Rogue worlds

From Dynamics of Cats, a great article on what happens to planets as a star leaves the main sequences and shrinks to a white dwarf:

if the mass loss is sudden, “impulsive”, the planet generally goes onto an eccentric orbit, possibly hyperbolic for mass loss of ~50% or more, depending on the original eccentricity of the orbit and where the planet is along the orbit. This scenario was considered by Blaauw in 1961 and is often referred to as a “Blaauw kick”.

Under the right conditions, planets orbiting large stars could eventually break free of their shrinking primary. Hard to know how often that happens. but there are a lot of large stars and our understanding of exo solar systems via Kepler and ground based work indicates planets are common. Over time that could lead to a galaxy with no small number of rogue worlds drifting quietly through interstellar space. I wonder what they might be like?

Why does the Teaparty hate America?

Remember ‘lo these many blogs years ago, when mere second guessing of a President or a national policy was treason? My how the times have changed. Today, the greatest self-described red, white and blue patriots are positively giddy at the prospect of shutting down the US government or wounding its credit. From Mother Jones:

You’d think that was the case if you were in the crowd at a tea party rally in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, on Sunday morning. The Tea Party Express rolled into that northeastern city as part of its tour to bolster the six GOP state senators facing recall elections on Tuesday. But the most shocking moment of the event wasn’t the vitriol spouted by tea party leaders, which has dominated news of the tour stops in recent days. Instead it was the cheers that erupted when one of the Tea Party Express’ speakers described the recent downgrade as the tea party’s fault.

Did God create the Universe?

Observable Cosmos

The Observable Universe as derived from the 2MASS Extended Source Catalog.

According to the debut of the Science Channel’s Curiosity program, Did God Create the Universe?, the answer is no. The program ends the question at an appropriate place, the edge of human understanding defined by the Big Bang. That scientific finale, at least for now, notes that if there was no time before the Big Bang, then there was no time in which an antecedent could have existed.

The program begin with a quick jog through the classic work of Anaxagoras (I think) who inferred not just the spherical shape of the earth and the moon and the cause of lunar eclipses, but the existence of distant suns in the form of stars. Hurtling past Galileo and Einstein, the one hour show quickly introduced Stephen Hawking and the origin of space-time. Some may think the program was too gentle, but several commercial breaks had spots for a Christian dating service where viewers were told something like “Sometimes you’re waiting on God, when He’s saying it’s your turn to make the next move”. Apparently we can’t clearly discern the handiwork of a creator in the fabric of the cosmos, even with x-ray observatories and infrared detectors painting the earliest universe with particles of invisible light. But he’s real involved in our sex lives … Let’s just say that commercial helped present the show in a more flattering light!

There was a nice panel following the program featuring several cosmologists including my old friend Sean Carroll. Sean, who blogs at Cosmic Variance for Discover Magazine, made some great points, such as “Does your idea of God affect the universe?” He was nice enough to respond via email, telling me, “It was great to see Stephen Hawking on Discovery stating explicitly what many cosmologists believe, that there’s no room for God in explaining the universe.”

The program is worth watching, fun for the whole skeptical family. But for me the panel discuission following was the best part. I give that portion two opposible primate digits up!

NASA’s new rocket may not fly for a decade

An article in the Orlando Sentinel last week provides a great snapshot into the struggle between old space and new. At issue is the SLS, nicknamed the Senate Launch System:

The rocket and capsule that NASA is proposing to return astronauts to the moon would fly just twice in the next 10 years and cost as much as $38 billion, according to internal NASA documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel. The money would pay for a new heavy-lift rocket and Apollo-like crew capsule that eventually could take astronauts to the moon and beyond. But it would not be enough to pay for a lunar landing — or for more than one manned test flight, in 2021.

The SLS is a proposed Saturn V level booster rocket that can loft around a quarter million pounds into low earth orbit and hurl an impressive 100,000 lbs in Trans-lunar injection. A wonderfully convenient, twisting figure eight making close passes over the earth and the moon once a week. But the controlling parameter in space exploration isn’t just development cost, it’s the cost per payload pound. If multiple launches of a smaller rocket can put way more mass into space at the same or lower cost than the SLS, it makes sense to go with it. If that same vehicle could be available for cargo next year, and manned flights in another year or two, all for the cost of a few hundred million a launch, it’s a good deal.


SpaceX Falcon 9 with Dragon cargo/manned capsule mounted

Space Exporation Technologies, or SpaceX, has such a vehicle in late development right now. They developed a smart schedule where the Falcon 9 booster is used to ferry cargo to the International Space Station, allowing SpaceX engineers to tweak the technology at a profit. Within just a few years the Falcon could carry the Dragon capsule; a next generation vehicle far more advanced than the Apollo command spacecraft. Boeing is embarking on a similar program with its Delta rocket series. Half a dozen other companies, traditional and new space, are hot on their heels.

I’m all for rockets, big ones, little ones, medium-sized ones. There’s no end of places for them to go, whether they carry people or probes, a vast solar system beckons. It’s just that the SLS will probably never fly given the bare development schedule, the high cost, and unpredictable future political priorities. It’ll probably die on the vine, death by a thousand budget cuts, just like it’s predecessor, the Ares V and the ambitious Constellation program. Worse, the longer it lasts the more funding it will pull from other NASA programs. The reason it keeps surviving policy changes and the deficit cutting mania so popular in DC is because the SLS delivers one payload immediately: sweet, sweet federal dollars to traditional aerospace and institutional players in the states and districts of protective politicians.

Climate change (denial) 101

Thanks to Ed Brayton and some other folks, FreeThoughtBlogs has been successfully moved to a new host, many thanks to those of you who witnessed our birth pains. So now we can rock and/or roll!


Mean global temperature by meteorological station. Source GISS

The image above shows the actual NASA Global Temperature Index by meteorological station produced by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies or GISS — in repsonse to the comment below, you can actually see what the annual numbers looks like here or tabulated and formatted in various visual presentations here. The raw data for this graph are empirical observations, temperatures around the world to be exact. After the highs in 1998 and 2005, climate change skeptics — many funded by the fossil fuel industry — proclaimed an era of global cooling was upon us and we can thankfully dismiss those biased scientists at NASA and elsewhere when they say otherwise. It’s a neat swindle; using that dishonest tactic every local or absolute maximum record temperature is by definition evidence for global cooling!

Now that the solid numbers for 2010 are in, they’re back to explaining the evidence doesn’t matter. Imagine what they’d think if that chart were upside down, no doubt they would clearly see a powerful, unmistakable cooling trend huh? With last year’s data in the graph, we can now add a new entry to the original climate change (denial) 101 apologetics by year and mean temperature visual aid. Here at the Zingularity we believe one good, or bad, turn deserves another. Presenting the unofficial climate change denial 101 game plan:

Climate change denial 101. Image work by my buddy DemFromtCT

So far the CRU hack seems to be the main spiel used to distract from the new data. Which in itself is a con because that event vindicated the scientists involved. Mike Mann, perhaps best known for the Hockey Stick paleoclimatic record and who was on the inside of that event, reminded me just now by email that, “There have now been a half dozen investigations by various independent organizations and commissions in the U.S. and the U.K. and in every case they have found that there was absolutely no evidence of scientific misconduct revealed in the fossil fuel industry-manufactured controversy known as ‘climate gate’. As the pre-eminent journal Nature editorialized about the theft of emails and subsequent smear campaign by industry-funded climate change deniers”: “The theft highlights the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate change researchers”.”

Needless to say, reality never stands in the way of a good zombie lie.

Noah’s Ark rides again

Lesser & Greater Ararat

Left to right: Lesser Ararat at 3896 meters & Greater Ararat at 5137 meters. The latter is the purported resting place of Noah

While writing another post today there were a couple of annoying programs on my local cable stations, both on channels that are supposed to be about science and history. Or used to be anyway. The first was a documentary on ghosts, the other a look at the legend of Noah’s Ark. The former was bad enough, the latter gave the flood story way to much credence and covered it with far too little objectivity. Ghost shows are just too damn ridiculous, so I opted for the Ark nonsense. That program took the dodge of a local flood, basically reducing Noah to a mystical guy who builds an advanced — by Bronze Age standards — raft with a lean-to houseboat on one end and maybe some goats and chickens tied up on the other side. 

They could have mentioned for example that no matter how much “pitch” was used to seal it, a wooden boat the size of the biblical Ark  would not be seaworthy for long. Even relatively gentle waves would produce stress beyond the strength of wooden ship building materials available at the time. Let alone a pitching, rolling ocean in the middle of a rainstorm laying down several feet of rain an hour for weeks on end.

The program could have introduced viewers to some basic thermodynamics and meteorology, how much water can be held by the atmosphere at specific temperatures and pressures for example. I haven’t worked out what a shell of liquid water  representing a global rise in sea level of several thousand meters would imply if held as vapor. I’ll go out on a limb here and predict it means a five to tenfold increase in ambient pressure and a rise in global temperatures  of a couple of hundred degrees.  This is a radically different planet than the one we live in. It would be covered with thick clouds from poles to equator, from space we’d be a brilliant puffy white cotton ball. On the surface it would be darker than a moonless night and hot enough to cook the flesh right off the bones.

Geologists know a lot about which sediments and what marine environments produce various types of sedimentary rocks and how those deposits can be cooked and folded, some even eroding away to form totally new deposits. Limestone and shale require different kinds of conditions to form than sandstone. And yet all over the world there are layers of sandstone sandwiched between other kinds of rock. My friend Ed Brayton has a great zinger where he wryly notes “Right in the middle of a massive global flood a desert broke out.”

But I heard precious little modern geology or science on the show. And that’s a disservice. Because that’s what the actual flood story in Genesis says or clearly implies. It was a giant boat with two of a whole bunch of species on board and enough food and water to keep them alive for the better part of a year, the flood was global, so vast it created many geological features we see today, and it rained enough in 40 days to cover the mountains. The ark eventually rested on Mt. Ararat giving a minimum water depth of 5,137 meters or almost 17,000 ft. When the water receded 7 months later (Where exactly does a global sea recede to, underground caves? ), God made the first rainbow as a sign he would not destroy the world again. Or at least anytime soon.  

 Speaking of God and climate, I didn’t get a chance to make it to Rick Perry’s prayathon down in Houston this weekend. But I can tell you it’s about 105° degrees outside in Austin right now, not a cloud in the sky. One would think if Noah witnessed a divine flood covering the earth, God would have the ability to give Rick Perry a gentle summer rain shower over a parched Lone Star State smack dab in the middle of the worst drought on record. Dumb question: is there any kind of time horizon for effectiveness on these things? Can we establish a date or devise a sliding scale for the purpose of testing the prayer-and-effect hypothesis?

Wild speculation on the origin of religious belief

As mentioned in the introductory post on the Zingularity, like everyone else on earth I was born an atheist, unlike most, I stayed that way. Long before I was old enough to know why super natural beliefs were suspect, I was prone toward skepticism. I always wondered why I was spared, or cursed according to some. Is it possible there’s a genetic component to my view? I don’t know. If there is, it would surely be a complex interplay of genes and culture. But let’s speculate, let’s assume such a genetic basis exists. Purely for the purpose of discussion.

The reason I find this idea so fascinating is because evolution works on genes. One popular definition of evolution is “a change in alleles within a population over time,” where an allele is one of two or more versions of a gene. Most of us alive today descend from the large populations that developed around early city states. It’s a numerical likelihood for one thing, and those populations were the ones that developed resistance to endemic diseases that plagued early settlements and ravaged remaining bands of hunter-gatherers.

If modern history is any guide, many of those early populations held a rich mythology, and they weren’t terribly tolerant of dissenting views. A thought experiment: if, over centuries and thousands of generations, individuals who did not profess a firm belief in local superstition were socially unpopular, up to and including outright massacred, then a propensity to accept the prevailing mythology might confer an adaptive advantage. Iterate countless times, our speculative alleles become fixed, and the resulting population might be composed chiefly of those who believe, or those who excel at pretending they do. We might end up with two main kinds of people, true believers and shameless, one might even infer sociopathic, fakers. Sound familiar?

OK, it’s a giant stretch. An egregious jump with little or no data behind it, and it’s probably difficult to test. Besides, religion probably has all kinds of adaptive value beyond my hasty speculation. Genocide is sure as hell not contigent on religion — humans have been coming up with ugly justifications for it since antiquity and probably long before that. The willingness to suspect unseen, hidden cause and effect, the desire to construct fanciful explanations for observed phenomena, could even help fuel the intellectual engine behind what we call science today.

But it strikes me as an interesting notion nevertheless.

Kill the atheists!

The imgur site claims the following comments are taken from a cable news comment page, ostensibly in relation to a story involving religion or atheists. I have no way to confirm that, or when it happened if it indeed did. But if someone can try that would be great. Some of the alleged comments:

I say kill them all and let them see for themselves that there is a God.
These people are the scum of the earth.
Can we start killing them now?
Few groups are filled with more hatred than atheists.
Nail them to that cross.

And it goes on and on. Again I haven’t confirmed this; I’m in a place where I can’t do that right now. No idea if that’s legit stuff or completely made up. Have at it.

Update 6:20 PM CDT: Yeap, Jerry Coyne covered this and they appear to be genuinely posted on a Fox News Facebook page. Hat tip Ex Machina in comments below.

Mars Reconnaissance finds evidence of recent water

Possible signs of flowing water on Mars. Image NASA/JPL

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA/JPL homepage) has snapped some intriguing photos of what appears to be evidence for relatively recently flowing water. The dark, dare I say almost greenish streaks, suggest sub Martian ice may have liquefied during the planet’s lengthy spring and summer and poured down a crater wall forming gullies and other features:

“The key here is we know Mars has a lot of ice, but this is the first time we’re ever seen the potential for liquid,” said Phil Christensen, a Mars researcher with Arizona State University who wasn’t involved in the research. “They’re finding water much closer to where it can be liquid through much of the year.” The initial finding was made by a University of Arizona undergraduate student, Lujendra Ojha.

The highest temperatures on Mars rarely exceed the freezing point of water on earth, but researchers speculate there may be salt and other minerals mixed in which would lower the melting point. Follow the water has become the slogan among astrobiologists. Many feel the best shot for find extraterrestrial life, including life transported by impacts between planets in our solar system, is to find the water. The solution for all life we know about is literally water. That’s why places like the Jovian moon Europa beckon.

It was thought after the Viking Missions in 1976 that Mars might be a very dry world. The Mars Phoenix lander in 2008 changed that view. Not only did the landscape revealed by Phoenix’s cameras show unmistakable signs of a phenomenon well known to geologists and hydrologists called frost heaving, the lander found large deposits of water ice a few inches below the Martian soil everywhere it looked.

The question I have for any biologist or microbiologist who wants to take a crack at it: given what we know of the Martian soil and other environmental conditions, and assuming some briny seasonal water a few inches below the surface, are there types of terrestrial bacteria that could survive? Intuition tells me there ought to be, but I’m no microbiologist.

Far from being a dry world, Mars may turn out to have quite a bit of water safely stored away as ice. And water is one of the more useful substances we can find in space. It’s not just great for drinking, it can be used to create oxygen to breath, and it can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, the basis of a powerful liquid rocket fuel. On Mars we may have a little world with carbon and nitrogen in the air, water underground, and enough iron and other minerals locked up in the ancient shifting sands to sustain a human colony on the Red Planet. To Mars, bitches!

The breathtaking double standard at Fox News

Fox News is worried, about the children of America being fed misleading information. In cartoon form no less. Won’t someone please think of the children?

Today’s (August 3) edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends included a remarkable exchange on the issue of SpongeBob Squarepants, climate change science, and the state of science education in the U.S. Apparently, using cartoons to teach children about important science issues of the day raises hackles at Fox, especially when those issues are at odds with their political perspectives. In particular, Fox & Friends attacked SpongeBob for an episode in which the role of human emissions …

The horror! Using poor, innocent cartoons to help children understand our world. Fox went full-bore against this scientific heresy. And man, it’s a damn good thing Fox is holding the line against this ideological propaganda in slick celluloid form. Where are all the other news networks?

Oh yes, you know what comes next, right? Mike Huckabee, Fox News contributor, has a little side business, a little old cartoon series of his own to peddle:

So — what does Huckabee’s “unbiased” view of 9/11 look like? A lot of praise for the PATRIOT act (which it, should be said, many conservatives don’t like), a lot of praise for the Department of Homeland Security, a lot of praise for Israel and the clear implication that President George W. Bush was responsible for the death of Osama bin Laden.

One might think Fox News, given their deep and no doubt geniune concern for the nation’s children, might want to mention their own contributor’s lack of, ummm, comprehensive review. Instead they went on a tear about how US kids are falling behind in science. Right after taking down climate change vis-a-vie Comrade Spongebob. Fair and balanced. They report, you decide.