Monday, June 30, 2014

Polar Ice: Negative Feedback

One of the interesting facts about Polar ice is that the decline in Arctic sea ice has been matched by an increase in Antarctic sea ice. This year's Antarctic ice is currently at dramatically record levels, and recent years have all had a lot of ice. Arctic and Antarctic ice have different dynamics, so one should not make the denialist assumption that this is some sort of evidence against global warming, but, just as less ice in the Arctic causes a net decrease in planetary albedo, increasing Antarctic ice has the opposite effect. The Antarctic sea ice area anomaly is currently more than + 2 million km^2, or roughly twice the - 1 million km^2 Arctic sea ice area anomaly.

I wonder what the average net forcing over a year looks like. Anybody have these numbers handy?

Sunday, June 29, 2014


Mostly I have avoided writing about Iraq's ongoing catastrophe. Naturally there is plenty of blame to go around for it's disintegration, most recently for it's idiot president, who ran a corrupt, sectarian government and rejected every attempt to compromise with the Sunnis.

Obama's dilatory behavior regarding Syria deserves a share of blame as well. By cheering on the Syrian revolt, implicitly promising aid, but never delivering, he helped fashion the conditions under which the fanatical fundamentalists of ISIS wound up in the driver's seat. If nothing else, Libya should have been a clue. Rebels were getting destroyed until NATO blasted Gaddafi's military columns, and the country has since disintegrated. Of course all the idiots in Congress, and especially G. W. Bush, for destabilizing an already unstable Iraq.

So what can, or should, the US do?

The Middle East has the longest history of the world, and it's been a fractious one, with peace happening only when one empire or another kept it. Its long economic and cultural decline was abruptly disturbed at the dawn of the Twentieth Century with the discovery of oil, enormous amounts of it, in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Sudden wealth has a well deserved reputation for damaging the lives of the recipients, especially when it is in some sense unearned, and that was the case with oil. Europeans and Americans found the oil, developed it, and figured out to use and market it. The disruption to the largely tribal local societies was catastrophic. Greed and corruption flourished.

If Iraq and its neighbors had lacked oil, they would probably be largely beneath the notice of the World powers of this century or the last. Of course they would also be primitive subsistence societies, living much the way they did 1000 years ago.

Education: Best Universities

When I was a grad student at Great Desert University, one of our profs was from the then country of Yugoslavia. He had had an itinerant career, and his children had been educated in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. His daughter was an undergrad, and later a grad student in our physics department, but at one point I recall her sniffing "this isn't University but kindergarten."

According to Kevin Carey, writing in the NYT:

Americans have a split vision of education. Conventional wisdom has long held that our K-12 schools are mediocre or worse, while our colleges and universities are world class. While policy wonks hotly debate K-12 reform ideas like vouchers and the Common Core state standards, higher education is largely left to its own devices. Many families are worried about how to get into and pay for increasingly expensive colleges. But the stellar quality of those institutions is assumed.

Yet a recent multinational study of adult literacy and numeracy skills suggests that this view is wrong. America’s schools and colleges are actually far more alike than people believe — and not in a good way. The nation’s deep education problems, the data suggest, don’t magically disappear once students disappear behind ivy-covered walls.

Much of our higher education is deeply mediocre, despite the fact that our very best universities really are the best in the World. This is not a giant surprise to me.

At least in math skills, US college graduates are well below average, trailing much of Europe and Japan. Not a surprise yours truly, or probably to anyone else who has taught math, physics or engineering at State U, I suspect.

However, I still suspect that it's true that one can get an excellent education even at rather mediocre schools, if one chooses one's course and class appropriately.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Dreaded Penalty Shoot Out

Chile played for the penalty shoot-out, got it, and lost it, so I suppose that they had it coming, but it's still a stupid way to end a soccer game. Even a corner kick shootout would be better.

Still better would be ditching the Group + Knockout format completely, in favor of something like a Swiss System, with every team getting seven games and the winner being the the highest point total (or points + tiebreaks, if necessary).

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

CTE and Soccer

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy - destruction of the brain by repeated impacts - is well documented in boxing, American football, and hockey, but now there is evidence that soccer players get it too.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head, has been found posthumously in a 29-year-old former soccer player, the strongest indication yet that the condition is not limited to athletes who played sports known for violent collisions, like football and boxing.

Researchers at Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System, who have diagnosed scores of cases of C.T.E., said the player, Patrick Grange of Albuquerque, was the first named soccer player found to have C.T.E. On a four-point scale of severity, his disease was considered Stage 2.

So does heading the ball cause brain damage? A hard driven soccer ball hits with a lot of force, but it's very rare to see a player dazed by collision with the ball. If this World Cup is representative, though, it's not at all rare for players to get their bell rung by colliding their heads with hard body parts of other players - usually heads, elbows, or knees. Most of the time, though, those collisions occur when you are trying to head the ball. I got my own mild soccer concussion when another player and I were competing to head the ball and he clocked me with his elbow.

Youth soccer coaches in the US are now advised not to let their players head the ball at young ages.

...A new concussion safety campaign is being mounted to delay use of headers by U.S. youth players until high school age.

The joint effort was announced Wednesday by the Sports Legacy Institute, based in Boston, and the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics, based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Brandi Chastain, whose penalty kick won the Women's World Cup for the USA against China in 1999, is on the board of the ISLE.

"I believe that the benefits of developing heading skills as children are not worth the thousands of additional concussions that youth soccer players will suffer," Chastain says in a press release.

"As a parent, I won't allow my children to head the ball before high school, and as a coach I would prefer my players focused solely on foot skills as they develop their love of the game. I believe this change will create better and safer soccer."

Of course high school might still be way too early. In any case, foot skills are by far more challenging to learn than heading, so it makes sense to concentrate on them.


Anyone who has ever done live theater is familiar with the brutal drudgery of learning lines. Nina Metz, writing in The Chicago Tribune, has an article allegedly on the techniques actors use for learning lines, though in point of fact, despite certain tricks that may be helpful, it's mostly just brute force and repetition.

She makes one remark that struck me as odd:

In my 15 years reviewing theater, I have no clear memories of an actor noticeably whiffing on a line (the term of art when the mind goes blank is to "go up" on a line), but it happens, and fudging through those moments is part of the job as well. Matthew Broderick ran into trouble in 2009 when he starred off-Broadway in a new play from Kenneth Lonergan called "Starry Messenger." The script was tweaked during previews, and Broderick "called out for lines multiple times," according to The New York Times.

Of course she admits that she herself can't even memorize a sentence, so maybe she really doesn't know.

My experience is much more with amateur theater than professional, but I can identify dozens of times when I've seen an actor go up on his or her lines. Few virtual experiences are more excruciating for me than watching the only actor on stage forget what they need to say next. Of course, if there are other actors on stage they can usually cover up the damage by simply going on, or even by whispering the next line to the actor in question - and yes, actors need to learn not only their own lines, but also those of the other actors on stage with them. There is a reason all actors study improv.

Sometimes the results can be hilarious. My favorite example was the time one of my fellow actors skipped a full three pages ahead in the script. There were several of us on the stage, so the rest of us carried on from there. Until one stickler skipped back to the original point of departure. At that point, there was nothing to do but do the skipped part followed by repeating the two or three pages of dialog already done.

Guns that don't fire, matches that don't light, or fell out of somebody's pocket, and clothes changes that the stage hands left in the wrong place are all part of live theater. My sympathies to the critic who only saw productions too perfect to include any of the above. Or was too clueless to notice them.


Arthur Chu (Who? Apparently somebody who once did well on Jeopardy), who apparently believes that he has something to say, and that everyone will listen, defines privileged as follows:

Mansplaining, whitesplaining, richsplaining—the way you can tell someone who’s 'privileged' is the unconscious belief that they have something to say, and that everyone will listen.

It turns out that his article, in The Daily Beast, is mostly about the supposedly deep links between Game of Thrones, Colonial privilege, and feminism, but I'm not really interested in that. I'm more interested in the quote, which I regard as complete bullshit. The feeling that we have something to say, and that people ought to listen, is not some freak of "privilege", but intrinsic to our human nature. Evolution went to a lot of trouble to develop our ability to speak, and our desire to share our thoughts with others.

Terms like "mansplaining", "whitesplaining" and so forth are not actually very descriptive. Instead they are ways of dismissing an argument without actually confronting it. As such, they are lazy and generally obtuse. They are also intrinsically racist and sexist - which is likely a poor strategy if you want to attack racism and sexism.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

IV. October 1973: Aftermath

The 1973 war, the oil embargo, and a world-wide shortage of oil allowed the Arab nations to seize full control of their oil resources, and control prices.  The resulting four-fold price increase plunged the developed nations into an intense recession and prolonged inflation.  Within a couple of years, the recession eased, but inflation continued.

If the results were bad in the developed world, they were catastrophic for the non oil rich developing world.

The group that suffered the most from the price increases were those developing countries that were not fortunate in having been blessed with oil. The price shock was the most devastating blow to economic development in the 1970s. Not only were those developing nations hit by the same recessionary and inflationary shocks, but the price increases also crippled their balance of payments, constraining their ability to grow, or preventing growth altogether. They suffered further from the restrictions on world trade and investment. The way out for some was to borrow, and therefore, a goodly number of those OPEC surplus dollars were “recycled” through the banking system to these developing countries. Thus, they coped with the oil shock by the expedient of going into debt. But a new category also had to be invented—the “fourth world”— to cover the lower tier of developing countries, which were knocked flat on their backs.

Yergin, Daniel (2011-04-05). The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (p. 617). Free Press. Kindle Edition. 

Uruguay's Vampire

Luis Suárez, Uruguay's star forward, got in a perhaps decisive bite against Italy.  Remarkably, he had two previous punishments for the same offense.  Uruguay scored quickly after the bite, which the ref seems to have missed.  His previous offenses drew seven and ten game suspensions.  It would be absurd if the latest offense draws a similar wrist slap.  Two years ought to be the minimum considered by FIFA, and a lifetime ban would hardly be excessive.

He also ought to be jailed for assault.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Saturday, June 21, 2014

It's All Rock'n Roll...

Jack Hamilton, who is apparently a music/culture critic for Slate, seems to think that Led Zepplin was the most influential rock band of all time. This caught my eye because I couldn't remember ever hearing any of their stuff. Of course I've never been a connoisseur of pop culture, but I guess there was a period when I just tuned out.

Rock and Roll was invented by black performers around 1950, but for me, it started in with Rock Around the Clock in 1955. The seventies, for me, were grad school, marriage, and figuring out how to work for a living - I guess I missed the music.

So anyway, I thought I ought to listen to Stairway to Heaven. I guess it won't come as a surprise to the cognoscenti that it's a great song - though it didn't sound much like R&R until about the 4:20 mark.

A Messi Victory

A spunky, gritty Iran gave Argentina a much tougher time than almost anyone could have expected. Not until the 92nd minute (in stoppage time) was Messi able to conjure up enough magic for the win (1-0). Iran had its own chances to score, especially on a probable penalty that the ref didn't manage to see.

Pretty clearly, Iran needs to be taken very seriously. Argentina, on the other hand, may have shown some weaknesses.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Synthetic Biology: Paging Doctor Frankenstein

Susannah Locke, writing at Vox, has a nice article on the new discipline of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology, which has been described as "genetic engineering on steroids" (genetically engineered super steroids?), aims at designing new organisms from scratch, starting by crafting the DNA sequence base pair by base pair. Or if nature's own DNA isn't quite versatile enough, how about building new forms of DNA with more letters in the genetic code, the better to build new proteins with amino acids nature forgot to include?

For now, the targets of opportunity either in building better microbes (to do things like synthesize petroleum from Sunlight) or medical applications like building replacement organs. Locke:

Welcome to the strange new world of synthetic biology, in which living things are a tool to be manipulated for practical ends. It's a world in which, someday, organisms designed from scratch could convert waste into fuel or enter people's bodies to kill cancer.

Some scientists see synthetic biology as the best bet to tackle some of the world's most pressing problems — like the ever-increasing demand for food and energy. But the prospect of possible mishaps, not to mention concerns about tinkering with life to begin with, are certainly there, too. Here's a primer on synthetic biology.

some highlights:

Medicine: Synthetic biology might one day allow scientists to program cells to precisely detect and kill cancer cells. Or perhaps program cells to self-assemble into spare organs for transplants. Some scientists are already using partially synthetic organisms to manufacture drugs that are otherwise impractical to make...

A more efficient process for making anti-malarial drugs: Artemisinin is one of the most effective drugs to treat malaria. But for a long time, it had to be derived from the sweet wormwood plant Artemisia annua — a slow and expensive process.


That changed in 2013, when pharmaceutical firm Sanofi used synthetic biology to produce artemisinin at an industrial scale. The company did this by taking the plant's genes for making artemisinic acid and putting them in yeast, allowing them to produce the drug more quickly and efficiently. It's widely cited as the first large-scale drug project to use synthetic biology and a major achievement for the field.

2) Creating bacteria from scratch: In 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute published the results of a 15-year, $40 million project to make the first synthetic cell. How did they do it? They took out the genomic code from one bacterial species, made it in a lab from scratch, and then put it into an entirely different species — that lived.

The genome they made also included some deleted genes and new sequences that acted as watermarks. And, all in all, the scientists created the first life-form living on completely synthetic genetic material. They called it the first synthetic cell. (However, they didn't say that they created life itself from scratch. Had they put the DNA into an already-dead cell, nothing would have happened.)

Logical circuit elements built purely from biological parts have also been synthesized.

Potential hazards exist, as one might suspect.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

World Cup 19 June

England goes home again, but Rooney does manage a goal.

A lot of exciting games in this WC so far, including Mexico-Brazil, Australia vs Chile, and the England vs. Uruguay. Boring soccer has mostly been in hiding this year.

III. October, 1973 Apocalypse Not Yet

A half dozen of the most senior American national security officials were summoned to a hurriedly called late-night emergency meeting in the White House Situation Room. Nixon himself was not awakened for the meeting on the advice of Alexander Haig, who told Kissinger that the President was “too distraught” to join them. Some of the participants were surprised to find that the President was not there. The officials grimly reviewed the Brezhnev message. Direct Soviet military intervention could not be tolerated; it could upset the entire international order. Brezhnev could not be allowed to assume that the Soviet Union could take advantage of a Watergate -weakened Presidency. There was further reason for alarm. Over the previous few hours, United States intelligence had “lost” the Soviet air transport, which it had been tracking as the planes ferried arms to Egypt and Syria. No one knew where the planes now were. Could they be on their way back to Soviet bases to pick up the airborne troops, already on alert, and carry them into the Sinai?

The officials in the White House Situation Room concluded that the risks had suddenly escalated; the United States would have to respond resolutely to Brezhnev’s challenge. Force would have to be prepared to meet force . The readiness state of American forces was raised to DefCon 3 and in some cases even higher, which meant that, in the early morning of October 25, the American military went on a nuclear alert around the world. The message was clear. The United States and the Soviet Union were squaring off directly against each other, something that had not happened since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Miscalculation could lead to a nuclear confrontation. The next hours were very tense.

But the following day, the fighting in the Middle East stopped, Egypt’s Third Army was resupplied , and the cease-fire went into effect. It was just in time. The superpowers pulled back from their alerts.

Yergin, Daniel (2011-04-05). The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (pp. 593-594). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

The oil weapon, however, had been unsheathed.

Indiana Belle

Gertrude Bell was one of those intrepid British Archeologist/Spies whose exploits were far more consequential in the real world than those of Indiana Jones in his imaginary one. Wolfgang has a couple of links and some notes on this lady who played a central role in the creation of modern Iraq.

Before we blame her too much, though, read this from WB:

But later she wrote that "You may rely upon one thing — I'll never engage in creating kings again;" and according to Wikipedia "... her reports indicate that problems were foreseen ... there were just not many (if any) permanent solutions for calming the divisive forces at work in that part of the world."

She was right about that.

II. The Brink: October 1973

Sadat's surprise attack had caught the Israelis by surprise, and they were reeling. The Prime Minister was bluntly warned that "The Third Temple was falling. Ammunition and other military supplies were desperately short. The Soviets had already begun a massive resupply effort to Syria and Egypt. Wary of offending the Arabs, Washington first hesitated, then rushed supplies into Israel in an effort that was intended to be secret, but thanks to wind and weather, wasn't.

Simultaneously, the Arab Oil countries unilaterally raised the price of oil by 70% [to $5.11/barrel!]. The Arabs were deciding how to use the oil weapon.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Saturday Night Massacre had occurred and Nixon became preoccupied with the ongoing Watergate induced collapse of his presidency. Kissinger was running US foreign policy. But resupply of Israel had succeeded, and then it became Egypt's Third Army that was on the brink of annihilation.

Soviet leader Brezhnev bluntly warned that the Soviets would not allow that to happen, and Soviet paratroops were at the ready. Soviets ships had moved into the area, and the ominous leaks of radioactive material suggested nuclear babies on board.

Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states declared an oil embargo.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

I. October 8, 1973

On Yom Kippur, October 8, 1973, Anwar Sadat and Assad launched a surprise attack on Israel. The surprise was nearly complete, but it shouldn't have been. Israeli and American intelligence had had explicit warnings, but chose to disbelieve them. Months earlier, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia had warned that trouble was brewing if the US continued its lockstep support of Israel. On a visit to President Nixon at his home in San Clemente, an agitated Leonid Brezhnev had had Nixon awakened in the middle of the night to give him a similar warning. Oil executives at ARAMCO had been warned by the Saudis in similar fashion and had passed this information on to the the press and the government.

The Arabs had made two previous attempts to wield the oil weapon, in the 1956 Suez crisis and the 1967 Israeli war, but had failed both times, due to excess capacity in the US and their own disunity. But by 1973, all that had changed. Oil capacity was tight and US production was falling.

This time would be different.

Reforming the World Cup

The biggest current problem with the current World Cup system is the big disconnect between the Group system and the elimination system. The elimination system means that many games will be decided by overtime and some by penalty kicks - both obnoxious affronts to the character of the game. My suggested improvement for the World (TM) is to conduct the World Cup as a Swiss System Tournament. Everybody plays seven games, no overtimes or tie breakers, draws 1 pt each, wins worth 3, matches by score and seed, and at the end, the winner is the team with the highest point total - ties decided by goal differential and if that doesn't work, by prettiest fans.

I'm following WB's suggestion that the World really needs more advice from Americans.


The Bushes are not entirely responsible for the ongoing catastrophe that is Iraq, but they, and especially junior, did put it squarely on the back of the US. Iraq is now a failed state, and a potential nexus of terrorism far more menacing than Afghanistan or Sudan.

It's immediate problem is that it is governed by an idiot. The most likely prospect is that it will fragment into three states.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mission Improbable


The US squeezes out an improbable 2-1 victory against Ghana, despite losing our best striker early and our seemingly congenital national inability to dribble, put 3 consecutive touches together, or otherwise possess the ball.

A satisfying victory after a couple of drubbings by Ghana in previous World Cups. Of course Germany and Portugal await.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Modest Proposal to Reform Soccer

So far this year's World Cup has been relatively exciting - at least compared to the previous iteration, which was roughly as exciting as watching grass grow. Which is what one is reduced to when teams play to a 120 minute scoreless tie. The exciting moments in soccer are exactly those in which the ball and offensive players enter the penalty box. The really boring moments are those in which a team kicks the ball around in its own end. So here are a few suggestions to breathe some life into the world's favorite boring sport.

The pitch is currently divided into two halves. The offside rule only applies in the offensive half. Suggestion: (1) divide the field into thirds, with the offside rule only applying in the offensive third.

In basketball, teams have limited time to bring the ball beyond the half line and lose the ball if they subsequently reverse that. Sugg (2)Limit the time in which a team can hold the ball in the defensive third and forbid returning it. Violations are punished by awarding the other team a goal kick.

Sugg (3) Teams are limited to a maximum of 9 players (including goalie) in the defensive third of the field, except on and directly after corner kicks or out of bounds in the defensive third.

Sugg (4) Adopt Pele's idea of replacing the throw in with a kick in.

Sugg (5) Much more generous substitution rules.

The general objective is get to approximately ten goals per game on approximately thirty trips into the box each game.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Another Masterpiece

San Antonio is utterly dominant in game 4 against Miami. Some of the prettiest offensive ball ever.

I think this game was more impressive a win than the game three, both for defensive intensity and because game three owed so much to just incredible shooting - the kind of shooting that, as Popovich pointed out, can't happen twice.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Human Population

What limits human population? Like other animals, we are capable of reproducing at a rate fast enough to cause the population to grow exponentially. Like other animals, our populations are limited by predation, accident, disease, starvation and competition with each other. By the late hunter-gatherer period we had become the top predators, so predation by other animals was a minor problem. Disease was probably a much less serious threat than in the later agricultural period when domestication of animals brought in a host of devastating diseases.

Our ancestor's lifestyle was dangerous. Big game hunting was a very dangerous activity, and all sorts of natural accidents are always around - drowning, falling, getting lost in snowstorms, etc. Homicide was almost certainly a major killer. Competition between neighboring bands, as well as in band disputes, frequently ended in murder. In addition, HGs practice a kind of natural birth or population control, since a woman can't carry more than one child. Still, a child living beyond the first few years probably had a good chance of living a fairly long life.

Agriculture introduced a more productive but also more arduous lifestyle. Women could have more babies in these sedentary societies but the disease problem became much more severe. At least two other societal innovations provided other means of population control: war and the introduction of social classes. Social classes seem to be a feature of all large scale agricultural societies, at least until recently, and the lower classes of slaves and peasants are the designated casualties. They do the starving, get the worst effects of disease and suffer all sorts of other casualties as well.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Muscle Cramps

The usual morons, I mean the dimmer witted sportswriters, are bashing Lebron James for not being ready for the AC to be off in San Antonio in Game 1 of the NBA finals. So why did the best athlete in the sport cramp up when lesser athletes didn't?

Mostly, I think, its a matter of physics. Lebron is a very large guy, and he plays with the intensity of a great small guard. Those huge muscles that let him finish through foul and obstruction generate a terrific amount of heat. Maybe if his coach had been strong willed enough, and far sighted enough, he would have sat the big guy more and earlier the third quarter.

Everybody had to play in the same heat, but the effects are different for different players.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Sitcoms for Social Action

The sitcom doesn't get much respect. It would be hard to pick out a more reviled art form. If one were to pick out the most important steps towards gay rights in the US,however, I'm pretty sure that American sitcoms deserve one of the very first places. Above Stonewall, gay rights parades and other demonstrations that probably made more enemies than friends. Will and Grace and Modern Family were transformative.

I would suspect that they played an important role in civil rights as well.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Will the Right-Wing Kill CERN and European Science?

The rise of the anti-European right-wing parties poses a major threat to European scientific collaborations according to this article.

Politics has become a strange place. In this week's European Parliament elections, many right-wing parties, some of them extreme, are forecast to do well. It is likely that, for the first time, the elected body of the European Union will be stuffed to the gunnels with people who would rather it didn't exist at all.

Prominent among them is Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party. Already a member of the European Parliament, Farage's main aim is to get Britain out of the European Union. Its freedom of movement rules have caused an influx of migrant workers, which has served as the backdrop to UKIP's rise. While Britain remains within the E.U., it is impossible to stem this "tide," Farage says, and withdrawal is the only solution.

While political scientists watch this narrative unfold with fascination, natural scientists in the United Kingdom should do so with alarm; Farage could be a disaster for them.

That's because we have a lot to lose. In global terms, the U.K. punches above its weight in science. Although our population makes up just 1 percent of the global total, scientists here publish 16 percent of the world's most-cited research papers. E.U. policy is to “encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding ... on the basis of scientific excellence.” This means that British scientists get a disproportionate amount of money. For every pound contributed to the research pot, Britain gets approximately 1.40 pounds back.

Switzerland is apparently already feeling some impact from its own withdrawal from associate membership.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Finding Life in the Solar System

Mike Brown's penultimate lecture in his Caltech/Coursera Solar System course concerns what he calls "the best experiment to find life in the Solar System" yet. On it's trip to Jupiter, the Galileo spacecraft flew by a couple of planets to get a slingshot boost on its way, taking some data in the process. The data consisted of infrared spectra, imagery at multiple filtered wavelengths, and radio data.

Some of the data was highly suggestive: oxygen in the atmosphere, presence of liquid water, very abundant methane in the atmosphere, and some peculiar features in the wavelength filtered data. All of the above were suggestive of the presence of life, but hardly conclusive.

You have perhaps guessed the identity of the planet in question: Earth. The data, analyzed by Carl Sagan and colleagues, also included imagery with a resolution of roughly 1 kilometer. No definitive signs of human construction were found at that scale.

The only definitive evidence of life, and in fact semi-intelligent life, was found in the radio signals from Earth, which in addition to natural ionospheric, solar and other features included some with regularities not known in any natural phenomena: radio and television shows.

Cosmos: AGW

The penultimate Cosmos episode was about carbon dioxide and human caused global warming. As usual, one could quibble about the way Neil deGrasse Tyson presents some points, but overall, I found it very good. I found the early history of solar power particularly interesting.

It's clear today that we could replace a great deal of our energy use with solar power in the next several decades if we could summon the will to do so. What is required is mostly political will, especially the political will to face down the hydrocarbon lobbies and their dim-witted accomplices. I believe that the best way to do this probably a combination of carbon taxes and solar energy subsidies.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Flat Earthers

It's essentially impossible to understand anything about the climate of Earth, Mars, and Venus without understanding the central role of CO2 as a climate regulator. Even though CO2 is only second to water vapor in its greenhouse effect, water vapor doesn't work as a climate regulator because it isn't stable. Any slight decrease in H2O decreases temperature which decreases water vapor and leads to a big freeze. If you can't understand this point, you essentially understand nothing - you are effectively as ignorant as you would be if you were convinced that the Earth was flat.

M-Dwarf Exoplanets.

Red dwarfs, or M-dwarfs, are the most common type of star as well as the smallest and dimmest main-sequence (hydrogen burning) stars. Because of their low luminosity and because many of them are fully convective and hence can burn a large fraction of their total hydrogen, they are very long lived, in many cases hundreds of times longer than our Sun. These trillion year lifetimes are much longer than the present age of the universe. Because they are so common, and because their small size makes it relatively easy to observe transits of their exoplanets, they are a favored place to look for Earthlike planets.

Such planets would have some funky properties. If they are in the habitable zone, the zone where temperatures permit liquid water to exist on planetary surfaces, they would be tidally locked to their star, keeping one face always toward it. Despite their dimness, red dwarf stars have a great deal of magnetic activity, and their titanic solar storms bombard their planets with a pretty intense flux of far UV radiation. This is likely to convert much of the CO2 in their atmospheres into oxygen and carbon monoxide.