Saturday, July 30, 2016

Yards are dumb

I hate yard work!  I mean, I really hate yard work!  But then, who actually enjoys it? Do people actually enjoy planting colorful flowers?  Do they actually like being outside or something?  Inconceivable!

The observant reader may wonder why I am complaining about something so mundane and every-day-boring on a blog that is supposed to be about science, policy, and related topics.  Yes, part of it is that I had to get up and mow the lawn today, and I hated every second of it.  However, there is an argument here about the pure pointlessness of yard work that may slightly resemble my usual preachings.

Basically, maintaining a yard is a colossal waste of energy.  Think about it.  We use however many gallons of water, which expends energy, every week to water our yards, just so that grass will grow tall so that we can then use more energy to make the grass short again.  I mean, if aliens were to observe us, they may think we're insane.  Or stuck in an infinite loop of some kind. And what's the purpose of such a yard?  For dogs to poop in??  As a place for people to step in dog poop?

Okay, okay, those of you with children may say that it's nice for kids to have a place to play in.  I suppose this argument works, but would it really be much worse for kids to play in a rock garden?  It'll toughen them up to roll around in a pile of sharp rocks instead of soft grass.  Of course, they may very well feel deprived of some crucial aspect of childhood development, which would then lead to therapist visits, and medical bills, and disorders associated with early childhood grasslessness.

Another argument that could be made for yards is to have a place to have parties and cookouts. Sure, this may be true, but what's wrong with having these events on hot, black asphalt?  Or in the mud? I'd much prefer that then the soft feeling of grass under my feet.

Whew!  Now that that's off my chest, I need to go spread some weed-and-feed...


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Can Bernie Sanders do it?

Over the course of my life, I have gone from reasonably right-wing and conservative to the far left wing.  My dad would maybe even call me "left of Lenin" as he so often uses to describe his many liberal friends (he is not a liberal).

This upcoming election is no exception to my liberal leanings as I find myself hoping that Bernie Sanders can pull off a win. He is definitely further to the left than Hillary, or really any of the other democratic candidates as far as I can tell.  So, he appeals to me greatly.  He also seems relatively untouched by the corruption of DC, though one can never really know with politicians. 

But can he do it? Can he actually pull off a win? If you could read my Facebook feed, you'd think he definitely has a chance.  But I will certainly admit that my Facebook feed is far from representative, even of American liberals.  And I often wonder, even if he got the nomination, would he actually be a good president?  

I have discussed some of these issues with my realist friend Background Dominated, and as much as I hate to admit it, he has some good points.  For the sake of brevity, I will only focus on one here.  What if Bernie is too good for the presidency?  As unfortunate as it is, politics necessitates a philosophy that is far from idealism.  In other words, the most effective politicians are the ones that are 1) sufficiently moderate to have some common ground with the opposing party and 2) able to play the system and milk it for whatever they can.   

There is no doubt in my mind that Hillary knows how to work the system.  She's clever, devious, and hawkish, and I don't like her at all because of it.  But she may be more effective as President than Sanders.  

I will continue to hope that Sanders will win AND that he will be effective.  But unfortunately, my annoyingly realistic friend may be correct - maybe he just would be too far left and too idealistic to get anything done.   We shall see in the coming months...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Where have I been??

This morning, I was going for a walk, and I realized that it has been almost a year since I posted in my blog.  I am sure that this has been a major disappointment for the millions of loyal readers of my blog. (NOTE: For the sarcasm-impaired, that was sarcasm). 

Anyway, just going to write a brief entry here, describing what I've been up to in the last year and my motivation for starting to write more.  

The main reason the last 12 months or so have been so busy is that I have been applying to faculty jobs in astronomy.   A little background: before one becomes a professor in my field, we have to sustain ourselves through temporary (usually 3 year) research grants.  These grants are either awarded to professors so that they can hire post-docs or (in my case currently) they are awarded directly to the post-doctoral researcher.  I'll spare you the nitty gritty details of how this all works.  The bottom line is that my grant is coming to an end, and it's time that I look for a more permanent position in the field.  

This is a grueling experience, to put it mildly.  We start applying for jobs in the fall, and then we hear back as to whether or not we get an interview by winter.  Finally, interviews are scheduled and jobs are offered in late winter and early spring.  

I applied to several places this year, but came up empty.  Unfortunately, this is more of a result of there being way too many candidates for a given position than any other effect.  Some universities have over 300 applicants (most of whom are qualified), but will make only one hire!  

I am not really complaining here.  I absolutely love what I do, and I am going to search for jobs again and again until I get one.  I just felt the need to explain what has eaten up all of my time this past year (in addition to normal research, travel, meetings, serving on panel reviews, etc.).  Since this blog is supposed to be educational, hopefully this post will serve to shed some light onto what professional astronomers do and what they are up against very often during their career.  We love it, which is why many of us stick with it.  But it certainly makes life interesting.  And by interesting, I mean BUSY.

Anyway, I've rambled on a lot now.  I hope to write more here in the near future.  I love writing about topics that interest me, particularly those with an educational spin on them.  So, keep my page bookmarked, and I'll see you soon.  

P.S. Hopefully, that bastard Background Dominated is too busy doing his dumb X-ray astronomy to even notice the brilliance of my upcoming blog posts.  

Monday, June 30, 2014

More Sci-Fi Stupidity

A while back, I wrote a blog post about all of the stupid things that the humans did in the movie Independence Day.  Of course, many will jump at the chance to say "well, it's just a movie!".  Of course it's just a movie, but I still would like it if the movies I watched were logical and people weren't complete idiots!

That being said, one of my favorite shows of all time, Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a huge offender in the common sense violation category.  Just the other day, I was watching an episode and thinking that there were some pretty blatant holes in the plot.  After thinking about that particular episode (which was The Drumhead in case you're curious), I got on a roll thinking about all of the other very common mistakes made in Star Trek, most of which you can see in almost every episode.  So, I thought it would be fun to write a blog post about this.  After all, being the huge Star Trek fan that I am, I feel that I have the right to both defend the show's honor but make fun of it at the same time.  

Here is a list of the most egregious common sense violations made in Star Trek.  The list is by no means complete, and I am sure I will have more blog posts about it in the future.  But I have to start somewhere!

1) Lab Safety: In almost every episode, Data and Geordi end up doing some really dangerous science experiment about 30 feet away from the engine core.  This makes absolutely no sense, for several reasons.  Of course, there is the obvious fact that nothing so potentially volatile should be carried out in the vicinity of an antimatter-matter reaction chamber.  But let's overlook this blatantly stupid mistake for a second.  The engineering dynamic duo also carry out their experiments right in the middle of the walk way, where potentially other engineers are trying to work or at the very least need to pass through.  Furthermore, these guys are on a freakin Galaxy class starship with more than 30 decks and I forget how many rooms.  Isn't at least one of those rooms a science lab?  Oh yea, I can think of several episodes (e.g., The Offspring, The Best of Both Worlds) where they actually use the lab.  I guess the lab is always booked up when the most dangerous experiments have to be done!

2) Exposed Bridge: OK, I know I am not the first person to think about this, but I have to say it anyway.  Why in the world would starship designers put the command center on the very top and exterior of the vessel??  The little "nodule" where the Bridge is located pretty much screams out to enemy ships "Look at me, I am the command center.  Aim here to win the battle immediately!"  Also, since there is no "up" or "down" in space, why even bother putting the Bridge on the top?  It should be smack dab in the middle of the ship, surrounded by extra shielding and bulk heads!

3) No Auditorium: Is Ten Forward the only place to have events, concerts, and plays? This goes back to my remark above - on a Galaxy class starship, I would imagine there would be at least several concert halls, an auditorium, and a general assembly area.  But for some reason, all of the important events take place in the relatively tiny space of Ten Forward.  The ship has an arboretum for heaven's sakes, but no concert hall?  What if during one of Data's violin performances someone really has a hankering for some non-intoxicating alcohol?  Do they really have to go find another bar somewhere?

4) The Easiest Job:  If I were assigned to the Enterprise and I didn't want to do any work most of the time, I would be asked to be posted in the transporter rooms.  Seriously, except for when Picard chimes in on the communication system screaming to beam someone aboard the ship before they get attacked or their vessel blows up, what does the transporter chief do all day?  I guess on second thought, maybe I wouldn't choose this job. While it would be easy most of the time, it would be excruciatingly boring until it isn't anymore and then someone's life is in your hands while you push a button to disassemble them, beam them to the ship, and then reassemble them.  Wow, what a job!

5) Surge Protectors:  This one comes to me from my old college roommate.  During every battle on the show, the Enterprise inevitably gets struck with a phaser beam or a photon torpedo and as a result, one of the computer consoles shorts out and sparks fly out from the screen. This is a way for "redshirts" to die in the show, but it makes absolutely no sense.  I think we have better surge protection in the 21st century than the 24th!  You'd think at the very least, they'd have some sort of safety shut off system for the computer consoles when they got overloaded.  Or maybe a force field that would drop in front of the screen so that the "redshirt" doesn't get hit with the sparks.  Oy!

All that being said, I still love Star Trek.  And of course, it's not about these logic flaws so much as it is about the story and the characters.  But what can I say - I love a universe where things actually make sense!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Obama's science philosophy

If you've been reading my blog for awhile now, you have probably figured out that I am pretty liberal.  I voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.  While the Democrats definitely don't have it all figured out, I think they are far better than their Republican counterparts.

But this post isn't supposed to get into the whole Elephant vs. Donkey, Red vs. Blue, Right vs. Left thing.  You can just flip back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC if you want that.  

Instead, I want to address something about President Obama that I both like and dislike at the same time.  In general, President Obama is in favor of increased funding for scientific research.  However, that being said, every year around this time, NASA and NSF (the two funding sources for my research) release information about the President's budget request to Congress.  And every year, Obama's proposed funding for space science, astronomy, planetary science (anything NASA basically) takes a hit.  It is sometimes a small cut, such as the budget remaining flat (this is still a cut because if you account for inflation, the budget actually decreases).  Other times, it has shown up as a massive 20% cut to planetary science.  

Instead, Obama has really focused on clean energy and climate change research.  Now, I applaud this.  I think it's excellent that he is trying to address this.  In some ways, I would argue that it is more important to pursue this research than the space-related sciences.  After all, we really really really need to address man-made climate change.  

However, I have a personal saying: "all sciences are equal".  What I mean by this is that in general, one shouldn't favor funding one science over another.  Why is this?  Well, the primary reason is that some of the most important discoveries ever made have been on accident.  For example, look up how Penicillin was discovered, or how the microwave oven was discovered.  By cutting science in one area, we risk losing out on potential discoveries and technologies that will change the way we live. 

Furthermore, in thinking of planetary science in particular, we have an example of the greenhouse effect, so crucial to climate change, right next door.  The planet Venus is actually warmer at its surface than Mercury, even though Mercury is closer to the Sun.  This results from Venus's thick atmosphere, primarily composed of carbon dioxide, heating the planet like a greenhouse. Sound familiar?  So, studying this world and how its atmosphere works may lead to ideas on how to handle our own greenhouse issues here on Earth. 

Venus is about the same size as Earth, but it is extremely hot
because of a run away green house gas effect from its
thick atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide. 


This is just one example.  The universe is full of amazing physical processes that do not occur here on Earth.   Who knows what their discovery could lead to?  

My primary point is that often times, you can't pick and choose what you invent or discover.  So, why cut funding to any of the sciences?  

Now, all that being said, I do understand that climate change is a very very serious threat.  So, I am not going to argue that climate research shouldn't get more money than space research.  It probably should get more.  I just think that we can't cut any of the other sciences!

Back to Obama -- I don't fully blame him.  He's had some really tough decisions to make in a tough economic climate along side an opposition Congress that seems hell bent on destroying anything that Obama does.  This is frustrating, especially since, historically, both Republicans and Democrats have been pretty pro-science (with the exclusion of the far religious right... ugh...). 

So, our nation is suffering from austerity measures that prevent significant increases in funding for science.  That, and we are faced with the threat of climate change.  So, I can see where Obama is coming from.  I just wish it were different.  This is why, every so often, I write my representatives in Congress.  After all, Congress holds the checkbook for the nation, and they ultimately control funding.  I hope everyday that we will move beyond this political gridlock and make real progress, not only in science funding, but on the vast number of issues we have to address.  I will keep hoping and I will keep doing what I can.  

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"Billions and billions..."

All this week, I've been really looking forward to this weekend.  Not because it would be a break from work (well that to some extent of course), but mainly because tomorrow evening (March 9, 2014), the new version of Cosmos is going to air!

I realize that some people may think, "oh, how could it possibly live up to Carl Sagan's Cosmos??", which debuted in 1980 (I was at the ripe old age of negative two) and was, at the time, the most widely watched public television program in America.  My dad still watches it every year, and now that I am an astronomer, I think he enjoys the program even more.  

Carl Sagan was great!  No doubt about that.  Sagan was a wizard at making astronomy accessible and fascinating to the average American.  So, I don't think anything could ever replace the original Cosmos program.  And I am not even sure that we should think of this new Cosmos as an attempt to live up to the old program. 

I would like to think of the new series as something separate, but with a similar aim as the original - to explain the wonders of the universe to the common person.  The host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, will be great in his own way.  I am not sure we will hear him say "billions and billions" in the new program, but he will undoubtedly bring the beauty of the universe into the television sets of millions of Americans in his own way.  Also, we have answered some of the questions that were confounding to astronomers at the time of the original Cosmos, and in the mean time, we have stumbled across new mysteries, which are equally confounding.  In 1980, no one knew that the universe's expansion was accelerating, leading to the discovery of something astronomers refer to as "dark energy" for the lack of a better term.

So, things are different now.  The original Cosmos was great, and I remember reading the book version of the series as a kid.  But this will be a new series, with updated information and a brand new host.  

With that, I encourage all of you to tune in to watch the new Cosmos when it airs (or find it elsewhere if you are reading this after the series has aired).  My push for you to watch it is not because I think science funding should be increased or because I want you to understand what I do for a living.  But simply because the wonders of the universe are incredible and they will blow your mind.  That, and with the vastly improved graphical abilities that have emerged over the past 3 decades, the program promises to deliver visualizations that will be absolutely stunning.

I leave you now with a sort of "preview" of the program that I found from YouTube.  It sure as hell gave me goosebumps!

The Most Astounding Fact (Neil deGrasse Tyson)


Saturday, February 1, 2014

The future of humanity

Welcome to 2014!  This is my first post of the new year, and today, I am feeling a bit philosophical.  That is, at least, more than usual.

These days, the most popular TV shows and movies are usually pretty dark and gloomy.  Many movies have a post-apocalyptic setting, whether it be dystopian societies like that portrayed in the Hunger Games or people running away from freaky, gross zombies (by the way, I hate zombie movies...).   A lot of the current story writing is very likely a result of our not-so-rosy outlook on life right now, especially with the rise of threats like terrorism and poverty.  We all feel like the world is on the brink of destruction.

Maybe we are right.  I don't believe in superstitions that tell us the world will end on a specific date (it's worth noting that December 21, 2012 came and went without incident), but that doesn't mean we aren't edging closer to annihilation. Even my parents generation had to live through the fear associated with the Cold War, and I am sure the word "apocalypse" popped into everyone's heads quite often back then.

But what will really happen to our species?  Everyone has their opinions, and mine seems to shift daily depending on my mood.  But for me, there has always been more hope than fear, and I generally favor a more optimistic view of our future.  It probably helped that my favorite show growing up was Star Trek: The Next Generation (the other "Treks" were good too of course, but I don't want to get too far off topic).  When I watched it as a kid, I didn't consciously appreciate the inherent optimism that the show had.  I enjoyed it because I liked space and science fiction, and I wanted to see weird aliens and the "space-time anomalies" that the crew would so often encounter.

However, I think even back then, some part of me absorbed the optimistic view of the future that Gene Roddenberry always insisted on in writing Star Trek.  I certainly appreciate it now as I am able to see a deeper meaning in so many of the story lines.

In the show's canon, hundreds of years in the future, humans have evolved culturally and have used science and technology to explore the galaxy and develop a near utopian society.

This idea makes for great science fiction.  But can we do the same in reality?  Even if we were to avoid destroying ourselves through war or climate change or any other human-caused disaster, we are still susceptible to destruction by natural disasters, such as an asteroid on a collision course with Earth or the eventual death of our Sun -- in about 4.5 billion years, the Sun will grow to become a red giant star destroying the Earth in the process (and yes, I realize that's a long time from now, but it's still a finite amount of time - it will happen).

So, eventually, if we are to survive ourselves or whatever our solar system throws at us, we are going to have to evolve beyond our current situation.  And we will need science and technology to do it.  We have already put some of this science into use by tracking nearby asteroids that may collide with the Earth (though, frighteningly, the funding for such programs is constantly under threat of being cut).  

Let me repeat it: we need science and technology to survive the future.  Some of you may be quick to point out that it is science and technology that produced atrocities like Hiroshima.  That is true, though war has been a part of humanity for a long time.  Science and technology have just made it easier to kill lots of people much faster.  So, not only do we need science and technology to survive the future, but we also need to evolve out of our cultural infancy.

Let's stop going to war and killing other humans.  Let's stop polluting our precious planet.  Let's stop bitching about politicians closing bridges down to one lane of traffic or about how many executive orders the President has given.  Let us instead make our future brighter, safer, and happier.  I believe that humans can do it.  We just need to step back and see the endless opportunities that are out there, waiting to be found.