From around the web

By Phil Plait | March 8, 2008 1:12 pm

I’m lazy, and don’t feel like doing anything original right now. Plus I’m planning for The Little Astronomer’s slumber party tonight, and about to have nine 12-year-old girls descend on Chez BA. So, here are some things I found around the web to entertain you.

1) I hate to link to Dilbert, because Scott Adams is an antiscience twinkie, but when you read this strip you’ll see why I linked to it.

2) An Ontario all-sky camera caught a pretty cool bolide streaking across the sky.

3) An attosecond is 10-18 seconds, which is an incredibly short period of time. Engineers have created a laser which can send out a pulse of light just 170 attoseconds long. Turns out that is about the same amount of time it takes an electron to move around the nucleus of an atom, so they have used this laser as a strobe to freeze the action of a moving electron. The video (avi or mov) is… odd. But cool.

4) Are plastic bags the scourge so many people say they are? This article says the claim that they kill millions of animals is totally false. Such things have happened before, so my bull detector isn’t going off. But it doesn’t say anything about how they are made and how they are disposed of, which also play into this.

That’s it for now. I’m off to the party store to get festive plates and earplugs. TTFN.


Comments (42)

  1. Yoshi_3up

    Well, seems that it looks like a normal day just passes by, BA.

    By the way, when are you going to do the next live chat?

  2. Sespetoxri

    BA, don’t forget, when girls have sleepover parties, it’s usually then that the spiders descend on your house and attempt to take over. I suggest calling Delbert McClintock now and not waiting until it’s almost. too. late.

  3. If the sky is clear in Boulder tonight, you can shape the young minds of the visitors by showing them the wonders of the Universe through a telescope, and getting them hooked on Astronomy!

    Or if it’s cloudy (or if you just want to), run away, leave the house, and go do something where it’s quiet. :)

  4. “I hate to link to Dilbert, because Scott Adams is an antiscience twinkie”

    I think it’s wise to separate the author from his work, Phil. Dilbert’s not Adams.

  5. Kaptain K

    At least, Adams separates his beliefs from his work, unlike Hart (B.C.)!

  6. chis j

    I have to agree with Kevin, if the parents are letting the children near you (is Boulder that evolved?), it is time to corrupt them properly.

    A quick trip out the the BA Observatory, if the weather is good. If the weather isn’t that great (the way it looks like it will be), get out some good pictures of the universe and show them off and talk about it. Maybe show them pics of Squids too (I know that’s that other guy) in the sense of fairness. Maybe show them some magic tricks and then explain how they are done to make them more skeptical.

  7. Rinzewind, no but Dilbert is created by Adams, and all things being equal I’d rather not promote something created by Adams if I can help it.

  8. SLC

    Since Dr. Plait is lazy today, I will attach a post from Bob Park, the man who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This concerns a boondoggle of 1.5 billion dollars on the ISS.

    In selling the ISS to Congress NASA always held up the antimatter experiment of Nobel physicist Sam Ting as an example of basic science on the space station. Never mind that it never went through peer review. If you’re spending a $100B on a space station anyway, why not put AMS on board? It almost sounded free. So AMS was built at a cost of $1.5B. According to Andrew Lawler in today’s Science, NASA now says it can’t afford to put AMS on the ISS unless Congress comes up with another $4B or so. NASA is exaggerating the cost, but it does cost four times as much to send an astronaut to the ISS as it does to put a rover on Mars. It’s not possible to calculate the ratio of scientific value for a Mars rover over an astronaut since it involves a zero in the denominator

  9. Dave

    When PZ Myers shot down Scott Adams he should have asked if Adams preferred “the long answer you won’t understand because you possess neither the experience nor the education needed? Or the dismissive and insulting answer that has the advantage of being quick?”.

    I loved it when Disbert asked the question:

  10. Shaded Spriter

    This is almost as sad as when I found out that Chuck Norris was a Fundamentalist.

  11. Rinic

    I wish people would stop taking Scott Adams so seriously. He’s admitted before that his blog is just one big joke.

  12. Michelle

    @Shaded Spriter: Dude, Chuck Norris is the TEXAS RANGER! What did you expect him to be? 😛

  13. So I looked at the movie of an electron – I have no clue what I’m seeing. Is that entire blue blob the electron?


  14. baley

    The video (of the electron) isn’t working

    I guess it’s similar to this one:

  15. Brian

    baley, thanks for that link. That video makes a lot more sense than the others!

  16. Blizno

    Not to me.
    I see blue circles rising and falling. What does that mean?

  17. bassmanpete

    I think it’s wise to separate the author from his work, Phil. Dilbert’s not Adams.

    I tend to agree with this. I like some of the music of Oasis but I wouldn’t invite the Gallagher brothers round for afternoon tea :) Appreciating someone’s skill, talent or expertise doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a likeable person.

    As for Dilbert, I find most that I’ve seen unfunny. But then I haven’t worked in an office/corporate environment for over 20 years

  18. Tony

    Hm, the dark band and the near circular shape of the whole thing… I see one of two possibilities. Either that video of the electron is the way the laser was scattered by an atom at different times and it changed due to the changing location of the electron, or we are seeing a representation of a P orbital.

  19. Has anybody else run into a particularly annoying ad ‘floating’ across Phil’s page? It parked itself right in the middle of the latest post, then refused to close no matter what I did. When I refreshed the page, it was gone.

    Think I like the porn ads better.

  20. Oh yikes. Lugosi, if you see it again, note what the ad is for (company, product, whatever) and see if you can snag its URL. I kill all ads like that, and in fact it never should have run in the first place.

  21. Radwaste

    Hey, I’ll just quote the man: “Please don’t write me with passionate explanations of why my views are wrong. You won’t discover my opinions by reading my fiction.” – Scott Adams, in the foreword to “God’s Debris”.

    Hey, so he doesn’t have a doctorate. Wit doesn’t evaporate for lack of a license. I don’t like the ways he yanks people’s chains on occasion, but a) there are plenty of BABlog fans who haven’t been to civics class, and b) I’ve seen very few people actually study what he says anyway. As Randi points out, experts are among the world’s easiest to fool; please entertain the notion that this means you all now and then. I know it applies to me.

    The BABlog’s great strength – and it is great – is in the presentation of digestible information about astronomy. That’s a great service, and I am here merely suggesting that Mr. Adams’ work has not been studied as carefully as Eta Carinae by current company.

    Hey – the linked comic mocks pareidolia. Whattaya know – we have something in common!

  22. Gerry

    I find myself with a bit of a dilemma regarding Scott Adams. I read his blog every day. I also read The BA Blog every day. How could I possibly enjoy both? What is wrong with me?

    I enjoy Scott’s humor. I also enjoy Dilbert but the fact that I work for a gigantic corporation and live a third of my life in a cubicle may have impaired my judgement. For the most part, I don’t take him seriously. Sometimes he writes on the fringes and sometimes he blasts right on past the fringes but my take is that he does that, not necessarily because he actually believes those things, but rather he’s encouraging explorative thought. He’s not a scientist and readily admits that but does that mean he’s not allowed to wonder “out loud” in his blog? Isn’t asking questions (even the stupid ones) the very foundation of understanding and progress? The idea that he’s an “anti-science twinkie” just feels wrong to me. I don’t think he is.

    Should I stop reading something I enjoy if something else I enjoy tells me I shouldn’t?

  23. Mark Martin

    The video isn’t an image of an electron per se; it’s the diffraction pattern generated as the pulse of light interacts with the electron’s charge-field.

  24. Ray C.

    A pulse of “light” lasting 170 attoseconds will have a width of about 51 nanometers, about an eighth of the shortest wavelength of the visible spectrum. That’s got to be at least up in the extreme ultraviolet, if not the X-ray spectrum. Alas, I can’t reach the web site.

  25. Tony

    HA! I figured it was probably something like that, but my chemistry was coming back to me and making me think it just MIGHT be a P orbital.

  26. Joe M.

    BA: If you don’t like Adams, you shouldn’t promote his work. Posting a link to that comic because you liked it is sort of like the people who go on and on about how evil Walmart is, but then go buy something there because “it was a great deal.” Or “I was on vacation and there was no where else to go.” People need to stick by what they feel. Then again, I don’t find Dilbert funny, so that’s probably why I don’t like to see it promoted. :)

    Also, I am always amazed by how little people put into plastic bags at the grocery store. I am getting very close to calling people out when they buy a single item and use a bag, but I have so far been able to contain myself, because I realize I’ll just end up looking like an ass.

    Great site, by the way. I get a lot less work done when you have a lot to talk about.

  27. Quiet Desperation

    Dang. I deal with picoseconds on a regular basis in electronics. Never needed an attosecond before though. Not sure I want to. Timing signals to 10 ps is quite enough of a headache.

    ********* BA! I got the floating ad, too. It’s for Opinion-Central. Clicking the X and the No button produces no result. **********

    Should I stop reading something I enjoy if something else I enjoy tells me I shouldn’t?

    Good gravy, man, grow a spine. I will continue to read Dilbert *and* the BA, and anyone who tells me otherwise can get bent. Besides, I can’t get exciented over the science opinions of a cartoonist. Unless he runs for office.

    Actually, I thought God’s Debris was a clever thought experiment even if it’s fantasy.

  28. Quiet Desperation

    Also, I am always amazed by how little people put into plastic bags at the grocery store. I am getting very close to calling people out when they buy a single item and use a bag, but I have so far been able to contain myself, because I realize I’ll just end up looking like an ass.

    Not to mention if you “call me out” for it, you’ll wind up looking like an ass *ON* your ass. Mind your own business.

    Then again, I don’t find Dilbert funny, so that’s probably why I don’t like to see it promoted.

    Sheesh. Intolerant much? There’s lots of things in the media I don’t like, but I can’t begrudge the people who make them from promoting their product. Can’t imagine a rational reason for even worrying about. You sound like a bit of a busybody.

  29. Gerry

    “Good gravy, man, grow a spine.”

    My spine’s just fine thank you. I had my tongue firmly planted in my cheek and have no intention of giving up my consumption of either. I simply wanted to point out that I think PZ may have over reacted and let Phil know that audience overlap exists between Scott’s blog and his.

  30. Joe M.

    “Not to mention if you “call me out” for it, you’ll wind up looking like an ass *ON* your ass. Mind your own business.”

    So you’re the guy putting that single can of soup in a plastic bag. Good to know. Oh, and brining physical violence into the mix is a nice touch.

  31. Quiet Desperation

    Oh, and brining physical violence into the mix is a nice touch.

    Oh, sorry there, Mr Gandhi.

    And, yes, I find applying a nice brine to marinate the targets of my righteous Whoop-assings Of Justice to be quite effective.

  32. Quiet Desperation

    My spine’s just fine thank you.


    I had my tongue firmly planted in my cheek

    Well, it was planted somewhere.

    Pow! Zing! Tee hee!

    and have no intention of giving up my consumption of either. I simply wanted to point out that I think PZ may have over reacted and let Phil know that audience overlap exists between Scott’s blog and his.

    PZ overreacts to everything. He follows the Penn & Teller school of skepticism that goes as follows:

    A PERSON: I dunno… I just wonder about the existence of the soul sometimes, you know. Is there any point to it all?
    SKEPTIC: You’re a [bleeped] pile of [bleeping] [bleep] and you [bleep] your mother, your dog and many children on a regular basis.
    A PERSON: OK, I’m going away now.
    SKEPTIC: A little [bleep] like you can never hope to aspire to the grand magnificence of my perfect and unsullied mentality!
    A PERSON: (no longer there)
    SKEPTIC: Ah! Another win for skepticism!

  33. The amount of damage that plastic bags cause is essentially unknown. In the book “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman, there is a chapter on the long lasting effects of plastic. Essentially, plastic doesn’t biodegrade, at least not yet. Even the “biodegradable” plastic that the bags are made of don’t really degrade, they quickly break apart to much smaller bits of non-degradable plastic. Sure, exposure to enough UV does break it down, but the amount exposed to UV is almost negligible compared to the total manufactured. As plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, it enters the eco-systems of smaller and smaller creatures. The ultimate effects of this are not known. Presumably, eventually something will evolve that can actually metabolize all that plastic, but that could be a long time coming, and once it does arrive, it might just eat everything we’ve made out of plastic without waiting until we are done with it.

    Just as in oil and global warming, you don’t need to believe in the ultimate disaster scenarios to believe that working to fix the problem is a good idea.

  34. Jeffersonian

    @Joe M.
    “I am getting very close to calling people out when they buy a single item and use a bag, but I have so far been able to contain myself, because I realize I’ll just end up looking like an a@@.”

    The way to deal with it is to tell the store they need to train their cashiers not to waste bags or you’ll stop voting with your dollar. People take what the cashier gives them because THEY don’t want to look like an a@@. Shop at grocery stores that give a discount when you bag your own in canvass you brought. (Ignore those who think planetary housekeeping isn’t a group project when you call them out, even if they threaten violence). There are other problems with plastic bags besides biodegradability. Check out the annual landfill quantity, the number which have to be picked up by hand due to litter and what resources are drawn in oreder to manufacture bags each year. Is there a sound reason NOT to cut our bag usage in half (with next to no effort required)?
    It IS a problem that needs a solution and what’s the solution if not dollar-voting and education? (People that are actually proud of their ability to waste are…a waste).

  35. DAV

    Quiet Desperation, you got the “[bleep]” part right. I really wonder at the purpose behind it. It certainly isn’t to convince and educate. Maybe it’s just to gain solace in preaching to the choir? Who knows? My personal knowledge of PZ is what he writes in his blog and the kinds of posts he tolerates. What I’ve seen isn’t flattering. I’ve a better opinion of Phil but sadly he seems to be moving toward the same attitude.

    The fundamentalists aren’t being dishonest and I’m sure they are just a willing as the rest of us to learn. A person shouldn’t be held accountable for simply having had a different upbringing. The only differences between most fundamentalists and some of the posters here are the source(s) of what they believe and whom they trust as an authority.

    Don’t think so? If your opinions are really someone else’s; if you think the evidence for XXX exists simply because YYY (and ZZZ, etc.) said so; if because you are so certain, you never entertain the idea your beliefs may need updating; or if your idea of searching for the truth is to go to QQQ’s website for “the facts” and stop if told where evidence might be found — guess what!? — you and the fundamentalist are doing the same thing! Both you and the fundamentalist are certain you know the “Truth” because someone told you it was “Truth.” The fundamentalist doesn’t have much recourse but YOU are supposed to know (and act) differently.

    If that’s not you, then fabulous! But if it does describe you (no need to confess — just be honest with yourself) then you’re treating science as a religion.

    I recognize those here to whom what I’ve said is most applicable will be the first to hastily post, “NOT ME!” Stopping you is futile. Have at it.

    Phil, if you’re complaining for the sake of complaining that’s OK but if your purpose is to inform, you’re not going to succeed if you insult your intended targets by calling them “twinkies” or worse.

  36. Tom

    Well said, DAV. I used to try to say the same kind of things here, but got tired.

  37. Troy

    The attosecond laser is quite mind blowing. At some level electrons are used to drive the electronics of the laser, so the switch is electron driven so does that mean the electron’s path to execute the switch must be less the distance than it would travel in an attosecond? Obviously, I’m out of my element but know enough to be in awe.

  38. Will. M

    Plastic of all sorts is made from petroleum, of which the world is in ever-shorter supply…

    I live in of the wine counties in CA; once in awhile a vineyard will rip out old vines and then fumigate the ground, insulating the chemicals with large lengths of Visqueen-like material. The last time this happened along the Russian River there was plastic along the entire length from where the stuff washed into the watershed (pushed by winter storms) near Hopland clear into the Santa Rosa drainage. It was an eyesore, festooning the trees and shrubs along the river for over a year.
    I visited the Copper Canyon area in Mexico a few years ago. We flew into a small town mid-way down the Pacific Coast to start the rail and bus journey. There was plastic bag litter everywhere; no roadway, roadside, or field in any city or small town escaped the blight.

    Plastic is recyclable; most supermarkets have places where bags can be returned. They get recycled/remade into more plastic stuff.
    People are the problem, whether in Mexico or here in the U.S. It is so easy to toss an empty bag, and the comment above which noted that bags don’t biodegrade readily is on the mark.

    When I was a kid my grandma used to walk to the neighborhood market with a wheeled basket. If she didn’t need a whole lot of stuff, she had her own shopping bag made of fabric. Everything changed when we began driving to the big supers and were provided with paper bags to hold the groceries.
    Safeway (and probably other stores) are now selling fabric bags which can be used to haul your stuff home. They’ve tried this before, several years ago, but the idea never caught on. Perhaps it will this time, because we seem to be getting more conscious about the environment and what we’ve done to it.

  39. BaldApe

    On bags, yes, reusable bags are preferable, and we use them when we remember to take them to the store.

    Plastic being non-biodegradable is irrelevant if the bags wind up in a landfill. Paper doesn’t break down in landfills either. Paper bags take up a lot more space, weigh a lot more, and require cutting down trees to make them. Before you try to claim that it’s the leftover parts of trees cut for lumber, you should look at the forests cut down in the southeastern US and fed into giant pencil sharpeners to make paper.

    A bundle of 400 1/6 barrel bags weighs about 60 pounds (I’ve lifted plenty in my 30 years in a grocery store. It is about 75 cm long, 50 cm wide and 30 cm high (guestimates, but that should be pretty close.

    A box of 1000 plastic bags weighs about 14 pounds, and is about 30 cm cubed.

    Furthermore, it is my understanding that ethylene was a waste product of the cracking process in producing gasoline before the invention of polyethylene. I think it was just burned off.

    Of course littering is a problem, but that’s as true of paper bags as anything else. (I’d love to see a cop pull over someone who throws a lit cigarette on the highway and give him a ticket for littering. We saw many brush fires along the highway one very dry summer, most likely due to cigarettes.)

    So in plastic bags we use less space in transport, storage and disposal. They are recyclable, weigh less, costing less in fuel to transport, and they amount to air pollution transformed to a harmless, even useful, substance.

    Even if I’m wrong on the details, I hope I’ve made the point that the whole picture is much more complex than “Oooh look at that ugly plastic bag hanging in the pretty tree!”

  40. jick

    In South Korea, you have to *buy* plastic bags at shopping centers. It’s enforced by law.

    They are reasonably priced (~5 cents each), but it’s cheap enough that shopping centers would very much want to just freely distribute the bags, attract more customers, and cut the trouble of collecting 50 won (~ 5 cent) coins. Hence, enforcement by law.

    It is actually much more effective than you might imagine. You know how many women would love to buy ~$100 shoes but fume if asked to pay $1/hour for parking… 😉

  41. The guy who asks for a plastic bag for a single soup can may need the plastic bag for some other reason, like a temporary garbage bag for his car, or a garbage-can liner at home, or to carry later purchases from a place that doesn’t bag. Don’t judge without all the facts.

    On Dilbert — I like the strip a lot. It doesn’t bother me that Adams is an antiscience loon, any more than it bothers me that BA is an atheist/agnostic (at least I assume he is; if he isn’t he can correct me). I don’t just read things by people I agree with. Heck, I love Heinlein’s SF books; that doesn’t mean I buy into his crackpot right-wing ideology.

  42. sublunary

    I have to say I felt shocked and saddened when I read Adams described as an “anti-science twinkie”. I don’t read his blog or comic any more, but did read a book of his when I was in high school. “The Dilbert Future” had some random sciencey ramblings at the end (I remember his half-joking refutation of the existance of motion making me roll my eyes.) within which I found my first exposure to the double-slit experiment and began years of obsession with popular physics books and a love of quantum phenomena and cosmology.

    It makes me sad a guy who helped introduce me to the wonders of science is now saying things that get him described as “anti-science”.


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