Monthly Archives: July 2006

Political "Science"

President Bush announced earlier this week that he is now preparing a “swift veto” of the new Stem Cell bill currently under debate in the senate. This decision flies rather boldly in the face of the President’s recent statements including those made in his last State of the Union speech. Double-speak surrounding difficult policy issues has become troublingly commonplace when they touch on scientific results that call political and religious positions into question. None of my friends were able to correctly attribute the following quotation:

“Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry; and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity. Now more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.”

These words actually came out of the mouth of President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and are sadly about as for from the actual science policy of the current administration as anyone could possibly imagine. Despite recent initiatives to expand science and technology education, a more genuine quote representative of the current administration’s actual position was heard recently from the Whitehouse Spokesman, Scott Maclellan:

“This administration looks at the facts, and reviews the best available science based on what’s right for the American people”

This is a chilling reminder that though there is lip-service to expanding science and technology competitiveness, there is no true understanding of what constitutes real science, or how it should be applied in our society.

If you are inclined to listen to several of the most respected scientists in the US, a rather scary picture of consistently politicized decisions to neglect actual scientific results for “moral or religious” reasons emerges. But as my old grad school advisor at MIT, Tom Knight, used to say, “Scientific truth is what remains whether you believe in it or not.” Were it to persist, the long term consequences to this nation of such negligent decision-making will be profound.

In the case of Stem cells, Dr. Shirley Tilghman and Dr. David Baltimore (Nobel price recipient) tell us that human reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning to produce stem cells that might be used for research are completely different biological investigations and that a wholesale ban on cloning designed to stop efforts to produce the former would have dire consequences for important biological research on the latter in this country.

But the Bush administration fails to note the distinction, and moves forward with a blanket veto. The result is a massive wave of departure across the elite biology research community so that they may continue this leading avenue of investigation in other more rational countries. See here for other related resignations.

Combine this sort of lamentable policy work and its broad application across issues ranging from Global Warming, Aids and Condom use, Environmental Protection, and most importantly, financial support for key fundamental scientific research, and the result is a recipe for long-term economic ruin.

Let me close with a couple of my favorite quotes from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report. After all, how wrong could 5000 scientists, 48 Nobel Laureates, 62 National Medal of Science Winners, and 127 members of the National Academy of Sciences be?

“There is a well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees across numerous federal agencies. Those actions have consequences for human health, public safety, and community well-being.”

“There is strong documentation of a wide-ranging effort to manipulate the government’s scientific advisory system to prevent the appearance of advice that might run counter to the administration’s political agenda.”

“There is evidence that the administration often imposes restrictions on what the government scientists can say or write about “sensitive” topics”

Is anyone surprised that there was absolutely no response by the administration to this report or several follow ups? To really warm the cockles of your heart, check out the Union of Concerned Scientists web site.

For a truly bone-chilling collection of evidence to support these concerns, check out Lawrence Kraus’ page. There’s enough there to get anyone going even if you don’t share his political leanings. This Powerpoint presentation on scientific integrity in the current administration will give you some of the flavor.

I just feel dirty right now.

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Filed under Computer Science, Politics

Real Astronomy for the Masses

One of the real challenges of approaching the “hobby” of astronomy, is that in today’s increasingly urban and light-polluted environment, the cost of equipment necessary to generate even a passable image of the type that you might find in say, Astronomy or Sky and Telescope Magazines, is typically beyond the financial reach of even a committed student.

A good precision optical instrument, a stable mount with precise tracking of the celestial sphere, and a decent CCD imaging setup plus the computer to drive it can run as much as a few thousand dollars. And of course we are all teased in the process by the glorious Hubble Telescope images afforded by a NASA-sized budget.

Well, I am here to report that there is hope for the intrepid who set their sights on the starts. Ahem. As with so many other things these days, the Internet is here to save us. There are now several VERY nice connected observatories, each of which has several high-end telescopes and imaging systems accessible and controllable via a simple web browser.

A picture of the Dome 3 telescopeMy favorite is the “Astronomy Bed and Breakfast” called New Mexico Skies. They combine friendly service with some of the darkest and clearest skies in North America and some fine instruments including a RCOS 20″ Ritchey-Chretien scope. For the price of any old boring bed and breakfast, you can spend the day spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns and hiking in the White Sands national monument, and then pass the wee hours of the night playing with a fantastic set of toys.

I would encourage any interested student old enough to look up and say “wow” to go run and bug your parents, teachers, or significant others without rest until they relent and agree to take you there.

For those of you with underdeveloped wheedling skills fear not. The NMS folks run a facility where they host a fleet of net-connected scopes that can be purchased outright and run on a contract basis, or even rented on an hourly basis.


The proprietors conduct regular classes in almost every aspect of astronomy from introductory binocular tours to advanced imaging and astrometry. The kind of pictures even beginners can take are astounding. Here is one from John Setle’s Web site of the Magnitude 8.4 Whirlpool Galaxy, M51 in Canes Venatici.

The Whirl Pool Galaxy M51 NGC 5194

Note that he took this image on his FIRST NIGHT! A little more practice with exposure control and a little work with filters and a PC for some Photoshop image processing and he will be capable of selling magazine-quality astronomical images. Check out his web site (towards the bottom of the above link), or Google “New Mexico Skies Images” and see what can be done there and remotely.

Here’s one more picture of the same galaxy taken by a more experienced imager, Ron Wodaski, the author of a fantastic book entitled “The New CCD Astronomy.”

And here’s yet one more link to the amazing images attainable at NMS. A couple of other interesting similar services are Slooh, and The Harvard Smithsonian-sponsored Micro-observatories.

Now for the truly eager to learn, yet financially challenged, I recommend another course in parallel. Go out and find a local ATM club. No, not bank machine lovers. Amateur Telescope Makers. With absolutely no experience at all and a little bit of non-profit type guidance, it is possible to make your own telescope, mirror, mounting, and all. The raw materials are quite inexpensive compared to what a commercial scope of similar quality would cost. And while the labor, particularly on the mirror grinding, polishing, and figuring side, will add up, the learning experience is almost unparalleled. I have evolved to the opinion that no student should be allowed to graduate from high school without having made a telescope of their very own.

Here is a link to the telescope makers’ club I have frequented here at the Chabot Space and Science Center in the Oakland California hills. I’ve personally seen, and in a couple of cases, helped 12 year-olds build fantastic instruments that they treasured for years and later passed down to other amateur astronomers. More on Amateur telescope making in future posts.

If you are doubtful about whether this particular affliction is your thing, check out a local Star Party. Google your town and “star party” to find the nearest shindig of eager amateures. You don’t even really need to bring anything, but do read up on the etiquette before you show up, i.e. show up early while it is still light, take some steps to make your car lighting “night-vision friendly,” don’t bring white flashlights (tiny red LED lights are the rule), etc…

Clear Skies!

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Filed under Astronomy, Computer Science, Education, Technology

The Statistics of Worry

Or, “What should we REALLY be worrying about?”

A friend of mine from MobiTV was telling me about the growing stress levels in Haifa, were his sister and several relatives were freaking out getting increasingly worried about tens of thousands of rockets that Hezbollah was starting to lob over the Lebanese border in what can best be described as a hopeful random walk.

My first thought was, “yeah…that’s a pretty good reason to freak out.”

But then I recalled my buddy’s recent description of the staggering death rates per-capita on Israeli highways due to “loose” driving statutes and limited investments in road safety. And, of course, I began to wonder what the real relative risks were, and what the people should really be worrying about.

I was able to find the war casualty statistics here, and the auto fatality statistics here. Lo and behold, all the frenzy among the populous about the war was a little misplaced. The chart below compares the death and injury rates over the first several months of 2006 for both auto incidents and terror/warfare attrition.


The bottom line is that across the Israeli population, you are over 13 times more likely to die if you get in a car to drive somewhere than you are to be killed by a rocket or bomb. And you are about 4 times more likely to be injured in a car than by a rocket.

If you look at military vs. road infrastructure spending in Israel, their $9.7B military budget is several orders of magnitude higher than their infrastructure spending.

So in the short run, they would be better off investing in road improvements, and people should just ignore the bombs and concentrate on not colliding with other cars.

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M vs. W

I Couldn’t resist. from Cliff Pickover.

The difference between men and women:

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High-Cool Science Projects On-the-cheap!

Okay, here I am ranting again about how you can do really interesting science with the right insight and guidance even if you don’t have any money. Anyone who still doubts this idea after my last post, just sally forth to Sci-toys. Simon Quellen Field (Doesn’t the name just conjure visions of Newtonian excellence?) runs a great site with a host of very accessible experiments and projects that can be conducted primarily with items found around the household.

And if you happen to find the larder a little shy of rare-earth magnets or something, he offers some nifty kits with almost no mark-up. Even without the kits, the parts lists are simple enough that anyone with enough neural interconnects to rub two sticks together can get ahold of all the critical peices. Check out a few of my favorites:

gauss rifle ready

The Gauss Rifle Magnetic Linear Accelerator:


The ten-minute electric motor:

Completed radio without cabinetry
A simple crystal radio


A Three-penny radio

If you are more inclined to sniff binding glue rather than click mouse buttons, you can get your gadget groove on with his books:

Gonzo Gizmos, and Return of Gonzo Gizmos

Have fun!
-P

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Release Your Inner Scientist

Many of you have probably heard me rant from time to time about the fact that science education in the US has become an exercise in endurance to survive boring history of science lectures and rote repetition of cookie-cutter “experiments.” I’d even go so far as to call many of them little more than advanced games of Simon Says. “Simon says, now place the loop at the top of the ramp…hey, look at that! It did exactly what the workbook said it would do!”

math and science literacy tests for seniors

It is no wonder that US high school science literacy has fallen to the 20th percentile of industrialized nations. (2003 study, 2005 study, a REALLY scary 2006 report with graphs plotted below, and another summary of the same report.)

Senior high school physics

The solution to this problem, in my mind, is to make real tools, projects, parts, guidance and inspiration available to students in both supervised and unsupervised open access laboratories, for them to perform their own experiments, and build their own projects. In essence, we need to get our students to innovate themselves rather than strand them reading about how other people innovated. And the process needs to start early, in pre-school, through elementary and Jr. high, with increasing complexity and depth throught high school.

One of my favorite sources of inspiration for this type of explorations was the monthly “Amature Scientist” column that used to be a regular feature of Scientific American. Despite their recent decision to eliminated that column, you can still find the whole archive and a whole set of new projects from the fellow who wrote the column for the last six years here at Dr. Shaw’s web page entitled, “The Best Tail-Kicking Science Projects Anywhere.”

A couple of my favorites that just jumped off the page included:

  • Photograph an ant’s brain and nervous system
  • Convert an old kitchen blender into a working centrifuge
  • Experiment with films only one molecule thick
  • Use a hot wire to study the crystal structure of steel
  • Measure the electric charge on raindrops
  • Study fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field
  • Build a video microscope for about $10
  • Learn all the secrets of grinding and testing telescope mirrors
  • Build, mount and use research-quality telescopes at home
  • Search for titanic galactic explosions
  • Learn six different ways to fabricate a laser at home
  • Make soap bubbles that last for months (or even years!)
  • Measure the energy drain on your car

The list just goes on and on. I think I’m going to purchase the latest set myself.

Of course it will help if we can somehow help teachers to become guides and mentors in exploration rather than just lecturers. More on that in later posts.

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Some Nice Judo Ukemi Video

This is some nice video of a Korean Judo team demonstrating basic Judo techniques starting with Ukemi for a warm-up. It shows a wide range of skills across the team, with some of the advanced rank-holders showing decent technique. They are probably not as crisp in terms of technique as the more anal Japanese-style practitioners (some body positioning out of place, toes not pointed so power is limited, more lifting than timing…etc.) but there are great camera angles despite the hand-held aspects to show the protective power of Ukemi.

For a point of reference, judging from the relative skills demonstrated, the more advanced students in this video probably have about 10-15 years of practice under their belts (so-to-speak), while the newer students go all the way down to about 1 year or so.

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