Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Privatize the Hubble?!

Dennis E. Powell suggests this in National Review Online today. The concept of putting together a private foundation to fund HST (Hubble Space Telescope) operations is interesting in principle, and I believe that the Keck Observatory in Hawaii is private, funded with oil money.

But Powell's prescription has a serious flaw:

The U.S. government could sign over the pink slip on Hubble to the foundation, which would then set about the task of raising money to keep it aloft. How? Donations certainly would figure in: a few bucks from private individuals, perhaps some corporate money. While the majority of the telescope's images could continue to be freely available to everyone, there could be user fees charged to those for whom particular pictures are taken, as, say, part of a research project. Grants have been written for far-less-worthy projects.


First of all, I think he misunderstands that, with the exception of calibration work, all of the images taken by the Hubble are done as part of research projects. There are a few collaborations, such as the Hubble Deep Field projects, which release the raw data almost immediately. But all of the rest of Hubble's observations are proprietary for 12 months (occasionally for other lengths of time).

Secondly, and more importantly, the idea of charging user fees would not work well at all. The reason is that when an astronomer has his HST observing proposal accepted by the Space Telescope Science Institute (which operates HST), Space Telescope pays him a research grant to analyze his data. There is no (or there would be extremely little) grant money out there that could be used for paying Space Telescope to use HST; rather, the grant money flows the other way.

All of the other observatories, whether they are space-based (like HST or Chandra) or ground-based (like the Keck or Gemini) work the same way. If they let you use the telescope, they pay you to analyze the data.

This is generally your year's salary, sometimes multiple years' salary. A number of astrophysicists (including a lot of "contractors" at NASA) are paid by nothing else but what their observing proposals bring in for them. For others who are professors (ahem!), they're paid to teach, so any any time they spend on research must again come out of grant money, which is paid by the observatories. A large research university might have some amount of start-up money to fund a professor's research until he can get a grant, but that's limited. For those who work for NASA itself (which might even be a minority at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, where I recently worked), with civil service jobs, charging user fees to them means it comes straight out of the government's pocket, anyway. And for those of us contractors who were pure researchers funded by agencies like the National Research Council and others, well again, the user fees are usually going to come out of the government's pocket. No savings to the taxpayer.

The idea of more private money going into astrophysics is one I'd like to see happen, but it would have to be set up to pay the astrophysicists, rather than to charge them.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

New Theory on Egyptian Pyramid

The pyramids are incredible structures built many thousands of years ago in Egypt. Theories on how/why they were built range from aliens, as large tombs for the pharoah (allowing the spirit to travel through the sky), to the Top 10 List, to the new theory, burial mounds surrounded by walls.

The pyramids may have developed from building walls around the burial mounds of pharaohs.

Guenter Dreyer, director of the German Archaeological Institute
in Cairo, said he based his theory on similarities between Egypt's
first pyramid, built at Saqqara south of Cairo for the Pharaoh Zozer
in about 2650 BC, and the structure of the tomb of one of his
immediate predecessors.

The earliest pyramid, the Saqqara pyramid built by Zozer, (also known as the Step Pyramid) actually began as a flat mound about 25 feet high built over the burial chamber of the pharaoh. But the predecessor of Zozer, Khasekhemwy, actually had a burial mound in the center of his complex, and surrounded it by a wall. In fact, it's thought that Zozer just married the two, providing a wall touching the burial mound. This of course would hide the mound, which introduced doubt that the king could ascend. In order to rectify the situation, a smaller mound would be placed on top of the burial mound, and a wall around it, etc creating the Step Pyramid look that Saqqara has today. Dreyer considers it the intermediary step (no pun intended) between the mastabas (burial mounds) and the classical pyramids.

For more information on Egyptian pyramids, try this national geographic site.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

No "stupid" conservatives on Duke faculty

I almost cannot believe this. Yes, this conforms to the worst stereotypes of leftist academics, and it's exactly what we conservative professors worry about, but I always thought that these depictions were at least slightly exaggerated.

No more. Duke's conservative paper, The Chronicle, has published a list of the political affiliation of many professors in humanities departments. Not surprisingly, it was heavily skewed towards the Democrats, with some departments having no Republicans at all. I'm not shocked about that.

What does shock me is the defense offered by some of Duke's department chairmen. They range from the naive-sounding:

"My sense is that a University community represents all opinions, and somehow just your party affiliation seems a very odd way of sampling it," said Maureen Quilligan, chair of the English department, noting that she has never received any complaints of professors' bias in her department. "Besides, there are many differences within Republicans and within Democrats, and Republicans certainly are not the only conservatives."


To the mealy-mouthed, bringing up irrelevant or misleading "facts":

John Thompson, chair of the history department, similarly questioned DCU's usage of party registrations to make their point. "The interesting thing about the United States is that the political spectrum is very narrow," he said, noting that other countries, such as Canada, represent a much broader sampling of political leanings. As such, he said, the question of political affiliation in the United States becomes relatively trivial.


To (pay attention to this one!) the asinine:

"We try to hire the best, smartest people available," [Robert] Brandon [chairman of the philosophy department] said of his philosophy hires. "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.

"Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too."


And there was at least one chairman who recognized that these attitudes, if they were widespread, could be a problem:

"In at least one case, a department chair has said they thought the function of Duke was to rid conservative students of their hypocrisies," [Michael] Munger [chairman of the political science department] said. "If that attitude were widespread, then yes, we would need to hire more conservatives." Munger noted, however, that he did not believe the attitude to be widespread.


Note that line about ridding conservatives of their hypocricies. That pretty closely matches a comment made by a student writing for my alma mater's (Rhodes') student paper a decade ago. She wrote that the purpose of a liberal arts education was to challenge students' beliefs and attitudes.

Oh, really? To challenge their beliefs about the Riemann zeta function? Their preconceived notions about the construct state of the Hebrew verb? Their attitudes towards the Lagrangian & Hamiltonian approaches to classical mechanics? Their prejudices concerning the Northern Renaissance use of scale in painting to indicate importance rather than perspective? And perhaps their hypocrisies in regards to the relationship of Babylonian gods to natural laws in the Enuma Elish. ...And let's not forget that Duke's liberal students are free of any hypocrisies, having been reared in splendid isolation by Tibetan monks for their first seventeen years.

What utter nonsense.

(Link via Southern Appeal)

Monday, February 09, 2004

Great News

I know I've been away from blogging for a while, and I apologize. I just wanted to give you the great news, I'm getting married Feb 21, 2004. :) We finally set a date, and we've chosen a lovely place in the foothills of the mountains for an outdoor wedding. It will be a really small wedding, with just our parents there, but we will have a larger one in a year or two for all our friends and family. I'm so excited, I'm getting married!

Thursday, February 05, 2004

More e-mail from Sept. 11, 2001

And here's a follow-up to that earlier one:



Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 11:48:09 -0400
[...]
Subject: Class Cancellation

Dear All:

We just received notification that the Chancellor is suspending all normal
operations of the University, including classes. Please inform your faculty
of this decision and close down your classes in an orderly fashion. Please
post an appropriate cancellation notice on classrooms in your
building/vicinity.

University personnel will continue to serve the needs of students remaining
on campus.

Please listen to local media for further information on the status of
tomorrow's classes.

NJC

N. John Cooper
Dean of the Faculty and College of Arts and Sciences
University of Pittsburgh



More e-mail from Sept. 11, 2001

And here's a follow-up to that earlier one:



Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 11:48:09 -0400
[...]
Subject: Class Cancellation

Dear All:

We just received notification that the Chancellor is suspending all normal
operations of the University, including classes. Please inform your faculty
of this decision and close down your classes in an orderly fashion. Please
post an appropriate cancellation notice on classrooms in your
building/vicinity.

University personnel will continue to serve the needs of students remaining
on campus.

Please listen to local media for further information on the status of
tomorrow's classes.

NJC

N. John Cooper
Dean of the Faculty and College of Arts and Sciences
University of Pittsburgh



E-mails from September 10th

I'm in the midst of cleaning out my computer's in-box and saving the e-mails to free up space. I have gotten down to 2001.

It is interesting to take a look at what e-mails were coming and going on September 10th, 2001. There is such a complete and utter obliviousness to the disaster that's about to occur that it gives me an odd feeling looking at them now. I was about to say that there was a "cheerful" obliviousness to them, but in fact, that's not really the case. After all, we didn't know just how good things were that day compared to the next, and so we were content to be annoyed with trivialities and the minor things that bug us in normal life.

Going through the messages from Sept. 11 itself, I thought the following message was interesting. I was just finishing grad school at this point, to give you the context.



Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 11:08:42 -0400
[...]
Subject: Classes Under Current Security Conditions

Dear All:

We have received several calls about whether classes can or should be
cancelled under the currently existing extraordinary national security
conditions.

Until we receive instructions from the Chancellor I assume that classes
will continue, but faculty should exercise commonsense if they or their
students are under particular stress (e.g. relatives in affected cities or
in the military).

NJC

N. John Cooper
Dean of the Faculty and College of Arts and Sciences
University of Pittsburgh
Phone: 412-[...]
FAX: 412-[...]

STAYED TUNED, THIS COULD CHANGE.


Later Jewish countries

David Bernstein over at the Volokh Conspiracy has a really interesting post on sovereign Jewish states after the failed revolt against Roman rule in Judea in 135 AD.

He lists four examples before the modern state of Israel. I'm always fascinated by these details of history, and most of these examples, I dare say, aren't well known.

What would the Massachussetts Supreme Court do...

The Mass. Supreme Court has just issued an advisory opinion that for the legislature to create "civil unions" will not satisfy the court's demand that it authorize marriages for same-sex couples.

So...I wonder...what would the court do if the legislature failed to act on this commandment? I'm no lawyer, but would it be possible for the US Supreme Court to order the Congress to pass a law? That seems to me to be outside its jurisdiction. And I know that many states do not have the exact same checks and balances amongst their branches that the Federal Government does. But could the Mass. Supreme Court do anything if the state legislature sits on its hands?

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

More book quotes: empire, adventure, and archaeology

In the mood for quotes from literature and books right now. There's a great nonfiction book I picked up at a used bookstore a while back, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland: being a record of exploration and excavation in 1891, J. Theodore Bent, F.S.A., F.R.G.S.

It's the story of the first scientific expedition to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, by the archaeologist who led the team. It's great as a book of archaeology and even more as a travelogue (sp?). The descriptions of passing out from the Cape Colony and the last remnants of Western civilization into the wild and sparsely explored lands of what are now Zimbabwe are fascinating, as well as the insight they give into the way the British Empire spread in this area (by trade agreements, it seems).

Near the end, Bent undertakes an embassy to the chief 'Mtoko from the "Chartered Company" (the South Africa Company, I think?). I'll let his introductory paragraphs to Chapter X speak for themselves:

There is always a charm to us connected with the investigation of a country the name of which conveys nothing to anybody, and which is a blank on the map. This I think was one of the chief incentives to us to accept the diplomatic post of presenting a gift of forty pounds' worth of goods from the Chartered Company to the Chief 'Mtoko.

We gathered that 'Mtoko was a powerful chief, dreaded by the natives, whose country lay about 120 miles to the north-east of Fort Salisbury; that he ruled over a large and almost unknown district reaching on the west to the territories under the influence of the Portuguese satellite Gouveia; and that his father, who had lately died, had entered into a treaty with the Chartered Company which gave them paramount influence, but that the present chief and his subjects, who were reported to have customs of an exceedingly primitive order, had as yet had no official dealings with the Company. This was about all the information we could gather.

The following is an exact copy of my credentials:--


To the Chief Matoko

The British South Africa Company, Salisbury.
September 21, 1891.

My Friend, -- Mr. Selous has told Mr. Rhodes, the Big Induna of all white men in this country, all about you, and he has sent his friend Mr. Bent to see you and your people, and to give you some presents from him; and also to tell you that you are now under the Great White Queen, and that the Portuguese will not trouble you any more.

You and your people will now live in peace and security.

I am, you Friend,
F. Rutherford Harris,
Secretary.




Wow...this is the kind of thing I would have expected to find in Conrad, say.

Dostoyevsky on civilization and God

I'm working my way through Dostoyevsky's The Demons (slowly...very slowly), thanks to a suggestion from The Rat several months back. A great exchange therein, beginning with an impassioned rant by an atheist, socialist, radical, etc.:

[...] Man now is not the right man. There will be a new man, happy and proud. He for whom it will make no difference whether he lives or does not live, he will be the new man. He who overcomes pain and fear will himself be God. And this God will not be.

So this God exists, in your opinion?

He doesn't, yet he does. [...] He who overcomes pain and fear will himself become God. Then there will be a new life, a new man, everything new... Then history will be divided into two parts: from the gorilla to the destruction of God, and from the destruction of God to...

To the gorilla?

--The Demons, p. 115 (Everyman's Library edition)

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Possible ricin attack on Senate office

The AP is reporting that an envelope in Sen. Frist's office showed traces of ricin. Ricin is a deadly poison, "twice as deadly as cobra venom." I remember a few stories on al-Qaeda and ricin development back last year, and didn't David Kay say that Hussein had a ricin production project that could have been activated easily enough?

For that matter, I'm remembering something vaguely about (thwarted??) ricin attacks in Europe a year or so ago. Darn, I can't remember enough of the details to fill in here, but this is serious.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Obscure license plate

I saw this vanity plate when I was in Pittsburgh recently,

S1S2U3

(wait...I might have the S's and U's switched...). Anyway, this has got to get an award for most obscure license plate. It's the group-theory representation for one approach to a Grand Unified Theory of physics. The notation is really S1 x S2 x U3.

I remember seeing this in a graduate physics class at Pitt, and whoever was in the car in front of me had to be a professor at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon, but I couldn't see his face. Heh, heh...