[NB: As always with posts like this, I strongly urge you to read my note about posts covering politics and religion as well as my commenting policy before leaving a comment.]
Not too long ago, I (and pretty much the whole internet) wrote about the ridiculous and honestly offensive statements made by Representative Todd Akin (R-MO). His knowledge – or really, the profound lack thereof – of female anatomy made him the laughing stock of the planet. But I wasn’t laughing. I was, and still am, furious. And not just because of what he said, but also because he is a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
That anyone could spew such obvious and awful nonsense about biology and anatomy and yet sit on the US Congress’s science committee is, simply put, an outrage.
I also pointed out he’s not alone. In that article I devoted just one line to Representative Paul Broun (R-GA), saying how he was a creationist and also sits on that same science committee… but I think it’s time we take a second look at Congressman Broun.
In late September, Rep. Broun made a speech at the Liberty Baptist Church’s Sportsman’s banquet in Hartwell, Georgia. In this speech he said many, many things, including this:
All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.
[The whole talk is online at YouTube.]
Sadly, that kind of antiscientific nonsense is de rigueur for a lot of folks these days, even ones who sit in Congress. But then, to close the deal, he goes on:
And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason as your congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.
Two points: one is that all Congresscritters, upon entering office, have to swear to uphold the Constitution, and the second is that this document is pretty clear about legislating religion. In fact, Supreme Court judge Hugo Black said about this topic, "Government must be neutral among religions and nonreligion: it cannot promote, endorse, or fund religion or religious institutions."
Rep. Broun’s words don’t sound terribly neutral to me.
You may disagree with me about the shaky ground (like Richter 10 shaky) Broun stands on Constitutionally, but there is no doubt – none – that he is 100% completely off the rails with his science. The Big Bang is "straight from the pit of hell"? It’s bad enough that anyone would actually believe something like that, let alone a Congressman, but I will remind you he sits on the House science committee!
These are the men whom the Republican majority placed on that committee. Men who think global warming is a fantasy. Men who think women have magic vaginas. Men who think the Earth is thousands, not billions, of years old.
I have my issues with Obama right now, which in truth are dwarfed by my issues with Romney. But remember that come November 6 of this year in the US we’ll be voting for members of Congress as well. And the majority party decides who sits on what committee, and those people will in turn decide what to legislate: reality, or fantasy.
The choice, quite literally, is yours. Choose well.
– Akin breakin’ science
– Followup: Rep. Ralph Hall’s unbelievable statement on science funding bill
– Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA): on climate change, makes wrong even wronger
– Next up for Congress: repeal the law of gravity
Take a look at the image displayed here [click to redshiftenate]. Every object you see there is a galaxy, a collection of billions of stars. See that one smack dab in the middle, the little red dot? The light we see from that galaxy traveled for 12.9 billion years before reaching the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. And when astronomers analyzed the light from it, and from a handful of other, similarly distant galaxies, they were able to pin down the timing of a pivotal event in the early Universe: when the cosmic fog cleared, and the Universe became transparent.
This event is called reionization, when radiation pouring out of very young galaxies flooded the Universe and stripped electrons off of their parent hydrogen atoms. An atom like this is said to be ionized. Before this time, the hydrogen gas was neutral: every proton had an electron around it. After this: zap. Ionized. This moment for the Universe was important because it changed how light flowed through space, which affects how we see it. The critical finding here is that reionization happened about 13 billion years ago, and took less time than previously thought, about 200 million years. Not only that, the culprit behind reionization may have been found: massive stars.
OK, those are the bullet points. Now let me explain in a little more detail.
Young, hot, dense, and chaotic
Imagine the Universe as it was 13.7 billion years ago. A thick, dense soup of matter permeates space, formed in the first three minutes after the Big Bang. The Universe was expanding, too, and cooling: as it got bigger, it got less dense, so the temperature dropped. During this time, electrons and protons were whizzing around on their own. Any time an electron would try to bond with a proton to form a neutral hydrogen atom, a high-energy photon (a particle of light) would come along and knock it loose again.
During this period, the Universe was opaque. Electrons are really good at absorbing photons, so light wouldn’t get far before being sucked up by an electron. But over time, things changed. All those photons lost energy as things cooled. Eventually, they didn’t have enough energy to prevent electrons combining with protons, so once an electron got together with a proton they stuck together. Neutral hydrogen became stable. This happened all over the Universe pretty much at the same time, and is called recombination. It occurred about 376,000 years after the Big Bang.
The European Space Agency just released the first all-sky survey taken by their Planck orbiting observatory, and it’s a beauty!
[Click to entelescopinate.]
Planck observes the sky from the far infrared all the way out to near radio frequencies, detecting cold gas and dust, star forming regions, and even the subtle and cooling glow of the background fire from the Big Bang itself. In this image, infrared is blue, and the longer wavelengths (out toward the radio part of the spectrum) are progressively more red. It shows the whole sky, which is why the image is an oval; that keeps the map from getting too distorted (like how maps of the Earth are distorted near the edges).
The line running horizontally across the image is the Milky Way galaxy itself. The galaxy is a flat disk, and we’re inside it, so it looks like a line. Think of it this way: imagine you are inside a vast fog-filled room, five hundred meters on a side, but only five meters high. When you look across the room you see lots of fog, but when you look up you only see a little bit — the amount of fog depends on how far into the room you look. The Milky Way is the same way; we’re halfway to the edge of a huge, flat disk filled with dust. When we look into the disk we see it edge-on, and we can see all that dust. Look up or down (toward the top and bottom of the image) and we don’t see as much.
I get a lot of books and such sent to me, and I rarely have time to look them over. It’s a blessing and a curse, I guess. I want to see what everyone else is doing, but I’m doing too much to look!
But I got an email from James Dunbar, asking if I’d look over his rhyming verse comic book called BANG! The Universe Verse. He made it easy, since there’s a small version online I could look through.
I like it! It describes the Big Bang model using simple terms, and goes through the timeline breezily, making it easy to read. Someone unfamiliar with the science will get a passing familiarity with it from reading this, and enough info to go online and find out more.
And if you are familiar with the science, you might get a kick out of the drawings anyway. I really liked this one:
Clever use of visual similes, with the iris resembling an explosion.
BANG! is freely available as an e-book, and you can ping him if you want a PDF. He also sells a bound copy for $10, which is pretty reasonable given he’s self-publishing it.
He’s a talented guy, and I hope he can do more stuff like this. I wonder how many kids he can inspire to get more interested in science?
Logarithms are cool. Sure, some of you may have flashbacks to middle school and may collapse on the floor twitching upon their mere mention, but seriously, logs are the language of the Universe. Our senses (eyesight and hearing) are sensitive logarithmically, and a lot of ways the world behaves make a lot more sense when you plot them using logs.
For those of you scratching your heads, a simple way to think of logs is to think factors of ten. Instead of counting like we normally do — 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on — in log space you count by factors of 10: 1, 10, 100, 1000, and so on. There are lots of advantages to this, one being that you can make graphs that show things that are very small and very big on the same plot. Using regular numbers, it would be hard to make a graph showing the size of a human (2 meters tall) and a skyscraper (200 meters tall) on the same plot, but using logarithms, they are only two ticks apart in size. Easy peasy.
And if you take this idea to the extreme, what do you get? Why, you could get a plot of the whole freaking Universe, from the surface of the Earth out to the fires of the Big Bang itself!
But who would do such a thing? Astronomers at Princeton, that’s who.
[Click to exponentiate.]
That picture is just a small piece of a much larger graphic showing, well, everything. At the bottom is the Earth and at the top is the most distant thing we can see: the cosmic microwave background, the cooling fireball from the Big Bang. Included are planets, asteroids, stars, galaxies, and pretty much everything you can think of, all plotted out for your perusal. The vertical axis represents distance, and the horizontal is cleverly done in Right Ascension, sorta like longitude (East/West) on the sky. That way they get the whole sky — the whole Universe — on one graph.
I know xkcd did something like this, but I’d love to see this done up as a vastly scrollable webpage with actual images instead of dots, and the objects actually described (rollovers, popups, links, whatever). If done correctly, that would cause a wave of nerdgasms across the web, and not-so-incidentally be an awesome learning tool. Any takers?
Tip o’ the order of magnitude to Stuart at @astronomyblog.