Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Stars Like Dust...

While watching a science video with my students, the narrator was discussing the odds of finding life in the Universe and how we have been at it for a very short period of time. Then, the narrator states, "For every grain of sand on the Earth, there are a million stars in the Universe." I was stunned at trying to comprehend such a truely incomprehensible number. To say that it is mind blowing is an understatement of monumental proportions. I remember answering this question once,"How many stars are there in the universe?" and the only answer I could come up with was, "There are more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on all the Earth." Even this statement is somewhat understated when one sees pictures that come from the Hubble Space Telescope and the ability it has to peer deeply into the Cosmos. The picture I include here is from Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys and was taken over 40 hours in September 2003. There are about a dozen foreground stars but the rest of all the "dots" in the picture are galaxies. Dozens upon dozens of galaxies in an area that at first seems to be blank and devoid of any bright objects. Incroyable.
And now I am sitting in my house listening to Jon Serrie's song for a planetarium show... space music... "The Stars Like Dust".... The Universe is a mystery sometimes.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

New Horizons at Jupiter

I am an avid blog reader and one of my favorites is the Bad Astronomy Blog by Phil Platt (I've even used his Q and BA podcasts in my astronomy units with my students). I wake up today and there is a fantastic photo from the New Horizons spacecraft of Io and Europa orbiting around Jupiter while the craft was on its way to Pluto in 2015. The views are just stunning. You can see a huge volcanic plume near the north pole of Io and a crescent shape to Europa. Now, neither Phil or I can take credit for this picture as it comes from the Planetary Society web site and there is where you can find the best explanation of what it is you are looking at. I also invite you to go to the Planetary Society website and look around. Though I have let my membership lapse (oops.... my bad) I visit it quite often... I don't think you will find a better place for planetary astronomy on the web.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism

There are times in a person's life when circumstances jell so that what was once uncertain or unclear in your mind are no longer a nebulous mass but finally formed to a fine image that you can communicate with crystal clarity. I am a scientist. I am a naturalistic humanist. I am an atheist. I believe in a secular society with church and state seperate. I do not know if scientists are born but I suspect that there may be shown someday to be a genetic predisposition towards such pursuits and if the circumstances of birth, family, society, and education are also commensurate then a scientist is who you become. I also was raised a Christian but by two lucid and skeptical people; one an instructor in mathematics with a brilliantly deductive attitude while the other was an artist with an appreciation for nature and a love of humanity that will forever guide me away from my dislike of my own kind. With their guidance I have become a person who seeks to use the analytical and inquisitorial methods of science to know the Universe; a Universe that deserves to be always written in a capital letter and a Universe where "God" should be written as god with a lower case. But there are those whose sense of the Universe is based on superstition and mythology which threaten the entire species I call my own and to destroy the vocation of science with their ignorance. I will take no more... here I stand and say "You will not go any further without my standing up to you." In that vane, I present to my readers, all 2 of you, the Center for Inquiry's Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism:


We are deeply concerned about the ability of the United States to confront the many challenges it faces, both at home and abroad. Our concern has been compounded by the failure exhibited by far too many Americans, including influential decision-makers, to understand the nature of scientific inquiry and the integrity of empirical research. This disdain for science is aggravated by the excessive influence of religious doctrine on our public policies.

We are concerned with the resurgence of fundamentalist religions across the nation, and their alliance with political-ideological movements to block science. We are troubled by the persistence of paranormal and occult beliefs, and by the denial of the findings of scientific research. This retreat into mysticism is reinforced by the emergence in universities of “post-modernism,” which undermines the objectivity of science.

These disturbing trends can be illustrated by the push for intelligent design (a new name for creationism) and the insistence that it be taught along with evolution. Some 37 states have considered legislation to mandate this. This is both troubling and puzzling since the hypotheses and theories of evolution are central to modern science. The recent federal court decision in the Dover, Pa., case has set back, but not defeated, these efforts. Moreover, the resilience of anti-evolution movements is supported not only by religious dogmatism but also by the abysmal public ignorance of basic scientific principles. Consider these facts:

  • A recent poll by the Pew Research Center revealed that 64% of Americans are open to the idea of teaching intelligent design or creationism in public schools.
  • Some 42% totally reject evolution or believe that present forms of life existed since the beginning of time.
  • 38% would teach only creationism instead of evolutionary theory.
  • Only 26% agree with the predominant scientific view that life evolved by processes of natural selection without the need for divine intervention.
  • The percentage of individuals who accept the theory of evolution is lower in the United States than in any other developed country, with the exception of Turkey.

Recent polls have illustrated other instances of scientific illiteracy:

  • 20% of Americans think that the Sun revolves about the Earth
  • Only 10% know what radiation is
  • Less than one-third can identify DNA as a key to heredity
  • In the U.S., twelfth grade students scored lower than the average of students in 21 other countries in science and math.

We think that these dismal facts portend a clear and present danger to the role of science in the U.S. In our view it is not enough to teach specific technical subjects—important as that is—but to convey to the public a general understanding of how science works. This requires both some comprehension of the methods of scientific inquiry and an understanding of the scientific outlook. The cultivation of critical thinking is essential not only for science but also for an educated citizenry—especially if democracy is to flourish

Unfortunately, not only do too many well-meaning people base their conceptions of the universe on ancient books—such as the Bible and the Koran—rather than scientific inquiry, but politicians of all parties encourage and abet this scientific ignorance. It is vital that the public be exposed to the scientific perspective, and this presupposes the separation of church and state and public policies that are based on secular principles, not religious doctrine. Yet government legislators and executives permit religion, instead of empirical, scientifically supported evidence, to shape public policy. Consider:

  • Embryonic stem cell research, which promises to deliver revolutionary therapies, has been needlessly impeded by the misguided claim that the embryo and/or the first division of cells in a petri dish (blastocyst) is the equivalent of a human person. This is rooted in a moral-theological doctrine that has no basis in science.
  • The nation spends hundreds of millions of dollars on faith-based programs of unproven efficacy, including ill-advised abstinence-only programs in such areas as drug abuse prevention and sex education, which are more successful at promoting misinformation than abstinence.
  • Abstinence policies are advocated abroad and promotion of condom use rejected, heedless of the danger of AIDS and of the need for wise policies aimed to restrain rapid population growth.
  • Scientific evidence of global warming is dismissed and the destruction of other species on the planet is ignored, driven by the misguided view that the Earth has been given to the human species as its dominion.

We cannot hope to convince those in other countries of the dangers of religious fundamentalism when religious fundamentalists influence our policies at home; we cannot hope to convince others that it is wrong to compel women to veil themselves when we deliberately draw a veil over scientific knowledge; we cannot hope to convince others of the follies of sectarianism when we give preferential treatment to religious institutions and practices. A mindset fixed in the Middle Ages cannot possibly hope to meet the challenges of our times.

Science transcends borders and provides the most reliable basis for finding solutions to our problems. We maintain that secular, not religious, principles must govern our public policy. This is not an anti-religious viewpoint; it is a scientific viewpoint. To find common ground, we must reason together, and we can do so only if we are willing to put personal religious beliefs aside when we craft public policy.

For these reasons, we call upon political leaders of all parties:

  • to protect and promote scientific inquiry
  • to base public policy insofar as possible on empirical evidence instead of religious faith
  • to provide an impartial and reliable source of scientific analysis to assist Congress, for example, by reviving the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment
  • to maintain a strict separation between church and state and, in particular, not to permit legislation or executive action to be influenced by religious beliefs.

Science and secularism are inextricably linked and both are indispensable if we are to have sound public policies that will promote the common good, not only of Americans but of the global community.

In-agreement signatures, for the Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism

Baruj Benacerraf, PhD—Nobel Laureate (Physiology and Medicine), Dana-Farber Cancer Inst.
Paul Boyer, PhD—Nobel Laureate (Chemistry), Prof. Emer., Univ. of California–Los Angeles
Steven Weinberg, PhD—Nobel Laureate (Physics); Prof. of Physics, Univ. of Texas–Austin
Jo Ann Boydston—former exec. dir., John Dewey Foundation
Gwen W. Brewer, PhD—Prof. Emer., California State Univ.–Northridge
Stephen Barrett, MD—Board Chairman, Quackwatch, Inc.
Arthur Caplan, PhD—Chair, Dept. of Medical Ethics, Univ. of Pennsylvania
Elizabeth Daerr—Exec. Dir., CfI/Washington, DC
Daniel C. Dennett, PhD—Prof. of Philosophy, Tufts Univ.
Edd Doerr—President, Americans for Religious Liberty, Silver Spring, MD
Ann Druyan—author, producer; President, The Carl Sagan Foundation, Ithaca, NY
Martin Gardner—author and editor
Rebecca Goldstein, PhD—author, Visiting Prof. of Philosophy, Trinity College
Adolf Grünbaum, PhD— Prof. and Chair, Center for Philosophy of Science, Univ. of Pittsburgh
Peter Hare, PhD—Distinguished Prof. Emer. of Philosophy, SUNY Buffalo
James A. Haught—Executive Editor, The Charleston Gazette
David Helfand, PhD—Prof. of Astronomy, Columbia Univ.
Gerald Holton, PhD—Prof. of Physics, Harvard Univ.
Leon Jaroff—senior science editor (retired), Time and Discover
Donald C. Johanson, PhD—Dir., Institute of Human Origins, Arizona State Univ.
Stuart D. Jordan, Ph.D.—Senior Staff Scientist (Emeritus), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Barry Karr—Exec. Dir., Center for Inquiry/Transnational, Amherst, NY
Daniel Kelleher—entrepreneur, Kalispell, MT
Tom Knapp—Vero Beach, FL
Virginia Knapp—Vero Beach, FL
David Koepsell, PhD, JD—Exec. Dir., Council for Secular Humanism
Lawrence Krauss, PhD—Prof. of Physics and Astronomy, Case Western Reserve Univ., Cleveland, OH
Paul Kurtz, PhD— Prof. Emer. of Philosophy, SUNY Buffalo; Chairman, Center for Inquiry/Transnational
Ronald A. Lindsay, PhD, JD—Legal Dir., CfI-Office of Public Policy, Washington, DC
Jere H. Lipps, PhD—Prof., Museum of Paleontology, Univ. of California–Berkeley
Elizabeth Loftus, PhD—Dist. Prof. of Psychology and Social Behavior, Univ. of California–Irvine
Steve Lowe—Washington Area Secular Humanists
Kenneth Marsalek—founding member & past president, Washington Area Secular Humanists
Joe Nickell, PhD—Senior Research Fellow, CSICOP at Center for Inquiry, Amherst, NY
Matthew Nisbet, PhD—Asst. Prof. of Communications, American Univ.
Steven Pinker, PhD—author and Prof. of Psychology, Harvard Univ.
Elie A. Shneour, PhD—President and Research Director, Biosystems Research Inst., San Diego, Calif.
Peter Singer, PhD—Prof. of Philosophy, Princeton Univ.
Victor Stenger, PhD—Prof. Emer., Physics and Astronomy, Univ. of Hawaii
Edward Tabash, JD—Chair, First Amendment Task Force
Lionel Tiger, PhD— Prof. of Anthropology, Rutgers Univ.
Toni Van Pelt—Policy Dir., CfI-Office of Public Policy, Washington, DC
Edward O. Wilson, PhD—Pellegrino University Prof. Emer., Harvard Univ.

Names added since November 29, 2006

Ken Batts, Psychotherapist, Brookline, MA
R. E. Bennett, Madison, WI
Barbara R. Breitbart, PhD, Psychologist/Mediator, Sedona, AZ
Mark Romney Brown, BM, (Music), business owner, San Diego, CA
Liam Breunle, MA, Kilkenny, Ireland
Brian A. Burns, Network Communications Analyst, Mount Prospect, IL
Robert C. Camp, Ed. M., Personal Growth & Crisis Intervention Services, St. Louis Univ., Carbondale, IL
Gretchen Caspary, PhD, Sr. Rsch. Associate, American Academy of Pediatrics, Elk Grove Village, IL
J. Peter Coppinger, PhD, Asst. Prof., Dept. of Applied Biology and Biomedical Engineering, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
Michael R. D'Amato, Prof. Emer. of Psychology (retired), Rutgers Univ.
Henry A. Deichelbohrer, retired, Monroe, MI
Roger P. Donahue, PhD, Faculty Emeritus, Univ. of Miami, Coral Gables, FL
Steven N. Durlauf, Dept. of Economics, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison
William Dusenberry, Associate Prof. of Sociology, New Jersey City Univ.
Jack Ericson Eblen, PhD, International Health Epidemiologist and Demographer, (retired)
Trudi J. Eblen, MS, MEd, Early Childhood Dev., New York City (retired)
Taner Edis, PhD, Assoc. Prof. of Physics, Truman State Univ.
John Eills, MBA, New York City
Bryan F. Erickson, Esq., Reg. patent attorney, Minneapolis, MN
Joseph M. Erwin, PhD, Exec. Dir., Foundation for Comparative & Conservation Biology
Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, PhD, Pres., Environmental Research Consulting
Peter Feibleman, novelist and playwright
Carlos A. Garibaldi, MS, MBA, petroleum engineer, M&A Managing Director, Houston, TX
Kathleen Ann Goonan, author and educator
Stephen J Gordon, MD, FACP, Clinical Prof. of Medicine, Univ. of California Sch. of Medicine, San Diego
Robert Bates Graber, PhD, Prof. Emer. of Anthropology, Truman State Univ.
James A. Harless, Manhattan Beach, CA
Thomas D. Harnish, Senior Scientist (retired), Carlsbad, CA
Peter Ilott, PhD, Senior Engineer, Pasadena, CA
James W. Jordan, MD, playwright and neurology resident, Case Western Reserve Univ., Cleveland, OH
John Justice, Prof. of Philosophy, Randolph College, Lynchburg, VA
Dr Nancy Kalish, author, Prof. of Psychology, California State Univ.
Frances F. Kaplan, DA (Doctor of Arts), author, instructor, Marylhurst Univ., Marylhurst, OR
Anne Cady Keegan, ever curious Darwinian, Waccabuc, NY
Jeffrey Kidder, PhD, Director, Univ. of Colorado Science Discovery
Jurgen Kleist, PhD, Professor of Literature, SUNY Plattsburgh
Kirk T. Korista, PhD, Assoc. Prof. of Astronomy, Western Michigan Univ.
Michelle S. Koth, MB, MM, MLS, Catalog Librarian, Irving S. Gilmore Music Lib., Yale Univ.
Tristan Lambert, PhD, asst. prof., dept. of chemistry, Columbia Univ.
Dr. Ed Landing, Paleontologist, Principal Scientist-Paleontology, New York State Museum, Albany, NY
David Lee, Sumter, SC
Lawrence S. Lerner, Prof. Emer., College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics, California State Univ., Long Beach
Seth MacFarlane, creator, executive producer, "Family Guy," 20th Century Fox
Kenneth W. Massey, PhD, International business consultant, adj. faculty member, Univ. Alberto Hurtado, Santiago, Chile
William Mates, Lawrenceville, NJ
Tim Maudlin, PhD, Prof. of Philosophy, Rutgers Univ.
Dan McArthur, PhD, Dept. of Philosophy, Akinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies, York Univ.
Thomas J. McManus, MD, Prof. Emer., Cell Biology, Duke Univ. Medical Ctr.
Paula Messina, Assoc. Prof. of Geology, Dept. of Geology & Program in Science Ed., San Jose State Univ.
Eugenie V. Mielczarek, Prof. Emer. of Physics, George Mason University
Keith J. Minor, undergraduate student (physics), Univ. of South Carolina
Gary Missner, Chicago, IL
Leslie A. Month, PhD, Prof. of Mathematics, Diablo Valley College
Allison Marie Moore, student, Univ. of South Alabama, Mobile, AL
Wade Morehead, Project Manager & Architectural Designer, Shreveport, LA
Don Nyberg, Prof. of Analytical Chemistry, SUNY-Corning Comm. College, Corning, NY
Mark Perakh, author, Prof. Emer. of Physics, California State Univ., Fullerton
Robert Perloff, Dist. Service Prof. Emer., Business Admin and Psychology, Joseph M. Katz School of Business, Univ. of Pittsburgh
Bryan J. Pesta, PhD, Asst. Prof., Dept. of Management, Cleveland State Univ.
Albert L. Porterfield, PhD, Assoc. Prof. of Psychology, Oberlin College, Ohio
Peter J. Quirk, Plant Manager, Lockport Cogeneration Facility
Akshay R. Rao, Dir., Inst. for Rsch in Marketing, Carlson School of Management, Univ. of Minnesota
Christopher J. Reaume, MSc, PhD candidate, Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ. of Toronto
James F. Richardson, Fountain Hills, AZ
James F. Rodgers, DSH, LCDR U.S. Navy (retired), Boulder, CO
Irwin A Rose, PhD, Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2004), Dept. of Physiology and Biophysics, Univ. of California, Irvine
Aaron Rosenberg, composer & doctoral student of music, Univ. of Oregon
Andrew L. Ross, PhD, Dir., Office for Policy, Security, and Technology; Prof., Dept. of Political Science, Univ. of New Mexico
Eric Salzman, composer & book review editor, Brooklyn, NY
Lorna Salzman, environmental writer & activist, Brooklyn, NY
Cynthia V. Satchell, MD, Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst, Denver, CO
Vladimir Savinov, Assoc. Prof. of Physics, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, Univ. of Pittsburgh
Argelia Tejada Segor, PhD, International Evaluation Consultant, ATS Consulting, Miami, FL
Jerry L. Shapiro, PhD, nuclear engineer (retired)
Patsy Verena Schreer, MA, arts in education, Guidance and Counseling field (retired), Port Charlotte, FL
John Simmons, Industrial Engineer, Mattesion, IL
Sven Sinclair, PhD, Burke, VA
Dan I. Slobin, Prof. Emer. of Psychology & Linguistics, Univ. of California, Berkeley
Candace Slobodnik, Social Studies Teacher, Prince Georges Public Schools, Maryland
Gene C. Sproul, lawyer (retired), Orangevale, CA
Rolf Sternglanz, Dist. Prof., Dept. of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Stony Brook Univ.
Weylin Sternglanz, PhD, Asst. Prof. of Psychology, Farquhar College of Arts, Nova Southeastern Univ.
Richard K. Stucky, PhD, Curator of Paleoecology & Evolution, Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Michael Tooley, Prof. of Philosophy, University of Colorado
Steve Turner, BA, Psychology, Univ. of South Florida
Paul Wagner, Systems Engineer, Franklin, OH
Diana Wilson, PhD, researcher and Social Worker, Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Linda Wright, P.T., PhD, Prof., College of Health Professions, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA
Anna Vainchtein, PhD, Assoc. Prof. of Mathematics, Univ. of Pittsburgh
Michael Yanowitch, Prof. Emer. Mathematics, Adelphi Univ.
Ivica Zdravkovic, MD, GP specialist, Serbia

*Institutions for identification only


Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Evolution of Homer sapien

I love going to the Richard Dawkins website and seeing what other people have sent links to. Sometimes they are so well timed to my life it can be almost to much of a coincidence to my mind. As an example. I am beginning the unit on Geology for my Honors students and began to go over the evidence that supports plate tectonics and the dating of rock layers. Well, that inevitably leads one to fossils and the formation of fossils which leads to dating of rocks with the knowledge of how species evolve. So I did my shtick on evolution (even though I am not a biologist I do know my evolutionary theory very well) and proceeded to get all the misunderstandings out of the way as well as refresh the minds of my students on a very important topic they learned just the year before. Next, I come home and see this:

I mean if Homer Simpson can do it, why can't most politicians and "theologians"?

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