Showing posts from August, 2014

Stellar Atmospheres FOTD

The light we receive from the stars originates in the stellar atmosphere - the outer regions of the star. The stellar atmosphere is usually measured in terms of optical depth, where: Optical depth is defined as the negative natural logarithm of the fraction of radiation (e.g., light) that is not scattered or absorbed on a path....... Wikipedia . Typically the stellar atmosphere is considered to extend to optical depths of roughly 100-1000, but most of the star's light comes from an optical depth of about 2/3. Stellar atmospheres are very tenuous at those depths, with densities 5 orders of magnitude or so less than the density of Earth's atmosphere at the surface.

After Tamerlane: Book Review

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 is John Darwin's account of how a somewhat backward fringe of Eurasian civilization came to dominate the world with global empires and how those empires collapsed. This is big picture history. Those colorful characters who do so much to give human scale and character to history are hardly present, because Darwin is far more interested in global features. It's a major loss, from my point of view. On the positive side, his mile high view of history makes clear a lot of trends and large scale phenomena that might remain obscured in a finer grained (and more human) history. I was especially interested in two central themes - the notion that European predominance was essentially accidental and the degree to which events, once underway, have their own momentum, beyond the control of any of the actors. Europe in the Fifteenth Century knew that it was on the outskirts of civilization, and so did the rest of the world


If the Nineteenth Century was dominated by the increasing scope and power of Europe's colonial system, The Twentieth saw the destruction of the same. Decolonization is often equated with the end of colonial rule, but this is much too narrow. It is far more useful to think of it as the demolition of a Europe-centred imperial order in which territorial empire was interlocked with extraterritorial ‘rights’. The bases, enclaves, garrisons, gunboats, treaty ports and unequal treaties (as in Egypt or China) that littered the Afro-Asian world were as much the expression of this European imperialism as were the colonies and protectorates coloured red, blue, yellow or green on the old imperial maps. So was the assumption that intervention was justified by the general failure of non-European states to reach the civilizational standard that European visitors were entitled to expect. This imperial ‘order’ imagined a cultural hierarchy in which the progressive capabilities of North West Europe

Putin's Plan?

If the First World War should teach us anything, it's that blundering your way into war is easy, but getting out is not. Of course there are lots more examples in the intervening century. The real question in Ukraine now is whether Putin has nay idea of what he is doing. Does he have a rational plan, or is he just upping the stakes because he doesn't know how to extract himself? From Anna Nemtsova, in Moscow: MOSCOW, Russia – Where U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have failed to make Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledge his ever-more-overt invasion of Ukraine and think about pulling back, Valentina Melnikova, the head of Russia’s famous Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, might just have a chance. Early Thursday morning, Melnikova started getting phone calls from Russian army bosses. All of them, from the deputy defense minister to the paratrooper division commanders, wanted to meet with the great matriarch of the Russian military. She ha

The Martian Chronicles: A Book Report

I was an SF fan in my youth, but somehow I don't remember reading Ray Bradbury's rather famous collection of linked short stories. I finished them with mixed feelings. It's a mostly dystopian fantasy book, set, more or less, on Percival Lowell's Mars, a Mars of canals and deserts, populated by an ancient race and mostly stereotypical human invaders. For me, they are mixed in quality. He has a real poetic gift for creation of a numinous place. The places, though, are mostly peopled with stick figures, and the villains are routinely doltish and boring. He can, however, write a helluva preface. A fragment: All right, then, what is Chronicles? It is King Tut out of the tomb when I was three, Norse Eddas when I was six, and Roman/ Greek gods that romanced me when I was ten: pure myth. If it had been practical technologically efficient science fiction, it would have long since fallen to rust by the road. But since it is a self-separating fable, even the most deeply

In 1914, John McCain was Running Germany

Or somebody like him. Achilles heel of Europe’s global primacy was the underdevelopment of the European states system. It was Europe’s sudden expansion on its Balkan doorstep, the brittle structure of its multinational empires, and the chaotic politics of its smallest states that turned a political murder into a general war. The European balance of power was unable to cope with the final collapse of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. To a shrewd insider just before the war, it seemed obvious enough that international peace must depend on the judgement and skill of statesmen and diplomats. Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 373). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Holy Hologram, Batman

Fermilab Press Release: A unique experiment at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory called the Holometer has started collecting data that will answer some mind-bending questions about our universe – including whether we live in a hologram. Much like characters on a television show would not know that their seemingly 3-D world exists only on a 2-D screen, we could be clueless that our 3-D space is just an illusion. The information about everything in our universe could actually be encoded in tiny packets in two dimensions. Get close enough to your TV screen and you’ll see pixels, small points of data that make a seamless image if you stand back. Scientists think that the universe’s information may be contained in the same way and that the natural “pixel size” of space is roughly 10 trillion trillion times smaller than an atom, a distance that physicists refer to as the Planck scale. “We want to find out whether space-time is a quantum system just l


Cogito, ergo sum...............Descartes Introspection, or examination of one's own thoughts, has been a central focus of art, psychology, and philosophy. It's a primary element of consciousness. What's up with that? Long time readers, if any, may guess that when I ask a question like that I'm probably looking for a Darwinian answer - what, I mean, is the evolutionary function of introspection? Any complex system that moves needs to have some information about its environment and its internal state, and especially of self and non-self. So far as I know, snakes don't actually make the mistake of swallowing their own tails. In a social species, it makes a lot of sense to have some capability for understanding the thoughts of others, and understanding one's own thoughts provides a useful template. When one's safety depends on successful inhibition of certain instincts, it makes sense to have a watchdog paying attention to instinctive and other response

Prelude to the Collapse of the Colonial Empires

The wolves of European colonialism mainly managed to avoid general war among themselves while extending their empires over the rest of the world. By 1900, they were running out of other peoples' land to steal or otherwise colonize. So they turned, once again, on each other. The most vital prop of Europe’s primacy in Eurasia, and of the powerful position of the great European states in the Outer World beyond, had been their collective determination not to fight each other. It had been this and the Atlantic peace between Europe and the Americas that had allowed the rapid growth of international trade, the steady extension of European influence and authority, and the ironic achievement of the African partition. The reluctance of European governments to upset their continental balance of power and risk the social and political upheaval that a general war would bring had restrained their pursuit of national and imperial advantage. Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 370).

Generic Liberalism

After the calamitous wars of late Eighteenth Century the five major powers of Europe, Britain, France, Germany Prussia, Austria and Russia reached a sort of accord in the Treaty of Final Act of the Congress of Vienna of 1815. They would cooperate to prevent future continental wars and not have their foreign trade interfered with. Moreover, after 1815, a creeping generic liberalism spread over the continent. Naturally the treaty was not completely successful, and wars continued, but not on the scale of the religious, dynastic and Napoleonic wars of earlier times. Nor was the advance of liberalism especially rapid or steady. So what were the tenets of this mid-Nineteenth century liberalism. According to Constant: Modern societies, he suggested, were too complex to be ruled politically after the fashion of an ancient city state – the model to which many earlier writers (including Rousseau) had appealed. Diversity, pluralism and localism were the secret of stability and freedom.

Power of Ideas

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. ................. J M Keynes The General Theory Economists, defunct or extant, right and wrong, have rather more power than the dentists to which Keynes suggested they should be equated. But Krugman doesn't want to take the rap for this one: The French Government has Collapsed And It's Partly Paul Krugman's Fault. On Monday morning, the French government collapsed. All the ministers have resigned, and President Francois Hollande will have to appoint new ones. Paul Krugman deserves some of the blame. The incident that immediately precipitated the resignation of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls' cabinet was an interview given by Arnaud

Another Malthusian Insight

for our times too. (‘No great commercial and manufacturing state in modern times . . .’ said Malthus, ‘has yet been known permanently to make higher profits than the average of the rest of Europe.’)1 Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 223). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Suicide Bombing the Euro Economy

Via Brad Delong : Paul de Grauewe: "[European policymakers] are doing everything they can... stop recovery taking off, so they should not be surprised if there is in fact no take-off. It is balanced-budget fundamentalism, and it has become religious. We know from the 1930s that if everybody is trying to pay off debt and the government then deleverages at the same time, the result is a downward spiral. The rigidities in the European economy have been there for ages. They have absolutely nothing to do with the problem we face today... Is this a purely irrational religion, or is it one of those that has big benefits for some, even if the involved countries and the peninsula suffer? I'll bet on the latter, with the starring role, as usual going to the usual rentier suspects. Inflation erodes assets, especially debt assets. So it's good for debtors and bad for creditors. Creditors being mainly wealthy, and debtors being mainly poor, guess who has the bigger seat a

The Enemy of my Enemy

... is sometimes really, really my enemy. Islamic extremists have captured a major government military airport in Raqqa, eastern Syria, completing their takeover of the entire province and dealing a humiliating blow to President Bashar Assad. The victory is further evidence that the Islamic State is determined to widen its grip on the region. Since it launched its assaults in June, the Islamic State has captured half of Iraq and one-third of Syria and operates an Islamic caliphate armed with US weapons and financed by booty seized during its lightning raids. Complete with ritual suicide bombings and beheadings.

More Adventures on that River in Egypt

In a series of email exchanges, denialist Mr. X. challenged me with a number of aggressive questions, responded to me with some links to essentially irrelevant data (claiming, for example, that CO2 levels in the atmosphere had plateaued on the basis of the fluctuations of the rate of increase of CO2), took exception to my pointing out that in fact CO2 had increased every year since the Mauna Loa measurements began, and did not appreciate my pointing out that he had confused first and second derivatives or that he needed to understand some physics to comprehend how CO2 warms the surface. He got offended and pronounced that he didn't want to hear any more of my lectures. Darn! And he was such a promising student! Well, he did ask.

The Robots Are Coming

...for your job. Or maybe not. Brad DeLong links to some various opinions: Most utopian: “How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning? My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work.” — Hal Varian, chief economist at Google Most dystopian: “We’re going to have to come to grips with a long-term employment crisis and the fact that — strictly from an economic point of view, not a moral point of view — there are more and more ‘surplus humans.'”— Karl Fogel, partner at Open Tech Strategies, an open-source technology firm Most hopeful: “Advances in A.I. [artificial intelligence] and robotics allow people to cognitively offload repetitive tasks and invest their attention and energy in things where hum

Steppe Warriors

I had never fully appreciated the role of the warriors of the steppe in Eurasian history. While they were a recurring bad dream for the cultures they ravaged, they also created or destroyed many of the great empires of history. In the Sixteenth Century, for example, they ruled China (the Manchus), India (the Mughal empire), and the Ottoman empire. The founders of the Persian (Safanid) empire also seem to have some elements of Turkic roots. The Russian empire grew out of a vassal state of the Golden Horde. These frequently loose confederations of pastoral nomads were exceptionally capable at warfare, and vulnerable civilizations, Ming, Roman and other collapsed before them. The empires they built were not without their merits. Under the Mughals, Indian culture and economy flourished - at the cost of frequently brutal taxation. When their empire disintegrated, claims John Darwin: ...Humiliated by the Marathas, unable to staunch the haemorrhage of power to their provincial gover


Sounds like something Bart Simpson might have said, once upon a time, but it's an Icelandic volcano which might disrupt European air travel with its ash cloud. REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Iceland's Bardarbunga volcano began erupting Saturday under the country's largest glacier after a week of seismic activity rattled the area with thousands of earthquakes, the country's Meteorological Office said. The eruption prompted Iceland to raise its aviation alert level to red — the highest level on a five-point scale — indicating the threat of "significant emission of ash into the atmosphere." Seismic data indicates that magma from the volcano is melting ice beneath the Dyngjujokull icecap on the Vatnajokull glacier, Met Office vulcanologist Melissa Pfeffer said.

Indian Territory

Despite the trouble I get into when I venture there, I continue to be fascinated by the remarkable history of India. Although Indian civilization is one of the oldest and most creative in the world, its very wealth, combined with its proximity to central Asia, have made it a repeated target for conquerors. Despite living under foreign and culturally alien invaders for most of the last 1100 years, it has managed remarkably well at preserving an independent, vibrant and exceptionally resilient civilization. I doubt that this can be said of any other nation. John Darwin considers the subject in his book After Tamerlane. One of the successor conquerors was Akbar, grandson of Babur. Here is one number that amazed me. Akbar’s ministers were able to apply their revenue system – collecting in cash perhaps one-half of the value of agricultural production86 – with remarkable uniformity across his territories.87 This great revenue stream was the real foundation of Mughal imperial power.

Socialism and Morality

Am I my brother's keeper? ............... Genesis 4:9 Socialism has been a big failure as a modern economic system. From a Darwinian point of view, the reason is obvious: free riding. Without the discipline of the marketplace, the system is entirely too vulnerable to those who would take without contributing. Perhaps even more important is the non-Darwinian fact that socialism does not seem to create incentives for innovation and efficiency. In fact only capitalism seems to be good at that. Despite these facts, certain socialistic notions are very appealing to the human psyche, and most modern governments, including those of the most successful states, incorporate a lot of socialized elements. As the epigraph from Genesis suggests, such elements are fundamental to a number of religions. Christopher Boehm suggests that a socialized sharing of large kills developed early in human culture, probably between 250,000 BP and 45,000 BP, and that that practice was responsible for t

The Murder of James Foley

We are rightly outraged, I think, at the cold-blooded murder of American Journalist James Foley by ISIS militants. Beheading seems like a barbaric former of murder, and it is, but is it really worse than other methods? Would we have been less outraged if he had been murdered in an Arizona type hour long calamity of botched lethal injections? I'm not try to equate murder of a journalist with execution of a murderer, but I would note that our good buddies in Saudi Arabia have executed at least 19 people by beheading in the last 17 days, eight of them for nonviolent offenses according to this Human Rights Watch report : (Beirut) – Saudi Arabia has executed at least 19 people since August 4, 2014. Local news reports indicate that eight of those executed were convicted of nonviolent offenses, seven for drug smuggling and one for sorcery. Family members of another man, Hajras bin Saleh al-Qurey, told Human Rights Watch on August 17 that they fear his execution is imminent. The Pub

Why the Long Pause...?

As the bartender asked of the polar bear... The apparent slowdown in global surface warming since 2000 is both a treasured talking point of the climate skeptocracy and a persistent puzzle for climate scientists. Suspicion has focused on the ocean heat content, mostly the Pacific, but according to this article in The Economist , the Atlantic now looks more like the culprit. The most likely explanation is that it is hiding in the oceans, which store nine times as much of the sun’s heat as do the atmosphere and land combined. But until this week, descriptions of how the sea might do this have largely come from computer models. Now, thanks to a study published in Science by Chen Xianyao of the Ocean University of China, Qingdao, and Ka-Kit Tung of the University of Washington, Seattle, there are data. Dr Chen and Dr Tung have shown where exactly in the sea the missing heat is lurking. As the left-hand chart below shows, over the past decade and a bit the ocean depths have been warming

The (Not so Fresh-Faced) Student

Not sure why, but I seem to have decided to study astrophysics. I took a number of MOOC courses, and they were fun, but I wasn't really getting much depth. So I started working my way through a couple of books (and buying a bunch more). I quickly found that I really couldn't learn much unless I pretty much did everything - read every word, wrote down the equations and their derivations, and did the problem sets. I didn't do that when I was a real student, but maybe I was smarter then. Or not.

Trouble on the Planet of the Apes

Some of the most fascinating experiments in primatology have been the attempts to teach apes human languages. Jane C Hu takes a look and finds some troubling details. One of the problems is that the people crazy enough to dedicate their lives to an ape for decades can't really be trusted to be objective observers. Last week, people around the world mourned the death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams. According to the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, we were not the only primates mourning. A press release from the foundation announced that Koko the gorilla—the main subject of its research on ape language ability, capable in sign language and a celebrity in her own right—“was quiet and looked very thoughtful” when she heard about Williams’ death, and later became “somber” as the news sank in. Williams, described in the press release as one of Koko’s “closest friends,” spent an afternoon with the gorilla in 2001. The foundation released a video showing the tw

Mixed Economy 200,000 BC

The economic systems of our close relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos involve a very limited type of sharing. Meat is prized but hard to come by, and kills are typically appropriated by the most alpha male present. Typically he will share a portion with a few cronies - probably just enough of them to deter a mass attack by those without. There is evidence that a quite different system had evolved among humans as early as 200,000 years ago, in which large kills were systematically shared by all members of a band, just as they are by extant and recent hunter gatherer bands. Christopher Boehm thinks that this socialized distribution of major game, combined with severe punishment of would be bullies who would take more than their share, was the basis of the development of human morality. The sharing, by the way, only applies to big game, with each family on its own with respect to smaller scale gathering hauls. The sharing pattern is probably necessary for big game hunting to be

Harbinger of Doom?

This article suggests that there might have been some factual basis to the ancient myths of comets as Harbinger's of doom. It seems that it's possible a hunk of Halley's comet hit the Earth in 536 A.D., triggering a 10 year bout of cold and famine. The ancients had ample reason to view comets as harbingers of doom, it would appear. A piece of the famous Halley's comet likely slammed into Earth in A.D. 536, blasting so much dust into the atmosphere that the planet cooled considerably, a new study suggests. This dramatic climate shift is linked to drought and famine around the world, which may have made humanity more susceptible to "Justinian's plague" in A.D. 541-542 — the first recorded emergence of the Black Death in Europe. The new results come from an analysis of Greenland ice that was laid down between A.D. 533 and 540. The ice cores record large amounts of atmospheric dust during this seven-year period, not all of it originating on Earth. More d

Trophy Strife

Andrew Sullivan has been running an extensive series on the controversy over giving out trophies indiscriminately to stars and bench sitters, winners and losers, in kid sports. I'm not much of a fan of trophies for anyone in kids sports - I think adult intervention in kid sports should be minimal, restricted if possible to teaching skills, organizing facilities, and preventing mayhem, but if anybody gets a trophy, everybody should. This, of course, is very much in keeping with our hunter-gatherer ancestors egalitarian ethos. In addition, singling out individual players undermines team spirit and morale. The players probably know who is really good and who isn't - why should adult validation be necessary. Andrew has plenty of opinions on both sides. Two: PRO: The disgust that so many adults feel at the idea of everyone getting a trophy has to do with creating incentives. If everyone gets a trophy then no one will try hard; if everyone gets basic food and housing to survi

Ferguson and Government by Extortion

The first governments were probably little more than protection rackets. Jeff Smith, writing in the NYT , takes a fascinating look at a variation on this theme in Ferguson MO. Back in 1876, the city of St. Louis made a fateful decision. Tired of providing services to the outlying areas, the city cordoned itself off, separating from St. Louis County. It’s a decision the city came to regret. Most Rust Belt cities have bled population since the 1960s, but few have been as badly damaged as St. Louis City, which since 1970 has lost almost as much of its population as Detroit. This exodus has left a ring of mostly middle-class suburbs around an urban core plagued by entrenched poverty. White flight from the city mostly ended in the 1980s; since then, blacks have left the inner city for suburbs such as Ferguson in the area of St. Louis County known as North County. Ferguson’s demographics have shifted rapidly: in 1990, it was 74 percent white and 25 percent black; in 2000, 52 percent bla

History: Running Out of Steam?

One of the great puzzles of history is why civilizations rise and fall. We understand the history of distant stars far better than those of the cultures we live in. John Darwin: The greatest puzzle in Chinese history is why the extraordinary dynamism that had created the largest and richest commercial economy in the world seemed to dribble away after 1400. China’s lead in technical ingenuity and in the social innovations required for a market economy was lost. It was not China that accelerated towards, and through, an industrial revolution, but the West. Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (pp. 44-46). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition. Unlike some other civilizations (Roman, Islamic, Indian, and perhaps Western), China was neither disrupted by internal convulsions nor external invasions.

Phoning it In

Amateur theater has some challenges usually not faced by those that actually pay the actors. For example, during rehearsal of a local play, the lead actor really had to be out of town on business. Now the assistant director could have read the lines, but instead the actor skyped in and the other actors carried his virtual presence around the stage.

Matters of Size

In principle, there is not much limit to black hole size. We expect little ones to evaporate quickly, but nobody has seen any of these. The ones we can measure are mostly big - several solar masses - or really really big - millions or billions of solar masses. We have a pretty good idea how the former form from the death throes of giant stars, but the latter are more mysterious. It's also surprising that we haven't measured any intermediate sized ones - a few hundred to a few thousands of solar masses - until now . The universe has so many black holes that it’s impossible to count them all. There may be 100 million of these intriguing astral objects in our galaxy alone. Nearly all black holes fall into one of two classes: big or colossal. Astronomers know that black holes ranging from about 10 times to 100 times the mass of our Sun are the remnants of dying stars and that supermassive black holes, more than a million times the mass of the Sun, inhabit the centers of most ga

Modern Times

What is modernity? John Darwin, in After Tamerlane , offers this perhaps idealized version: But modernity is a very slippery idea. The conventional meaning is based on a scale of achievement. In political terms, its key attributes are an organized nation state, with definite boundaries; an orderly government, with a loyal bureaucracy to carry out its commands; an effective means to represent public opinion; and a code of rights to protect the ordinary citizen and encourage the growth of ‘civil society’. Economically, it means the attainment of rapid, cumulative economic growth through industrial capitalism (with its social and technological infrastructure); the entrenchment of individual property rights (as a necessary precondition); and the systematic exploitation of science-based knowledge. Culturally, it implies the separation of religion and the supernatural from the mainstream of thought (by secularization and the ‘disenchantment’ of knowledge) and social behaviour; the diffusio

Black Hole Digestion

Consider a 10^8 solar mass black hole powering an active galactic nucleus, with an accretion disc consisting of say 300,000 solar masses. How long does it take the hole to gobble up the whole thing? About a million years.

More Ukraine

Ukrainian separatists were boasting today of large scale reinforcements from Russia: tanks, armored personnel carriers and troops. DONETSK, Ukraine — The new pro-Moscow leader in the breakaway republic of Donetsk bragged openly today that Russia has strengthened his besieged rebel forces with men, armored vehicles and tanks. His boast would appear to confirm Ukrainian claims that the Kremlin is stepping up backing for the insurgents, defying the West with a dangerous escalation of the conflict Russian President Vladimir Putin said midweek he hoped would end soon. Alexander Zaharchenko, who was appointed “prime minister” of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic earlier this week, told The Daily Beast that the rebels have received reinforcements from across the border, and specified in an interview with Russian radio station that “1,200 men trained in Russia have joined his force and that separatists have received also 120 armored personnel carriers and 30 tanks.” It's not

Cultural Imperialism

In a world where American sitcoms, Yoga, Chinese manufactures and Coca-Cola have penetrated nearly everywhere, how much autonomy do traditional cultures still possess? Industry, economy, science and technology have been global now for many decades. The financial and intellectual elite have become cosmopolitan classes of their own. Vast population migrations have created exposed people from all over to cultures other than their own. Nonetheless, cultures are things that don't easily loosen their grip. They are good at building walls. The most fundamental wall is probably language. 12,000 years ago, when there were 1000 times fewer people, these people probably spoke 10,000 different languages, each with 1000 or so speakers. today there are about the same number of languages, 6500 or so, but speakers are heavily concentrated in a few: Mandarin, Hindustani, English, Spanish, Arabic etc. Many of the smaller language groups are likely to disappear soon, but that will still leav

Believing in Evolution is Silly

Says Keith Blanchard . And I think he's right. Faith has very little to do with it. So if someone asks, "Do you believe in evolution," they are framing it wrong. That's like asking, "Do you believe in blue?" Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don't believe in it — you either understand it or you don't. But pretending evolution is a matter of faith can be a clever way to hijack the conversation, and pit it in a false duality against religion. And that's how we end up with people decrying evolution, even as they eat their strawberries and pet their dogs, because they've been led to believe faith can only be held in one or the other. I think his analogy is badly chosen. "Blue" is closely tied to a primary sensory experience, evolution isn't. A better analogy would be, "Do you believe in gravity?" I don't think that this argument is going t

Eve of Destruction

Save the date, March 16, 2880. That's when asteroid 1950 DA is scheduled to make a very close approach to Earth, with a 0.3 % estimated chance of impact. It's a big rascal, with a 1 km diameter, so that would be bad. The date of Earth's potential destruction has been set at 16 March 2880, when an asteroid hurtling through space has a possibility of striking our planet. Researchers studying the rock found that its body rotates so quickly that it should break apart, but somehow remains intact on its Earth-bound trajectory. Read more: Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook Breaking apart would probably be bad, increasing the sum of the collision cross sections of the fragments.

Habla RNA?

Or maybe I mean ARN. Anyway, it seems that your plants apparently do. It’s well known that DNA and RNA strands are able to encode vast amounts of information, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that RNA is also being used as a means of communication between species. Virginia Tech scientist Jim Westwood has discovered that messenger RNA is regularly exchanged between plants and parasitic weeds, allowing the two to communicate with each other. “The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized,” said Westwood, reports. “Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, ‘What exactly are they telling each other?’.”

Punishing Deviance

Christopher Boehm believes that social communities getting together to punish deviance had a lot to do with the development of conscience and the human moral sense - a sense seemingly lacking even in our closest animal relatives. Hunter-gatherers (HG) are good at that, and modern humans have carried that over into small towns, churches, and other groups. Mostly our HG ancestors have been concerned with behaviors that directly threaten the group survival: bullying, psychopathy, excessive murder, can rate the death penalty, but lesser crimes are first dealt with by shaming and threats of exclusion. More modern societies extend the list of condemnable behaviors considerably, often in the form of various religious prohibitions and shibboleths. I'm thinking here of everything from tatoos to dietary restrictions to rules about who can marry whom. What sociobiological function, if any, do such prohibitions and rules perform? My guess is that the central function is to weld the membe

Uh Oh: Ukraine Again

After simmering offstage right for a bit, Ukraine heated up when Russian armored personnel carriers entered Ukraine and were attacked. Ukraine said Friday that its artillery destroyed part of a convoy of Russian military vehicles that crossed into Ukraine at around the same time as a Russian relief aid convoy was reaching the border area. The Russian defense ministry flatly denied the report and the Russian Foreign Ministry said it has information that Ukraine was planning to attack the now stalled 262-truck Russian humanitarian convoy.

A Good Year for Polar Bears?

Well maybe, if they live on the American side. Sea ice area is greater this year than for almost a decade, and the melt season is unlikely to last much longer. On the Asian side, there is a lot of water between the ice and the coast. The denialist crowd is no doubt high fiveing, but sea ice area is still well below long term averages. More dispassionate observers note that weather is variable, and likely to remain so.

Another Example of Why...

I really can't afford to indulge WB and remove him from my blogroll: elaborate stories "Today, Mirzakhani .. still writes elaborate stories in her mind. The high ambitions haven’t changed, but the protagonists have: They are hyperbolic surfaces, moduli spaces and dynamical systems. In a way, she said, mathematics research feels like writing a novel. “There are different characters, and you are getting to know them better,” she said. “Things evolve, and then you look back at a character, and it’s completely different from your first impression.” The Iranian mathematician follows her characters wherever they take her ..." Quanta Magazine He will just have to start publishing lower quality stuff.

Astrophysics Fact of the Day

Co-moving coordinates and the scale factor. The most dramatic discovery in the history of cosmology was probably Hubble's discovery of the expansion of the universe: distant galaxies are rushing away from us, and from each other, and the rate depends on the distance. Perhaps the most fruitful way to think of this is in terms of co-moving coordinates. Imagine a set of coordinates attached to each point in space, stationary with respect to the average local mass distribution. Over time, these coordinates get farther apart. In fact, points that were a distance of 1 mile apart in the year 1 of the Universe are now about 1 million miles apart. Roughly speaking, all that mass that now makes up the Andromeda galaxy - a trillion Sun's worth - was then about as close as the nearest star is now. Distance between any two points is increasing, and the rate of increase is about the same everywhere, though it does change a bit with time. We measure this in terms of the scale factor

Campbell Brown's War Against The Teachers Unions

Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown is at war with the teacher's unions. Brown is married to Bush admin war propagandist Dan Senor, and now fronts a shadowy organization called "The Partnership for Educational Justice." She was on the Colbert report recently, and Colbert was uncharacteristically tough about asking her who funded her enterprise. She dodged, she evaded, she weaved but finally had to admit that she just wasn't going to tell. Is it a stretch to guess that the usual suspect are at work here, the billionaires who hate to admit that their real mission has more to do with subverting democracy than improving education. If they - whomever they may be - really care about education why are they ashamed to have their names mentioned in this connection. I have my own quarrels with teacher's unions, but I really don't like the smell of this operation.

Astrophysics FOTD: Interstellar

NASA thinks that they have identified some some grains of interstellar dust collected by some cosmic flypaper they flew. Astronomers have likely located the first ever grains of interstellar dust they can get their hands on with the help of thousands of citizen volunteers in the Stardust@Home project. Just seven tiny particles of stardust have been located in the aerogel and aluminium foil collectors of NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, which were dropped off on Earth in 2006 after seven years in space. Stardust’s primary mission was to snag samples of comets and bring them back home, but the craft also had separate interstellar dust collectors, which were dropped by parachute along with the comet versions. A group of scientists and volunteers have spent the last eight years combing through the tennis-racket-sized mosaics of 132 aerogel tiles in search of the exceedingly rare, microscopic motes from outside our Solar System... ... While the scientists are happy to say that the motes are

Arctic Methane Apocalypse?

Not to worry. Despite Arctic Ocean bubbles, melting permafrost and Siberian explosions, David Archer at Real Climate says that's not something to worry about for the present. Their effect is, and is likely to remain, miniscule compared to human CO2 emissions. At least for some considerable time.


We live, so they say, in the age of globalization. It started much earlier, of course, when traders first started travelling long distances to exchange goods. That likely is older than civilization. It picked up when longer distance trade opened up across central Asia, and when ships became capable of crossing wider seas. John Darwin's After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 looks at that period since globe spanning sea voyaging began. Globalization is an ambiguous word. It sounds like a process, but we often use it to describe a state – the terminal point after a period of change. All the signs are that, in economic relations at least, the pace of change in the world (in the distribution of wealth and productive activity between different regions and continents) is likely to grow. But we can, nonetheless, sketch the general features of the ‘globalized world’ – the stage which globalization has now reached – in a recognizable form. This is the ‘present

Astro FOTD (Early Universe Numbers)

The horizon and some numbers. Because the universe has a finite age, the distance we can detect objects or effects has a limit. At earlier times, that limit was smaller. For example, when the universe was one nanosecond old, that limit, the horizon, was about 30 cm, or one foot. Anything further away was outside of our past light cone, and could not affect us gravitationally or otherwise. By age 1 second, the horizon was about 300,000 km away, and by 3.26 years, about a parsec. It's more convenient to work on a temperature scale, though, so here are some numbers: T = 10^10 K, t = 3.6 seconds, energy density = 7.5 x 10^37 GeV/m^3 = 1.3 x 10^11 kg/m^3, horizon at 10^9 m, photon energy 8 MeV T = 10^6 K, t = 4 x 10^6 s, e d = 8 x 10^25 GeV/m^3 = .1 kg/m^3, horizon at 10^15 m, photon energy = 1 keV T = 10^3 K, t = 4 x 10^14 s = 10^7 yr, e d = 7 x 10^9 GeV/m^3 = 10^-17 kg/m^3, horizon at 10^23 m, photon energy = .09 eV. Many numbers from handy-dandy Hyperphysics early universe

Astro Fact of the Day

Sir James Jeans, the pioneering astrophysicist made many contributions but today we will consider the Jeans Length. A cloud of gas, he reasoned, would collapse if pressure forces were overwhelmed by the gravitational self-attraction. One way to think about it is that if the time for a pressure wave to move across the cloud is greater than the time required for the cloud to collapse in free fall, gravity wins. Pressure waves, we may recall, travel at the speed of sound. In the early days of the universe, when we were all young warthogs, or, more precisely, a plasma of hydrogen and helium nuclei and electrons, the speed out sound was very high, perhaps 2/3 of light speed c. After a few hundred thousand years, the plasma, cooled by cosmic expansion enough for electrons and nuclei to recombine into atoms, and sound speed plummeted. This caused the Jeans length to decrease by ten orders of magnitude. Before recombination, only clouds of mass of galaxy super cluster size could coll

Astro Fact of the Day

Gravitationally bound systems (globular clusters, stellar "solar" systems, black holes) have negative specific heat. If you add heat they will equilibrate (virialize) to a cooler kinetic temperature.

Astro Fact of the Day

Matter likes company. About 95% of galaxies belong to groups (like our own galaxy, the Milky Way) or clusters. 5% or so go it alone in the void, though. The galactic loners seem to do alright, though. They seem to have more gas and more sustained stellar formation, probably because they don't experience gas stealing close encounters with other galaxies. There are lonely stars outside galaxies too, and lots of planets outside of stellar systems. Mostly these latter two probably started out as insiders but got booted out by gravitational interactions.

Morality in Foreign Policy

Our notions of morality are based on interpersonal relations, but how well do the scale into relations of nations? For much (or all) of human history the answer has been hardly at all. There is one standard for the in group, be it clan, tribe, nation or religion, and another for the out group. Occasional attempts to introduce moral standards into the relations between nations took a concrete (if unsuccessful) step in the Twentieth Century with the creation of the League of Nations, and later with the United Nations. The animating principle behind such ideas has not been that nations would not pursue their own interests, as people has always done, but that there would be some minimum standards, much as human societies have attempted to impose(mostly successfully) on their members from time immemorial (or at least 50,000 years or so). To call these efforts a success would be a great exaggeration but the considerations have at least come up. The issues of colonialism and genocide h

Ready for Your Closeup?

Pluto and pal

Who is John Galt?

Answer: A megalomaniacal psychopath whose ambition is to destroy civilization as constituted. He is also the fictional hero of Ayn Rand's gigantic word brick, Atlas Shrugged . His ambitions are aided by his considerable magical powers which allow him to conjure amazing inventions out thin air. Of course the author attributes the inventions not to magic but to super-intelligence, an intelligence entirely belied by his idiotic philosophical monologues. I like to think of him as a sort of motor-mouth Lord Voldemort. His psychopathic character is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that Rand based some of her heroes on a notorious child murderer who delivered his victim's body parts to the parents. Of course she claims she didn't admire his deeds, just his attitude. It is more than a bit bothersome to me that this novel and author are bible to many of the Republican big shots, including Rand Paul, who had all his staffers read AS. The novel is also immensely popula

Minus Alpha

Chimpanzees have a strictly hierarchical society, and they all know their place in it. Our other ape cousins are also pretty hierarchical. Mobile human hunter-gatherer societies, the prototypical human societies that nearly all of our ancestors probably lived in for something like 40,000 years, and some modern and near modern hunter-gatherers still live in, are not like that. Instead, there is a high degree equality among all (adult male) hunters, and egalitarianism is strictly enforced, by shaming, ostracizing, expulsion, or extreme cases, murder of those who try to exploit or lord it over others. It's likely that this egalitarian focus made possible the high degree of human cooperation which has enabled our extraordinary developments in art, technology, and civilization. In particular, humans display the ability to cooperate outside of purely familial groups. Based on: Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (p. 30).

Curious Fact of the Day

Interstellar grains, those sub-micron sized bits of stardust manufactured from matter exported by stellar winds and supernovae, seem to be spinning at supra-thermal velocities. That is, there is more energy in rotational than linear degrees of freedom. A few curious processes are expected to be responsible. Physics of the Interstellar and Intergalactic Medium (Princeton Series in Astrophysics) by Bruce T. Draine (Dec 20, 2010), page 308.

The Blogfather

In honor of the birthday of " The Blogfather " (December 5, 1973), I bought a six-pack of Czech beer. I may drink it before the big 41.

Bad News For One More Evil Empire

The NCAA is a rotten system which conspires to make vast profits while depriving the athletes of any share of the revenue and is a personal pet peeve of mine. That system was dealt a major blow by a court decision today. In a decision that could drastically reshape the world of college sports, a federal judge ruled on Friday that the N.C.A.A.’s decades-old rules barring payments to college athletes were in violation of antitrust laws. In a 99-page ruling, Judge Claudia Wilken of United States District Court in Oakland, Calif., delivered a resounding rebuke to the foundation of the N.C.A.A., issuing an injunction against current rules that prohibit athletes from earning money from the use of their names and images in video games and television broadcasts. This is a very important crack in the system, but doesn't go nearly far enough.

Back to Iraq

Once more into the quagmire. It's pretty hard to argue with the reasons (prevention of genocide, expansion of an avowedly hostile terrorist protostate) but this black hole keeps sucking us back in. Barack Obama orders US airstrikes on Islamic State, formerly Isis, after militants seize swathes of northern Iraq causing thousands of Christians to flee - follow latest updates

The EM Drive

There has been a lot of hype lately concerning The EM Drive , a supposed microwave based thruster that needs no propellant and May "violate the laws of physics." Call me just a teeny bit skeptical: NASA has tested an "impossible" electric space drive that uses no propellant – and found it works even when it is designed not to. The system is designed to use microwave energy reflected along a specially designed chamber to produce thrust. The idea first appeared as the Emdrive by British inventor Roger Shawyer in 2001, who designed a motor that he showed could produce power in this way. But critics scoffed, saying it would violate the laws of momentum. The EmDrive, we're told, generates thrust by using the properties of radiation pressure. An electromagnetic wave has a small amount of momentum which, when it hits a reflector, can translate that into thrust, Shawyer found, and this apparently can be used to power flight in the near-frictionless environment of sp

The Early Years of Social Engineering

People have been breeding animals and plants, at first semi-accidentally and later more purposefully, for many thousands of years, but our first experiments in that direction may have been a factor of ten or so earlier. One of the great puzzles of human evolution is human generosity and other altruistic behavior. The theory of evolution predicts that selfishness usually pays off at the level of the gene and above. If a behavior lowers one's fitness at the profit of someone else, any genes that permit or encourage it ought to be selected against. Darwin simply wondered how he could ever reconcile his new theory, which was so “individualistic,” with the fact that patriotic young men so willingly went to war to sacrifice their lives for their countrymen. They were sacrificing not only their lives but also the lives of their future progeny, who otherwise would be inheriting these generous tendencies. The great naturalist was confounded. Darwin had in mind the fact that free-ridin

The Prize: My Book Report

Daniel Yergin's 928 page magnum opus, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, is the story of oil, and it's role in world history, from the beginning to about 1991, with an epilogue that notes some of the events of the next twenty years. Yergin is a gifted writer and story teller, with an eye for the telling anecdote, as well as remarkably comprehensive. The central theme is the tale of how oil went from being an obscure, if remarkable, curiosity to major commodity and maker of great fortunes, to the central commodity and strategic objective of the modern world. Modern man, says Yergin, is Hydrocarbon Man, and oil is central to almost all his works. Modern civilization was built on cheap, readily available, and highly transportable energy, oil has been fundamental to all that. Oil was a central point of contention of the two great wars of the twentieth century, and a major factor in dozens of others. It is deeply implicated in the present turmoils in the Midd

Crime and Punishment

Decades ago, in Darwinism and Human Affairs, biologist Richard D. Alexander defined the evolutionary conscience as being more than an inhibitor of antisocial behavior. He called it the “still small voice that tells us how far we can go in serving our own interests without incurring intolerable risks.”15 Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (p. 30). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Origins of Culture

One of the many mysteries of human evolution is the rather sudden flowering of culture about 50,000 years ago. In the two to three millions of years between humans developing simple stone tools and that date human technology and society seems to have evolved very slowly. After that date the pace of technological evolution sped up dramatically, art appeared, and humans apparently started living in larger groups. Humans anatomically similar to modern human seem to have been around since about 200,000 years ago, so what could account for the change? Some researchers think they have found a key clue in a fairly subtle change in facial shape. Humans started making art work when their personalities got gentler and their faces more feminine, a study suggests. Researchers found that culture boomed around 50,000 years ago when there was an apparent reduction in testosterone. This led people to have gentler personalities and saw the making of art and advanced tools become widespread. ...


Report: Israel Spied on John Kerry's Phone During Middle East Peace Talks Israel reportedly eavesdropped on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's phone calls during last year's failed Middle East peace talks between Israel, Palestinian authorities and Arab states. The intelligence services of Israel, as well as those of at least one other country, intercepted phone calls made by Kerry using an insecure telephone, according to a report published on Sunday by the German news magazine Der Spiegel. Which invites the question of why he was speaking on an insecure phone, considering that he has a presumably well-equipped aircraft immediately on hand. Reckless stupidity? Disinformation? If he discussed official business, that likely would have been a firing offense, or worse, for any of his minions.

QFT and All That

I have always thought that any physicist should have a good grasp of quantum field theory. I have taken a couple of courses in the subject, own dozens of books about it, and have worked probably a couple of hundred QFT problems, few of which I probably remember how to do today. The fact is, I don't have a solid grasp of QFT, but it's not exactly for lack of trying. I mention this fact because there are a few new and highly touted QFT books out there. In particular, these: Quantum Field Theory for the Gifted Amateur, by Lancaster and Blundell. I'm not really an amateur, and I'm certainly not gifted, so might this be appropriate? Hard to say. I don't think they've written QFT for the Dumb ex-Pro yet. Student Friendly Quantum Field Theory , by Robert D. Klauber. Of course I'm not really much of a student, so would friendliness help? Finally, Quantum Field Theory and the Standard Model , by Matthew D. Schwartz. This does seem like the professional ve

With Friends Like This...

...Israel should need enemies? Via Andrew Sullivan: The Times of Israel ran the following headline in its Ops and Blogs section: "When Genocide is Permissible." The author, one Yochanon Gordon, wrote, in part: History is there to teach us lessons and the lesson here is that when your enemy swears to destroy you – you take him seriously. Hamas has stated forthrightly that it idealizes death as much as Israel celebrates life. What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely? … I will conclude with a question for all the humanitarians out there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable quiet for the citizens of Israel. We have already established that it is the responsibility of every government to ensure the safety and security of its people. If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal