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That Nobel Prize for Physics Announced Today October 2, 2018

Posted by Tomboktu in Equality, Gender Issues, Science.

Dr Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada today became the third woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics since the prize was instituted a century ago. Nice timing, as it comes the day after the story broke about a male physics professor, Alessandro Strumia, claiming that “physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation” and being suspended by CERN, the European nuclear research centre that straddles the French–Swiss border, for his remarks.

Normally, a university with a faculty member who wins a Nobel Prize can expect to bask in a secondary glow from the reflected shine that their high-flying staff member brings, especially if it is not one of the scientific elite universities, but the University of Waterloo is also receiving some less warm scrutiny: you see, Dr Strickland is not a full professor. The commentary on twitter that I have seen is based on the assumption that if a man had done her work, he would be a full professor at this stage of his career. It appears that there is a bit more to the situation this this because Dr Strickland has not applied for a full professorship, but that observation has led to further scrutiny: why not — what is it in UW or its Physics Department that has discouraged such a leading talent from putting herself forward?



Evolution… and not evolution March 29, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Science.

Good piece here in Slate.com this week from a lecturer, James J. Krupa, in the University of Kentucky who teaches evolution. it’s an amazing insight into just how difficult in some parts of the United States it is to teach that area of science (Krupa notes that the US is 34th lowest of ‘advanced’ states in terms of public acceptance of evolution, just ahead of Turkey). He notes that ‘rarely do I have a Kentucky student who learned about evolution in human biology’.

I can’t but wonder what effect that has more broadly, in terms of pushing people from science, in terms of closing minds. It’s just disastrous on so may different levels. He also notes the ‘combative’ nature of some of those opposed to evolution… walk-outs, shouting in the middle of classes, and so on.

What’s particularly troubling is – and Krupa notes this, that most ‘mainstream’ Christian religions (and it is Christians who are overwhelmingly the problem here) accept evolution. Yet as Krupa notes that ‘One student explained that as a devout Catholic he had no choice but to reject evolution. He accused me of fabricating the pope’s statements. When I explained that he could go to the Vatican website for verification or call the Vatican to talk to a scientist, he insisted that there was no such information available from the Vatican. He then pointed his finger at me and said the only way he would believe me is if then–Pope John Paul II came to my class to confirm these quotes face-to-face. The student then stomped out, again slamming the auditorium door behind him’.

Clearly, so, this isn’t just about formal religious dogma, but about something much more. Identity, a means of conforming and not conforming simultaneously. Community, of sorts. Dissent. Fear and perhaps antagonism to modernity, or parts of it.

This I love:

Some students take offense very easily. During one lecture, a student asked a question I’ve heard many times: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” My response was and is always the same: We didn’t evolve from monkeys. Humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor. One ancestral population evolved in one direction toward modern-day monkeys, while another evolved toward humans. The explanation clicked for most students, but not all, so I tried another. I asked the students to consider this: Catholics are the oldest Christian denomination, so if Protestants evolved from Catholics, why are there still Catholics? Some students laughed, some found it a clarifying example, and others were clearly offended. Two days later, a student walked down to the lectern after class and informed me that I was wrong about Catholics. He said Baptists were the first Christians and that this is clearly explained in the Bible. His mother told him so. I asked where this was explained in the Bible. He glared at me and said, “John the Baptist, duh!” and then walked away.

Venus, Mars and the Moon February 21, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Science.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow those three will appear very close in the sky. Caught this last night, an amazing sight through binoculars. The dot above and very very slightly to the right of Venus is Mars and through binoculars is clearly red in colour.


Meanwhile, here’s an interesting mystery, a plume in the Martian atmosphere which can’t be fitted into current atmospheric models. Of course there’s a perfectly natural explanation no doubt but some of the fun is seeing how it is resolved.

Jupiter Rising December 20, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Science.
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I’ve swiped the image below from this blog here because it’s almost precisely what I saw yesterday morning through binoculars of Jupiter and attendant Galilean moons, albeit the four moons visible were ranged left, as it were, of the planet. I’d noticed the planet in the early morning sky, around 7.30, and wondered what it was. The disk was visible through the binoculars and then I saw the moons. It looked almost structural, but a moments googling revealed its identity. As the author of the blog linked to above notes…

On one hand, you’re not going to see any detail on the planet. And the four Galilean moons will just be little sparks.

On the other hand–the hand you should be concentrating on–you went to the closet, knocked the dust off whatever binoculars you already had, pointed them at that bright star over there, and now you can see that it is visibly a planet (despite being almost half a billion miles away) and, oh yeah, those little sparks are moons. If you’ve never seen this before with your own eyes, you will have an emotional reaction.

That’s a brilliant way of putting it. It’s quite something.

That “top-secret” spaceplane… October 18, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, US Politics.
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… that would be this one, would it?

Secret Space Plane

Which an article in the Guardian notes (to the amusement of some comments BTL on the article) that it…

landed Friday at an air force base on the southern California coast.

Given that secrecy perhaps it’s a surprise to learn that it is known that…

The plane spent nearly two years circling Earth on a classified mission.

And what about it’s name, that’s surely classified… or not.

Known as the X-37B, it resembles a mini space shuttle.

Well, that’s obvious from the photos… the photos that were ‘stills from video’… stolen… no, actually, ‘made available by the Vandenberg Air Force Base’.

Well that’s none too clear, the infra red photo… so there’s still some mystery about what it looks like…

…if you haven’t seen this – credited to US AIR FORCE/Reuters.


And it’s highly implausible that much more is known, isn’t it… about it’s genesis, well other than:

The X-37B program has been an orphan of sorts, bouncing since its inception in 1999 between several federal agencies, Nasa among them. It now resides under the air force’s rapid capabilities office.

Or the numbers of aerospace craft actually built or the number of missions:

The plane that landed Friday is one of two built by Boeing. This is the program’s third mission, and began in December 2012.

Or its dimensions and features…

The plane stands 9.5ft tall and is just over 29ft long, with a wingspan under 15ft. It weighs 11,000lbs and has solar panels that unfurl to charge its batteries once in orbit.

Or future plans…

The air force said it plans to launch the fourth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida, next year.

But that’s it… except for this wiki page devoted to the X-37B and previous iterations.

Which contains photographs of this remarkably covert vehicle dating from… erm… 2010.


More seriously, worth noting that the USAF has this sort of capability during a period when due to the retirement of the space shuttle the ability of the US to launch humans into Earth orbit necessitates using Russian launchers.

And a much more intriguing series of questions relate to what it actually does, and what it is intended to do.

Of course the USAF has long had a parallel programme (or used some shuttle missions) of launches. And there have been persistent rumours on the fringes of a covert USAF manned spaceflight capability, but the existence of this makes that seem unlikely.

Science and not science. Really not science. September 13, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Crazed nonsense..., Science.
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This is fairly annoying, even by the standards of the British tabloid press. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy notes how the Express has run a series of articles with only a tangential relation to astronomy. Tangential, as in none.

A scientist writes… August 11, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science.

I hadn’t checked in on Dr. William Reville in the Irish Times in a while, but this column is fantastic. In many senses…

Science now believes that inert matter spontaneously sparked into life 3.8 billion years ago and evolved to produce mind. But matter cannot therefore be that “inert”, since it must intrinsically bear the potential for life.


Also, Midgley holds that natural selection alone cannot fully explain the prodigious fruitfulness of life.


Although it filters the life options that confront it, it cannot account for the intrinsic nature of these options. Therefore, life itself, and its most complex manifestation, the human mind, is far from being fully explained by science.


Watching the skies August 9, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, Uncategorized.

This hasn’t much to do with anything in particular. Last night I was out looking up at the sky, and very clear it was too, around 10.30 or 10.45 and saw a very bright light crossing West/East or SouthWest/NorthEast followed on exactly the same track (so to speak) by a dimmer one. It/they weren’t jets, so I’m presuming they were satellites, and if anyone can identify them all the better (and actually just found this which suggests it was indeed the International Space Station, but what was the thing behind it, something moving into position with it? – and indeed, reading further it appears that it was [ESA’s space freighter ATV Georges Lemaître] ATV-5 vehicle). A long time since I’ve seen anything so it was kind of nice.

Meanwhile somehow found this online, a map of Berlin from space last year. I wonder are the divisions the article points to quite as stark as it suggests. Anyone on the ground (again, so to speak) able to support that line or not?

Atomic Rockets June 21, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Science, Science Fiction.

…a site to lose oneself in if science and science fiction are your thing.

Counter-Earths… May 24, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, Uncategorized.
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Here’s an oddity, some may remember the entertaining and flawed Gerry Anderson big screen excursion, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun where astronaut Ray Thinnes – and spoiler alert here – finds himself crash-landing on a planet on the far side of the sun which is a copy of Earth in every detail, bar that everything is reversed (i.e. text is ‘backwards’). It’s not great, very limited in conception but it’s sort of fun and as always there are those great Anderson models of space ships and so on. Here’s the trailer…

But here’s another twist on that idea, a TV movie that until recently I had no idea existed, called The Stranger from 1973, which is available on YouTube in its entirety. Astronaut crash lands on a planet called Terra, which is on the far side of the sun. This planet is similar enough to Earth – absurdly so, vehicle types are the same, the language is English, but has three moons and is run by a global totalitarianism called the ‘Perfect Order’. It was produced by Bing Crosby … and was clearly intended as the pilot for a ‘Fugitive’ like series, and if you watch it you’ll see why it was never picked up. Though the idea itself, absurd as it is, is sort of interesting (Land of the Giants sort of took some of the conceptual slack on that too).

Counter-Earth stories are something I like, though as can be seen here the idea doesn’t hold up once one looks at the science. The perturbations of a planet in Earth orbit on the far side of the Sun would be long evident across the solar system. Unless of course there was a highly advanced technological society there which could somehow mask… no, but that way lies madness.

Some may remember the increasingly unpleasant Gor novels which had a similar conceit, but there’s many more examples. Indeed it is perhaps time someone did a modern version, perhaps along the lines of that concealed high tech advanced civilisation in our own solar system.

And yet, while we may mock the idea of planets that were similar, or even identical, to Earth? One of the variations on parallel universe/many worlds theories is the following, which when I first read about it in Scientific American many years ago genuinely struck me as bizarre, perhaps even a bit unnerving…

Copycat regions of the universe: We now turn from the exceedingly small to the incomprehensibly large. If the universe is infinite, as many cosmologists surmise, then if you travel far enough you will eventually reach regions nearly identical to ours. That’s because if you take a finite number of elements and mix them into an infinite number of combinations, eventually chance will reproduce one of the previous arrangements. It is like playing tic-tac-toe—play enough times and you are bound to repeat yourself. Hence somewhere, by pure chance, there could be a near-parallel Earth where a nearly-identical version of you is reading this article on a parchment scroll illuminated by a glowworm.

And not just near identical, but identical

Beyond the Hubble Volume. We know with some certainty that there’s “more universe” out there beyond that boundary, though. Astronomers think space might be infinite, with “stuff” (energy, galaxies, etc.) distributed pretty much the same as it is in the observable universe. If it is, that has some seriously weird implications for what lies out there. Beyond the Hubble Volume you won’t just find more, different planets. You will eventually find every possible thing. Read that again and let it sink in. Everything. If you go far enough, you’ll find another solar system with an Earth identical in every way except that you had cereal for breakfast this morning instead of eggs. And another where you skipped breakfast. And one where you got up early and robbed a bank. In fact, cosmologists think that if you go far enough, you will find another Hubble Volume that is perfectly identical to ours. There’s another version of you out there mirroring your every action 10 to the 10^188 meters away. That may seem unlikely, but then, infinity is awfully infinite.

Just think, another European Election, another local election… Yep, great.

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