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Archive for the ‘Briefly Noted’ Category


Endangered Species Act Less Endangered

Posted by jns on April 28, 2009

More signs today of a return to policy supported by science rather than science perverted to the will of policy.

Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced that the two departments are revoking an eleventh-hour Bush administration rule that undermined Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections. Their decision requires federal agencies to once again consult with federal wildlife experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the two agencies that administer the ESA – before taking any action that may affect threatened or endangered species.

“By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law,” Salazar said. “Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments.”

["Salazar and Locke Restore Scientific Consultations under the Endangered Species Act to Protect Species and their Habitats", NOAA Press Release, 28 April 2009.]


Our Spotless Sun

Posted by jns on April 8, 2009

Last week (on 4 April 2009, to be precise), this item came from SpaceWeather.com:

SPOTLESS SUNS: Yesterday, NASA announced that the sun has plunged into the deepest solar minimum in nearly a century. Sunspots have all but vanished and consequently the sun has become very quiet. In 2008, the sun had no spots 73% of the time, a 95-year low. In 2009, sunspots are even more scarce, with the “spotless rate” jumping to 87%. We are currently experiencing a stretch of 25 continuous days uninterrupted by sunspots–and there’s no end in sight.

This is a big event, but it is not unprecedented. Similarly deep solar minima were common in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and each time the sun recovered with a fairly robust solar maximum. That’s probably what will happen in the present case, although no one can say for sure. This is the first deep solar minimum of the Space Age, and the first one we have been able to observe using modern technology. Is it like others of the past? Or does this solar minimum have its own unique characteristics that we will discover for the first time as the cycle unfolds? These questions are at the cutting edge of solar physics.

There was a notable period of near sun-spotless activity between 1645 and 1715 known as the Maunder Minimum. There is a description in my posting “On Reading The Little Ice Age“.

The Maunder Minimum more or less coincided with one long cooling period in Europe, making it a darling of climate-change deniers who naively want to blame every climate shift on changes in solar activity.

What dire warnings will accompany the realization of the current solar minimum? Will the threatened climate disasters rival those due to god’s wrath over gay marriage? Only time will tell.


Park’s “Physics Plan” Diet

Posted by jns on February 27, 2009

Conservation of Energy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics are probably the two most important concepts in physics that have thwarted the aspirations and claims of inventors and charlatans for decades. Someday we hope that the public will understand this.

Atkins, Pritikin, Jennie Craig, South Beach, NutriSystem . . . all had one thing in common: they made their inventors very rich. But how could it be that every diet plan seems to work? It’s nothing but consciousness-raising; any plan will make people aware of how much they’re shoveling in. Nine years ago, however, WN came out with the “physics plan.” The plan is based on the Conservation of Energy: “burn more calories than you consume” http://www.bobpark.org/WN00/wn022500.html. Don’t be fooled by cheap imitations. On Wednesday, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a two year study of 800 overweight adults. Headed by Frank Sacks of the Harvard School of Public Health, the study confirmed that people lose weight if they cut calories; it doesn’t matter if the calories are fat, carbohydrates, or protein. That, of course, is the WN “physics plan.”

[Robert L. Park, What's New, 27 February 2009.]


Titanic Lakes

Posted by jns on October 17, 2007

This just in from “Science @ NASA”:

Newly assembled radar images from the Cassini spacecraft are giving researchers their best-ever view of hydrocarbon lakes and seas on the north pole of Saturn’s moon Titan, while a new radar image reveals that Titan’s south pole also has lakes.

Approximately 60 percent of Titan’s north polar region (north of 60o latitude) has been mapped by Cassini’s radar. About 14 percent of the mapped region is covered by what scientists believe are lakes filled with liquid methane and ethane:

The mosaic image was created by stitching together radar images from seven Titan flybys over the last year and a half. At least one of the pictured lakes is larger than Lake Superior.

[excerpt from "New Lakes Discovered on Titan", Science @ NASA, 12 October 2007.]

Isn’t that fascinating: “hydrocarbon lakes” filled with “liquid methane and ethane”!

The photograph accompanying the press release is really quite lovely — it’s what attracted my attention in the first place. Follow the link above to see the photomosaic.


More to Worry About

Posted by jns on June 5, 2007

I know there are people who can’t sleep at night worrying about the impending explosion of the sun or the heat-death of the universe. Global warming is no doubt adding to their insomnia. Now it turns out that the consequences of global warming are even worse than we thought:

Global warming is expected to raise ocean levels and thereby effectively shift some ocean water from currently deep areas into shallower continental shelves, including a net transfer of water mass from the southern to the northern hemisphere. This in turn will bring just so much water closer to the Earth’s rotational axis, and this — like a figure skater speeding up as she folds her limbs inward — will shorten the diurnal period [i.e., the length of the day]. Not by much, though. According to Felix Landerer, Johann Jungclaus, and Jochem Marotzke, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, the day should shorten by 0.12 milliseconds [0.00012 seconds] over the next two centuries. (Recent issue of Geophysical Review Letters.)

[Phillip F. Schewe and Ben Stein, "Physics News Update: The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News", Number 826, 30 May 2007.]


Don’t Need no Science

Posted by jns on May 11, 2007

Is Bob Park’s What’s New for 11 May 2007, this quick summary of the Republican presidential-candidate field, demonstrating that science is not a conservative, traditional-family value and that Ars Hermeneutica has its work cut out for it:

Last week at the Republican presidential debate, moderator Chris Matthews asked whether any of the wannabes did not believe in evolution. Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee and Tom Tancredo raised their hands. John McCain waffled: “I believe in evolution, “he said, “but I also believe when I hike the Grand Canyon that the hand of God is there also.” The Sunday Washington Post pointed out that they weren’t that far from mainstream. In an ABC poll a year ago, 61% thought Genesis is literally true.


Primates & Judicial Philosophy

Posted by jns on October 21, 2005

Despite my proddings, some of you may still not read Bob Park’s “What’s New”. But that’s okay, since I tend to put the best bits here anyway.

Recently he solicited readers’ questions that might be suitable for appropriately probing the thoughts and positions of Supreme Court nominees regarding science. This week he revealed “the question that best captured the consensus of our readers’ views in the fewest number of words was from Abi Soffer at SLAC:”

How does being descended from a monkey affect your judicial philosophy?


Miller’s Skepticism

Posted by jns on September 15, 2005

But science is more than the sum of its hypotheses, its observations, and its experiments. From the point of view of rationality, science is above all its method–essentially the critical method of searching for errors. It is the staunch devotion of science to this method that makes the difference.
It took Popper’s genius to realize that what is central to rationality is criticism, not justification or proof; and to scientific rationality, empirical criticism. To rescue science as a rational enterprise, perhaps the rational enterprise par excellence, there is accordingly no need to attribute to well-tested scientific hypotheses a security or reliability that they do not possess. Scientific hypotheses are not trustworthy or reliable, except in the sense of being, in some instances, true; and they are not in any interesting respect based on experience.

[David Miller, "Being an Absolute Skeptic", Science, 4 June 1999.]
*The bit that I excised between the parts I quoted was not uninteresting, it just didn’t seem to carry the flow of the idea that I wanted to note by quoting Miller. Here are the words represented by the elipsis belonging, in the original, to the first paragraph:

What is wrong with pseudoscience is the manner in which it handles its hypotheses, not normally the hypotheses themselves (though if they are designed to be unassailable and unfalsifiable, then unassailed and unfalsified they doubtless remain). But although a hypothesis that survives all criticism thrown at it is preferable to a hypothesis that dies, it does not become a better hypothesis through being tested. It may have been a better hypothesis from the outset, of course; it may be true. True hypotheses are what we seek.


Statistical Fluctuations

Posted by jns on July 2, 2005

Abraham Pais, a physicist who wrote what is generally regarded as the definitive scientific biography of Einstein, said of his subject that there are two things at which he was “better than anyone before or after him; he knew how to invent invariance principles and how to make use of statistical fluctuations.” Invariance principles play a central role in the theory of relativity. Indeed, Einstein had wanted to call relativity the “theory of invariants”.
["Miraculous Visions: 100 Years of Einstein", The Economist, 29 December 2004.]

By way of explanation for the quotation: I came across it a few months ago and wanted to make note of it 1) because it’s quite true, and gives a remarkable insight into Einstein’s mode of thinking; and 2) because fluctuations loom large in my own way of looking at the physical world — because of my working experience in science — and because invariance principles are an interesting and important concept in physics. I’d like to discuss both of them sometime, but it will require far more presence of mind, and time, than I have to give it right now. So, I’ll preserve the quotation here and maybe get to it later.


Traditional Atomic Theory

Posted by jns on June 16, 2005

Reminding us that atoms were “just a theory” until the twentieth century when experiment finally established atomic reality (in some quantum mechanical sense yet to be understood fully):

But as late as 1894, when Robert Cecil, the third Marquis of Salisbury, chancellor of Oxford and former Prime Minister of England, catalogued the unfinished business of science in his presidential address to the British Association, whether atoms were real or only convenient and what structure they hid were still undecided issues:

“What the atom of each element is, whether it is a movement, or a thing, or a vortex, or a point having intertia, whether there is any limit to its divisibility, and, if so, how that limit is imposed, whether the long list of elements is final, or whether any of them have any common origin, all these questions remain surrounded by a darkness as profound as ever.”

[Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1986) p. 31.]

*Perhaps the idea of atoms is the oldest surviving scientific concept in that “just a theory” category — far older certainly than the continually changing, ever evolving “traditional marriage”.