Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Jupiter's moons

Here's a puzzle for you, a recent Hubble Space Telescope photograph of Jupiter. The three black dots are the shadows of three of Jupiter's moons, in a rare triple solar eclipse: Io, Ganymede and Callisto (listed in order of their distance from the planet). Two moons are visible: Ganymede is the blue dot, and Io is the white dot just slightly above the planet's center.

Can you match shadows to moons? Where in the sky relative to the photograph would you go looking for Callisto? (Answer tomorrow.)

Although Io and Ganymede (the white and blue dots) look like they are swimming in Jupiter's clouds, they are actually well in front of the planet, Io by about 2.5 Jupiter diameters, and Ganymede by 14 diameters.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Of rocks and blood

My Musing this week is about the extraordinary fossilist Mary Anning, who helped fill in blank pages of the Earth's past. Since Anning's time, the fossil record has been vastly expanded. And now, as we enter a new century, we have a way to check the evidence of the rocks.

Every cell of our bodies remembers the eons. We share most of our DNA with other primates, and a lot of it with bugs and barnacles. Almost every week another plant or animal's genetic code is published in Science or Nature. And so far, at least, the tree of life deduced from the DNA confirms in almost every respect the story told by Mary Anning and her fossil-hunting successors.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Into the dark

In the November 18 issue of Nature, two Pakistani scientific administrators, Atta-ur-Rahman and Anwar Nasim, call for Islam to return to the tradition of "enlightened moderation" that characterized Islamic culture from the 8th to the 15th century. Six of the eight poorest nations on Earth are primarily Islamic, they say, and Islam in general is drifting toward fundamentalism and extremism.

Central to the called-for renaissance is renewed emphasis on scientific education and research, say Atta-ur-Rahman and Nasim, and they reach out to the West for cooperation and interaction. It would be wonderful to think that the United States would answer their call, but unfortunately it seems that we are moving away from "enlightened moderation" towards our own brand of anti-science fundamentalism.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Wink, wink, nudge, nudge -- Part 2

My wife asks, "What was the phony Piltdown skull?" Well, it turned out to be fragments of a human skull and an orangutan jawbone, doctored, even painted, to make them look appropriately ancient and as if they belonged together.

Who dunnit?

The obvious villain is the amateur geologist and archeologist Charles Dawson who "found" the bones.

Some people point a finger of guilt at the French Jesuit anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin, who was part of the dig. His motive, presumably, was to pull a Gallic joke on his English colleagues.

Possibly the bones were planted by Charles Chatwin, a young staff member at the British Museum of Natural History who chafed under the leadership of his deeply unpopular and dictatorial boss, Arthur Smith Woodward. His motive would have been to embarrass the pompous and gullible Woodward.

The list goes on. At least a dozen possible perpetrators have been suggested, including Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes.

Creationists never fail to use the Piltdown caper to flog evolutionists. "See how wrong scientists can be," they say. Yes, scientists can be wrong because scientists are human. Which is why there is in science a constant checking and rechecking, and a willingness to say "We were wrong" when the jig is up.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Wink, wink, nudge, nudge

On my walk across England last fall, I visited the site of the discovery of Piltdown Man, the infamous fake fossil skull that English paleontologists trumpeted as "the missing link." Although non-British scientists doubted the find from the beginning, it was decades before the fraud was definitely exposed. No one yet knows for sure who was the perpetrator.

I stopped for a pint at the local pub, formerly The Lamb. I thought you might like to see the sign. The gleaming eyeball. The mischievous smirk.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


You may have missed the story about the pod of dolphins who saved a group of New Zealand swimmers from shark attack. Apparently this behavior is not unique.

To the extent that these reports are true, they are remarkable examples of cross-species altruism by animals without previously existing alliances with humans.

Sometimes it's easy to get depressed and believe that humans are genetically destined to kill each other. As often as not the killing instinct is reinforced by religion or politics.

But in fact altruism is deeply ingrained in our biology, and apparently not only in our own species. Of course, nature and nurture play off each other both ways, but when it comes to ethics, I trust the genes more than I trust the self-appointed guardians of public morality, who include, I suppose, my blogging self.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Life, the universe and everything

In a program to be screened soon on Britain's Channel 4, the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees opines that the entire universe we know may be a simulation in the computer of a race of super beings.

Not a new idea. Douglas Adams proposed as much in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The film The Matrix had it too. In fact, the idea has been kicking around in science fiction for years.

What if we are all just characters in a game controlled by joysticks in the hands of Olympian divinities? That would explain the sex and violence. "Yahoo!" shouts Zeus, "I just leveled Fallujah!"

Monday, November 22, 2004

A response

Reader Brian takes me to task for poking fun at the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. His comments are thoughtful and well-taken. But I disagree that it is dishonest to conflate the grilled cheese story with young-Earth creationism.

If the universe is less than 10,000 years old, then everything we have learned about physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy since Galileo is wrong. Young-Earth creationism is grilled-cheese science.

I have no problem with 13-billion-year creationism. What caused the Big Bang? Some folks say, "God did it." I say, "I don't know." The two statements have exactly the same information content.

What is not in doubt is that the universe is shot through with mystery that none of us understands, and that deserves our awe and reverence.

Saturday, November 20, 2004


Cover headline on this month's Scientific American: "ARE VIRUSES ALIVE?" The answer: Uh, well, er, dunno.

A snippet of RNA or DNA in a protein coat. Dazzlingly beautiful (a model of the SARS virus at right), like invisibly small Christmas-tree ornaments. Can't reproduce without highjacking the chemical machinery of something or someone that is undeniably alive, like you or me.

Were viruses an evolutionary step on the way to life? Or are they renegade genes from living organisms? And WHERE'S MY FLU SHOT?

Have Segway, will travel

While walking down Beacon Street in Boston yesterday, a man on a Segway zipped by me. This was the first time I had seen one of these vehicles up close. I was startled at first because he had approached me from behind and glided past. There was no engine whine. No puff of choking exhaust. Just a smooth silence. He effortlessly weaved through the other pedestrians, turned the corner and sailed off down Cambridge Street. I stood agape at the corner and watched him trundle away on his two-wheeled transport. Wow. I want one.

The Segway Human Transporter was introduced with much fanfare in 2001. Almost immediately the public and the mainstream media responded to Dean Kamen's invention with derision. $4000 for just a fancy scooter? Get real.

It always rankled me that Kamen didn't get more recognition for what I think is a remarkable bit of engineering.

The Segway is self-balancing. Imagine yourself straddling a motionless bicycle; you are constantly adjusting the pedals, handlebars and your own body to keep it in balance. A Segway's computer and gyroscopes do all that for you, instantly. Once you mount a Segway, it will not allow you to fall off.

The Segway is controlled via body motion. Lean forward, it moves forward. Lean back, it switches to reverse. Corners are made by leaning from side to side. It's almost like magic.

So what? Just get a bicycle or walk, they say. It's far cheaper. That's where I believe most people are missing the point of the Segway. It's not an alternative to a bicycle. Most adults don't ride bikes anymore anyway. Nor do they walk distances further than 600 feet. What it is is an efficient and non-polluting alternative to a second car. And by that comparison, it's also cheaper.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Animate dust

"Wow, what's this?" asked a companion as we walked in the woods yesterday. The leaf litter under our feet seemed to be dusted generously with black pepper. And the pepper was hopping!

Snow fleas. Tiny insects of the springtail family, millions of them, on one of their warm-winter-day frolics. Put your hand down near them and they hop all over you. Lift you hand away from the ground and they abandon ship.

To the eye, featureless specks. I gathered some into an envelope and took them to the biology lab to have a look through a stereo microscope. Of course, they wouldn't sit still. I moistened the glue on the envelope's flap and a few snow fleas got stuck in place, wiggling furiously -- legs, antennae, segmented bodies, and the spring-loaded tails that flip them through the air.

Almost invisibly small, but assembled by their genes, atom by atom -- eyes, mouth, belly, anus, genitals, heart, brain, nervous system -- something like 10 quadrillion atoms in all (by my rough calculation), every one in its proper place.

Capitalism and Velveeta

Well the Virgin Mary Sandwich is really taking off! I performed a search on eBay hoping to find the original auction listing that's been all over the news. I was delighted to discover a copious array of Virgin Mary Sandwich-related merchandise for sale -- from t-shirts to pop art. However I think my favorite is the SuperKnife you can use to cut your Virgin Mary Sandwich!

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Science and Velveeta

By now I suppose everyone has heard about the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese that was offered earlier this week on eBay (and which inspired a rash of parodies).

It is easy to chuckle when some dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of people take this sort of thing seriously, and to feel a bit of smug superiority. But when you think that almost half of Americans believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old, it makes one wonder just what is happening to science-based thinking in America.

As Carl Sagan wrote: "Science has beauty, power, and majesty that can provide spiritual as well as practical fulfillment. But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, providing easy answers, casually pressing our awe buttons, and cheapening the experience."

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Into the wormhole

I met Max Tegmark at a book event in Harvard Square last evening. Max is an MIT astrophysicist who believes our universe is only one of an infinite number of parallel universes, some of which are like this one in almost every detail. Max gave his reasons in a May 2003 article in Scientific American which is included in the 2004 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing.

I asked Max whether there are red universes and blue universes. Absolutely, he agreed. In an infinite multifold of universes there must be one where John Kerry had a squeaky win in Ohio, or, if you are really disgruntled, there's another where Bush lost every state except Idaho.

In fact, if Tegmark's reading of the laws of physics is correct, you can pick the universe of your choice. The only trick is figuring out how to get there.

Maybe Canada is a more practical choice.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Boys must play

My path to work each morning takes me through woods and meadows in the care of my town's Natural Resources Trust. On mornings after heavy snows, such as the one we had this past weekend, the place is a paradise of silence, pristine whiteness, crisp clarity.

Or, rather, it should be. Unfortunately the snowmobilers spoil all that. They unload their machines from pickup trucks, drive them blatantly past signs that read "Snowmobiles prohibited," and proceed to churn up trails and meadows in a jag of noise and fumes.

Perhaps someone can explain to me why people who are enamored of internal combustion in natural places so often believe that the rules do not apply to them.

Monday, November 15, 2004


Massachusetts Electric is offering its customers an opportunity to buy from one of four companies that provide electricity from renewable sources -- wind, small hydro, solar and biomass. The catch: The cost is 15 to 25 percent more than fossil fuel generation.

"Put your money where your mouth is," urged my wife. We signed up.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Here we go again

A judge in Georgia will soon rule on the constitutionality of disclaimer stickers on biology textbooks stating: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

There is nothing to object to in the second part of the statement. All material in every science textbook should be approached with an open mind and critically considered, and any good science text should say as much in the preface. The objections to the stickers are that evolution is singled out and that the stickers are religiously motivated.

In the past, the courts, including the Supreme Court, have been bulwarks against the intrusion of religion into public school science curricula. It remains to be seen how long this will last.

By the way, as a humorous side to the issue, have you heard of Project Steve?

Friday, November 12, 2004

Alone in a sea of company

As I walked from my office to the college library this morning, a distance of about thirty yards, I passed six students. Every one was talking on a cellphone.

It occurred to me that the space I was walking through -- indeed, even the cavities of my body -- were aquiver with electromagnetic oscillations, the unheard conversations of these six students and hundreds, thousands more.

We live in a sea of chat, an ether tremulous with ghostly voices, gigahertz radio waves bearing in their modulations the words and thoughts of people who might live anywhere on the planet.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Looking for the aurora -- cont.

The aurora is caused by high energy electrons and protons hurled from the Sun by magnetic storms on its surface. Several days later, this wind of particles slams into the Earth's magnetic field, drawing it out into a long tail that points away from the Sun. The magnetic field in turn snares electrons from the solar wind and pumps them inwards along lines of magnetic influence. Down they dive, near the poles of the Earth, smashing into the rarefied air of the upper atmosphere, causing the atoms of the atmosphere to glow like the gas in a neon tube. On almost any clear, dark night near the Arctic and Antarctic Circles the lights might be seen. Only occasionally, during particularly violent solar storms, does the aurora push down into temperate latitudes.

Looking for the aurora -- cont.

Take a look at this gallery of aurora photographs caused by the most recent solar activity, available at SpaceWeather.com.

Activity has ebbed for the moment but may pick up again in the next two days.

Looking for the aurora

I was just out looking for the aurora. No luck. But here is an image of a solar storm from the TRACE satellite. These are the storms that hurl the particles into space that cause the aurora. The planet Earth would fit comfortably within one of these loops.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Keep looking up!

The heavenly treats keep on coming... The NOAA has issued an alert on a series of solar flares which may result in spectacular auroras here on Earth. In fact, reader Daniel reports viewing the Aurora Borealis right here in Massachusetts last night!

You can determine whether you'll have favorable conditions to view the Northern Lights by consulting this page provided by the Space Environment Center. Find the minimum Kp index for your magnetic latitude, then compare to the current estimated index. If the forecast looks favorable, get out into the cold November air and take a peek!

Bones of contention?

You have no doubt been hearing about the "hobbit" human whose bones were recently discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia. (I will be writing about it at length in my next Musing.) This close human relative apparently survived alongside our own species until very recent times, about 12,000 years ago.

I have been struck by how little caution is expressed by the popular media. It's as if the interpretation of the bones offered by their discoverers is a done deal.

Not so. Controversies among scientists have already begun. One skull and a scattering of bones does not a new species make.

If the discovery is confirmed by further findings, it will indeed be a stunning new chapter in the story of human origins. For the time being, take what you read (in my Musing too) with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Evidence-based reality

According to the pundits, the recent American election was decided on the issue of values -- "God, guns, and gays." Where is the scientific data that would show us the superiority of red state values?

We know, for example, that the divorce rate is highest in Bible Belt states and lowest in Massachusetts, which says something, I suppose, about the "sanctity of marriage." (Born-again Christians divorce just as often as the rest of us.) The teen pregnancy rate also tends to be higher in red states than blue states. The abortion rate is the same in Texas and Massachusetts. And so on.

Meanwhile, those of us who try to live in evidence-based reality recognize the colossal disparity in health, wealth and education between the U. S. and the developing world. Surely if we want to talk about values we should address the fact that America, the richest nation in the world, contributes less to alleviating world hunger, ignorance and disease than any other developed nation, a mere 0.2 percent of our GNP, less than a third of what donor nations promised at the Monterrey Consensus of 2002.

Monday, November 08, 2004

A reminder

Don't forget to watch for the thin crescent Moon near Venus and Jupiter on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. Looking at the sky maps below (the size of the Moon is exaggerated), you might ask: Does the Moon cover the planets as it goes by? The answer is yes. These relatively rare events are called occultations. Unfortunately, the Moon occults Jupiter during daylight hours in the U. S., and occults Venus only for observers in the southwest Pacific, also in daylight.

But not to worry. Next month when the Moon comes this way it will occult Jupiter for observers in the eastern U. S. in the pre-dawn hours, well worth getting up for between 4 and 5 A.M. We'll remind you when the time comes.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Conjunction Junction -- cont.

The dance in the dawn sky continues. On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings the waning crescent Moon will be near Venus and Jupiter, eyelash thin. The views at right are about an hour before sunrise. That's the star Spica in Virgo closer to the horizon, and Mars is rising just behind, maybe lost in the dawn light.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Conjunction Junction

Clear skies here in New England the last two mornings and excellent views of Venus and Jupiter. Some nice photographs of the conjunction are available from English astrophotographer Pete Lawrence. Venus is the brighter of the pair. Notice in the closeups that you can make out Jupiter's four largest moons. Neat!


Last night I watched again, for the first time since the late-1950s, Robert Bresson's classic film, The Diary of a Country Priest, based on Georges Bernanos' novel of the same name.

The story is that of a young priest who arrives at his first parish in rural France filled with naive idealism, spiritual longing,and a good bit of repressed sexuality. He lives in a world haunted by God and demons.

Spurned by his parishioners, unable to pray, his stomach ravaged by cancer, the young priest drifts inexorably towards death. His last words are: "Does it matter? Grace is everywhere..."

Both film and book made a great impression on me the first time around. I was then a young graduate student in physics, deeply religious, struggling to find my way between faith-based reality and evidence-based reality.

After some years of searching (and no small amount of stomach pain), I chose evidence over faith. Does it matter? Oh yes. I have lived the latter part of my life without God or demons, but I am still willing to say with the country priest, "Grace is everywhere."

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Red and blue America

"Was Darwin Wrong?" asks National Geographic boldly on the cover of the November issue.

National Geographic is as quintessentially American as mom and apple pie. There was a time when the yellow-edged magazine might be found in school rooms, doctors' offices, and homes across the heartland. It stood for curiosity, cultural diversity, and global vision.

And how does the magazine answer the question posed on its cover? With a resounding "NO" in letters two inches high. The evidence for evolution by natural selection is "overwhelming," says National Geographic, and shows us why in concise and convincing words and pictures.

Yet Gallup pollsters tell us that nearly half of Americans believe the Earth and its myriad species were created pretty much as we find them sometime within the past 10,000 years. Only 12% of Americans believe evolution can account for the diversity of life without divine intervention.

Perhaps never in its 116-year history has there been such a disconnect between the venerable magazine and its readers.

I'd wager that the answers to no other question posed by Gallup would more perfectly correlate with red/blue politics than the one about evolution. What is at work here are two ways of knowing: faith versus empiricism, authority versus curiosity, scriptures versus nature.

Jan LaRue, chief counsel for the conservative group Concerned Women for America, says of the recent election: "The real issue at play is whether there is absolute truth or there isn't. That's the dividing line in America."

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

A reminder

If you have clear skies Thursday or Friday morning, don't foget to step outside at dawn to view the spectacular conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the eastern sky.

(The sky map at right, and elsewhere in our blog, is generated using the marvelous sky simulation software Starry Night.)

The big lie

Let me offer some techno advice to whoever is the next president of the United States.

While we spend hundreds of billions of dollars stirring up a hornet's nest of hatred in Iraq, Al Qaeda is quietly preparing a "dirty" bomb for delivery to a U. S. port by container ship. The bomb will consist of a container full of conventional explosives, liberally salted with non-weapons-grade uranium and/or plutonium acquired from North Korea, Iran, or, most likely, the former U.S.S.R. Not a mushroom cloud, but our very own Chernobyl.

This is called "Making America Safer."

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Birds got socks

And speaking of China, lately it seem as if all the great fossil finds are coming from there. Within recent weeks, Chinese paleontologists have given us an Early Cretaceous bird embryo, curled up in an oval the size of a robin's egg, each tiny rib in place, and -- more spectacular -- an Early Cretaceaous bird with feathers on its legs. Did dinosaurs evolve feathers as a body covering before discovering their advantage for flight?

Monday, November 01, 2004

A fierce green fire

I'm a bit late posting the Musing this week. I have been in Corvallis, Oregon for a gathering on Nature and the Sacred.

I was particularly honored to be part (as a reader of selections from my books) of a musical program with the Oregon State University Chamber Choir and Chamber Orchestra performing Daniel Pinkham's In the Beginning, Joseph Haydn's The Creation, and a premiere performance of Michael Coolen's In the Beginning. Hubble space photos too, projected onto a giant screen over the stage.

It was a hope-reaffirming weekend. Artists, musicians, writers, political and ecological activists, teachers, homemakers, people from all walks of life working quietly and effectively to make this planet a better place.