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Science and anti-science, Catholicism, and… oh yeah, Mars. November 22, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Religion, Science, Uncategorized.
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It’s interesting to hear news from the United States that up and coming Republican contender Marco Rubio has been explicitly saying in a GQ magazine interview that he doesn’t know whether the earth is 4.54 billion years old. Actually it’s even worse than that because he slips into a discourse rooted in the Bible.

Q: How old do you think the Earth is?
A: I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

Er… no, no it’s not a mystery at all. The research and theoretical basis for asserting that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old is solid.

Actually it’s arguably even worse than that again because Rubio, as it happens, is a Catholic and whatever else about the Catholic Church, and boy are we seeing it in some respects at its most unlovely at the moment in this state, it has never been shy in the modern period about integrating scientific theories and concepts into its worldview. In other words the Catholic Church accepts the science on the age of the Earth, the universe and so on. Though interestingly – to me at least – it adds its own spin as regards believing is a process guided by God. Tricky one that.

At a stretch so, one could say that in terms of science on the big ticket items it gets it particularly right, whereas on the smaller more human scale as we’ve seen… well… anyway.

Now, as noted here in the past, there have been some wobbles, a certain tone entering the discourse which is troubling. And perhaps in the super-heated context of US political activity, in a state where 58 per cent of Republicans and 46 per cent of US citizens claim to believe in creationism (as noted in the NYT by Juliet Lapidos) – statistics that are stunning in their own way.

But one wonders is this a straw in the wind as regards unreason. The list of Catholic creationist organisations and lobbies appears to be increasing – many are US based, but not all, and tellingly some are allied with ‘traditionalist’ views. In that context perhaps Rubio’s remarks are suddenly more explicable, in that lamentably creationist views are gaining a wider currency. And closer to home there’s more than a hint of the broader environment within which these beliefs flourish from Alive!

Meanwhile in Slate there’s a good [no it’s not, on reflection I read it too quickly and as smiffy says it’s disingenuous] piece on how this discourse distorts even Obama’s responses, albeit not to anything like the same degree – where he too fudges on the age of the universe, while giving a sterling performance in regards to supporting evolution.

But what sort of a pass have we reached?

And as for Mars, also from Slate, seems like the Curiosity rover may have found something very interesting there. Very interesting indeed. Though they’re not saying what. Yet.

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are keeping their lips sealed for the time being while they run additional tests to make sure the discovery holds up. That, however, hasn’t stopped one of the mission’s leaders from speculating loudly that it’ll be one that rewrites at least some of what we know about the universe. 
“This data is gonna be one for the history books,” John Grotzinger, the rover mission’s principal investigator, told NPR last week for a the buzz-inciting segment that aired today. “It’s looking really good.”

If you look through the comments you’ll find some entertaining suggestions as to what has been found. Tongue in cheek, I have to add.

Rubio and NASA. There one has it, a sort of dichotomy between world views, between abstractions and actual events both on this world and an immediate neighbour.

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Good astronomy – Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy moves to Slate. November 12, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Culture, Science, Skepticism.
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For those of us who take a rational and sceptical view of matters the news that Phil Plait’s excellent Bad Astronomy blog is moving to Slate.com is very welcome.

Well worth checking out if you are interested in astronomy, space science and debunking… well… here’s what he has to say about it himself…

Over the years, anyone who loves science will let you know how badly it gets spun, folded, and mutilated. Sometimes it’s the press, sometimes the public, or movies, or politicians—actually, a lot of the time it’s politicians—but there are a lot of misconceptions about science in people’s minds. I started writing about this way back in the early Dawn of the Internet and haven’t been able to stop. 

But it’s not just myths about science that are so aggravating; out-and-out attacks on science are rampant. The main venues of this are politics and religion, and usually some combination of the two. I will not hesitate to call such attacks out when I see them. If you think the Earth is 6,000 years old, if you think global warming is a hoax, if you think vaccines cause autism, then my goal in life is to show you what science and reality have to say about that.

Plait has a book of the same name and it’s a great read and fits in with a body of work that includes Carl Sagan and others. And as someone noted in comments on Slate, just in time to deal with the 2012 apocalypse stuff that is infesting much of the internet. Not a moment too soon.

Venus and Jupiter… March 12, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Science.
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Cloudy today, but anyone who glances at the sky in the evening will know that Jupiter and Venus have been very close over the past while [close visually, not physically].

But, what of this? From today’s Irish Times.

“Both planets are very bright in the night sky. If you know where to look, you can even see Venus in the day. The two being so close together will be beautiful. Last night they looked like two beacons.

Seeing a planet during the day sounds remarkable. A couple of sites discuss this. This is good.

As is this column from Phil Plait of the excellent Bad Astronomy.

Red Moon at night… June 15, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Science.
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…leftists delight?

From the CLR Vaults – Part 3: It’s 2006 – “Honey I shrunk my mind, or the unusual joy of pseudo science…” September 2, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, CLR empirebuilding, Science.
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As part of our continuing series of digging out the old stuff here’s another post. This one dates from some while back, well, 2006 to be honest.

As I wrote at the time:

Anyhow I like to flatter myself that I’ve heard it all, evidence that the moon landings were a hoax, evidence of alien activities on the moon and Mars, alien landings, the Nephilim as progenitors of civilisation (actually that one is great because if you have even a nodding acquaintance to the Fields of the Nephilim you can use them as the soundtrack to your browsing – ignoring the Lovecraftian nonsense on the second and third albums, like you base your lyrics on an invented mythos by a writer of early 20th century horror, natch!).

But no. I was wrong, I really haven’t heard it all.

Ever heard of the Expanding Earth hypothesis?

What brought it to mind was this

Astronomers have declared that the moon is shrinking after spotting wrinkles all over the lunar surface. The tell-tale contraction marks were discovered by US scientists who examined thousands of photographs of the moon’s surface taken by a Nasa orbiter.

Some of the wrinkles are several miles long and rise tens of metres above the dusty terrain. Researchers believe they arise from the moon decreasing in size by around 200 metres across its diameter. The moon’s mean diameter is generally calculated to be 2,159 miles.

Let me say first of all that it’s not quite the same thing. And the Guardian piece is oddly hazy about the time span involved. 200 metres in five minutes or five years would be something. In a million years ago, well, I wouldn’t be quite as concerned. And nor would you.

Indeed the only clue is the following:

Fourteen lobate scarps were identified, at sites as far apart as the lunar equator and near the poles. The features are so pristine scientists think they could be no more than a billion years old.

For the complete story one need only go here.

Moon:Memory July 21, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Culture, Moon, Science, Science Fiction.
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I think I saw the moon landings. I have a memory, I’ve had it for years now, of being in the sitting room of my parents house in Raheny watching the shaky footage on a black and white television. There’s a problem though. It was only this month that I realised that I would have to have been about 3 years and 8 months old when the moon landing occurred. And, given that, is it really likely that I actually saw Armstrong climb down from the Lunar Module onto the surface of the Moon? Or rather that I remembered it? It gets worse. I don’t know if RTÉ carried the footage, but, the time, 3.39 a.m. Does it seem reasonable that I’d have been awake at that point? Maybe I was bundled downstairs to watch. I don’t know and there’s no one to ask. So… the question remains did I see the reports the next day, or did I imagine them happening subsequently.

I suspect the latter two options are most likely, albeit they’re the most prosaic. Ah well. Another option is that I saw subsequent moon landings. It’s funny though. Almost the entirety of my life, including my adult life I’ve been convinced I did see them. And now… I don’t know.

If I did see it I wonder what I thought about it at the time.

There’s a fabulous book that I’ve been reading recently called The Baby in the Mirror by child psychologist Charles Fernyhough which through his appraisal of his own daughters mental development in her first three or four years gives an insight into memory and its centrality to our ability to understand the world.

As he notes:

In contemplating a forthcoming journey, we don’t just make a physical connection with the human being who will be passing through that airport and hailing that taxi; we make a mental connection, imagining the sights and sounds, the varied emotions of arrival. It takes a leap of imagination before we make the leap of substance.

In foreseeing herself in Australia, Athena [his daughter who was going to Australia with him to live] needed some of that self-thread. There was that little person, in the image of the future she had conjured up; there was something that it was like to that little person; and it would be the same as what it was like to be this little person.

Athena needed some understanding of herself as a centre of experience that persisted like her body persisted, with a future as well as a present. She needed to be a time-traveller.

I wonder about that. I was a bit older than Athena, but the way in which events at a very early stage in life impress makes me wonder how much of my personality was shaped by the background noise that was the space programme, something that ultimately fed and informed my cultural tastes, my sense of self. Did the moon landing operate on a subtly similar level with thousands of children thinking that they too could place themselves in the picture, so to speak. That the adventure of it was a visceral part of them and their self-identity, and was this because in large part we were there ready to be shaped just as these events were happening? Otherwise why, if my memory of watching the landing on television is a construct did I want it to be something that I lived through directly?

The meaning of it all is fascinating too. I mean, what did I think was going on then? Fernyhough argues that:

Ask a child, as Piaget did, who made the sun and the moon and you are likely to get a creationist answer. For children growing up on the shores of Lake Geneva, the stars of the constellation of Pleiades might have been scattered there by God. Piaget’s interpretation was that young children suffered from an ‘artificialist’ bias, mistakenly inclined to see a creative agency in inanimate objects. As their thinking becomes flexible enough to give them a basic grasp of the laws of physics, they become better able to see how the landmarks of nature could have arisen without human or divine intervention. Piaget saw artificialism… as a wrinkle of cognitive immaturity which is ironed out by further development. As you grow into more sophisticated reasoning about the physical world, he argued, you rely less on God for your cosmology.

However, Fernyhough believes that this is purely cultural rather than cognitive…

In one recent study, Australian and British children were tested on their knowledge of cosmology, such as their understanding that the earth is a sphere on which people can live without falling off. Even controllling for general intelligence, the Australian kids showed a significantly richer and more scientific understanding of cosmology than their British peers. One might say that they could not help but do so. Australian children grow up well aware of their distinctive location (relative to other English speaking nations) below the Equator. Their allegiance to the Southern Cross, as depicted on their flag, is emphasized in their elementary school curriculum, which introduces cosmology at an earlier age than in the UK.

So perhaps all those news reports and diagrams rubbed off, giving a sense of the universe, or at least the position of humans within it a greater depth than might otherwise have occurred.

Subsequently the memory faded into what I’d describe as a general fascination (although that’s too pointed a term, perhaps interest or even good-will better describes it) towards all things space related. It might have been happening in the sky, on the moon, tens and thousands of miles away, but it was an extension of the 5 year old, 10 year, 20 year old and so on, me. Each achievement, each milestone something to do with me. Certainly that was true up to late adolescence. Skylab fell? It fell on me, metaphorically. I still remember discussing the landing of the first Shuttle with others with that sense of fascination. But something changed. Probably I just got older. Social activities filled in and crowded out that space.

I didn’t follow the programme with the same interest as the years progressed. The news that they’d discovered exo-solar planets through telescopes came as a signficant surprise to me and as the numbers ramped up of just how many were discovered it was clear I’d completely lost touch.

Sure, on the cultural side the consumption of SF in whatever form continued, but the linkage to the actuality of space exploration certainly dimmed. That’s changed. The rise of the internet has made it much more a part of life again. Not in the same way though. It’s not as close, even if I still feel that same sense of good-will towards it. Maybe even a greater fascination as I realise that many of the achievement I once thought would have occurred by now haven’t and may not yet in my life-time, making that which did happen doubly precious (and apologies for the shameless solipsism of this piece… but, thems the breaks)…

But then, how could it be the same? The truth is I’m pretty sure now it didn’t quite happen the way I thought it did… That while it happened, it didn’t quite happen to me…

Watch the Skies… Part 2… Lunar eclipse on Saturday August 14, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy.
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I haven’t checked but I’m betting Pete Baker on Slugger has got there ahead of me… but good news for those of us interested in such things. For as reported in the Irish Times today:

Saturday night sees the third and final major eclipse of the year when an almost total lunar eclipse will be visible in all parts of Ireland – weather permitting.

Okay, the last bit is important, but considering that the skies cleared on Tuesday night for the Perseids and around 11.34 or so I managed to see one shooting star I’m a little bit hopeful. That said I then waited fruitlessly for another ten minutes to see another before neck ache sent me back indoors.

But lunar eclipses are remarkable ethereal events where the shadow of the earth as it passes between the sun and the moon makes the moon appear a deep red. On this occasion a little over 80% of the moon will be eclipsed. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, but well worth it. So, here’s hoping for Saturday.

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