Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Links on Meg Urry and Women in Astronomy

National Review today has an article by Christina Hoff Sommers on Harvard, the Larry Summers issue, and the broader context of women in science. In it, Sommers mentions a friend of mine, Meg Urry, who is a Yale astrophysicist and active with CSWA, the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. One paragraph deals with her comments on the subject to CNN in 1993. I've been looking and am unable to find a transcript of the original interview, but there is slightly more context here. (Third item from the bottom.)

The latest American Astronomical Society newsletter has recommendations from CSWA on the recruitment, retention, and promotion of women in astronomy. I might post that later. I'm curious if any of it was added or changed after Larry Summers' comments became public.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Top Spy on Spy Novels

James Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence, is interviewed on his taste in spy novels. He gives some interesting recommendations, mostly famous ones that I've never read. Link via John Miller at The Corner.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Spoken Latin at National Review Dot Com

In the March 8th edition of Derb Radio at National Review Dot Com, John Derbyshire ends his show with a quote from a very famous oration of Cicero against Catalina. I will not feign a hypothesis about why he does this, but this is the quote, along with my attempt at a translation.

"O tempora, o mores! Senatus haec intellegit. consul videt; hic tamen vivit. Vivit? immo vero etiam in senatum venit, fit publici consilii particeps, notat et designat oculis ad caedem unum quemque nostrum."

"O seasons, O morals! The senate understands these things. The consul sees; yet this man lives. He lives? Indeed he comes even into the senate, he becomes a sharer of the public council, he notes and designates with his eyes each and every one of us for murder."

Readers of this blog may have noted also that this is not the only Latin quote that Derb used in his show. Earlier in the same show he used a much more obscure quote from Sir Isaac Newton's Principia, "Hypotheses non fingo."

Friday, March 11, 2005

A Paramecium of Mars

OK, I was trying to do a spoof of Edgar Rice Burrough's A Princess of Mars, but maybe that flopped. Regardless, Russell Seitz has a well-written discussion of the recent evidence for life on Mars, in today's Opinion Journal. (Free registration might be required...)

Two discoveries point us in this direction--the finding of methane and formaldehyde. From what I understand, there are two prime sources of methane: volcanism and life. Seitz discounts the former, but let's not be too hasty. Mars has plenty of volcanos, but until the past few months, we've only found ones that seemed to be long extinct. Mars and Earth were both formed about the same time with hot, radioactive cores, but while Earth still has hers--and thus has active volcanos erupting under the core's pressure--Mars is thought to have long cooled off. The reason is that Mars is smaller than Earth, so the ratio of its surface area to its mass is larger, and it can radiate away its internal heat more quickly.

However, the European Space Agency probe Mars Express has found evidence of more recent volcanism.

Although we can get some age estimates for these volcanos and cinder cones, we still don't know how active they are today. Do they produce enough methane to explain all that we see?

Methane breaks down in the presence of oxygen and ultraviolet light, so its presence in the Martian atmosphere indicates an ongoing replenishment. This might come from volcanic outgassing and eruptions. In fact, it is really incredible that Mars seems still to be geologically active. It's not the dead planet we had thought.

Now, what does this mean for life? Even if there are geologically active sites on Mars, and even if they did produce methane (which we don't know yet), this is still evidence that life could exist on Mars. Life needs an energy source, and we have long suspected that any life on Mars might be hidden under the surface, down in crevices on the rocks, protected from the cold Martian air. Down in the rocks, they would be warmer and possibly be surrounded by water--necessary for the kind of life we are used to. Now that we know Mars' interior is able to support volcanos, we might conclude that it is warmer even than we had thought. Warm enough to keep underground reservoirs of water? Maybe. We do see evidence for recent flash floods on the surface. And this is good news for the search for life.

Or, maybe the methane comes right out of the organisms themselves...

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Reality-Based Communities

Jonah Goldberg has a good discussion today of NY Times reporter Ron Suskind's infamous article describing liberals as part of the "Reality-Based Community." When I first heard of Suskind's article, I had assumed that "reality-based" was intended in opposition to "faith-based," and thus was a slam against those of us on the religious Right. When I read more, I found that the phrase was from a Bush aide, who put "reality" in opposition to the idea of transforming reality. It was actually a criticism of the Left. Now, the Left has proudly taken up this label, perhaps mistaking the aide's intent as I first did.

Goldberg goes into a good discussion of how the Left suffers from a failure of imagination in foreign policy. By being "reality-based," they assume the present reality will continue indefinitely. They are conservative, in a limited way. Meanwhile, the right has, for the most part (there are exceptions among the more isolationist), agreed that we need to transform the current state of the Middle East.

This brings to my mind President Kennedy's speech in which he said, "Some see things as they are and ask, 'Why?' I see things as they could be and ask, 'Why not?'" (I paraphrase here, from memory.)

Isn't this exactly the description of President Bush and his opponents in foreign policy?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Terrorist Threat Level Bert

Today's Terrorist Threat Alert Level is...

Terror Alert Level

As I write this, we're at level "Bert." Thank goodness we're not at level "Evil Bert"!

Link via Zacht Ei.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Fun with Starry Night

Fun with Starry Night

After years of using the free software package XEphem, I finally broke down and bought some commercial planetarium software that runs natively on my Mac OS X.3 without having to start Xwindows. I bought the cheapest version of Starry Night I could find: Starry Night Complete Space & Astronomy Pack, or Starry Night CSAP.

Certainly the graphics are stunning to anyone used to XEphem. Equally stunning, unfortunately was the lack of documentation of the features that would make it a competitor with XEphem. Not that the features don't exist, they do, but they are not always documented.

Learning to use Starry Night was a little like playing Myst; it was a game of solving a puzzle. Now I'm not talking about the basic features here; those are covered quite adequately by the quick start up sheet and the built in tutorial. I'm talking about features that might interest an Astronomy graduate. They are there, but you have to figure them out for yourself. I couldn't even find these on google.

So in the interest of helping out future Starry Night newbies who look to google in their frustration, I thought it might be a good idea to list the effects of pressing a key while your cursor is in the sky. Some of these keystrokes are handy short cuts; some of them have functions that I do not know how to duplicate in the sky guide panel or the application menu; none of them are documented, as far as I can tell. So without further ado, here is my attempt at documentation:

i -- Toggle the Heads Up Display (HUD). The HUD is a (sometimes annoying) label that follows your mouse cursor around telling you what it's pointed at. If you toggle it off with the I key, you can still get that information to display, but only for as long as you hold down the control key. I love this feature! Pressing I again causes the default behavior to resume.

f -- Toggle the ecliptic. If it's not displayed, cause it to be marked as a green line in the sky. If it is displayed, cause that green line to go away.

g -- Causes a grid to be displayed of the celestial coordinates.

b -- Toggle the display of the horizon. Pressing b causes the horizon to disappear, effectively making the Earth invisible and giving you an unobstructed view of the entire celestial sphere. Pressing b returns you to the normal earthling view of the sky.

c -- Toggle the highlighting of clusters.

+ -- Zoom in.

- -- Zoom out.

n, s, e, w -- Point the sky panel to the north, south, east or west.

z -- Point the sky panel to the zenith.

y -- Increment the Time and Date by one year; holding down the shift key while typing Y causes the year to decrement.

m -- Increment the month; M causes the month to decrement.

d or D -- Increment or decrement the day by one.

h or H -- Increment or decrement the hour.

t or T -- Increment or decrement the minute.

tab -- jump to the next sunset or sunrise. Shift-tab takes you to the previous one.

r -- sets the time to "now"

p -- Increase the time flow rate. Shift-p causes the time flow rate to decrease.

k -- Toggles the labeling of constellations in the sky.

L -- Toggles the labeling of objects in the sky.

The other keys do nothing as far as I can tell (but I might not be able to tell very far).

One feature that I hope exists but have not yet found: I'd like to be able to find the Bayer names as well as the common names of the brightest stars. Currently, each star shows only one name in the HUD, regardless of how many it may actually have.

Despite these documentation issues, I have been really impressed with Starry Night: CSAP. Especially fun has been the tracking of satellites in the sky. This was a feature of Starry Night I was not expecting; it was a real joy to discover.