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19 March 2012

Breaking News of a Geeky Variety

Dr. Phil Plait, all around great astronomer and ginger man about town, just informed the world about a developing supernova in the galaxy M95.  I suggest you read his article, because he does such a great job explaining it.  I do want to put the video up here as well though, just to make your stop here a multimedia encounter.

Before the video though, I must make one comment...  Isn't it pathetically sad that he has to reassure us that there is no danger from an object that is 35 million light years away?  Seriously, reminds me of the time that astronomers announced a great void in space that was 6-10 BILLION light years away, and the Faux Noise reporter looked at the video monitor with a combines expression of concern and confusion, and asked the astronomer if we were in danger from it.  The fact that the scientist didn't laugh at the reporter for their sheer stupidity can only be attributed to their state of shock at the abject stupidity of said reporter.  It's the only explanation that makes sense!

Anyway, here's a video to accompany the announcement of this supernova!

13 March 2012

Killer Argument for Evolution?

There is no such thing.

A subject as vast, complex, and diverse as biology will never have a single killer argument. To look for one would be a fool's errand, and to believe one would be the mark of a fool. A singular killer argument is the sign of a simple question. Something evolution most decidedly is not.

The fact that pretty much every discovery in Biology (especially genetics) has supported the argument for evolution should lend credence to the theory of evolution, and Darwin being right. There is no way a Victorian era gentleman would know about DNA to the level we do now, and yet he was so amazingly right about the things he wrote.  Yet, it takes an incredibly complex and in-depth understanding to really understand and see the significance.  Something that those who would deny evolution haven't the slightest clue on.

Anyway, just wanted to post this.  I also would like to bring your attention to Zack Kopplin and his efforts.  You all should support him.  And if you regret ably find yourself attempting to discuss evolution with a creationist, I suggest that you arm yourself with as much information as possible.  Facts, not Fantasy is one place you can go to start that process, but remember:
“Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon; it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.”
― Scott D. Weitzenhoffer

11 March 2012

Book Review: 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True

I always like to find good books on skepticism, not because I particularly enjoy reading them, but because they are needed.  Guy Harrison's 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True is a needed book in this day and age.  I won't go into details on each chapter in the book, but I will warn you that if you have a cherished woo belief, this book should cure you.  And yes, I said cure, because many of the beliefs Guy debunks are a disease.

Now, for a book of this size, there are perhaps some legitimate criticisms that he doesn't go enough into depth on these subjects.  However, he offers you a "Go Deeper" section so that you can get that depth you may need.

Also, there is a very topical 2012 chapter.  With the incorrect meme about leap days, and the general batshit crazy nuttery that will come about as more idiots get freaked out the closer the non-event day happens, you may actually save someone heartache if you can direct them to this book, and that chapter.

Guy also does a good job of being much more kind (in the same way Carl Sagan was) as opposed to my rather brash, and in your face style.  I think his style is well suited to any audience, to include younger readers.

One thing that I was unaware of is that Guy has an impressive list of books out there.  You may want to pick up a few of them when you visit Amazon.  I find that when you get to the end of a book on the Kindle, it also directs you to many of these books.

Remember, it's not so much about destroying someone's cherished woo beliefs, but rather saving them the heartache and embarrassment of holding those beliefs when they cause that individual harm.

09 March 2012

Today would have been my sister's 40th birthday

I just wanted to revisit a couple of posts that I made last fall about my sister.  In particular, talk about the education fund for her children, and repost the eulogy.  Today would have been her 40th birthday.  I miss her terribly.  The best I can do at this point though is to make sure that her children have a future in whatever small way I can, and to again share my thoughts on her passing.

The education fund information is as follows:  Send a check or money order to (these are 529 plans, so they may be tax deductible depending on your state):

USAA College Savings Plan
(Susan L. Carroll Memorial Fund)
P.O. Box 55354
Boston, MA.  02205-5354
1-800-531-8722 Extension 24992

If you have a U Promise account, you can link to these as well.  You will need to specify the accounts you want the funds to go into (or ask them to equally disburse the funds):
Cole:  505293251-01
Sommer:  505293251-02
Noelle:  505293251-03
Grace:  505293251-04


If you have questions or concerns, please call the phone number above, or you may contact me and I'll see what I can do to help.

Here is the full text of the eulogy as I wrote it:
As I look to each of you, I see my own sorrow in your eyes. Behind the tears that fall for my sister, Susan, I see great love and admiration. I know that Susan would be humbled to realize that you’ve taken time from your busy schedule to join in celebration of her life and on behalf of our family; thank you for the support that you’ve offered at this difficult time.

If anyone asked Susan what her finest legacy to the world is, she wouldn’t have hesitated to say, “my family”. She was the proud mother of Cole, Sommer, Noelle, and Grace, and I hope that each can remember that while they have lost a link to the past with Susan’s death; they will always be her hope for the future. Albert Einstein once said, “Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation.” I’m comforted by the fact that Susan will be revered, loved and remembered for decades yet to come.

My sister was an intelligent, funny, strong willed, determined and vivacious young woman. She was a skilled labor and delivery nurse and loved her job. She enjoyed running and biking and was, by her own admission, an open book. She loved to laugh (often) and was spontaneous and fierce. While she seemed strong as steel, the reality is that she was as fragile as crystal and it is this fragility that brings us here today.

It seemed that Susan had it all. She was at the top of her professional years and had many more years to live and many more lives to influence. Yet she faced internal demons none of us even knew of. Many of us feel a selfish guilt right now. We are not just wondering “why” but we are wondering “what”….What could we have done? In the end, as long as we were good and faithful friends to Susan, we did all that we could do. One of the glories of being human is that we get to make choices, and while I don’t agree with my sister’s choice to end her life; it is one she made, and in the end, my wish is that she has found the peace she was looking for.

I don’t think of my sister in the past tense because she is always going to be a part of my memories. I will always remember my younger sister as an inspiration and gift in my life and I am going to miss her more than words can say.

I don’t harbor anger or resentment towards Susan for her final act. She was ill and she did not get the help she needed. Maybe her self reliance and determination prevented her from admitting this illness to herself, thus disallowing necessary help.

Death is the final equalizer for all of us. For most, death comes naturally after a life of many decades. To some life is cut short through no specific plan of an individual through disease or accident. Sadly, others suffer from a misunderstood disease of mental illness and they lose perspective on life and irrationally end it for themselves.

There is so much we don’t know. We don’t know what led her to think that she had no other choice and we wonder at the despair that at last got out of hand and drove her towards her decision.

But…we are not here to hand out blame. Adlai Stevensen once said, “It is not the years in a life that counts; it is the life in the years.” I will be the first to tell you that Susan packed a lot of life in her years and it is that very life that we celebrate today.

An example of her determination, iron will, and the life she led. During the lobster festival in Maine, they have a lobster crate race. Susan tackled that race with her usual gusto. She had clearly won the race, but she kept going. Even after she set the record for that race, she kept going. Not satisfied with just breaking the record, she wanted to make that record her own. She kept going to the point of exhaustion and made that race her own personal property! That record stood for well over a decade. That is the type of person that I will always carry with me.

Moving into the future without Susan by our side will be odd. However, as long as one is remembered they are not truly dead, and if we carry memories of Susan in our heart, she will be with us always.

In her memory, I would like to read a poem written by Edwin Harkin of the UK, in 1981. I think Susan would have liked this:


You can shed tears that she is gone
or you can smile because she has lived.


You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back
or you can open your eyes and see all she’s left.


Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her
or you can be full of the love you shared.


You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.


You can remember her and only that she’s gone
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.


You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back
or you can do what she’d want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

Rest well, Susan. I miss you terribly.
Thanks for sharing with me again.

07 March 2012

So Much Better than any Creation Fable!

Forgive the music at the end, but Neil deGrasse Tyson does say it so well!  I am really looking forward to the Cosmos re-boot that he is doing with Ann Druyan and Seth McFarlane (yes, that Seth McFarlane).



And in honour of some of the sentiments in this video, and its connection to Cosmos, here are some quotes that I really like:

  • The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key. - Carl Sagan, "Wonder and Skepticism", Skeptical Inquirer 19 (1), January-February 1995


It is sad that someone who probably didn't really know what she was posting got so much shit for this, isn't it?

04 March 2012

Critical Thinking Videos

Dr. Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer, turned me on to these videos.  They are mostly aimed at children, but lets face it, a lot of American adults could use these videos as well.  Why do you think that I would disparage American adults?  Well, considering that apparently any education is "snobbery", I can only imagine the intellectually stunted brains that are out there.  I think Isaac Asimov said it better:
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” 
Anyway, here is the full series of videos that  I encourage you to watch and share with those who need it (and to make it easy, I will embed all 6 here for you).













I hope these come in handy for you or others around you.

01 March 2012

Everybody panic, WE'RE ABOUT TO DIE (or not)!

So I just saw this story on Space.com.  Makes me wonder how long before all the nutters will go apeshit about this and proclaim that the end is near...  Now keep in mind, the impact that created the famous Meteor Crater in Arizona 50,000 years ago was only 150 feet or so in size, but it was made of nickle-iron.  We have no idea yet what 2011 AG5 is made of, even though it is about three times as big.  However, there is plenty of time, and we still have a lot to learn about it.

This movie has a brief summary of the asteroid (or you can read the whole article after the video):

Big Asteroid 2011 AG5 Could Pose Threat to Earth in 2040

Date: 27 February 2012 Time: 06:57 AM ET


An artist's illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects, that highlight the need for a complete Space Situational Awareness system.
An artist's illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects, that highlight the need for a complete Space Situational Awareness system.
CREDIT: ESA - P.Carril

Scientists are keeping a close eye on a big asteroid that may pose an impact threat to Earth in a few decades.

The space rock, which is called 2011 AG5, is about 460 feet (140 meters) wide. It may come close enough to Earth in 2040 that some researchers are calling for a discussion about how to deflect it.

Talk about the asteroid was on the agenda during the 49th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), held earlier this month in Vienna.

A UN Action Team on near-Earth objects (NEOs) noted the asteroid’s repeat approaches to Earth and the possibility — however remote — that 2011 AG5 might smack into our planet 28 years from now.


The object was discovered in January 2011 by Mount Lemmon Survey observers in Tucson, Ariz. While scientists have a good bead on the space rock's size, its mass and compositional makeup are unknown at present. [The 7 Strangest Asteroids in the Solar System]
Gravity Simulator image of 2011 AG5 passing the Earth-Moon system in February 2040. Earth is the blue dot, the moon’s orbit is gray, and 2011AG5 is green. Simulation created with JPL Horizons data.
Gravity Simulator image of 2011 AG5 passing the Earth-Moon system in February 2040. Earth is the blue dot, the moon’s orbit is gray, and 2011AG5 is green. Simulation created with JPL Horizons data.
CREDIT: Tony Dunn

An asteroid desktop exercise

"2011 AG5 is the object which currently has the highest chance of impacting the Earth … in 2040. However, we have only observed it for about half an orbit, thus the confidence in these calculations is still not very high," said Detlef Koschny of the European Space Agency’s Solar System Missions Division in Noordwijk, The Netherlands.

"In our Action Team 14 discussions, we thus concluded that it not necessarily can be called a ‘real’ threat. To do that, ideally, we should have at least one, if not two, full orbits observed," Koschny told SPACE.com.

Koschny added that the Action Team did recommend to the NEO Working Group of COPUOS to use 2011 AG5 as a "desktop exercise" and link ongoing studies to the asteroid.

"We are currently also in the process of making institutions like the European Southern Observatory aware of this object," Koschny said. "We hope to make the point that this object deserves the allocation of some special telescope time."

Non-zero impact probability

The near-Earth asteroid 2011 AG5 currently has an impact probability of 1 in 625 for Feb. 5, 2040, said Donald Yeomans, head of the Near-Earth Object Observations Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

This impact probability isn't set in stone, however. So far, researchers have been able to watch the asteroid for just a short time — the first nine months of 2011 — and the numbers may change after further observation, Yeomans told SPACE.com. [Photos: Asteroids in Deep Space]

"Fortunately, this object will be observable from the ground in the 2013-2016 interval," Yeomans said. In the very unlikely scenario that its impact probability does not significantly decrease after processing these additional observations, "there would be time to mount a deflection mission to alter its course before the 2023 keyhole," he added.

Keyholes are small regions in space near Earth through which a passing NEO's orbit may be perturbed due to gravitational effects, possibly placing it onto a path that would impact Earth.

Prudent course of action

2011 AG5 may zip through such a keyhole on its close approach to Earth in February 2023, which will bring the asteroid within 0.02 astronomical units (1.86 million miles, or 2.99 million kilometers) of Earth.

One astronomical unit is the average distance between Earth and sun, which is approximately 93 million miles (150 million km).

According to a JPL estimate, the 2023 keyhole — through which 2011 AG5 must pass in order for there to be a real chance of an Earth impact in 2040 – is roughly 62 miles (100 km) wide.

"Although this keyhole is considerably larger than the Apophis keyhole in 2029, it would still be a straightforward task to alter the asteroid’s trajectory enough to miss the keyhole – and hence the impact in 2040," Yeomans noted, referring to the asteroid Apophis, which could threaten Earth in 2036 if it zips through a keyhole in 2029.

"The prudent course of action is then to wait at least until the 2013 observations are processed before making any preliminary plans for a potential deflection mission," Yeomans said.

Processing additional observations in the 2013-2016 time period, he added, "will almost certainly see the impact probability for 2011 AG5 significantly decrease."

Wanted: Higher-fidelity assessment

"Yes, the object 2011 AG5 was much discussed at the AT 14 meetings last week, but perhaps prematurely," said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s NEO Observations Program Executive in Washington, D.C.

Johnson said NEO watchers have flagged the asteroid "as one we should keep an eye on." At present, he said, while researchers have better preliminary orbit data for 2011 AG5 than for many other asteroids in the NEO catalog, "we have only medium confidence in the derived orbital parameters."
"Fortunately, we are confident our uncertainties in the current orbit model will be reduced when we will have good observation opportunities in September 2013 with the larger follow-up assets," Johnson told SPACE.com. Observing opportunities are even better, he added, starting in November 2015 and for several months thereafter.

"This, in turn, will enable us to better assess the likelihood of any ‘keyhole’ passage in 2023 and therefore a much higher fidelity assessment of any impact probability for the 2040 time frame," Johnson said. [5 Reasons to Care About Asteroids]

"So, rather than a need to immediately jump to space mission solutions, the situation with 2011 AG5 shows the value of finding potentially hazardous objects early enough so that there is time for a methodical approach of observation and assessment as input to any need for an expensive spacecraft mission," Johnson said. "A more robust survey capability would improve the data available to make such assessments."

Decision challenge

Long-time NEO specialist and former Apollo astronaut Russell Schweickart played an active role in the dialogue about 2011 AG5. He represented the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) Committee on Near Earth Objects and presented to the Action Team an analysis of the situation with 2011 AG5.
The space rock presents a "decision challenge" to the international community, Schweickart suggested, "in the unlikely chance that its current low, but significant probability of impacting Earth in 2040 continues to increase after additional tracking becomes available."

Schweickart spotlighted a rough Association of Space Explorers analysis of the options to deflect the asteroid in the future, in the unlikely scenario that the Earth impact probability continues to increase.
He also provided to the Action Team several new appraisals of options for deflection of asteroid 2011 AG5 to avoid a potentially dangerous Earth encounter in 2040.
The key moment of the Don Quijote mission: the Impactor spacecraft (Hidalgo) smashes into the asteroid while observed, from a safe distance, by the Orbiter spacecraft (Sancho).
The key moment of the Don Quijote mission: the Impactor spacecraft (Hidalgo) smashes into the asteroid while observed, from a safe distance, by the Orbiter spacecraft (Sancho).
CREDIT: ESA - AOES Medialab

Delayed deflection campaign

A decision date for a keyhole deflection is very soon, if not now, Schweickart suggested. Asteroid 2011 AG5 represents an actual threat that underscores the need for a NEO hazard decision-making structure within the UN COPUOS, he said.

Based on the latest analysis, Schweickart reported, a deflection campaign delayed until after the 2023 close approach appears marginally possible, as long as a decision to commit is made immediately thereafter.

In the low-probability case in which the impact threat of the asteroid persists beyond its 2013 apparition, "should a keyhole deflection campaign be foregone — for whatever reason — the international community may be faced with the difficult decision of choosing between an expensive multikinetic impactor or a nuclear explosive to prevent an impact should the NEO indeed pass through the keyhole," Schweickart said.

The timelines that would be required to mount a successful deflection of the asteroid, Schweickart told SPACE.com, might be challenging.

But first things first — researchers stress that more study of the asteroid’s trajectory is called for. The next tracking opportunities of 2011 AG5 will occur in September 2013, and then again in November 2015.

NASA chief: We still have time

In response to a letter from Schweickart regarding 2011 AG5, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that 2011 AG5 is "high on NASA’s list of NEOs to monitor for impact hazard potential," adding that "we take these duties very seriously."

Bolden also noted the opportunities for highly accurate ground-based observations in the near future.
"Based on these observations, a more informed assessment can then be made on the need for any type of mitigation," he said.

Bolden also remarked that the asteroid makes an apparition in 2015, more than seven years before the close keyhole passage in 2023 that could set in motion an Earth impact in the 2040 time frame.
"As a point of comparison, NASA’s Deep Impact mission [the Deep Impact probe smashed into comet Tempel 1 in July 2005] was conducted in six years from selection to impact under much less urgency, demonstrating the adequacy of a seven-year period for any necessary response," Bolden said.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.