Dark skies…over Southwest Kerry February 1, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Science.
A 700sq km area in southwest Kerry is expected to be named an international “dark sky reserve”, securing the highest designation for the exceptional quality of its night sky.
It will be the first region in Ireland to receive such an award and – if it achieves “gold-tier” reserve status – the first region in the northern hemisphere to get this designation, spawning hopes for an astro-tourism spin-off.
Many thanks to ivorthorne for writing this in response to the post here on the most recent report on brainscans and supposed “hard-wiring” of distinctiveness between women and men.
I’d second the recommendation on the thread above to read the Satel and Lilienfeld book.
Neuroscience can be useful. It typically offers a descriptive analysis. The problem is that it is often used improperly i.e. people use it as though it offered a causal analysis. I could talk about the good and the bad at length, but for the purposes of this site, I think the most useful thing I could do is post a quote from Nicholas Torneke:
“Many modern cognitive theories or information processing theories use neurobiology in their explanatory models and see different brain structures and activity taking place with them as causes of behaviour. Although seemingly more scientific, this is much the same as the assumptions underlying hypothetical structures like schemas. And even though brain structures are obviously available for contact in time and space, the basic, pragmatic objection remains: Brain structures, or what occurs in them, are not external to the behaviour they are said to cause. They are, in fact, a part of the same beahviour. If I lift my hand, events are taking place in my arm, my shoulder, my aorta, my brain and more. But all of these phenomena are a part of my action of lifting my hand. In behaviour analysis, behaviour is defined as an action performed by the organism as a whole, and a part of the action cannot explain the action in its entirety. The behaviour of ‘lifting my hand’ is an action performed by me as an entire organism and what takes place in my brain cannot suffice as the cause of my action, and more than what happens in my arm, my shoulder or my aorta. All of these are contributing elements and therefore are parts of the action. And in the behaviour analytic approach, the cause of the act cannot be a component of the action itself; causes must be sough in events the precede and/or follow the action. They are to be found in the action’s context.”
Torneke would be a modern behaviourist who follows in the footsteps of B.F. Skinner (who CLR readers might be interested to know, was something of an anarchist). Skinner and the radical behaviourists focused on causal explanations. Skinner thought that scientific accounts of psychology should focus on natural selection (species), cultural selection (culture) and selection by consequences (individual).
Reading the Independent article, I’m reminded of brain imaging research into pianists and taxi drivers. Both of these groups are found to have had neurological differences from their non-taxi driver and non-pianist peers. Would anybody seriously claim that they are “hardwired” to be taxi drivers or pianists?
If people don’t believe that people are genetically hardwired to become pianists or taxi-drivers, why are they so quick to accept that men and women are “hard-wired” to become masculine or feminine. Studies indicate that people are far more likely to support psychological theories when they correspond to their beliefs. When people are confronted with research that goes against their beliefs, they tend to believe that these beliefs are not something that can be validly studied.
Of course, it would be equally ridiculous to suggest that men and women are constructed without any input from their genetic inheritance. Some of the ridiculous reactions to evolutionary psychology illustrate this. However, it is important to note that adaptations related to psychological characteristics, typically come in the form of dispositions or preparedness to learn certain behaviours, They are not reflexes or fixed action patterns.
One example of the brain ‘neuroplasticity’ can be found in the case of autism. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It is generally agreed that there is a strong genetic component. It is typically described as a life-long condition. That said, a study published last year showed that many of those who received the Early Start Denver Model behavioural intervention demonstrated increases in IQ, social skills and normalised brain functioning in comparison to a control group. That is to say, that they presented with an atypically functioning brain (as measured by EEG) for certain measured activities and after treatment they presented with a typical brain activity. This showed that even in a condition regarded as chronic and global and with a population who find it difficult to learn, brain activity changes in response to environmental alterations.
Anyway, I’ve gone on longer than I’d hoped to, but the last thing I’d like to add is a link to a 2008 study. It shows why articles like the Independent’s are so influential.
People are more likely to believe the same argument when the argument is presented alongside a brain image than when it is not.
For some good advice on how to deal with neuro-bunk, try this Guardian article instead:
The Torneke quote comes from here:
More info on the EDSM study:
Scale October 26, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Science, Uncategorized.
It’s odd, it’s only in the last few months that I realised just how small the Moon is in relation to the Earth. Sure, I knew it was smaller, but I hadn’t thought about that fact in any detail probably in decades. If you asked me how much smaller I’d probably have guestimated somewhere about somewhere less than an half and greater than a third the
size diameter (see comments) of the Earth. But no, the Moon is considerably smaller than that again.
How much? Well, look at these images here, about or a little less than a quarter the diameter.
And that’s interesting because recently looking at the Shadow of the Moon documentary, and this is probably what unconsciously sparked my thoughts in this direction, it seemed to me that the journey from the Command Module to the surface of the Moon seemed quite short. Very short. And it probably was, even accounting for editing, because the Moon has a surface area about that of Asia. Indeed look again at the image above and you’ll see that set up against the Earth (let’s not try that experiment for real – eh, folks?) it would be about as ‘high’, as Africa.
But that sparks a further thought. How far away is it? Well, the easy answer is that it’s … of course it is. But let’s think about that in more human terms of scale. Here’s the ever excellent Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog and a post on just this matter.
If the Earth is the size of a basket ball and the Moon a tennis ball, and the ratio is more or less spot on, more rather than less I hasten to add, then the Moon would be 24 feet away! That’s quite a distance. There’s a bunch of videos on YouTube that show what other planets would look like if they were orbiting the Earth at the same distance as the Moon. I can’t say how accurate they are, some are probably there or thereabouts.
But as Plait says:
I’m sometimes asked what’s the one thing I wish people would understand better about the Universe. My answer is always the same: scale. We humans have a miserable sense of just how big space is, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the years working out ways to express it better.
Space is big. Very, very big.
And using the same scale Plait makes a very thought provoking point. How far away is the nearest star from Earth?
It would be — to scale, mind you — 800,000 km (480,000 miles) away: twice as far as the real Moon is from the real Earth!
I’ve been thinking a lot about the prospects for human interstellar travel, and I’m moving to a position where I wonder if sheer scale is just too great a challenge, at least for the foreseeable future. Humans are notoriously bad at future planning, and there’s no proof that our artefacts can survive the sort of time spans required. Add those together and the lack of viable technologies and the future looks… isolated.
Charles Stross deals with this issue here… and funnily enough Robert Silverberg in the current edition of Asimov’s raises the point in a slightly different context.
North Korea, sitting on a volcano, literally… September 24, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, Uncategorized.
…let us consider this information from New Scientist this week, (and Slate.com) that there is a volcano in the DPRK which has the potential, should it blow, well, let’s allow one of the seismologists involved in research there to say it:
I’m part of a joint project with North Korean scientists to understand the Mount Paektu volcano, on the border of North Korea and China. Its last eruption 1,000 years ago was one of the largest in human history. The whole top of the volcano blew off. There are still tens of meters of rock and ash deposits. In the early 2000s, it showed signs of life—an increase in earthquakes was recorded and some signs of inflation.
…These were signs it wasn’t as dormant as we thought. That piqued everyone’s interest. With its history, it’s quite a worrying volcano.
The North Koreans allowed a team in to supplement their own geological/seismology surveys, which perhaps indicates concern on their part too. How bad the local and global impact of an eruption would be is still unclear. They liken it to a volcano, “Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, after which the world had a year without summer” but appear to believe the effects of that eruption of Mount Paektu 1,000 years ago didn’t have that sort of effect.
Some interesting observations too…
CB: You are one of only a handful of outside scientists to work in North Korea …
JH: In 2011, we were told we were the first Western scientists to visit their volcano observatories, which was quite special. It’s clear that the North Koreans have been working on this volcano for years. We hope to help them bring that work to the international community.
CB: What is your impression of their science?
JH: It’s clear there’s a high level of understanding. Obviously some things are difficult for them—like access to recent papers. But, on the whole, I am impressed by their expertise.
Speaking of the future, 3D television and the far far future… September 14, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Science, The Future, Uncategorized.
Meanwhile in the present what of this news, that the BBC is suspending production of 3-D programmes indefinitely. So I guess that’s it until the holotanks arrive.
And speaking of the future…
The thought struck me that since plate tectonics is a continual process what is the situation in relation to the shape of the continents, and indeed Ireland in the future. Well, let’s just say that 100 million years from now, should humanity continue to exist in any shape or form, there would appear to be some intriguing problems they will be facing. Though note that in this projection Ireland and Britain remain distinct from each other… Sinn Féin, or so it would seem.
Just to contextualise this wiki notes that:
The human lineage diverged from the last common ancestor with its closest living relative, the chimpanzee, some five million years ago, evolving into the australopithecines and eventually the genus Homo. The first Homo species to move out of Africa was Homo erectus, the African variety of which, together with Homo heidelbergensis, is considered to be the immediate ancestor of modern humans. Homo sapiens originated in Africa, where it reached anatomical modernity about 200,000 years ago and began to exhibit full behavioral modernity around 50,000 years ago. Homo sapiens proceeded to colonize the continents, arriving in Eurasia 125,000–60,000 years ago, Australia around 40,000 years ago, the Americas around 15,000 years ago, and remote islands such as Hawaii, Easter Island, Madagascar, and New Zealand between the years AD 300 and 1280.
So we’ve been around, as humans, in behavioral terms, a mere 50,000 years? And the map above covers 100 million years? Blink of an eye.
That Cold War Space Race? Some think it’s back on! August 9, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, International Politics, Science.
Interesting piece here in Foreign Policy magazine about how China is moving steadily towards a point where it will be ahead of the US in terms of space activity. In a sense the PRC is already ahead given that they have an usable system to launch humans into space whereas at the present moment the US is dependent upon the Russians and will be until such time as a successor to the Shuttle emerges.
In a way the major problem for the US is that it is trying to return to 1960s and 1970 approaches whereas Chine is moving through those approaches without the diversion of a space shuttle or all that that entailed.
In an accompanying article John Hickman makes two salient points. Firstly that:
The Chinese have not only matched many of the achievements of the US and Russians in space – and in far less time than it took their predecessors to reach the same milestones – they did so while avoiding their biggest mistakes.
The Chinese space program enjoys some important advantages over its U.S. rival. As the recent surge in missions attest, the Chines space program likely enjoys generous and stable government funding.
The first point can be expanded upon, in fairness – and this in no way detracts from Chinese achievement in the area – the PRC is using Soviet technology as its basis, but the great advantage of that is that that technology is tried and tested. In ten years they’ve moved from getting humans into orbit to having small scale but functional space stations, something that took almost two decades for the US and Soviets.
And he makes a further interesting point that:
…the programme has the support of a unified Chinese leadership; President Xi Jinping won’t be shutting down the Shenzhou missions to diminish the legacy of his predecessors, as President Richard Nixon did by ending manned lunar exploration.
One aspect of this is the rather cosmetic privatisation of US spaceflight, where launch capacity is being farmed out to the private sector – the federal state still having to pay, naturally (and to see how cosmetic this is consider the involvement of the aerospace industry in the past). The inability of the private sector to step up rapidly is, one might hope, educative. That and a lack of political will to fund it has hobbled the US return to human spaceflight.
But that political will is central. Obviously the PRC sees long term strategic interest in pursuing these programmes, and it’s not the only one. India has a small but efficient programme in train. What will be telling is whether these developments concentrate minds in Washington. It is hard to see how they could not, but there’s a strange mood abroad these days. We live in a time when anti-statism in its rightward form is dominant. Could it really be that that sentiment might come into direct conflict with US strategic interests?
Where are the Voyager space craft now? July 27, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Culture, Science.
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<I want a proper diagram updated in real time! Does anyone know of one?
Marooned! July 20, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Science, Science Fiction.
Actually, what of this from a decade or so after that Men Into Space episode in the previous post. This was a US film that depicts a US rescue mission sent out to assist an Apollo craft that gets into trouble. From 1969 it had an all star cast. And, almost needless to say, who turns up, but the Soviets?
There’s some teeth-grinding sexism in the title caption as regards ‘The Astronauts Wives’. I wonder what Sally Ride et al would make of that.
There’s also Robert Altman’s film, Countdown, released a year earlier depicting the lunar programme and another Soviet angle. Sadly no trailer I can find for it.
Men Into Space! July 20, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Science, Science Fiction.
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I’m indebted to Odyssey, e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, for pointing me towards this…
Men Into Space, an US tv show from 1959 and 1960. It ran for one season of about 38 episodes and depicted a US lunar exploration programme. It’s a bit workaday, but with some creative assistance from the likes of Chesley Bonestall it was a bit better than might be expected. Still, a world between it and Star Trek which appeared only seven or so years later. Star Trek had its problems, but a cursory look at the MIS episode ‘First Woman in Space’ is no fun for those of us who are feminists. It’s like, well… another world.
I’d never heard of it, not a whisper, before now, and it’s fascinating in its own way. Apparently it took great pride in its scientific accuracy. The above episode deals with Soviet and US missions to Mars where something goes wrong and… well… I won’t spoil it for you. Note that the Soviets have much more futuristic outfits. Not sure what that’s telling us.
Wo(man) in space…and the Mercury 13 June 21, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Gender Issues, Science.
The news that of eight new astronauts announced in the US, four are women is good on many different levels, not least in that this is the 30th anniversary of the launch into space of the first US female astronaut – Sally Ride.
There’s the thought that, as the Guardian notes, the places these people may go will be truly historic.
…these new candidates would help lead the first human mission to an asteroid in the 2020s, and then Mars, some time in the following decade.
Some may dismiss the importance of this, and yet I think it has an exemplary effect. For every woman astronaut, fast-jet pilot, commercial pilot and so on and so forth it pushes back certain attitudes about supposed limitations on opportunity and ambition for women. Interestingly two of the four appear to have civilian backgrounds.
It brings to mind another piece of hidden history, that of the Mercury 13, thirteen women who underwent much the same physiological testing as the male astronauts who were dubbed the Mercury 7 in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Mercury 13 were part of a privately funded research programme.
Although only one passed the three phases of tests used by NASA…
In the end, thirteen women passed the same Phase I physical examinations that the Lovelace Foundation had developed as part of NASA’s astronaut selection process.
Unquestionably more would have passed all the tests had the Navy not withdrawn the use of its facilities to complete them.
As the wiki piece notes, this resulted in a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics to consider the issue of whether and how women were discriminated against on the basis of gender.
That nothing ensued on foot of the Subcommittee hearings is telling, as is the fact that it took until 1983 before the United States would send a woman into space – almost two decades after the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova (for the USSR).
Of course subsequently women have become an integral part of the US space programme (notably only three Russian women cosmonauts have actually made it into space, by contrast only this last month the Chinese launched a male/female crew into orbit) with shuttle Commanders and so on. But, this most recent development feels as if it is a genuine… well… step forward.
By the way, Jerrie Cobb, the woman who passed all three test phases, has had a remarkable career.