astronomy

For Your Listening Pleasure – 3 – Astronomy Cast

This is the third in a little series explaining about podcasts I think are great – what can I say, I like the medium!

large_webI think Astronomy Cast is actually the first podcast I started listening to. They have now done probably 450 episodes (the numbering doesn’t take into account the question shows they’ve done), and I’ve listened to them all. It’s been going for 8 years and if you look through the back catalogue you are sure to find something to interest you.

The host is Dr Fraser Cain, who also runs Universe Today. He plays the everyman interviewer (even though he is absolutely by no means ignorant of the subjects which they address) who is having the week’s topic explained to him by the expert, who is Dr Pamela Gay.

The explanations of various astronomical phenomenon are clear without being too simplistic or too complicated and it’s always a good listen.

I won’t say any more other than that I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

 

 

 

Great Missing The Point Moments In History – 6 – Most People, President Included

This “missing the point” episode is a little different from the others in the series in that this time, it was the majority of people who missed the point.

1385main_MM_Image_Feature_17_rs4Giovanni Schiaparelli was born today in 1835.

Schiaparelli was an astronomer and a historian. His most famous discovery was of what he called “canali” on Mars and here is where the problem begins. “Canali” could mean “channels”, as in river channels, or “canals” is in man/alien-made. It was  translated into English as “canals” – and that word implies something that has been constructed and is artificial.

People around the world took this as evidence of life on Mars and subsequently all kinds of theories sprung up, books were written, maps were published, and all of these, without meaning to exaggerate, were utter bollocks. Some of these were even written by astronomers who in other areas were extremely successful, such as Percival Lowell.

Nevertheless, in an age where telescopes were not yet powerful enough to disprove the outlandish theories that had been constructed around the mistranslation, there were many true believers.

The best part of this story is that it provides a good example to point to when we would like to show that our (sic) leaders have any better idea what is going on than anyone else.

This example came when the story was finally disproved by the Mariner missions taking photos of Mars from closer in. Apparently, when Lyndon Johnson was shown the first pictures the first thing he said was “But where are the canals?”.

It would have been rather interesting to watch the presidential aides trying to explain that without offending him.

One of Three-Six-Five

I wrote and recorded (with a cold) a contribution for the excellent 365 Days of Astronomy website podcast project. It’s only a short thing (about 8 minutes).

Astronomy is a little hobby of mine and I have written/posted the occasional thing about it before.

You can download the podcast I did  from the feed as mp3 here.

You can listen online here.

Hope you like it.

Diamond Planet Finder Is A Star

You probably read recently about the scientists who found a planet  that may or may not be effectively a large diamond.

The story got a lot of coverage but one of the scientists involved, Matthew Bailes, has done something rather brave in a recent article and should be applauded for it. He used the opportunity given to him by this discovery to defend the climate scientists that are under attack by industry and lobby groups.

Here is a slightly shortened version of what he said…

Following the publication of our finding in the journal Science, our research received amazing attention from the world’s media.

I was asked by many journalists about the significance of the discovery. If I were honest, I’d have to concede that, although worthy of publication in Science, in the field of astrophysics it isn’t that significant.

And yet the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live.

Imagine for a minute that, instead of discovering a diamond planet, we’d made a breakthrough in global temperature projections.

Let’s say we studied computer models of the influence of excessive greenhouse gases, verified them through observations, then had them peer-reviewed and published in Science.

Instead of sitting back and basking in the glory, I suspect we’d find a lot of commentators, many with no scientific qualifications, pouring scorn on our findings.

People on the fringe of science would be quoted as opponents of our work, arguing that it was nothing more than a theory yet to be conclusively proven.

Before long our credibility and findings would be under serious question.

But luckily we’re not climate scientists.

It may come as a big surprise to many, but there is actually no difference between how science works in astronomy and climate change – or any other scientific discipline for that matter.

We make observations, run simulations, test and propose hypotheses, and undergo peer review of our findings.

Of course we all make mistakes. But eventually the prevailing wisdom of the community triumphs and the field advances.

It’s wonderful to be a part of that process.

But on occasion those from the fringe of the scientific community will push a position that is simply not credible against the weight of evidence.

This occurs within any discipline. But it seems it’s only in the field of climate science that such people are given airtime and column inches to espouse their views.

Those who want to ignore what’s happening to Earth feel they need to be able to quote “alternative studies”, regardless of the scientific merit of those studies.

In all fields of science, papers are challenged and statistics are debated. If there is any basis to these challenges they stand, but if not they fall by the wayside and the field continues to advance.

When big theories fall, it isn’t because of business or political pressures – it’s because of the scientific process.

Sadly, the same media commentators who celebrate diamond planets without question are all too quick to dismiss the latest peer-reviewed evidence that suggests man-made activities are responsible for changes in concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere.

The scientific method is universal. If we selectively ignore it in certain disciplines, we do so at our peril.

The full thing is here.

This guy has taken his 15 minutes of fame (as he called it himself) and used it to say something that is bang on the money and was in dire need of saying. Downplaying his own discovery in order to support his colleagues and the environment is not to be sniffed at. The problem is however, that probably the discourse he has given us here will be drowned out by pure nonsense, such as homeopathy* ,  or pure spin (and nonsense) that clutters up science reporting in the popular press.

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*Feel free to take this opportunity to accuse me of working for big pharma (though you couldn’t be more wrong. But before you do, I would like you to consider this. Big pharmaceutical companies obviously do not always behave well. However, there is no logical path from that fact to the idea that homeopathy must work.

THE 2012 BULLSHIT

Been tweeting about this a bit today but want to expand on it a bit here as well.

I have just listened to a lecture about the 2012 non-event by a guy who spends a lot of time trying to debunk the nonsense that is published. It is the third one down if you go here.

I suppose most people just write it off as nonsense but this kind of nonsense has serious consequences. One of those is that some people are making a lot of money selling tickets for some sort of lottery for places to escape the non-disaster.

Again, it is tempting just to think they are idiots but though they might be it is worth thinking about the content of some of these emails which he quoted…

“I’m a mother of 26. The last few weeks I have been losing sleep over this Doomsday issue. I frankly think it is sick, I don’t want to lose my children to some awful disaster”.

“I am a young woman from Denmark, mother of one child [with] another one coming. Yesterday I was considering killing myself, my baby in my stomach and my beloved 2 year old before Dec 12th [2012] for fear of having to witness the Earth’s destruction”.

“I am in the 8th grade and I am considering suicide right now. I am scared to tears. I don’t want to go to school anymore. I don’t want to spend time with my family. I believe that I deserve an explanation. A man on TV said that if government officials spoke up they would be killed”.

“I’m so scared, my only friend is my little dog. When should I put her to sleep so she won’t suffer when the earth is destroyed.”

Please challenge the 2012 nonsense every time you hear it. Scared people lash out and do horrible things.

If you follow  the link near the start of this this article the lecture will give you the information you need to debunk the major myths about this non-event. There are useful links below too….

Here is what planet X actually is.

The Mayan Calendar

THE BIG ONES – MY UNABASHED POST

Where are we? – A question that has been ever more accurately answered by a long stretch of people from Aristarchus of Samos to Edwin Hubble and many many before, between and after. Suffice to say we have a very good idea now.

Who are we and what are we? – I would posit that both of these have been satisfactorily answered by Darwin but not in the sense that many people who seek to misrepresent Darwin for right-wing political ends would suggest. Let us not forget that one of the reasons that Darwin got time to study  his science more was that he fell out with the ship’s captain (whom he was employed to talk to…he wasn’t employed to be ship’s naturalist) because the captain agreed with slavery and Darwin vehemently did not.

How are we and/or how should we be? – This one is the province of the philosophers ie all of us.

Why are we? – Probably unanswerable question.

When are we? – This has also been convincingly answered. Look it up yourself – you have the time.

And today we got a lot closer to another one…

Are we alone? – I know that this is not a definitive answer but the odds just changed considerably. It is possible that over time this will become one of the biggest stories in history. If it isn’t this one, there is a high possibility it will be another one… and soon.

Check it out. I am completely unashamed to say that the fact we are attaining such a level of understanding is one of the great things about being alive in this time. The tragedy, as it has been pointed out before, is that just as we are on the point of getting it we are also on the point of fucking our little corner of it up beyond repair.

Here is what won’t help…