Another circuit around the Sun begins

By Phil Plait | January 1, 2010 12:01 am

I know it’s traditional to take this time to look back, and to look ahead. And while I’m not a traditional sort of fellow, I do want to take just a moment here and indulge myself. New Year’s is rather arbitrary for a number of reasons, but there is one substantive change that happens today.

As of right now, I am no longer President of the James Randi Educational Foundation. That job now falls on the able shoulders of my friend D. J. Grothe, who takes that position as of today, January 1, 2010. D. J. is, quite simply, a tremendous guy, and if this is the time for looking ahead, then I see great things happening with him at the helm. He brings loads of experience to the job as well as a fresh perspective. I won’t wish him luck — I don’t put much stock in either that verb or that noun, but I hardly need to. D. J. has earned my trust, and I know he’ll be great.

Like everyone else, I don’t know what 2010 will bring. I’m working on my sooper sekrit TV project, and I’ll have news for that in the coming months, no doubt. I’m hoping to let people see my tattoo very soon, too. I’ll let y’all know as soon as I’m able.

And for astronomy, the future is always uncertain. We have astonishing capabilities coming online, with Herschel, Kepler, and WISE opening their eyes. Hubble is newly refitted, and has already once again proven its worth. Cassini still dances around Saturn, returning one breathtaking image after another. And we still have Spitzer, Chandra, and a fleet of other space-borne instruments, as well as the solid ground-based observatories that are making vast leaps in our knowledge of the heavens.

But we’re still in a recession. Times are tough for everyone, and we’re still not sure as I write this just what President Obama has in store for NASA. We may find out as early as next week, at the annual American Astronomical Society meeting, which I’ll be attending. Hopefully I’ll have some fun stories and pictures from the meeting; there is always big news revealed then.

Anyway, enough rambling. You’re probably just reading this waiting for the antacid tablets to dissolve, so I’ll sign off for now. But stay tuned. One thing I don’t need psychic powers to predict: there will be lots of good news for science, as well as bad. Either way, I’ll be here to talk about it on this blog, as will my friends and colleagues at Discover Magazine and other sites.

Thanks to all my readers for the past year — the past decade. See you for the next one!

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Comments (34)

Links to this Post

  1. News From Around The Blogosphere 1.1.10 « Skepacabra | January 2, 2010
  1. Mig

    Happy 2010, Phil, and everybody out there!

  2. Heh. I wrote my “predictions for great science” blog entry tonight, but it doesn’t post until 8 a.m. Jan 1. Just the same — we are in agreement — big science is going to give us cool stuff this year, and I can’t wait to see what it is.

    See you at AAS!

  3. jcm

    One thing is certain; the anti-science and alt-med (homeopathy) crowd will continue with their shenanigans. And no doubt you will call them out.

  4. You don’t wish people luck? That seems a little too pedantic, even for a skeptic. I hope you have some other way of indicating your support, that makes people feel hopeful when they hear it from you.

  5. Hedgie

    Happy New Year Phil… look forward to another 12 months of awesome.

  6. TojoNeverMadeItToDarwin

    Happy New Year to you, Phil and all your readers and commenters !

    Is there any chance you’ll make it to the Australian TAM ????????
    Please ….

  7. BigBob

    Happy new year everyone.
    “Another circuit around the Sun begins”. That’s pretty much the way I see it too. People have tried to explain to me the significance of January 1st, and I party along and celebrate with everyone else, but I don’t get it. Why don’t we do it on 5th May or another random date? I think the way you celebrate thanksgiving in the States makes much more sense and I get that, but we don’t celebrate it in my country anyway.
    Confused of Britland

  8. For sure lots of “us” will stay tuned to the blog but will the sooper sekret TV show be available for non-USA people? I hope you`ll reveal the mistery, when it`ll be posible.
    Until that time: have a happy new decade :)

  9. Brian137

    Some people think the new year actually begins with the AAS meeting.
    I may be requiring a bit of luck – if you’re not lucky you have to be good.
    Have a wonderful new year, Phil, filled with happiness and joie de vivre.

  10. Mike Wagner

    “Death From the Skies: The Series”
    Wanna bet? :)

  11. I wish I could go to AAS too, but it’s limited to members. I could drive to this one easily, it’s just up the road in D.C.! I really could use the opportunity to record stuff for 365 Days of Astronomy also, all the UVa & NRAO astronomers are up there!
    Oh well. Maybe I’ll just do a monologue this time…

    I think the year should start with the solstice, but that’s just me! ;^)

  12. Gary Ansorge

    As I recall, the New Year DID begin after the solstice, until the Church appropriated that date from pagans to celebrate the birth of the Hanging Man(With apologies to my friends of the Christian persuasion) but then they still had to acknowledge the beginning of a new year, so Jan 1 was the obvious start point. I just like to call all my friends and family at midnight and regale them with tales from the future, as in, “Hi from the year 2010. Things are great so far. Come on in. The Future is fine.”

    Just remember. When the weather gets rough, TREAD WATER!

    REALLY anticipating the TV show. Hope it will be available on Hulu.

    Gary 7

  13. Pete

    @BigBob – as others have said, Jan 1 is an arbitrary date, but you need to pick just one to track time.

    @Phil – so when does the moratorium end on your tattoo?

  14. Daniel J. Andrews

    I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it. (attributed to Thomas Jefferson).

    I wish people luck because it is a way of showing support. Sometimes I’ll add “…not that you need it because you have the skills/talents/work ethic, etc,” depending on the circumstances.

  15. kevbo

    …sooper seekrit TV project, AND a sooper seekrit tat? You wouldn’t on an upcoming episode of “Inked” would you?

    Ah well, good fortune in the New Year, all.

  16. Bill

    You wrote a book?
    (Ha! First to say that in 2010!)

    Silliness aside, best wishes to everyone in the new year.

  17. kevbo,
    It’s actually “L.A. Ink”. He told us this much already. He just can’t reveal the actual tattoo until the show airs.

  18. I am looking forward to hearing more news from you and the popularization of science and skepticism. And congratulations to DJ.

  19. DigitalAxis

    It’s rather silly that the US Naval Observatory (which has offices in Washington, D.C.) can’t send its own people to an AAS meeting, in Washington, D.C. I was hoping to catch up with some old friends who work there.

  20. Good New Besselian year to you all.

  21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Antacids? I’m exhausted, not overeaten or -drunk. Which is presumably why I like to take the opportunity to overindulge myself in sitting down and commenting.

    As regards the year in science and skepticism, I like to think that this years foremost presented discovery (according to Science and me, at least) of Ardipithecus ramidus has astronomical ramifications too. More on that later, we have to expand our universe a little first. 😀

    A. ramidus, together with likely inclusive Orrorin and Sahelanthropus “species”, indicates that bipedalism and related hand construction (now turning out to be ancestral and not derived) wasn’t the defining traits that led to our type of society.

    In fact, as culturally persistent technology is fast becoming another problematic trait defining Homo when extinct and extant apes among others use it too, what remains seems to be traits of, of all things, dentition. (Pointing to the evolution of more monogamous and crypto-estrous societies, with decreased competition and hence peculiarly small canines, and increased cooperation for sex.)

    This goes hand in hand, or should I say foot in foot, with the later work that removes another trait on Homo sapiens motion system as considered special. In “A unifying model for timing of walking onset in humans and other mammals”, Garwicza et al [all swedes by the way, yay] studies what factors drive the seemingly long time human young spend to develop walk.

    Even if they are researching psychology, the work seems to me firmly rooted in biology and statistics. And their conclusion is that it is brain mass that predicts walking onset really well. Not from birth as different mammals have different gestation strategies but as expected from onset of development, i.e. conception. In other words, a brain massive animals as the elephant has a longer walking onset, but as it gestates longer humans seems falsely to be exceptional.

    This seems to me to explain why cats, as I remember it, open eyes before learning to walk. Presumably you don’t need to see to be able to walk, blinds can do it and in fact the motion generators for both arms and legs are thicker parts of the neural stem in both mammals and reptiles (I think). But generally you need brain and vision to learn how.

    Beyond “simple” traits as vision, as even animals with miniaturized neural systems as insects handle well, no one really knows why we have large brains. (Another result this year was that insects like locusts prefer to use vision to place their feet.)

    They are really useful, as they are used to capacity for a large set of traits. But we know of many apes that have advanced technology with brains not massing much more than a male chimp (~ 500 g).

    Of course, like the elephant a male chimp needs more brain mass just to hulk around a body weighing in at 90 kg as opposed to a 35 kg female Australopithecus garhi. But the point is that brain mass development started to take off in later Homo erectus (~ 850 – 1000 g), not at technology onset.

    One can of course speculate in the coevolution of brain and technology as not as intimately connected as people has hypothesized. If the above paper is correct, there may be a trade off that prevents mammals from acquiring large brains in general. Development has to be balanced so that the young animal walking onset suits the ecological niche, with immediate walking in prey and some leeway to acquire a larger brain in care-taking predators.

    What happened in H. erectus? Fossils tells us they were the first to avoid extensive predation, as the relative absence of bite marks shows. It is, to me, unlikely that social cooperation in erectus managed to succeed with what even herds of baboons throwing stones can’t manage well enough. Instead it is likely that technology had advanced.

    Earlier australopithecine/habilis/floresiensis lineage [likely the same lineage, another A. ramidus implication] Olduwan technology includes “choppers”, that can be used to work wood. Perhaps erectus simply learned how to make lances to carry around. It doesn’t take many of those to efficiently fend off single predators, even in small family groups.

    That could have set erectus on to the possibility of “prolonged walking onset – long childhood – massive brains”. Maybe then we owe our massive brains not to a need for specific traits, but as a consequence of a lack of selection against! Expanding brains that acquire a lot of various traits by being able to, as any half-filled trash can may acquire things that comes by. 😮 (Of course traits have to be fixed, and selection is a great “fixer”.)

    Again, it doesn’t seem that technology or massive brains are peculiar or hard to come by. It may be only a matter of vertebrate contingency, in the way walking development happened to be implemented, that later forced mammals in general into the position of a need to minimize brain mass. The observation that a very few species once developed large brains may, as the observation that a very few species have delayed walking onset, may have lead to false claims of exceptionalness and so obligatory rareness.

    This carries a rambling comment to its, I dare say, circuitous end. The potential opening up of the state space for acquiring technology and/or massive brains (as we have seen, not necessarily codependent) may have implications for SETI.

    I, for one, welcomes our galactic underdog A. ramidus!

  22. Slipping a bit off topic, a new year, and a new Doctor….

    Saw from my subscription to BBC, there’s a preview of the New Doctor Who series, not just the premiere episode….

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnPUF8an-XE

    ——-possible spoilers for purists——————–

    Complete with Daleks (would anyone consider THAT a spoiler?), the new Companion (does anyone else think she looks like Felicia Day?), a possible Blink sequel?, and The Doctor firing a gun!?

    J/P=?

  23. 21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM Says: “I like to think that this years foremost presented discovery (according to Science and me, at least) of Ardipithecus ramidus has astronomical ramifications too.”

    Whoa! Another paleoanthropology fan! (while I am a fan, I also just like saying “paleoanthropology”)

    I would agree that A. ramidus was the biggest science news of the past year. If you don’t already have it, you should pick up a copy of “The First Human” by Ann Gibbons. She’s the writer from “Science” mag that pulled that issue together with all of the papers from Tim White, et. al., and, as Phil likes to say “my close personal friend(tm).” Really! She was a bridesmaid at our wedding.

    – Jack

  24. khan

    When can we see your tattoo?

  25. Petrolonfire

    @ 21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM Says:

    Presumably you don’t need to see to be able to walk, blinds can do it

    What like venetian blinds or just the usual window ones? 😉

    Reminds me of a nun joke which is probably too risque to tell here … it has to do with the fact that “blind man” may not necessarily mean visually impaired. :-)

    @ 12. Gary Ansorge Says:

    As I recall, the New Year DID begin after the solstice, until the Church appropriated that date from pagans to celebrate the birth of the Hanging Man (With apologies to my friends of the Christian persuasion)

    Funny, I thought they crucified the dude rather than hung him? Although given the ineffectual results one can’t help thinking the method the Romans *should* have adopted was beheading! 😉

    (No offence to Christians out there – seconded by me.)

    First day of the first month starting each year? Makes sense to me. Where else would you start it from otherwise? :-)

    Solstice is late in the last month so while close it’s not quite right although everything Human calander convention~wise is, of course, arbitary anyhow.

  26. Cory

    Crucifixion is essentially a particularly brutal form of hanging due to the fact that you die from asphyxiation. Even barring, that, however, criminals punished by crucifixion were “hanging” from the cross. Thus, “hanging man”.

  27. BigBob

    PoF says : “First day of the first month starting each year? Makes sense to me. Where else would you start it from otherwise”?

    14th February. Chinese new year! Now take all of January and 1st to 13th February, stick them on the other end of the year and you would never know the difference: (you’d have to get busy with your wall calendar though). And then we could still say the year starts on 14th Feb because 14th Feb is the first day of the year! Bingo!
    Bob(Big)

  28. @13 AAS meetings are not “limited to members” — non-members are welcome to attend. Meeting registration fees are higher for non-members, but that is not done to be discriminatory. A significant portion of the annual AAS membership dues goes toward the twice-a-year meetings,. So non-members (who do not pay an annual membership fee) do have to pay more for meeting participation to help cover those costs.

    http://aas.org/meetings/aas215/registration.php

    It’s still not too late to register, but you will have to do so on-site.

  29. Thomas Siefert

    BA’s tattoo will probably be the most searched item on the web this year. I have had less trouble getting to see tattoos on girls in “special” places, including one memorable one with her boyfriend’s initials (I saw that one twice, the second time the letters had been turned into a butterfly).

  30. DrFlimmer

    Happy New Year everyone. All the best to you!

  31. #29 Glenn:
    With a URL that starts with https://members.aas.org/ it sure gives the appearance of being members only. I’ll start by creating a non-member record and see where it leads! Thanks!

  32. Petrolonfire

    @ 27. Cory Says:

    Crucifixion is essentially a particularly brutal form of hanging due to the fact that you die from asphyxiation. Even barring, that, however, criminals punished by crucifixion were “hanging” from the cross. Thus, “hanging man”.

    Ok. THX. :-)

    Although I did think they were nailed there rather than hanging! 😉

    @ 28 Big Bob: Yeah but when has what the Chinese done made sense? We all know they do that just to be different don’t we? 😉

    Besides 14th Feb. is Valentine’s day here which would be an odd if not entirely inappropriate overlap.

  33. You got a tattoo? Of all people? I’m sure it was well-chosen, at least, knowing you as a thoughtful person.

    Ever since the 90’s, some of us here in Athens, GA used to play a game during nightlife hours called, “Find a Smart Person with a Tattoo.” It was usually a very difficult game to win but, as with many things, there are occasional exceptions!

    Seriously, although I’m not someone who gets tattoos, several people I know well and care about are skin artists and I’m glad to see them succeed, independent of who their clientele are.

    And someday I may well get into the laser tattoo removal business!

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