Archive for the 'Scientitious Discoveryology' Category

27
Sep
10

This Is A Blog Post About An Article About Science Articles In Mainstream Publications

This is a blog post. As such, it concerns the work of someone else, which is linked here.

In this paragraph (which should not be longer than two lines), I mention a bit of what this other person’s bit work means to me.  I find it a brilliant parody on the way mainstream publications treat science news.

This paragraph elaborates on the opinion, and may make its point with an amusing, if unrelated metaphor or simile, in much the same way an octopus can take on the appearance of algae.

Here, we close with something pithy.

13
Sep
09

Public Service Through Servers: Government 2.0 Summit

Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project
Image by MeetTheCrazies via Flickr

This weekend, two crowds flocked to the nation’s capital, both with government on their minds.  One group was marked by ludicrous notions of persecution scrawled upon misspelled signs, inchoate anger and a raft of complaints culled from Fox News and AM hate radio.   The second group was composed of people whose careers depend upon being able to spell, discern, engineer and generally make sense of a world filled with people who noisily belong to the other group.  The second group were the new technocrats and they came to speak and hear about the newest applications of technology to the dirty, ugly, frustrating job of Government. Away from the screaming,  Government 2.0 Summit had convened.

Boiled down, Government 2.0’s central argument is over the notion of government conceived as a platform, a visualization that takes the organizing principles of operating systems supporting applications and in brief, applies them to civics. The view propounded by O’Reilly himself, is being challenged by some, and the arguments are fascinating.

Government is a heartbreaking mess that invites comparisons to privately developed systems such as computing platforms mainly due to the commonly large numbers of people and institutions that both serve.  And that is where serious parallels should end; civic, social and technical engineering techniques each can be oriented toward naked campaigns of domination and centralization to the direct detriment of the public interest.  This is generally how business interests apply the technocratic mindset.  While it may be that government might learn technocratic chops from that dominant camp, it will never (as a separate institution charged with public interest) acquire the same goals nor therefore commit a fraction of the crime.  This is exactly why the operational and philosophical synthesis of government and business must be resisted as aggressively as possible; I look forward to more research into the overlap of the two, starting with watching what happened at the conference where the nerds of each camp congregated among the crazies.

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26
Mar
09

Flatus Dei, Or, Here Comes The Sun

The Sun: Untrustworthy

Hey, the way you contextualize your existence is up to you.  Do you think there’s a giant magic clerk in the sky, registering your every deed?  Good luck with that.  Do you think a vast and immane oneness accounts for everything from distant quantum weirdness to human ethics?  All right then. Do you think alien ghosts occupy each of us and the only way to tame them is to buy truckloads of self-help literature?  Rock on, Tom Cruise.

The thing is, there are tangible objects in the sky that, in the end, hardly apply to whatever framework you’re carrying around to make it through the day.  Take for example the brightest one above your head, the nuclear fusion reactor we call the Sun.

Unlike most features of human belief systems, the sun does its thing visibly, objectively.  Not only is the sun visible, if you stare at it, it will be the last thing you see.  In marked contrast to human constructs such as guilt, fear, or Church of  Scientology legal defense, our 93 million miles of distance from it is no protection against its power.  Good thing too, given that its power is the same that allows us to not die on a cold rock in space.

As visible as it is, our relationship with it is a hidden, delicate balance. No matter what we believe,  the fact is sometimes the sun believes it’s a good idea to belch up vast quantities of charged particles, particles that carry enough electrical charge to shut off whole swaths of civilization.

Understanding things that can kill all of us is a good idea.  Which is why we fund efforts to do so with public money, and fight off political attacks on that funding by retrograde illiterates such as Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who recently scoffed at $140 million in funding for the Alaskan volcano monitoring that saved lives and gave early warning last week of an eruption.  (Mr. Jindal has not as yet died of embarrassment, although one can hope.)

Politically speaking, we are again turning away from the natural world, thanks to a pervasive culture that denies the very existence of a public interest.  A recent publication, covered in New Scientist magazine reminds us of a critical human construct that would be whipped in any fight against the sun. I mean the electrical power grid, upon which my words rode to get to your eyeballs.

As this grid has grown in size and capacity, and our dependence on it has increased accordingly, it has receded in our consciousness and is taken largely for granted.  No public spending could ever change that phenomenon, but it is true that the Sun’s special ability to wipe out the electrical grid via solar storm activity calls for special effort on our part to monitor and  buy time for us, just like any weather monitoring does.  The Sun’s periodic blasting our planet with its charged particles can be mitigated to some degree by solar monitoring – monitoring the Jindals and Palins of the world sneer at even as they trudge through ankle-high drifts of volcanic ash.

We’ve got a satellite up there watching for exactly this, but it’s breaking down.  Faced with its replcement, once again, in a culture overly influenced by pious ignoramuses, the scientists struggle for the words they shouldn’t even need to speak.  Who is listening?

By far the most important indicator of incoming space weather is NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). The probe, launched in 1997, has a solar orbit that keeps it directly between the sun and Earth. Its uninterrupted view of the sun means it gives us continuous reports on the direction and velocity of the solar wind and other streams of charged particles that flow past its sensors. ACE can provide between 15 and 45 minutes’ warning of any incoming geomagnetic storms. The power companies need about 15 minutes to prepare their systems for a critical event, so that would seem passable.

15 minutes’ warning

However, observations of the sun and magnetometer readings during the Carrington event shows that the coronal mass ejection was travelling so fast it took less than 15 minutes to get from where ACE is positioned to Earth. “It arrived faster than we can do anything,” Hapgood says.

There is another problem. ACE is 11 years old, and operating well beyond its planned lifespan. The onboard detectors are not as sensitive as they used to be, and there is no telling when they will finally give up the ghost. Furthermore, its sensors become saturated in the event of a really powerful solar flare. “It was built to look at average conditions rather than extremes,” Baker says.

He was part of a space weather commission that three years ago warned about the problems of relying on ACE. “It’s been on my mind for a long time,” he says. “To not have a spare, or a strategy to replace it if and when it should fail, is rather foolish.”

There is no replacement for ACE due any time soon. Other solar observation satellites, such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) can provide some warning, but with less detailed information and – crucially – much later. “It’s quite hard to assess what the impact of losing ACE will be,” Hapgood says. “We will largely lose the early warning capability.”

The world will, most probably, yawn at the prospect of a devastating solar storm until it happens. Kintner says his students show a “deep indifference” when he lectures on the impact of space weather. But if policy-makers show a similar indifference in the face of the latest NAS report, it could cost tens of millions of lives, Kappenman reckons. “It could conceivably be the worst natural disaster possible,” he says.

The report outlines the worst case scenario for the US. The “perfect storm” is most likely on a spring or autumn night in a year of heightened solar activity – something like 2012. Around the equinoxes, the orientation of the Earth’s field to the sun makes us particularly vulnerable to a plasma strike.

What’s more, at these times of year, electricity demand is relatively low because no one needs too much heating or air conditioning. With only a handful of the US grid’s power stations running, the system relies on computer algorithms shunting large amounts of power around the grid and this leaves the network highly vulnerable to sudden spikes.

If ACE has failed by then, or a plasma ball flies at us too fast for any warning from ACE to reach us, the consequences could be staggering. “A really large storm could be a planetary disaster,” Kappenman says.

So what should be done? No one knows yet – the report is meant to spark that conversation. Baker is worried, though, that the odds are stacked against that conversation really getting started. As the NAS report notes, it is terribly difficult to inspire people to prepare for a potential crisis that has never happened before and may not happen for decades to come. “It takes a lot of effort to educate policy-makers, and that is especially true with these low-frequency events,” he says.

We should learn the lessons of hurricane Katrina, though, and realise that “unlikely” doesn’t mean “won’t happen”. Especially when the stakes are so high. The fact is, it could come in the next three or four years – and with devastating effects. “The Carrington event happened during a mediocre, ho-hum solar cycle,” Kintner says. “It came out of nowhere, so we just don’t know when something like that is going to happen again.”

01
Jul
08

get ready: cern supercollider rolls the dice next week

Next week, on Monday, July 7th (* update, see comments below) , the guys and gals at CERN in Switzerland will turn on the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider. This enormous facility is a 27-kilometer long ring of supercooled magnets buried 100 meters deep, built to accelerate matter to cosmic speeds, smash the matter against itself and watch closely the results of the collisions.

The LHC’s purpose is to recreate conditions of the earliest measurable instant of time, known as the Big Bang. The July 7th experiments promise to turn on the lights with regard to a wide range of particles that are presumed to exist but have never been observed.

It’s also presumed the Earth will exist on July 8th, but you never know.

While I would cheerfully welcome an event that did away with humankind’s tiresome presumption of its importance in the universe, I would prefer that the most annoying people among us learned about their insignificance before facing it. According to some physicists, booting up the LHC has some possible runaway risks that might prevent that all-important reckoning period.

Recreating the universe’s beginnings at the energy levels the LHC can muster brings with it a series of potentially unpalatable scenarios that could clear your summer schedule in a big hurry. They include:

Creation of Magnetic Monopoles: Long story short, nobody knows what the fundamental deal is with magnetic force. The question of what kind of particles carry magnetic force is an unsolved problem in physics, and some LHC experiments are designed to find out. One far-out risk scenario with these experiments is the creation of monopole magnets, particles that, unlike normal magnets with two opposing poles, only have one. There are theories and some physical evidence that these particles exist in nature but move very quickly, near the speed of light. If cooked up by the LHC in sufficient numbers, the particles, predicted to be much much more strongly-charged than electrons, stripped of their cosmic speeds and wallowing in the Earth’s gravitational field might get awful friendly with each other and pile up in huge arcs or waves that encompass and disrupt the earth’s electromagnetic field, which would not be great for survivability where working electricity is a factor in daily life.

Nano-Blackholes: According to Stephen Hawking, little bitty black holes occur and “evaporate” in nature when certain cosmic rays smack into stuff. LHC’s experiments are very much about simulating and reproducing cosmic rays smacking into stuff and so may develop such nano-blackholes but without the speed and trajectory of the naturally occurring ones. As with the monopole magnets, the danger is that these should-be-hauling-ass objects would instead poke around the earth’s gravity field and accumulate, not evaporate. A resulting combined greater-than-nano-scale black hole appearing 100m under the Swiss countryside would make fast work of the country’s cheese, chocolate, watchmakers and cukoo clocks, sucking them all in, followed by you and me and everything on earth some fraction of a second later. Even Dr. Hawking, if he were present, would barely have time to press the key on his vocalizer for “oh shit.”

Creaton of Strangelets: My personal favorite: the LHC may produce a physical manifestation of the theoretical phenomenon of a strangelet. Not the name of a garage band band on a Pebbles compilation, strangelets are constructions made of the stuff that makes up protons and neutrons, known as quarks. An aim of LHC experiments is to unify the theories behind the behavior of three of the four basic forces on physics (gravity is omitted) : electromagnetic, strong nuclear force (the force that holds nuclei together) and weak nuclear force (the force that keeps electrons from flying out of the nuclear orbit in the atom.) In exploring the commonalities between these forces, strangelets were conceived. A strangelet is a chunk of strange matter (they name this stuff well, don’t they?) which is a more stable version of an atom due to a slightly different quark recipe in its composition. Once again, terrestrial as opposed to celestial speed is the issue. The general worry is that the strangelets might, when created “at rest” (meaning not near the speed of light) get into a slow collision with an unsuspecting nucleus of an atom of copper or whatever. The property of the stragelet’s construction is such that it catalyzes the copper atom into strange matter, which releases energy, and another strangelet, and so on in a chain reaction until the planet is converted into a hot lump of uninhabitable strange matter.

In the minutes leading to the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb, Enrico Fermi, in order to allay the tension, offered to take bets on the result of the explosion: would the first uncontrolled explosive nuclear chain reaction ignite the atmosphere and destroy New Mexico, or the whole planet?

Fermi was making a joke, but it’s worth remembering that he didn’t know what was going to happen to the atmosphere – nobody did. And nobody claimed to.

In contrast, LHC staff have, in a quite sad and transparent betrayal of forthrightness, denied that any LHC experiments pose any kind of risk.

A world where an affront to common sense such as this stands – a place where people in officialdom will tell you with a straight face that this unprecedented gear used in this unprecedented way at unprecedented energy levels categorically can not pose any safety risk – that’s a world so preoccupied with condescension, so lost in its willingness to bullshit that I for one can do without it.

Press the button!

18
Apr
08

4.5 Hz Bass Solo Felt From 200 Miles Away

The earth is an LFO!

Bass! How low can you go?

This morning at around 4:30 AM, I experienced my first earthquake, courtesy of the downstate Illinois New Madrid Fault. I woke to a dark bedroom and a low but regular thumping sound. My first thought was that one of our cats was doing that scratch-the-ear-with-hind-paw thing, as the thumping had that regularity to it.

Then I noticed that the whole house was gently, but insistently swaying north-south in time with the thumping. Probably a couple of inches each way.

If this was a cat, it was twenty feet tall.

It lasted about one minute – one supremely weird minute. The thought “earthquake?” did occur to me at some point, but right when the shaking ended, I heard the furnace fan also shut off by coincidence, which let me shrug off the whole thing and get back to sleep.

What was most striking about the quake was its creepy, regular oscillation. I don’t know why I thought this, but I always assumed a quake would be more irregular / noisy than this one was. It was downright pro forma and mechanical. The ground tugged and released the house at what I reckon to be a steady 4.5 Hertz (shakes per second) for about a minute, making maybe 270 total oscillations.

I measured the frequency later in the day by firing up Audiomulch and dialing a low frequency oscillator until I found what seemed like the right frequency. The exact reading is 4.6273 Hz, but I rounded because I’m not a geek.

News and USGS reports called the quake a 5.2 on the Richter scale, centered in a small town about 200 miles south of my house.

Whenever the ground you’re occupying acts like a fluid, it will get your attention. Like waves on a calm surface radiating outward from a thrown pebble, an utterly enormous volume of dirt was bunched and stretched into hundreds of waves that reached as far north as Michigan and as far south as Atlanta. Our house rode these waves – four and a half of them a second. Wow.

Also, let me take the time to debunk a myth about animals during an earthquake. Supposedly, animals are able to hear crazy events like quakes and freak out a little bit before they hit. We hear this a lot from our friends in California.

Uh huh. Put down the bong, Peace Bear. Not even the neighbor’s dogs — who will bark at grass — uttered a peep.

11
Feb
08

Nixon Speechwriter: I Didn’t Come From No Monkey

Ben Stein, Paragon Of Credibility

In the trailer for his creationist film Expelled:No Intelligence Allowed , actor, former Nixon speech writer and game show host Ben Stein stands before a blackboard in an empty college classroom and writes, Bart Simpson-like: I Will Not Challenge Darwin.

See, he’s being punished, Ben is, as are all of us who dare to question the Unassailable Conclusions of Science. In the convenient binary world of this film, Mr. Stein hopes to do to confused viewers what he did to dry eyes: offer soothing relief along with blurry vision.

Doing nothing to dispel the impression about Stein, first given in the Nixon era, that he is least trustworthy when he’s writing, he goes on to explain in the trailer that something with Nazi overtones called “Big Science” is silencing scientists who “challenge Darwin”.   Even more hilariously it asserts we now live in an “era of Darwin where challenge of the status quo is rarely unpunished” – this nugget accompanied by footage of a cheetah killing a wildebeest.

Setting aside the most obvious problem with the above premise – the small fact that science is challenge, an all-day-every-day challenge to root out the false – even and especially those falsehoods inadvertently produced by science itself – the trailer Stein hosts not only grossly misrepresents science, fascism and cheetahs, the producers also misrepresented their own film to the scientists who appear in it.

According to Cornelia Dean’s piece in the 9/27/07 New York Times “Scientists Feel Miscast By Film On Life’s Origin“, Stein’s producers approached leaders of the science community with a more middle-of-the-road film. For people who don’t accept evolution, they sure had no problem with their own film’s title and theme changing slightly over time.

A few months ago, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins received an e-mail message from a producer at Rampant Films inviting him to be interviewed for a documentary called “Crossroads.”

The film, with Ben Stein, the actor, economist and freelance columnist, as its host, is described on Rampant’s Web site as an examination of the intersection of science and religion. Dr. Dawkins was an obvious choice. An eminent scientist who teaches at Oxford University in England, he is also an outspoken atheist who has repeatedly likened religious faith to a mental defect.

But now, Dr. Dawkins and other scientists who agreed to be interviewed say they are surprised — and in some cases, angered — to find themselves not in “Crossroads” but in a film with a new name and one that makes the case for intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism. The film, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” also has a different producer, Premise Media.

The film is described in its online trailer as “a startling revelation that freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry have been expelled from publicly-funded high schools, universities and research institutions.” According to its Web site, the film asserts that people in academia who see evidence of a supernatural intelligence in biological processes have unfairly lost their jobs, been denied tenure or suffered other penalties as part of a scientific conspiracy to keep God out of the nation’s laboratories and classrooms.

Mr. Stein appears in the film’s trailer, backed by the rock anthem “Bad to the Bone,” declaring that he wants to unmask “people out there who want to keep science in a little box where it can’t possibly touch God.”

If he had known the film’s premise, Dr. Dawkins said in an e-mail message, he would never have appeared in it. “At no time was I given the slightest clue that these people were a creationist front,” he said.

Eugenie C. Scott, a physical anthropologist who heads the National Center for Science Education, said she agreed to be filmed after receiving what she described as a deceptive invitation.

“I have certainly been taped by people and appeared in productions where people’s views are different than mine, and that’s fine,” Dr. Scott said, adding that she would have appeared in the film anyway. “I just expect people to be honest with me, and they weren’t.”

The growing furor over the movie, visible in blogs, on Web sites and in conversations among scientists, is the latest episode in the long-running conflict between science and advocates of intelligent design, who assert that the theory of evolution has obvious scientific flaws and that students should learn that intelligent design, a creationist idea, is an alternative approach.

There is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth. And while individual scientists may embrace religious faith, the scientific enterprise looks to nature to answer questions about nature. As scientists at Iowa State University put it last year, supernatural explanations are “not within the scope or abilities of science.”

29
Nov
07

Universe To Hominids: Quit Looking At Me?

Quit looking at me

First, quantum physics ruined our week by demonstrating that things as they are depend to some degree on observation of those things. From Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (“you can only know how fast something is going or where it is, not both”) to Schroedinger’s Cat (“that cat in the box is both/neither alive and/nor dead until you open up the box and take a look”) quantum physics does its best to screw up the idea of an objective universe.

While discovery of this highly subjective condition is decades old, recent research seems to push things further down the path of subjectivity by suggesting what might be thought of as an understandable extension of a universe that behaves this way. New research suggests the universe not only is or is not a certain way depending on whether it is under observation, it also has undergone significant changes in its volume and mass due to the very quantum effects of observation. Just looking at stuff is wiping out stuff and shortening the life of the universe. From the Telegraph’s coverage of a New Scientist story:

New Scientist reports a worrying new variant as the cosmologists claim that astronomers may have provided evidence that the universe may ultimately decay by observing dark energy, a mysterious anti gravity force which is thought to be speeding up the expansion of the cosmos.

The damaging allegations are made by Profs Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and James Dent of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, who suggest that by making this observation in 1998 we may have determined that the cosmos is in a state when it was more likely to end. “Incredible as it seems, our detection of the dark energy may provide evidence that the universe will ultimately decay,” says Prof Krauss.

What must be done is clear: in order to save the universe from our pernicious attempts to understand it, we must burn every observatory and library to the ground and remove the destructive force of science from our lives forever. Start by voting Republican.




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2001-05: San Andreas Fault
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