In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


The Arson Plant

I rather like these two paragraphs from “Doomsday” in which an alien plant something like a giant squash is described

” The arson plant and the forest had been at war for centuries, and had reached an impasse on this hillside. Kat had compared the plants to Terran beavers, but militant, napalm-armed kudzu might have been more apt, and the foothills were filled with evidence of their destructive, ongoing struggles of conquest. Their thick, vigorous foliage crowded out competitors while incendiary seed disbursal simultaneously helped claim new territory and exposed neighboring trees to intense, repeated fire until first the light, and finally the land, was surrendered.
But here, the steep and rocky terrain had tipped the balance ever so slightly in favor of the conifers, and the invaders were stymied. They could not grow densely enough to kill the trees and take the hillside, but they could never relent. A botanical Sisyphus, they constantly rebuilt their arsenal, awaiting the spark that would begin the next futile cycle of assault and stalemate, while the conifers, anchored by sturdy roots, held the sky and controlled the light. Dylan and his compatriots had simply drawn their own attackers into one skirmish between the two Methuselan armies.”

The NSF Corrects an “Error” in Error.

The NSF, after receiving an email from a concerned citizen, recently made a correction to a statement that had been on their website for several years. Unfortunately, the NSF ought to know better than to allow a web site administrator to overrule the findings of qualified scientists on the say so of a lay commentator.

At issue is a comment on an NSF page titled “The Importance of Sea Ice”. The page discusses the findings of two expeditions relating to changes in arctic conditions over a forty year period. Originally, the page contained the following paragraph(1):

“One unexpected finding concerned the salinity of the water. When the scientists first arrived at the Arctic ice pack in October 1997, they discovered that the water was much fresher than it had been when the same area was analyzed 20 years earlier. They concluded that the melting of the ice pack during the summer of 1997 caused the water to be proportionally less salty. Such a change can have serious consequences for marine life as well as for how ocean water circulates and interacts with the atmosphere. In addition to altering salinity, melting sea ice also raises worldwide sea levels, with potentially significant effects for coastal cities and towns.”

Of course, as any diligent fifth grader knows, Archimedes Principle states that an object immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces. This implies that floating ice displaces a volume of water equal to the melted volume of the ice itself. Citizen Dave Burton noticed the discrepancy(2) and sent the NSF a message:

“Since the error was on your site for over 6.5 years, misleading readers into believing that melting sea ice contributes to coastal sea level rise, I think it is important that you identify the error on your site, with a footnote which explains what was wrong with it.”

And belying the usual claims of an unresponsive government controlled by a global conspiracy to distort science in order to bolster some hidden political agenda, the NSF did exactly as Mr. Burton asked, removing the last sentence, and adding the following note in its place:

“[Editor’s note: An inaccurate statement about sea ice and rising sea levels has been deleted. We regret the error.]”

A victory for common sense and democracy in action!

Only one problem. Mr. Burton was flat WRONG, and the NSF should not have listened to him. Sea ice is mostly fresh water because the salt quickly leaches out of it once it forms. Persistent sea ice, ice that has been frozen for thousands of years—the bulk of the global ice pack and the very ice the scientists are worried about–is entirely fresh. Salt water is denser than fresh water, so the volume of sea water needed to buoy a block of freshwater ice is slightly less than the volume of fresh water in the ice.

A layman like Mr Burton cannot be expected to know this, or to know that calculations show that, in fact, melting pack ice will increase the volume of the ocean by enough to raise sea levels by 4 centimeters(3) all by itself. But the scientists who did the field work know it, and the website administrator at the NSF should have consulted them before taking the word of a lay “armchair quarterback” over theirs.In fairness, the original NSF wording does overstate the risk from pack ice. But, if pack ice melts, it means the hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated snow sitting on the antarctic landmass and in Siberia are melting as well and THAT could raise sea levels by enough to flood the ground I am standing on, here in a suburb of Houston.

Those who think they have the simple solution usually don’t understand the problem. Those who think their devotion to radio talk shows and a subscription to Popular Science make them wiser than the best minds of an entire field of credentialed science are invariably wrong.

1 –

2 –

3 – Peter D. Noerdlinger, Kay R. Brower “The Melting of Floating Ice will Raise the Ocean Level”, Geophysical Journal International, 2005

The Mother Creator

A snippet from “Doomsday”

The ice was patient and inexorable, and whatever civilization could develop during the interludes was quickly consumed on its return. But The Way was the only civilization needed for the edification of the soul, and the flock was well adapted to the cycle of ages. During the warm times, towns and institutions were rebuilt, libraries were refilled from the vaults of the Archive, and new generations were inculcated into The Way and felt the loving presence of The Mother Creator in their lives. And so they lived, generation to generation, through peace and adversity, until the signs foretold the returning ice, and some unlucky generation began the preparations for the cycle to begin again.

And when the ice was at hand and bounteous Nature could no longer support Her flock, the masses prepared for the ancient ritual — known to all through the faith — in which the living sacrificed themselves to produce sustenance for their posterity. The caretakers, selected and instructed each by his role in the divine calling, saw this manna stored in the warm moist depths of the hibernacula amongst the egg cases of their brethren, and then entered the temperate waters themselves and slipped into the deep, unencumbered slumber of hibernation.

The culling was a brutal affair for those submitted to it, but it was a joyous rebirth they bequeathed, and a solemn duty for all. Those who strayed from The Way, either in action or in spirit, could hope for no better alternative, and were soon blotted from history along with the crops and the weeds and the trappings of material wealth, leaving no heir and no memory of their passing.

And so the world had been, carefully in balance but forever afoot, since the Mother Creator had wrung its germ out from the void, fertilized it with the scattered seeds of night, and molded it into the abode of life upon which to host Her flock. It was a cruel and a wonderful world, and the one could not be separated from the other. The world provided for the body, The Way provided for the spirit, and death made way for renewal.

“Spring bloomed not amongst the weeds of ancient summer”, lamented the poet, “and wretched frost, her cold entreaty, did till upon Creation.”

Dylan & Kat — A Preview

“Where the hell have you been?”

Dylan was nonplussed. “I had a few errands.”

She seemed groggy, but coherent — still lying in the course gray sand, but propped up on an elbow. Dylan knelt before her and cradled her face between filthy, gritty hands, assessing her condition. He pushed her eyelids up roughly with his thumbs, her head back and to the side, first one way, then the other — pupils reacting to the brilliant sky.

“I didn’t know you loved me,” she sassed.

I will always love you, snapped his dialogical inner voice. He had told her that once, but she didn’t understand what he meant by the words — could only guess what they might have meant in a different life. They didn’t bear repeating now.

Probably a concussion, he thought, though the pupils seemed normal enough. He released her and turned his analytical assessment elsewhere.

“Name?” He asked without matching her gaze.

“Katerina Duncan.” She rolled the “r” in proper Russian form. “But those who want to live call me


“Civilian you dumb-ass. What’s wrong with you?”

“You may not remember this, but you just fell off a mountain. Head trauma is a common complication.”

“I feel fine. Well, no. I feel like shit. What do you mean ‘fell off a mountain’?”

“Well, technically I dropped you. Are you going to throw up?”

“Not if you don’t tell jokes. Are you What do you mean you dropped me?”

“You fell and hit your head. The sniper was about to shoot you. I dropped you so you’d be safe. What’s pi?”

“You dropped me so I’d… What?”

“What – is  – pi?”

“Apple or


She looked at him for a moment.

“3.14159…265. The mean gravitation on this planet is 9.67 meters per second per second. I measured it on my way down. Avogadro’s number is 6.022 times ten to the — 

“That will do. Is anything broken?”

“I don’t think so. But I feel like a veal cutlet.”

“Good. I mean, roll over.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “My shoulder hurts like hell and I could have a fracture here.”

She winced as she lifted her left arm for inspection. He took her hand in his bear-like palm.

“Squeeze my hand.”

She grinned — the sheepish look of a girl being talked into something improper.

“Squeeze my hand. I need to know if you can hold on.”

She did.

“Harder. Does that hurt? Do you think you can hold on to me?”

She waved the arm around experimentally. “I think so. It hurts when I lift it. I think I can hold on though. Where are we going? There’s no way you can carry me up these rocks with this equipment.”

He walked over to the water and washed his hands as best he could. “I could — if I had to. But we don’t have that kind of time.”

He retrieved the canteen from his discarded harness and brought it over to her, squirting water into her open mouth.

”We’ve been on this island for three months and had no contact. Then you and Murph have your run-in— Roll over.”

She swallowed pensively, and gingerly did as he asked.

“—and today three guys are out for a stroll and try to kill us.”

“Three guys?”

“Yeah. Coughlin was one of them. Something has changed. We’ve been all over this rock and found no sign of them. Now they’ve landed a force and are done playing.”

The hip has bloody. He worked the torn fabric loose from the clotted blood, ripping the seat enough to access the wound.

God she has a nice ass.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Looks like shrapnel, maybe a bit of stone or a bullet fragment.”

“Well it hurts like hell.”

”It looks like the impact tore your skin.”


“Yeah. You might even have a little scar.”

“Great. Just what I need.”

“Scars give you character. Perfection is not attractive.”

“Oh thanks,” she said sarcastically and then, deconstructing the remark, blushed a bit and softened her tone.


The Hitch List

I attended the 2011 Texas Freethought Convention in Houston this weekend, and while I was not able to spend as much time gathering viewpoints as I might have liked, I did attend the awards banquet in which noted writer and activist Christopher Hitchens was awarded the Richard Dawkins Award for  outstanding contributions to freethought.

Whatever you may think of the views and positions of these two men, they are both unquestionably among the most erudite and gifted writers of our age, and it was a privilege to see them both speak. More than that, it was a wonderful illustration of the civility and compassion to which humanity aspires, and so seldom attains.

Mr. Hitchens, who has not been able to make a public appearance for some time due to his on-going cancer treatment, was most eloquent and giving in his willingness to entertain questions even in his obviously and admittedly weakened state. At one point, a little girl asked him what authors he would suggest for her education, and he told her that he would be happy to meet with her mother and write down some recommendations.

I was planning to sneak out and get home to the babysitter, but when I left the hall I found Mr. Hitchens sitting down with the little girl and her mother.

He sat and talked to them for about ten minutes. It was very sweet. After he left for his car, I asked the mother if she would send me the list, which she very graciously agreed to do, and so here it is, from his notes and their conversation:

The Magic of Reality- Dawkins
Greek and Roman myths- especially those complied by Robert Graves
Other satirical works ( Montesquieu, Voltaire)
David Hume
Dickens- all, but especially a Tale of Two Cities
Ayaan Hirsi Ali- especially the beginning of Infidel where she speaks about her childhood
P.G. Wodehouse "just for a bit of fun" especially "Sunset at Blandings."

She promised to revise it with more details from the conversation when she gets home, and if she does, I will share it with you.

I will say that I do not agree with Mr. Hitchens in many regards. It is difficult, after seeing him speak, not to suspect that this may be in error. His is a formidable mind and talent, and the whole experience put me rather in mind of Franklin’s letter to a  nephew in which he gives his recommendations for a leaned man.

A most moving evening.



Mrs Crumpacker sent me a link to her very movig account of the evening.

P.Z.Myers on Combating Pseudoscience

I had the opportunity today to ask noted biologist and anti-creationism lecturer P.Z.Myers his opinion on the oft-repeated position that credentialed scientists should not confront creationists and other self-appointed science deniers on the theory that doing so only lends these people a facade of undeserved legitimacy.

He protested that this only applies to debate, and that it is the act of appearing on a stage with these people that creates an appearance of equality. Of course, if more of the population has a basic scientific education—that is to say, a basic understanding of the world they inhabit–then it would be the quality of ideas rather than the appearance of authority that would sway them—and there would be no creationists.

Was Einstein Wrong?

Physisists at CERN have spent 2 years trying to discover what went wrong. Neutrinos fired about 400 miles through the earth appears to have arived 60 nano seconds too fast — faster than the speed of light!

Aside from this startling result, the Neutrinos appeared to travel faster than the speed they were accelerated to. That’s actually far more intriguing, and it ultimately may point the way to an explanation. One such possibility is that some sort of stimulated emission is going on, that by interacting through the weak nuclear force, neutrinos are triggering neutrino emission a little ahead of where they are, and that little lead adds up. Since we know that the spatial position of a quanta is (to us at least) a probability function, and we know (from Young’s dual slit experiments) that these wave functions can interact across space, such a phenomenon is not unlikely. It would be cool, and it might allow information to travel a tiny, tiny, tiny bit faster than light, but it would not exactly overturn relativity.

Other possibilities:
1. Neutrino flux from the sun is interfering with the CERN beam.
2. The motion of the solar system is skewing the measurement (they probably already ruled that out)
3. As yet unidentified instrumentation problems.
4. Something is consistently disturbing the probability function all along the line.
5. Something neither I, nor anyone at CERN can even imagine. And that would really be cool.

We will see. Results like these are why we do partical physics.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

A forum that I frequent has polls and a neat little demographic feature that lets you see how different people answer a given question. Recently, the following demographic breakdown caught my eye:

This was a question about whether the wealthy engage in class welfare, so you might reasonably expect a shift in opinion based on education. Sample size is 41. Here, the actual answers aren’t as interesting as the distribution. With educational attainment, diversity of opinion increases.

I often argue that the truth is nearly always more nuanced than political polemic can accommodate. If we accept the notion that, on average, increased education correlates with increased knowledge of the world, then this supports my thesis.

Unfortunately, it also supports what the pundits and politices know so well–oversimplification sells.

What Would Jesus Think?

Continuing our theme of contrary conclusions from the same data, I recently ran across an interesting online debate between a Christian and a skeptic over the meaning of a passage from the book of Mark.

In Mark 7:7-8, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the washing of hands before eating is “the tradition of men”, not “the commandment of God”. He says that a man is “defiled” not by what he puts in his mouth (dirty hands) but by what comes out of his body (godly, actions). To modern ears, this seems like a rather mixed metephor,  because in 7:18-19 he specifically says “whatever thing entereth into the man, it cannot defile him, Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats”.

The skeptic paraphrased it this way:

“Got that? Eating filth does not make you a bad person because food cannot reach your heart…and because it will only be pooped out with the rest of the filth anyway.”

The Christian had, of course, been arguing for the traditional interpretation, the spiritual lesson of admonishment to follow God’s law over the traditions of man, and therefore to follow Jesus. This was, after all, long before germ theory, when the heart was held to be the seat of reason, and when both illness and insanity were widely viewed as the work of demonic forces. So it makes sense that someone living in that age would confound spiritual and physical “defilement” in this way.

But of course, as the skeptic points out, Jesus is claiming to be or to speak for the creator who knows everything and is not limited by the ignorance of the Iron Age. Surely, having warned his people against eating pork (a carrier of parasites) he would not so blithely dismiss gastronomic hygiene. And further, while on the subject, wouldn’t he have taken a moment to admonish his followers against eating improperly stored grain (with its incumbent risk or ergo-induced-lunacy, which due to further misunderstanding of the mind, was a cause of cruel execution all the way up to the enlightenment)? No. He wouldn’t, the skeptic asserts, because he was a man living in the Iron Age and, like Moses before him, had no access to any divine wisdom that might have raised him above the ignorance of the age.

Of course, none of these passages appear in any copies of Mark older than about 390AD anyway, so no one really knows what Jesus did or did not say. Perhaps he taught a course in pathogenic mycology at the local extension office and it’s all just gotten lost in translation.

Equity in Wealth

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” Elizabeth Warren

This is not a political blog; it’s a blog about reason. I am not Republican. I am not a Democrat. I have voted for both. I have an MBA and know a little about economic theory.

Captialism works. Government should indeed be very sparing in interposing itself into markets. But as the robber barons taught us, unrestrained capitalism is at least as inefficient and corrupting as unrestrained socialism. There are those who wish us to see a simple, direct, and inverse correlation between taxation and prosperity. Reality is more nuanced. A wealthy man will spend just as much, and invest almost as much, whether he is taxed at 1% or 90%. A poor man CANNOT.

Yes, all things being equal, taxation reduces the money available for spending and reduces marginal return. But all things are not equal. And anyone trying to elicit your vote on the basis of this argument without considering elasticity is a propagandist who is not after your interests, but his own.