Every year when Gallup releases this poll, I get the exact same drop in my stomach, remembering again that I live in a nation where 4 out of 10 people think Earth is less than 10,000 years old. How do we make informed choices as a democracy when such a large percentage of the population is unwilling or unable to accept the most basic scientific knowledge?

I love seeing all the excitement over the recent eclipse, my Facebook feed is proof that people are excited about nature. And that's what this is about- nature. Sometimes I dislike the word science, so weighed down by white coats and high school chemistry labs. I believe the desire to learn about nature is universal, am I wrong? How do we convince ourselves, as a species, that understanding the world we live in is not only vital, but beautiful and interesting, like seeing an eclipse?

Republicans in Science and Art

As Slate's Daniel Sarewitz, points out, "A democratic society needs Republican scientists." His point being that less than ten percent of American scientists are republicans, and thus our nation's views on science are that much more divided. Think of issues such as climate change, stem cell research, and endangered species.

What Sarewitz's article doesn't address is the question of why the field is so strongly skewed to the left. Combined with the small number of typically democrat-leaning demographic blocks in the field (women and minorities are famously underrepresented in the math and science world), this question becomes even harder to answer.

Here's one theory of mine, admittedly rather speculative, and it comes from an idea I've held for years that began when I was attending art school but taking physics classes from a theorist at Fermi Lab; the life-choice required to become a scientist is not so different from the life-choices made by artists. Scientists and artists might use opposite sides of the brain (and there's plenty of evidence that even this claim is bogus), but both groups are full of people who've shunned the traditional path to success in this country. They share an interest in explaining, teaching, learning, rather than building, producing, and earning. They've chosen to follow a passion that doesn't include starting a small business or climbing a corporate ladder. And, tellingly, they've chosen paths that almost certainly exclude any chance at wealth.

The old cliche, "if you're not liberal when you're young you don't have a heart, and if you're not conservative when you're old then you don't have a brain" might be of some use here. Democrats are the party of youth, and art and science are are both passions that flourish at an early age and embrace youthful thinking, unlike, say real estate investment or wall street brokerage, where wisdom and experience are favored. And how many people grew up wanting to be a real estate investor, anyhow?

Generalizations aside, Sarewitz is right, we do need more Republicans involved in science, and for that matter, art and culture. This would only help spread science literacy and make for more balanced policy. It wouldn't hurt the candidate either, in my view at least. A republican with strong pro-science views would get my vote over a whole lot of democrats.

So how do we get a more republicans involved in science? Honestly, other than getting more people involved in general, I can't think of much we could do. Especially if the far right continues to pull the whole party down with its craziness, the claims that education is somehow elitist and un-American in particular.

A few questions for NASA

Does NASA engage in building unnecessary suspense? Regardless, the wording of their press release preceding today's press conference certainly built suspense, and NASA did little or nothing to combat this. So, was the hype useful? Did the suspense help garner public attention? Certainly. But for those expecting ET on stage, does the let-down hurt NASA?

The story seems to be doing pretty well in the media, so did the hype over this press conference goad the media into covering a story they might otherwise have glossed over? And to what degree was the media's focus on the hype itself rather than the science at hand? At least one reporter from the USA Today claimed their readers were disappointed and asked the scientists to explain they unnecessary hype.

Indeed, to scientists, this was a rather important discovery. To those in the biology, biochemestry, and astrobiology fields, many of whom had preliminary access to the embargoed paper, the story warranted hype. Perhaps the folks at NASA saw nothing wrong with the rampant speculation, since they were themselves rather excited.

In the end, I'm most interested in how this hoopla and related media coverage reveals the schism between the public and the science community. What can we do to bridge this gap?

Cassini to make important fly by of Enceladus this weekend

Enceladus has recently become my favorite object in the solar system. The tiny, icy moon of Saturn has revealed so many surprises in just the last few years, and I'd wager it's got a few more shockers in store.

The moon of Saturn, once believed to be cold and dead, has become one of the strongest candidates to harbor extraterrestrial life that we know of. Small bodies without atmospheres at this distance from the sun are usually dead, yet something very interesting is going on under the ice of Enceladus' south pole. Cassini should be able to tell us a lot more on its next pass, coming up November 30th. Universe today has a better write up about it than I could manage, so check that out for details.

Here's the short story: it appears that a combination of tidal heating caused by the pull of Saturn and other moons combined with radioactive heating in Enceladus' core might be sustaining a subsurface ocean of liquid, salty water. The great thing about Enceladus compared to the other potential habitable sites in the solar system is that Enceladus is spewing the evidence right into space, in the form of geysers erupting from the south pole. The plumes from these geysers achieve amazing speeds of over a 1,300 miles an hour, easily fast enough to escape and contribute to Saturns E ring. Cassini has already flown through the plumes several times and analyzed their content, revealing lots of H20, salt, and ammonia, but the each flyby reveals more and more about the subsurface world of Enceladus.

Cassini's latest flyby will once again use spectrometry to analyze the content of the plumes, as well as radio instruments to help understand the gravitational dynamics of the tiny moon, perhaps leading to a better picture of the subsurface oceans. Determining the composition of the plumes will tell us a lot about what kind of heating mechanisms need to be involved. For instance, a high ammonia content would greatly lower the melting temperature of water and thus less heat would be needed to sustain a liquid ocean.

Keep in mind that Cassini was not designed to probe for signs of life on Enceladus, but what it finds might just coax NASA into designing a specific mission.

What I really love about Enceladus is how it has forced us to rethink habitable zones. Even if Enceladus doesn't have life in its subsurface oceans, the fact remains that the mechanisms exist to support life on cold, icy moons and planets. If tidal heating combined with the natural radioactive heating (found in the core of most planets) is enough to sustain a liquid ocean, what's to stop us from considering even extrasolar planets as harbingers of life, i.e. rogue planetary systems adrift in space, not orbiting any star?

The more we look, the more hospitable the universe seems!

Missile launch probably just a plane

As should be expected, Michio Kaku gets it right on CNN. Wired's Noah Shachtman also has a good write-up debunking this one.

After seeing video of the so-called California missile launch, I immediately thought it was a plane. Unfortunately, I changed my mind when news reports mentioned that NORAD and the Military were investigating the 'event'. Because news reports indicated the Military brass were referring to this as 'an event', I assumed there must be some sort of colluding evidence, radar data in particular, to support the contrail as rocket theory.

Now I'm kicking myself for not doing a smidge more research and being able to call this one as bullshit immediately.

Yet another example of the power of suggestion, and, for me and I suspect many others, the power of the x-files effect. It's so much more fun to imagine a rogue group sneaking out to sea, launching a clandestine satellite into orbit. So much fun that you want to believe, even though a much simpler and mundane explanation usually exists. Being a skeptic can be a buzzkill.

As an amusing side note, this whole ordeal showed up in my dreams last night as a prelude to some kind of Red Bull stunt. How awesome would rocket-flugtag be?

Edit: I originally referred to this as an example of the power of suggestion. While out walking the dogs it occurred to me that this is an imprecise phrase carrying a lot of hypnosis-baggage. So I did some research into apophenia and pareidolia related ideas but I'm having a hard time finding the right term for what I'm thinking of here. One would think the field of psychology would have coined an apt term for the process of being misled by the framing of an issue. Think of the verbage involved, news stories all referred to a 'launch', and the military is investigating a 'launch event'. Indeed I think the journalistic sense of the term 'framing' comes closest to what I'm getting at here.

Animation of Hartley 2 flyby

When the Deep Impact probe finishes taking images of comet Hartley 2 in a few weeks, it will have made some 120,000 images of the comet. Yet from just the first five images released of the close-up flyby, Daniel Macháček created a very nice animation of the flyby. Animation is almost the wrong word here, because it conjures up the idea of something being drawn, instead, Macháček used the actual images and software to put the flyby into action.

From the youtube page, "Daniel Macháček created this smooth animation from the five images of Hartley 2 released by the Deep Impact team immediately following its flyby on November 4, 2010. He used Squirlz Morph. Time in the animation is five times faster than the actual speed of the flyby."

The part that fascinates me about this animation is the timespan involved. This animation is only accelerated five times. In other words, this video in real time would run just over three minutes, which isn't that long.

Because of the scales involved in space exploration, I imagine events like this taking hours or days. That this glimpse of the flyby involves only a few minutes shows just how close we came to Hartley 2.

This is another one of those moments when it strikes me just how tangible space exploration can be. We're a strange species, humans. We took little bits of rock, broke them down and refined them into their elemental parts; aluminum, titanium, magnesium, carbon, silicon; assembled these bits of rock into a brilliant design, placed on top of a semi-controlled bomb of liquid oxygen and lamp fuel (kerosene, more or less), and blasted it into the depths of space on a trajectory calculated with the equations of an alchemist and occultist who lived 250 years ago, to visit another bit of rock floating in space, trying to learn how those elemental pieces came to form our own floating speck and the solar system as a whole.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

A snowy morning on Mars

It's almost Halloween, and in Colorado that means we should have seen our first snowfall. As a child, trick or treating in blizzards was a common experience (I dressed up as Edmund Hillary or Ernest Shackleton those years). But this year, not so much as a frost on the ground.

So instead, here's a remarkable video of clouds and snow falling on Mars, taken by NASA's Phoenix Lander one Martian morning in 2009.

Watching the clouds move in such an earthly way across the martian sky is neat enough, but every few moments you can glimpse a few falling white specks.

Scientists have evidence that the snow and clouds are similar to snow and clouds on Earth; i.e. based on water-ice (rather than say, carbon dioxide). Universe Today did a nice write up on the scientific findings of the Phoenix team.

The video gives me chills! Not for the temps, but for the fact that we've sent a little bit of earth up to another planet, just to find out that it's not as different from our home planet as we thought.

Lame headline baiting on CNN

"Mohammed is England's top baby name"

I woke up a bit hungover this morning, so perhaps that's why when I saw that headline on the front page of CNN, my first thought was "this is going to suck".

Right off, I'm a bit taken by the lede, "Hit the road, Jack. Last year's most popular name for baby boys in England has been knocked off -- by Mohammed." Am I being oversensitive in reading this as an allusion to violence? Muslims are taking over England and offing the good (white) Jack?

What really bothers me about the article, though, is that many who read it, especially those who see just the headline, might come away thinking that England is being overrun with Muslims, or even that Muslims are outproducing or more populous than non-muslims.

In itself, analyzing baby names is an interesting way to look at demographic trends, but you've got to be very careful with the data. As CNN points out, Oliver was technically the most popular name in England, and Mohammed only took the spot (offing Oliver) after accounting for variations in spelling.

The fact that a Muslim name is more popular than any non-Muslim names could mean two things, either that Muslim families are having more babies than non-Muslim families, or that Muslim families are less diverse in naming their children than non-Muslim families.

So which is it? As the article mentions, to its credit, less than 5% of England is Muslim. The article also briefly states, five graphs in, "And Muslims have a strong tendency to name their sons Mohammed."

Greene then devotes the rest of the article to talking about the rise of Islam in Europe and growing anti-Muslim sentiment, further evidence that this article is trying to use this baby-naming thing as support for the idea that England is awash in Muslim immigrants.

Indeed, the Muslim population is growing, both in England and Europe, but we know this through census data, not baby-naming data. The fact that Mohammed is now the most popular name in England is certainly interesting, but it's easy to get carried away with this sort of fact, especially in the current global climate of hostility towards Muslims.

Back at it.

Over the past six or seven years, I've had quite a few different blogs, and mostly they've died slow, neglected deaths. Not unlike this blog here. Well I've been writing more this fall, due in no small part to my shacking up in a tiny apartment with three dogs and two cats, just a few blocks from a liquor store and five thousand miles from my girlfriend; my few possessions including a box of books, a coffee maker, my bike and my keyboard. No job to write home about.

I've been posting new poems over at for a few weeks now, but I've also been writing general pieces and want to keep them separate.

So I'm starting this blog up again, sort of. My original idea here was a rip off of sites like boingboing or darkroastedblend. I don't think it ever had any readers.

I've been considering an attempt at something like that again, a blog with a thesis, per se. But I can't come up with any single idea that grabs me, so I'll let this just be a random conglomeration of my writings on anything other than poetry.

Artists and the Amish Hacker

The Amish aren't as anti-technology as you'd think. They'll use gas engines to cut blocks of ice for their non-electric refrigerators, and they'll buy half-millon dollar CNC machines to manufacture tools that run on compressed air so that farmers don't have to use electricity. Check out this article for more unexpected amish tales.

One of the main points raised by the article is that the Amish are a great example of the DIY and Maker cultures that are getting oh so popular lately. The author and other bloggers really admire the amish for their approach to community-sustanence and off-the-grid living.

Indeed, young urbanites seem to be on a path of convergence with the amish; just look into stories about urban foraging, or running a self-sustaining farm in a brooklyn backyard. And just look at Steampunk!

This got me thinking about how future generations are going to adapt to technology. Already I've been noticing a strong anti-technology trend amongst some of my friends, a trend that baffles older generations who expect us youngins to have our laptops and iPhones genetically morphed unto our bodies at all times.

For instance, my recent alma mater, SAIC, forces all students to buy a subsidized MacBook Pro when they enroll at the school. On a study trip last summer, a lot of the students, myself included, chose to leave our laptops at home for the six week trip. We needed the time away from the internet and its distractions, while our professors were shocked that we made this choice voluntarily.

There's this idea that we're becoming ever more dependent on technology, the youth in particular, that we're heading towards the technological singularity. Yet somehow most of the people I know and see on a daily basis are moving in the opposite direction. Most of the people I know don't own a TV, and most of the people I know don't own a car. Indeed, most of the people I know don't constitute a fair slice of American culture, but they do make up what I consider to be part of the trend-setting culture of America.

A lot has been said about artists and their role as cultural path-breakers, and a lot of it's probably bullshit, but there's some truth in there. Look at gentrification. Look at style, look at music. If artist isn't the best descriptor, then lets just settle on young, creative types. These young, creative types aren't rushing to embrace the latest gadget, and they might love myspace but admitting to that is a big no-no these days. And at this point, I bet few of my peers do actually love myspace or facebook. Most seem to hate them and many have abandoned the sites all together.

The trends I'm noticing might also rise from the fact that twenty-somethings like myself are already behind the curve. Maybe we're shunning technology because we can't keep up. One side effect of exponential technology advancements will be that generation gaps widen and become more apparent at smaller increments. For instance, facebook debuted when I was a freshman in college, so it never played a role in my high school social life; neither did text messaging. Hence I've already noticed something akin to a generation gap between myself and kids just two years younger than me in the way they use technology. It scares me. And this process can only increase in the future.

Thus it seems possible that a new subculture is looming, one that takes off-the-grid to it's extreme, a new back to nature movement like the hippies had perhaps. The growth of the Evangelical movement and religious fundamentalism in America could also be exemplary of just such a backlash.

Do I think we'll really all move to the woods? probably not, although I'm hopeful. Do I think we wont be so quick to adapt to new technology as 'adults' think? It'll at least be grudgingly so, kinda like the amish.