Archive for August 22nd, 2008

Antivaxxers must be stopped! NOW.

By Phil Plait | August 22, 2008 2:30 pm

Antivaxxers are people who think vaccinations cause health problems, most notably autism. This is despite study after study showing them to be wrong; there simply is no link between vaccines and autism. While there can be isolated reactions to vaccines, they are very rare, and the overall health benefits of vaccines vastly — vastly — outweigh the negatives.

But these antiscience crusaders are starting to have an effect, and it’s a bad one: measles outbreaks in the U.S. are on the rise. In the first seven months of 2008 there have been seven outbreaks — a typical year has just one — with over 130 reports of measles infections, compared to just 42 last year in total. Of these cases, 122 children were either unvaccinated or have unknown vaccination status. That’s 93%.

As it happens, there have been no deaths from these outbreaks yet, though over a dozen kids were hospitalized.

The overall vaccination rate in the U.S. probably hasn’t dropped significantly, but these outbreaks are probably due to pockets of people not vaccinating their kids. Some are from home-schoolers, others due to religious reasons… but I will guarantee that a lot of this is due to the antivaxxers spread of lies, and smearing of the medical community. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again.

This part of the article is telling:

The nation once routinely saw hundreds of thousands of measles cases each year, and hundreds of deaths. But immunization campaigns were credited with dramatically reducing the numbers. The last time health officials saw this many cases was 1997, when 138 were reported.

Vaccinations work, and they save lives. Don’t believe the lies. Do the research yourself. I did, and I’m convinced the antivaxxers are wrong. And in some cases, they’re dead wrong.

Help stop them. Educate yourself, and talk about this with people. If you have a friend who is considering not vaccinating their kids, send them here, or here, or especially here. Give them the facts. They need it, to fight the onslaught of antiscience they are likely to find elsewhere.

Fight. Literally, kids’ lives depend on it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Piece of mind

The beating heart of W5

By Phil Plait | August 22, 2008 12:00 pm

Holy frak! Check out this new image from Spitzer Space Telescope:

Spizter image of nebula W5

(Click to hugely embiggen)

W5 is a nebula, a giant cloud of gas roughly 6000 light years away in the constellation of Cassiopeia. It’s enormous, spanning about 2 x 1.5 degrees of the sky (15 times the size of the full Moon on the sky), and is actively cranking out stars. The valentine-shape is actually an enormous cavern, a hollow carved out of the gas by the winds and fierce ultraviolet light flooding out from massive young stars in its… well, its heart. It’s like these stars are blowing a vast bubble in the middle of the cloud.

The stars doing the work can be seen in the image; the bright blue ones are the culprits. Mind you, this is an infrared false-color image; blue is not really blue, it’s actually light at 3.6 microns, more than four times the wavelength of visible light.

There’s another way to find those stars: look at the edges of the bubble. See the triangular or finger-like extensions of material pointing into the bubble? Those are light years-long towers of gas being eaten away by the winds and UV light from the hot massive stars, so the fingers point right to those stars. Sometimes nature is kind to us, and literally points the way.

There are stars in those towers, less massive stars (in this case, more like the Sun) being formed even as we watch. In fact, that’s what makes this image so exciting scientifically (aside from its sheer awesome beauty); it appears that we’re seeing triggered star formation. It’s not perfectly clear yet just how massive clouds collapse to form stars. Sometimes it’s from cloud collisions — cosmic fender-benders or even head-on ramming that crunch up the clouds, triggering collapse and star formation. Sometimes it might be from nearby supernovae compressing the material. Or maybe it’s from massive stars forming and then blowing bubbles in the cloud itself. That last one is the tricky bit. See how the material appears to be brighter along the edge of the bubble? That’s due to compression from the more massive stars’ sculpturing — compressed material tends to glow brighter.

If that’s true, we’re seeing the first generation of stars born in that cloud directly causing the birth of the second. From studying the light from these stars, astronomers have found that the ages of the stars get younger as you move out from the middle, supporting the idea that the massive stars in the center (which form rapidly) are aiding star formation in the outer regions. As their winds and light move outward, they leave behind a wake of stellar birth.

I have spent the past year researching all the ways the Earth can end from cosmic catastrophes for my book, Death from the Skies! Being near a young, massive star is a good way to do this: they flood out fierce light while they are alive, and they tend to explode when they die. But here we see the exact opposite: these stars are the Johnny Appleseeds of the Universe, the lifegivers, sowing the galaxy with the conditions needed for more stars to form.

In the real world, life and death are inexorably intertwined, sometimes so tightly bound that they are nearly indistinguishable. And here we see it on a scale hundred of trillions of kilometers across, so large it appears majestic and calm, yet so finely detailed we can study the processes at work and learn how the basic building blocks of the Universe came to be.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Minor planets, major thoughts

By Phil Plait | August 22, 2008 10:25 am

I link to Emily’s blog at The Planetary Society quite a bit, but that’s because a) she’s really good, and b) we agree on a lot of things.

For an example of (b), read her post about the definition of "planet". I’m still not swayed by a lot of what I’ve read of others’ opinions, but Emily seems to be on the right track. She says this:

Frankly, I think it’s much less important for a student to be able to name all the planets than for the student to understand the basic structure of the solar system: that Earth is one of many worlds that orbit around the Sun at different distances. Each of these other places has similarities to and differences from Earth. Studying these other worlds is both fascinating in its own right and also helps us understand our own planet. And the way we study other worlds is by looking at them from Earth with telescopes and by visiting them with the spacecraft that leave Earth (most of them leaving Earth forever) to wander our solar system, serving as our eyes, ears, hands, and sometimes even noses.

Even after discussions with Alan Stern, I’m still struggling to figure out if this is merely a semantic argument, or a truly scientific one. I may need to buy Alan a drink and talk this over some more. If I do, I’ll let you know. I do need to watch the videos of the planet definition debate first, though.

But back to Emily: for an example of (a), she has posted an astonishing series of pictures about all the smaller worlds (asteroids and comets) visited by spacecraft… and then put up an incredible image showing their relative sizes. The difference between the comet Itokawa and even a smallish asteroid is really rather shocking. If you sat Itokawa on the Earth’s surface, it would be a fair hill, maybe a little difficult to bike up, but that’s about it. Whereas even small asteroids are bigger than Mt. Everest.

And those things sometimes hit us. Brrr.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, DeathfromtheSkies!, Science

Worlds' most distant webcam goes live

By Phil Plait | August 22, 2008 7:00 am

You can use a webcam to sneak peeks at birds’ nests, active volcanoes, watch the Shuttle launch, and even to check traffic. But that’s just local stuff. What if you want more of a far look?

The crescent Mars, as seen by MEVMC

Then you need to check out the most distant webcam (so far) in the solar system: the Mars Express Visual Monitoring Camera (note: the camera page is due to go live at 13:00 UT today, but don’t fret if it takes a little while to go up after the deadline the page is now online!). This camera on board Europe’s Mars Express orbiter has been circling the red planet since 2003. It was used to confirm the Beagle lander’s separation from the main spacecraft, and that completed its main mission. But last year, controllers wondered if the camera could be turned back on to provide some tourist views of Mars, so they began a new campaign to check out the camera. It turned on just fine (after more than three years of sleep!) and they’ve been snapping away with it.

The camera is not a scientific one: in other words, data from it are not easily measurable to the precision needed for scientific analysis, but it does provide spectacular views of Mars, and can be used to monitor weather and other changes on the planet. And the view! The image above shows something we never can see from Earth: a crescent Mars, with the Sun peeking over the limb (you need to have Mars between you and the Sun to see this, and Earth is always closer to the Sun than Mars). There are also animations of Mars rotating, and weather patterns changing. Totally awesome.

And the Mars Express folks want more eyeballs! They made this request:

Open invitation for image feedback:: You can assist the Mars Express team with additional processing of the raw image data files as well as interpretation: What do you see? What part of the Mars surface is being shown? Can you identify any geographical features? What regions of the atmosphere or atmospheric components do you see?

So go to their site and check out Mars. It just might be the most interesting heavenly body you’ll see on a web cam.

And for those of you picky readers who want to complain about this post’s title: note the position of the apostrophe.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Space

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