Category: Politics

A new space race?

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2012 7:00 am

When Curiosity landed on Mars, I was interviewed by RTTV about it, and China’s plans on landing on the Moon. The interview’s online:

Like I’ve said before: I’d like to see us cooperating more internationally, and I fear a new space race with China might be good for funding in the short run, but terrible in the long run. We spent a lot on getting to the Moon – and don’t get me wrong, we gained a huge amount from it – but the effort itself fizzled quickly, leaving us with a space program that lacked vision and didn’t have big goals. As amazing as Curiosity is, I wonder if we would be putting people on Mars by now had the American government, and the people too, had the gumption to keep that technology moving forward.

Oh, what might have been…


Related Posts:

- What to make of the Chinese space effort?
- China’s space lab has a spot in the Sun
- Rocket envy
- Did the Chinese fake their space walk?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Space
MORE ABOUT: China, Curiosity, space race

Bill Nye: creationism is bad for children

By Phil Plait | August 30, 2012 6:30 am

Bill Nye speaks the truth.

[Video credit: Big Think]

In science, it’s rare that you can actually state with certainty that something is wrong. Young-Earth creationism is wrong. The Universe is old.

However, I’ll disagree with Bill over one thing, and I’ll throw Neil Tyson into the mix too. First, here’s something Neil said about adults, children, and nonsense (from an image that’s gone around the web a few times):

Funny, Neil and Bill are saying the same thing, essentially, but Neil is saying he doesn’t worry about the kids, while Bill is saying he doesn’t worry about the adults.

I worry about both, for, oddly enough, the reasons Bill and Neil both give. We have entrenched adults teaching things to their kids that are clearly wrong, and will be damaging to them and others. Creationism, global warming denial, antivaccination, ridiculous ideas about women and their bodies… it’s a cycle from adults to kids who then grow up to teach more kids.

We need to break this cycle. Make sure the education kids get in school is reality-based. Keep religion (or the lack thereof) out of schools. Vote fundamentalists out of office. And keep making sure the facts are out there and our voices are heard. Facts aren’t enough. Science has facts on its side, but they’re simply not enough. We need to make our stories personal, emotional, and make sure they stick.

And I’d love to agree with Bill when he says that in the future creationism will go away. I sure hope so. But YEC’s been around for a while now, and is as strong as ever – after all, there are creationists on the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Science! Still, maybe Bill’s right. But it’s up to us to make sure his prediction comes true.


Related Posts:

- Akin breakin’ science
- Texas creationist McLeroy spins the educational disaster he created
- Jindal dooms Louisiana

MORE ABOUT: Bill Nye, creationism

Akin breakin' science

By Phil Plait | August 24, 2012 6:31 am

[NOTE: This is not my first foray into political opinion on this blog, so I expect to get a lot of comments which could charitably be called angry. BEFORE YOU COMMENT, first, read the ample links I have included in this post. These are how I back up my arguments, and reading them first may prevent you from saying something already refuted. Second, read my note about posts covering politics and religion. Third, read my commenting policy. Thank you in advance.]


Unless you’ve had your head buried in the mantle of the Earth this week, you probably heard what Missouri Congressman Todd Akin said about women’s bodies and rape. If you haven’t, my friend Matt Lowry at Skeptical Teacher has the lowdown.

But in a nutshell – apt phrasing, that – Akin claimed that:

First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare… If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

This is so appallingly ignorant – to be kind – that it makes my brain explode. Pregnancy from rape is not rare; tens of thousands occur every year. His claim about the female body is complete claptrap, nonsense. And his use of the word "legitimate" is just grossly insulting. As President Obama said the next day: "Rape is rape".

So here we have a man who has not just no knowledge of what happens during rape and conception, but actually provably wrong knowledge. And he makes laws about these things.

It’s clear that Akin’s beliefs are driven by his religious fundamentalism. This would be a matter of concern to me for any lawmaker, but you have to understand: he sits on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee!

The irony in this should be evident.

And worse, Rep. Akin is not the only woefully under- and simply miseducated person on that committee who attacks science. It’s full of such antiscience people. Examples include Mo Brooks, a global warming denier; Ralph Hall, who tried to use porn to scuttle a science funding bill; Jim Sensenbrenner, another global warming denier; Paul Broun, a creationist (a creationist on the science committee!); Dana Rohrabacher, another climate change denier, and more.

It’s mind boggling.

Today, more than ever before, we need politicians who are educated about science and technology. At the very least our economic future depends on science! Yet we have people on the Science Committee who are devoted to actively destroying it.

This is why I support Science Debate 2012. The goal of this organization is to educate the public about where politicians stand on science issues, including evolution, global warming, energy, and the economy.

We need to hold current politicians accountable when they are flatly against reality, and we need to make sure we elect ones who are reality-based. As Rep. Akin showed us clearly, this spans a broad range of political issues.

Let me leave you with this: in America, only about half the people of voting age actually go out and vote. That means there is a vast, untapped resource of people who can make a real difference in November.

If you don’t vote, then you are letting someone else decide for you what to do with your money, your life, your future, and even your very body.

Learn the issues. Vote.


Related Posts:

- Erasing false balance: the right is more antiscience than the left
- Republican candidates, global warming, evolution, and reality
- Next up for Congress: repeal the law of gravity
- Antiscience party

The most amazing contrast of the 21st century

By Phil Plait | August 16, 2012 10:30 am

While NASA and JPL put a nuclear powered laser-eyed roving chem lab on another planet, Kentucky legislators want to teach kids that the world is 6000 years old, and Missouri wants schoolchildren to be able to stick their fingers in their ears if their teachers discusses evolution.

I think I’ll just leave this here.


Related Posts:

- Tennessee passes law allowing creationism in the classroom
- Louisiana fights back against creationist legislators
- A win for reality in Texas!
- States of educational decay

Saving space science – do you Uwingu?

By Phil Plait | August 10, 2012 6:53 am

Space science is in a tight spot today. Much of it is funded by NASA and NSF, and both are facing very large cuts in the 2013 US budget.

So what’s a space and science enthusiast to do? If you’re Alan Stern – head honcho of the Pluto New Horizons probe and longtime scientific researcher- you start a new company that’ll fund space science by engaging the public.

So he did. The company is called Uwingu – Swahili for "sky" – and the team includes several top-notch scientists like Geoff Marcy, Andy Chaikin, Emily CoBabe-Ammann, Pamela Gay, Mark Sykes, and many others.

The idea is to create space-related products the public will like such as games, software, and merchandise. They’ll then sell them and use the profits to fund scientific research. People will be able to submit proposals for the funding, which will be peer reviewed to ensure high-quality work. And it’s not just research: they hope to fund space-based projects, education, and other science-supporting ventures.

Right now they’re just starting it up, and they need cash to get it rolling – getting an accountant, paying for server support, and the like. They’ve calculated that they need $75,000 to get it started (none of them is taking any pay until they’re up and running), so they created an Indigogo page for donations. Once they get Uwingu started, they’re confident they will be able to get money from bigger investments and really dig into funding projects. They expect to raise millions of dollars this way.

At the moment they’re not giving out specifics about the sorts of merchandise and apps they’ll have, because they’re trying to build a little suspense. However, I’ll note that half the people on their team are a) great scientists and good people, and 2) personal friends of mine. I trust them. If they say they can do this, then they can do this. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be posting about it.. and I just donated, too, so I’m putting my money where my keyboard is! They have nearly $13,000 as I write this (one person just donated $5000!), and a month or so left on the campaign.

If you want more info, Pamela Gay has written about it, as has Carolyn Collins Peterson.

The team also made a short introductory video:

In fact, Pamela interviewed Alan at length about Uwingu for Science Hour, which has far more info.

I hope you’ll consider donating to Uwingu. It’s a pretty bold idea, and one I think is worth exploring.


Related Posts:

- Helping save the planetary space program
- Barnstorming the final frontier
- Researching at the edge of space
- Inside Mercury’s orbit

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space

Is it hot in here, or is it just global warming?

By Phil Plait | August 8, 2012 9:57 am

Let me be clear right off the top: global warming is real. There is vastly overwhelming evidence for it and scientific consensus about it, and the only people still sowing doubt about it appear to be motivated more by ideology and corporate interests than scientific evidence.

Having said that, one thing I’m careful about when I talk about it is linking specific weather events to the worsening climate. We humans like to connect events if they occur at the same time, whether they are actually connected or not. So when huge storms spawning tornadoes ravaged the midwest last year, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When a huge glacier calved off Greenland a few weeks ago, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When Greenland got a tremendous burst of warm air that caused unprecedented ice melting, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When wildfires erupted over the US and Russia this summer, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. I said these events are all consistent with global warming, but not necessarily caused by it.

Now, however, things have changed. New evidence has arisen that indicates the extreme heat waves that are cooking the US are in fact and in deed caused by global warming.

[UPDATE: Talk about timing: the NOAA just released their State of the Climate report, showing that July 2012 is the hottest month ever recorded in the history of the contiguous United States.]

Climate scientist James Hansen – who, in the 1980s, was the first to talk about the idea that the planet is heating up – has published research linking global warming and these extreme events. It’s explained in an article on the NASA site: Hansen and his team looked at northern hemisphere surface temperatures going back to the early 1950s. At any given time, some places are hotter than average, some cooler. So they plotted these temperature deviations from average and got a bell curve, just like the bell curve some teachers use to grade students. Most temperatures are near the average value, while very hot or very cold places are less common; the graph peaks in the middle and falls away to either side.

All well and good. But when they plotted these temperatures over time – looking at the average temperature for a given year as well as the extreme events – they saw three things, none of them good. One was that, over time, the average temperature moved to the right – that is, the the overall temperature got hotter. Second, there were fewer cooler temperatures – the graph on the left got weaker. Third, there were more extreme heating events – the graph got stronger on the right.

The green line shows the smoothed average curve for the time period of 1951 – 1980. The filled in part shows the curve for the decade of 2001 – 2011. Note that it’s skewed right, and there are more hot events as well.

It hasn’t been your imagination. We’re getting hotter, and we’re seeing more extremely hot summers. You can confirm this for yourself: walk outside.

Personal anecdotes aside, the data back that conclusion up. Statistically speaking, the temperature "anomalies" are highly significant, meaning they are almost certainly real. In the 1950s, extreme heat waves like we’re seeing now were rare to nonexistent. Today, 10% of the northern hemisphere experiences these heat waves. Dr. Hansen says that without global warming, these anomalies wouldn’t be happening. In other words, our warming planet is the culprit behind these extreme events.

This doesn’t mean every summer will be hotter than the last, or have worse heat waves. But as Dr. Hansen points out, it does mean that in general that’s what we’ll see. Climate Scientist Michael Mann describes it this way:

It is not simply a set of random events occurring in isolation, but part of a broader emerging pattern. We are seeing, in much of the extreme weather we are experiencing, the “loading of the weather dice.” Over the past decade, records for daily maximum high temperatures in the U.S. have been broken at twice the rate we would expect from chance alone. Think of this as rolling double sixes twice as often as you’d expect – something you would readily notice in a high stakes game of dice. Thus far this year, that ratio is close to 10 to 1. That’s double sixes coming up ten times as often as you expect.

What Dr. Hansen’s research shows is that again, while any specific event is hard to blame in its entirety on global warming, the overall trend we’re seeing – including these disastrous heat waves causing deaths, massive crop failures, drought, and wildfires – is linked to global warming. As he put it:

This summer people are seeing extreme heat and agricultural impacts. We’re asserting that this is causally connected to global warming, and in this paper we present the scientific evidence for that.

That’s a pretty firm commitment. And one that will, no doubt, make heads explode amongst climate change denialists. They will obfuscate, they will nitpick, they will distract, they will deny. But they are wrong. The media, and more importantly, politicians, need to understand that.

Again, as Dr. Mann says (emphasis mine):

The time for debate about the reality of human-caused climate change has now passed. We can have a good faith debate about how to deal with the problem – how to reduce future climate change and adapt to what is already upon us to reduce the risks that climate change poses to society. But we can no longer simply bury our heads in the sand.

As I’ve said before: when does weather become climate? It’s starting to feel like now.


Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio


Related Posts:

- New study clinches it: the Earth is warming up
- Climate change: the evidence
- New independent climate study confirms global warming is real
- 2011: The 9th hottest year on record

NASA chooses SpaceX to return US astronauts to space

By Phil Plait | August 3, 2012 11:50 am

[Note (added at 18:00 MDT): Some folks are saying the headline here is misleading, and on further thought I see the point. It's not that NASA selected SpaceX to return astronauts to space; it was one of three companies and in my opinion (based on scheduling) that they'll be the first to do so. I don't like changing headlines on posts for various reasons, so I've decided to keep this one intact and leave this note here at the top of the post so everyone sees it.]

BIG news: NASA announced this morning that it has awarded a total of $1.1 billion in grants to three different companies to put American astronauts back into space. The kicker: they chose SpaceX as the company, and their Falcon rocket as the vehicle, to be the first to return US astronauts to space from American soil… and this may happen as soon as 2015!

NASA retired the Space Shuttle last year, and has had to rely on foreign partners to launch American astronauts into orbit ever since. While NASA is developing a new launch system (that is, a human-rated rocket), it won’t be ready for quite some time.

In May, SpaceX showed that it can successfully launch an uncrewed rocket and capsule into orbit and dock with the International Space Station. Riding on the wave of this mission, NASA is giving SpaceX $440 million dollars to develop and build the hardware needed to launch humans into orbit.

SpaceX has created this (pretty cool) promo video with the highlights:

The Dragon capsule is already essentially ready to carry humans, but after the two Shuttle disasters, NASA has more stringent requirements for human safety that must be met. What this boils down to is an abort system that can carry the crew away safely in case of a catastrophic problem. SpaceX is designing a rocket system for the Dragon capsule that will have sufficient power to take it rapidly away from the Falcon rocket and get the astronauts on board back on Earth safely, which may involve either an ocean splashdown (which the Dragon capsule is designed for anyway) or the ability to touchdown on the ground on landing legs. It will also work at any point of the mission, from the moment of launch to just before achieving orbit.

SpaceX expects to have this system built and ready to go very soon – they announced they will be ready for their first crewed flight as early as 2015. That’s about the timeframe that’s been expected for a while now, but the company had to prove itself with the mission in May, and also win this new NASA contract. Between now and then they plan 10 cargo flights to the space station as well which will help iron out any equipment wrinkles and prep them for human flight.

This really is huge news. There has been a lot of rending of garments and tearing of hair online and in political speeches about NASA not being able to put humans in space. I have written about this myself many, many times, and as I’ve said I’m not convinced at this stage of history that NASA should be building rockets for the "routine" launching of people and supplies to orbit. Their job is to innovate and clear the path, to look ahead, while leaner, more flexible companies like SpaceX can follow. The United States is a long way yet from an actual launch of humans back into orbit, but this is a giant stride forward.

And there’s more: NASA also awarded the Sierra Nevada Corporation $212 million to continue to develop their Dream Chaser space plane, a vehicle that will be mounted on top of a rocket and capable of bringing humans to and from low Earth orbit as well. Testing of the Dream Chaser has been going pretty well, and the company expects to be able to start launching humans into space in 2016. This is also fantastic news! The more people we have building these vehicles, the better. And since Sierra Nevada’s HQ is down the road from me in Louisville, Colorado, this gives this news a little bit of an added kick for me.

Boeing actually received the largest share of the NASA grant, getting $460 million to develop their CST-100 spacecraft, which looks much like NASA’s Orion capsule (itself a capsule much like that of Apollo; a proven design). and can be mounted on a variety of rockets to launch humans to low-Earth orbit.

I hear so many people lamenting NASA’s lack of ability to launch humans into space. I agree, and think we should be doing this, but I think a lot of these complaints are misguided – a lot of these complaints are about private industry, saying NASA should be developing this tech. I disagree. I strongly feel that NASA partnering with private industry is the best and strongest way to get back into space and stay there. It’s the best of both worlds: NASA’s government backing and history gives them some stability which private enterprise may lack, and the companies themselves don’t have the massive bureaucratic overhead NASA is saddled with.

I just hope that with this, and with more success, both the White House and Congress will see that NASA and private industry are critical to our future in space, and fund these ventures as fully as possible. Our future in space is – for the moment – bright and alluring. May it always be so.


Related Posts:

- History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!
- Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.
- Debating space
- Will ATK beat everyone into space?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space, Top Post

Helping save the planetary space program

By Phil Plait | July 27, 2012 7:00 am

You won’t hear this from me much, but sometimes, just sometimes, I really love Congress. Especially my own Representative, Jared Polis (D-CO). Here’s why.

A few months ago, President Obama and the White House came out with their 2013 budget for NASA. There were a lot of cuts, but most devastating was a $300 million slashing of the planetary sciences budget – a huge 20% reduction in funding. The Mars program alone got cut nearly 40%.

The planetary science community felt betrayed, and took action. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of the Pluto New Horizons probe, organized a "NASA bake sale/shoe shine" to raise public awareness of what NASA and planetary exploration does. Here in Boulder (where Alan and I both live) we had a couple of stands set up, and we gave out information about the program. We also had pre-printed letters to key Congresscritters supporting a return of NASA’s planetary exploration budget to previous levels – people signed those, we collected them, and then sent them to our Congressman, Jared Polis.

Representative Polis then delivered them to those other Reps.

I hadn’t heard anything in a while, and then out of the blue, I get this tweet from Rep. Polis:

It says, "@BadAstronomer I gave shoe-shine letters 2 Reps Wolf & Schiff/their response http://youtu.be/CYwl3avGJD4 I’m a better Congressman than videographer"

The link goes to a YouTube video he made, and here it is:

How flipping awesome is that? The two Congressmen are Frank Wolf (R-VA 10th District) and Adam Schiff (D-Burbank – gotta love his website with the Griffith Observatory in LA as his banner!). I’m thrilled they took the time to respond and to appear on Rep. Polis’s video. I am very thankful for their support, and I hope they can reinstate NASA’s budget. I’ll note I got a letter from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison as well, sending her support. While I disagree with her over private space efforts like SpaceX, I’m glad to see her supporting NASA.

We need to explore. We must explore. It’s part of what makes us human: our curiosity, our need to know, and our compulsion to understand. It’s how we learn, and while we don’t always know what we will learn, we do know that more knowledge is always better. And sometimes those investigations pay off multiple-fold.

Regular readers know I have my issues with this Congress. But here we see three Representatives and one Senator supporting NASA, and that’s a difficult stance these days on Capitol Hill. I again thank them, and hope that in the coming year and those after, NASA receives the money it needs to do what it needs: explore the Universe.


Related Posts:

- White House asks for brutal planetary NASA budget cuts
- Shining shoes for NASA
- THIS is why we invest in science. This.
- Zen Pencils: Welcome to Science

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Piece of mind, Politics

Greenland seeing unprecedented melting

By Phil Plait | July 24, 2012 11:30 am

Last week, a huge chunk of ice broke off of Greenland’s Petermann glacier, an event called a "calving". The iceberg is now moving down the glacier’s fjord, as seen by NASA’s Terra Earth-observing satellite on July 21, 2012:

Note the scale. The iceberg is well over 100 square kilometers in size – about 50 square miles, or 30,000 acres. That’s larger than the island of Manhattan in New York City. An even larger iceberg broke off in 2010.

This image comes on the heels of an announcement that Greenland is seeing "unprecedented" melting. By July 12, 2012, as much as 97% of Greenland’s ice sheet had experienced some degree of melting. On July 8, just four days earlier, only 40% of the ice had experienced some melting:

[The map shows ice that has had some melting in red, and areas showing no melting in white. The left map is from July 8, the right from July 12.]

This does not mean that 97% of the Greenland ice sheet has melted away! The map shows all the places where at least some melting has occurred. Some of this melting is simply due to it being summer, and in some places there is evidence of a historic cycle of melting. But this widespread a melting has not happened in the 30 years satellites have been used to map the region. Normally, about half the ice on Greenland experiences some melting.

The culprit appears to be several waves of warm high-pressure ridges that have swept over Greenland, each stronger than the last, with the most recent one squatting over the island for about a week.

As always, it’s difficult to pin any specific weather event on global warming. But every day, the list of suspicious events grows longer. The Petermann calving happened much farther up the glacier than has occurred before. Waves of warm air over Greenland are unusual. And the weird weather we’ve been getting is consistent with what’s been predicted for a planet that’s warming up.

And while climate change deniers put up insulting billboards and compare climate scientists to child molesters, the Earth is getting warmer. While antiscience Congressmen write fallacy-laden op-eds and elected officials run witch hunts against scientists, the Earth is getting warmer.

We need serious people in charge, because it’s way, way past time to take this seriously.


Image credits: Terra picture: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using data from NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team; Melting map: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory and Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI and Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory


Related Posts:

- Huge glacier calves off Greenland
- Enormous glacier calves in largest Arctic event seen in 48 years (with followups here and here)
- EXCLUSIVE: Michael Mann responds to Rep. Barton
- Five shots against global warming denialism

Deniers, disgust, and defamation

By Phil Plait | July 23, 2012 10:20 am

Whenever I post about the reality of climate change, I get the usual chorus of denialist outrage. This includes the odd ad hominem or two, like the sneering "What does an astronomer know about the climate?", because apparently not having an advanced degree in science makes someone a better judge of the data.

But the slings and arrows I get here are nothing, nothing, compared to what professional climate scientist Michael Mann gets. He is, after all, the researcher who first published the hockey stick diagram which shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth has warmed up. To the deniers, he is Enemy Number 1. They have attacked his diagram and his research many times, always coming up short. The data and methods are solid, and it’s clear the Earth really is warming up.

So what’s a denier to do when all the evidence is against them? They attack Dr. Mann himself, of course.

These onslaughts have been documented endlessly, and they include Congressional shenanigans, witch hunts by the Virginia Attorney General, and even death threats.

All that is, sadly, to be expected. But now, ramping up the rhetoric to full-on disgusting, comes The National Review. A far-right paper (to say the least), they are not exactly supportive of the reality of global warming. But a few days ago they published a blog article by Mark Steyn that calls Mann a scientific fraud. This may be expected from deniers, but doesn’t change the fact that when you say that the research done by a scientist is deliberately fraudulent, you are stepping into defamation territory.

Needless to say, Mann isn’t sitting back and taking this. He contacted his lawyer, who has sent a letter to The National Review saying they knowingly defamed him by accusing him of scientific fraud, and demanding an apology and that the defamatory article be taken down. Mann put up a copy of this letter on his Facebook page. As he points out, Mann has been cleared of all wrongdoing multiple times by multiple independent agencies (like here, and here, and here, and here, and of course here), despite the efforts of the global warming deniers to do whatever they can to take him down. I certainly hope The National Review complies, and issues an apology.

Oh, but we’re not done just yet. Amazingly, it gets worse.

Read More

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »