02/10/13

Doomsday averted (again)


Asteroid 2014 DA14Seventeen thousand miles. Seems like a long way, but it’s less than one tenth the distance from here to the moon, and it’s within the satellite belt. In cosmic terms, it’s frighteningly close. Consider that the Sun is 93 million miles way, and it affects everything on this planet.*

It’s still a miss, though. Asteroid DA14 will race by Earth at 27,700 kPH, February 15. But it won’t hit us. Whew.

You might be able to see it, if you know where to look. You’ll have to be fast, though – it will move VERY quickly across the sky. And you’ll need at least binoculars – even at 13 storeys tall, it won’t be visible to the naked eye.

Wikipedia tells us this chunk of rock called 2012 DA14 is

…a near-Earth asteroid with an estimated diameter of about 45 meters (148 ft) and an estimated mass of about 130,000 metric tons

Some sites say it is 62m wide, but it probably is irregular in size, thus the difference. Even so, 45m is BIG if it hits us; big enough to wipe out a small city. The 1908 Tunguska event was caused by an object also less than 100m and it levelled several hundred square miles of forest. Were it to enter the atmosphere, it could also become an aerial blast like Tungsuka.

Space.com notes:

Asteroid 2012 DA14’s close encounter is also a record-breaking celestial event… An object this large only passes this close to the Earth about once every 40 years, and likely only hits the planet once every 1,200 years…The asteroid will not only pass between Earth and the moon’s orbit, but also fly lower than the ring of geosynchronous communications, weather and navigation satellites that fly high above the planet. Asteroid 2012 DA14 will be 5,000 miles (8,046 km) closer to Earth than those satellites during the flyby.

Pretty close. But a long way from the ISS, which orbits between 330 and 410 kms above the surface.

Read about what an asteroid is here – you’ll also get an interesting comment on challenges to some cosmological ideas about how these bodies formed. If you haven’t been following the recent announcements, several companies have declared their interest in mining these asteroids. The Edmonton Journal noted earlier this month:

It may sound more like science fiction than imminent reality, but two U.S. companies have been outlining plans to harvest asteroids for mineral wealth in what they hope will be a 21st century equivalent of gold and oil rushes.
They intend to deploy small satellites to prospect asteroids, then effectively lasso them, transporting them into Earth’s orbit to harvest precious metals and liquids.
The newest entrant to the fast-developing asteroid mining world is Deep Space Industries, which has just unveiled ambitious plans to send prospecting spacecraft in two years’ time and begin extraction by 2020.
“It is exciting to be present at the beginning of the second space age, led by commercial businesses,” David Gump, Deep Space’s chief executive, told The Sunday Telegraph.

Anyway, it’s not the apocalypse, Friday, but it is an exciting moment for science and might be a seminal moment for space commerce.

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* It isn’t a UFO from your favourite imaginary planet, sorry to spoil that for you. It’s a lifeless chunk of rock. Get over it.

02/10/13

Sound and fury, signifying nothing


Creationists, not local bloggers...There’s a truly great moment in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, when Macbeth voices his last, and perhaps most moving, soliloquy about the fleetingness of life, and the meaning of what we do on this mortal coil. Life is devoid of meaning, he says, and our days are as short as a candle’f brief flame. The ignorant march onward, regardless:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. What does that remind you of? (And I don’t mean in the local blogosphere. I’m talking about the real world.*)

It makes me think of the ongoing attempts by a group of right-wing, anti-science fundamentalists to force the teaching of mythology and superstition in US public schools instead of scientific fact. And, of course, they are always Republicans (what is it with them and creationism?) voicing that idiot’s tale.

Recently, Huffington Post reported on an attempt to both pave the way for creationism in public schools, and deny climate change science (taking responsibility for human activity’s impact on the planet is verboten among Republicans):

A Republican bill that would have paved the way for creationism to be taught in Colorado schools as well as encouraged teachers to deny the science of climate change was killed in committee on Monday, as expected.

What I have always found ironic is that the Republican fundamentalist views are eerily (and frighteningly) similar to the Taliban’s, just with a change in name for the particular Hairy Thunderer they worship. In fact, creationism is rearing its ugly head in even moderate Muslim countries like Turkey with similar arguments.

The Huffpost goes on to note that this has been a bad year for critical thinking in the USA:

…creationism legislation has been on the rise nationally in the last year, with Tennessee passing a bill similar to Kruse’s proposal, and several other states also proposing (though failing to pass) bills to teach creationism. Louisiana passed a “truth in education” bill in 2008. Earlier this year, former New Hampshire state Rep. Jerry Bergevin (R-Manchester) suggested that the teaching of evolution led to the Columbine massacre and the rise of the Nazi Party. Bergevin left office Wednesday after losing a bid for a second term. New Hampshire lawmakers overrode Gov. John Lynch’s (D) veto earlier this year of a bill that would allow parents to object to any part of the school curriculum and allow the teaching of an alternate curriculum.
A recent report found that students in Texas’ public schools are still learning that the Bible provides scientific evidence that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that astronauts have discovered “a day missing in space in elapsed time” that affirms biblical stories of the sun standing still and moving backwards, and that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical Christian principles.

So much codswallop in so few lines. Obviously Texas teachers use a different definition for “scientific evidence” than the rest of their nation. In fact, it’s different from the rest of the world. But it’s not surprising:

…according to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans believe God created humans within the last 10,000 years. Only 15 percent of Americans believed God played no part in human evolution while 32 percent believed that humans had evolved, but that God played a part in that process.

So who is the chair of the Texas Board of Ed? A creationist who worries that the schools aren’t forcing more claptrap down the throats of students. The Dallas Observer ran a story with the headline, The Texas Board of Ed Chair is Upset Schools Aren’t Teaching Evolution “Alternatives”. The article included this quote from the chair, Barbara Cargill, (a Republican, of course) made to a Senate Education Committee:

“Our intent, as far as theories with the [curriculum standards], was to teach all sides of scientific explanations … But when I went on [to the CSCOPE website] last night, I couldn’t see anything that might be seen as another side to the theory of evolution,” she says, according to TFN’s transcript and brief video clip. “Every link, every lesson, every everything, you know, was taught as ‘this is how the origin of life happened, this is what the fossil record proves,’ and all that’s fine, but that’s only one side.”

Duh! There is no other scientific explanation to evolution. Just like there isn’t a scientific alternative for gravity, the speed of light, relativity, quantum physics and chaos theory. One side? You can’t have two sides of fact. Creationism isn’t a theory: it’s a fairy tale, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

In modern science, the term “theory” refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge, in contrast to more common uses of the word “theory” that imply that something is unproven or speculative (which is better defined by the word ‘hypothesis’). Scientific theories are also distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, according to the Washington Monthly, another republican is trying to foist fantasy on students from elementary to college level. In the Riverfront Times, it notes:

Missouri Representative Rick Brattin, a Republican, has introduced a bill that would mandate schools across the state give “equal treatment” to the theory of evolution and so-called “intelligent design,” which is similar to creationism. Why? “I’m a science enthusiast,” he tells Daily RFT. “I’m a huge science buff.” He’s not, however, much of a Darwin fan.

He’s a fan of science, but not the scientists? He’s so much a science fan that he rejects one of the core tenets of biology in favour of the superstitious, pseudoscience twaddle called “intelligent” design.**

Brattin tells the paper he’s not just another creationist (really!) trying to force the state to teach his religious claptrap:

But his bill has nothing to do with religion, Brattin says. In fact — it is the opponents who are being religious in their stubborn support of evolution.

Nothing to do with religion? Snort. And calling scientists and teachers who support evolution as being “religious” is a canard. Or rather, a logical fallacy.

The good news in this depressing tale of medieval thinking comes in a small story in the Vail Daily, that noted,

Young adults have taken a dramatic leap from faith. These youthful Americans reject the religious right’s bossy, sanctimonious spirit.

Like Pontius Pilate, a third of adults under 30 have washed their hands evangelical politics.

They avoid religious affiliation whatsoever, reports the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life. Pew polls indicate these religiously unaffiliated “overwhelmingly think the religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

The religious right’s political power peaked in the 2004 presidential election.

I don’t agree with that last sentence. I seen little proof that the fundamentalists – the American Taliban – have receded. The last Back in 2002, Slate predicted the “end of creationism” as a political force:

Intelligent design, as defined by its advocates, means nothing. This is the way creationism ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Hasn’t happened yet. I see the GOP pushing more mindless religious ideologues like Paul Broun into the spotlight to spout their own ridiculously embarrassing sound and fury:

During the 2012 campaign, Broun was most notable in a video segment that went viral when he gave a presentation in front of a wall mounted with a dozen deer heads and complained that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory were all “lies from the pit of hell.” Broun is on the House Committee of Science, Space and Technology.

As of Feb. 1, four US states were considering anti-science bills to force teaching creationism in their schools (Colorado’s bill was subsequently defeated, as noted above). But the real keynote in the story is towards the end:

A June 2012 Gallup poll asked some 1,000 Americans nationwide about their thoughts on the origin of human life. The survey revealed that 46 percent of Americans believe God created human beings. Numerous creation science advocates continue to hope that the Intelligent Design theory will make its way into US public schools, though they have not been very successful so far.

With such a high percentage of people who believe in pseudoscience rather than science, it will be difficult to change the current trend towards increasing the mass stupidity. Americans clearly don’t wish to be the pioneers of science, space exploration and medicine in the future.

I think we’ve still got a long way to go before we see the end of this particular idiot’s tale. I see little to hope for in American politics when wingnuts like the anti-science child of privilege, Paul Ryan, gets nominated for vice president. Maybe the new generation of American voters will change that, but I won’t hold my breath waiting.

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* Okay, creationists are delusional and don’t really partake in the real world any more than some local bloggers. But they act on a larger stage and have real influence. Creationists join their NRA-gun-toting wingnuts as foolosophers (my comment on the fools of the gun debate is here).

** “Intelligent” design isn’t. It’s lipstick on the creationist pig (or more properly, a lab coat…). But like wearing a stethoscope around your neck won’t make anyone a doctor, calling superstition “science” won’t make it so, either.

Doonesbury cartoon