dedicated search, sky surveys and amateurs are constantly turning up these things. That's not to say that some will inevitably be missed, but to pretend that no one's looking for them is a huge distortion.

    They also brought up asteroid 2004 MN (Apophis) which will make a close pass to Earth in 2029. In fact, it's so close, it will actually be passing closer to Earth than some of our satellites. We've known for quite awhile that it wouldn't hit in 2029, but there was a possibility that Earth's gravitational pull could perturb it to cause a collision in 2036. However, that was ruled out in 2006 and I've commented on it before. This MN 2006 is almost as bad as the Mars approach.

    They also discussed a possible solution to divert a dangerous asteroid: Send up a massive craft which had enough gravitational pull to tug the asteroid onto a new course. Sure it'd work, but the more massive the craft, the harder it is to launch. No need to do that when smacking a less massive impactor in it would work just as well and be far cheaper. How about toting the practical solutions guys?


    Typically the History channel's shows are pretty good, but even the preview for this week's episode of The Universe looked pretty bad. It's supposed to be about dark energy. At this point cosmologists aren't sure of the exact effect, but they do know that the "big rip" scenario that this coming episode looks to be pushing is less than likely.

    Perhaps this is why I don't watch TV all that much.

    There were some good bits though. One of the most frequent scientists interviewed was Neil deGrasse Tyson who's always a lot of fun to watch. Seeing him interviewed (both in this and Universe) always makes a show a lot better. But not enough to make up for all that nonsense.

    I thought it was supposed to be funny

    Usually XKCD is funny. It seems today's strip is such a dose of common sense it's boring:

    Tuesday, January 15, 2008

    A treat made for PZ

    According to the Times one of the largest giant squid was just caught near Antarctica at nearly the length of a school bus. According to one expert, "If calamari rings were made from the squid, they would be the size of tractor tires."

    Sounds tasty.

    Sunday, January 13, 2008

    Adding Martin to the List

    It looks like several Florida counties have been hijacked by creationists touting the "teach the controversy" mantra. An Op-Ed article suggested that 12 Florida counties have passed such measures, but at this time, only 6 have been identified.

    However, a student from Martin County's Jensen Beach High School has informed me that his teachers aren't allowed to teach evolution because "evolution [is] not 100% true". He also said that this isn't just his school but the district at large as a result of actions by the school board. Neither of the websites outlines any position on science education.

    UPDATE: I've Emailed school officials concerning this policy Sunday, but have yet to receive any sort of response. Information has been passed onto the NCSE. Perhaps they'll get a better response.

    Saturday, January 05, 2008

    Happy New Solar Cycle!

    So I didn't post anything for the new year. But that's ok, because as Phil points out, it's an arbitrary orbital marker anyway. Meanwhile, recently a much cooler event started just yesterday: It's the beginning of the 24th recorded solar cycle.