Programming Note/Self Aggrandizement — Vulcan/Planet Nine Edition

Posted January 29, 2016 by Tom
Categories: astronomy, radio, Self-aggrandizement, Uncategorized

Tags:

Hey, all:  if you’ve got a moment this afternoon, I’ll be talking with Ira Flatow on Science Friday about The Hunt for Vulcan in the context of last week’s announcement about Planet Nine.

Radio_King_poster

I’ll be on in the second hour, starting at around 3:20 ET, maybe a couple of ticks before, and rabbiting on with Ira until about 3:38.  Some NPR stations fecklessly omit the second hour of Science Friday, so check local listings.  You can always catch it live or later at the Science Friday site.

While there may be better ways to spend 18 minutes of your life…there are surely worse ones too.  Come on down if you’ve time and the inclination.

Image: Poster for the film, The Radio King, 1922.

Res Ipsa Loquitur: Obama Derangement/Immigration Edition

Posted January 28, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Obama, Republican follies, Two Parties -- Not the Same

Tags: ,

I really do think the Democrats would have a lock on election success if only Obama would say publicly that drinking Drano(hemlock?) is a bad idea.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_Google_Art_Project (1)

For the latest on that score, check this out:

Most Americans say they back a plan that would allow certain illegal immigrants to stay in the country, but support for the idea slips when President Barack Obama’s name is attached to the question, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.

That is:

Sixty-one percent of Americans supported Obama’s plan — which shields some undocumented immigrants from deportation — when they were not told Obama had taken the action, according to the poll released Wednesday. While half of Republicans rejected the plan when described this way, 42 percent of Republicans supported it.

Told that the idea was Obama’s, though…and this happened:

Support fell to 54 percent overall, with only 31 percent of Republicans supporting it and 62 percent opposing the measures.

I guess that the fact that almost a third of Republicans still managed to hang on to their view exceeds my expectations.  But a 20 percent swing attributable only to the horror at lining up with the Kenyan Moooslim Socialist Usurper is a measure of the triumph of the worst elements in our polity.  They’ve managed to make agreement with even the most mild of sensible ideas an existential horror for too many.  (See criminal justice reform for another reminder.)

As long as that prevails (and it looks like it will for quite a while) we’ve got problems. And the urgent need to elect a Democrat to the Presidency this November.

It Came From Planet Nine

Posted January 26, 2016 by Tom
Categories: astronomy, General Relativity, Mathematics, Science, Self-aggrandizement

Tags: ,

There be dragons out there, waaaaay out there, in the dark, off the edge of the map.

Or rather, a virtuoso combination of observation and mathematical modeling has led to an exciting, in some ways joyously old-school prediction. Orbital oddities identified in a handful of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) were subjected to the same kind of inquiry that allowed 19th century astronomers to infer Neptune from Uranus’s behavior, in what was widely understood to be a triumph of Isaac Newton’s “System of the World.”

William_Blake_-_Isaac_Newton_-_WGA02217

The new analysis, by two Caltech astronomers, theoretician Konstantin Batygin and the observer and Slayer-of-Pluto Michael Brown, has led to a broad outline of what to expect — a ~10 Earth mass planet travelling a very eccentric orbit that never comes closer to the sun than ~250 Earth-Sun distances, a unit of measure known as the Astronomical Unit.

I’m sure many of you saw the news about this last week.  Alexandra Witze in Nature had a  good write-up, as did Alan Burdick in The New Yorker.  (For those (quite a few) on the blog with the urge to read the original Batygin-Brown paper — go here.)

I couldn’t be more excited by the news.  I sometimes forget what an extraordinary run of solar system exploration I’ve been privileged to witness.  The variety we’ve found exists in our near-environment has leapt unbelievably, just in the last two or  three decades, and the richness and complexity of our own solar system is allowing us to make more sense of the process of planet and planetary system formation as more and more data emerges about exo-systems.

But for all that excitement, there’s something special about a new major planet.  As I write in The Hunt for Vulcan [Shameless Plug Here], the idea of a whole new world joining the neighborhood had enormous romantic power in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  Arguably, given our present immersion in the imagined reality of multiple worlds, that romance cuts deeper still today.

But. ButButButButBut….it’s important to remember that a prediction, no matter how well supported, how seemingly necessary, isn’t the same thing as proof, as the discovery itself.  That’s what I tried to say in this essay on the subject.  A sample:

In 1846, the discovery of Neptune turned Le Verrier into a celebrity; for a time, he was the most famous man of science in the world. He went on an international tour and seized the moment to rise to the top of power in the highly contentious and hierarchical world of French astronomy. Batygin and Brown are taking a much more measured tack with Planet Nineand for good reason.  “We felt quite cautious about making the statement we made,” Batygin says.  Why such concern? Because, he says, “immediately after the detection of Neptune spurious claims of planets in outer solar system began to surface. We didn’t want to be another red herring.”

It wasn’t just the distant reaches of the solar system that tripped people up: 

Johannes_Vermeer_-_The_Astronomer_-_WGA24685

The only problem being, of course, that Vulcan was never there.

I’m much more hopeful for Batygin and Brown’s Planet Nine, but hopeful don’t pay the rent — or, as Batygin told me:

“If Newton is right, then I think we’re in pretty good shape,” says Batyagin. “We’re after a real physical effect that needs explanation. The dynamics of our model are persuasive.” And yet, he adds, that’s not enough. “Until Planet Nine is caught on camera it does not count as being real. All we have now is an echo.”

There’s a surfeit of terrestrial crazy to weigh us down.  It’s a relief, I find, to look up and out, and contemplate the ordered mysteries that so thoroughly dwarf Comrade Trump’s Yuuuuuggggge self conceit.

Images:  William Blake, Isaac Newton1795

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomerc. 1668

Y’all Qaeda Pissing You Off? Fire A Phone Call, Not A Glock

Posted January 6, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Crime, Fundamentalisms, Guns, libertarian nonsense, Massive Fail, quis custodiet ipsos custodes, Stupidity, The Way We Live Now, Uncategorized, Why Do They Hate America So?

Tags: , , ,

I’m enraged by the news in Zander’s post over at Balloon Juice.  Happy to let any of seditionists out of the Malheur HQ — but only into the welcoming arms of federal custody.

That’s a legitimate political view — and you know what sane and patriotic people do with such views?  They call their representatives in Washington to let them know how they feel.

'Telephone_Operator'_by_Gerrit_A._Beneker (1)

I just left a message at Senator Warren’s office and spoke to a nice young (I’m guessing) staffer in Rep. Joe Kennedy’s.  Markey is next on my list.  I told them how disgusted I was at the action of the Malheur thugs — stealing our property, yours, mine, and the whole damn American people’s while, many of them, stealing from the public till for years and years.

The key though is that I also made a request:  I want my Congressional representatives to put the question to federal law enforcement as to why they are not enforcing the law, either by denying the radical right wing intimidators their freedom of movement as long as they remain on the people’s property, or by arresting them when they do choose to wander.

It’s not much, but it’s not nothing either.  These folks only succeed because their supporters are vocal and active, while the hundreds of millions whom they rip off, disrespect and aim to intimidate and coerce just want to go about their business.  A little volume on our side of the playground is actually significant.

So call your official peeps!  Takes a minute or two, and it’s worth the effort.  This is also one where the partisan identification of your representatives matters a little less than on some of the calls to action this blog has made.  Armed take-overs of public buildings strikes a little close to home for a lot of Congressfolk.

So call! Be polite; know the message you want to send; thank the kids on the other end of the line for their help; and lets start making the country marginally more sane, one firmly worded dispatch at a time.

The phone numbers:

House and Senate switchboard: 202-224-3121.  Individual senator phone numbers.  Individual representative phone numbers. (Both lists by state.  You can sort by last name as well.)

Have at it, friends.

Image: Gerrit A. Beneker, Telephone Operator (A Weaver of Public Thought) 1921.

I Blame Obama

Posted January 1, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Military, Obama, The Way We Live Now, War

Tags: ,

Here’s a piece of unequivocal good news with which to start the last full year of the Obama presidency:

The executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal response on the issue, said in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio this week that [New York] city had “effectively” ended chronic homelessness among veterans.

Lives change:

In 2015 alone, the city placed more than 1,000 veterans in permanent housing, according to city officials. Several weeks ago, at Clinton Avenue Residence, a new 43-unit development in the Bronx specifically for veterans, several men dragged garbage bags with their belongings through the gleaming lobby and into their studio apartments.

“I woke up and there wasn’t a person sleeping three feet away,” Eric Peters, 54, an Air Force veteran who has been in and out of homelessness for decades, said the next morning.

Mednyánszky,_László_-_Reclining_Soldier_(ca_1916)

New York City is doing better than many places, though not uniquely so.  Homelessness among vets is down 36% nationwide, and, as The New York Times reports,

 Houston, Las Vegas and New Orleans, among several cities, [have] effectively ending overall veteran homelessness, meaning they have identified all homeless veterans, not just the chronic cases, and placed them in homes.

Why has this happened? Because:

The city’s efforts are part of a broader federal initiative, started under President Obama and aimed at ending veteran homelessness in the United States. The federal housing agency, working in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, has now distributed 79,000 rental assistance vouchers to veterans across the country dating to 2008.

Three cheers for both the hard work being done at both the national and local levels.  I hope the program serves as a model to tackle homelessness writ large — but I have no problem with selecting veterans as the first to demonstrate that the world’s last superpower does not in fact have to house its people in cardboard boxes.

But I do want to point out what’s obvious in this crowd, and should be so in the wide world:  this is what respect — and more, support — for those who serve our military looks like.  The next time your wingnut acquaintance spouts about the Muslim Kenyan Usurpers disregard for the armed services, point this out to her or him — and ask him which GOPster has made this a priority.

Happy new year all.  Going to be an interesting ride in this year of our [insert pasta shape here] 2016

Image:  Ladislav Medňanský, Reclining Soldier, c. 1916.

Happy Newtonmas

Posted December 25, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Isaac Newton, rare sincerity

Tags: ,

Let us raise a toast to a fatherless child, born on this day (sort of — given that Julian-Gregorian kerfluffle) who would one day bring a new revelation into the world.

Isaac Newton Kneller portrait 1689

Happy birthday, my man Izzy!

Top of the day to everyone here, in every mode of celebration.

Image: Sir Godfrey Kneller, Isaac Newton, 1689. (This one is likely a copy)

A 21st Century Mother-and-Child

Posted December 24, 2015 by Tom
Categories: brain and mind, Cool Images, rare sincerity, Uncategorized

Tags:

Thought I’d try one post this year without politics or snark, and this is it.

A couple of weeks ago I put this up at The Boston Globe‘s site — and it is, I believe, behind a pay wall.  The Globe is kind enough to release the material back to me to post after a bit, as long as I credit and link back to the original posting (see what I did there) — so here it is.  If the image has any resonance this time of year for you….good.  And if what its maker has to say about the multiplication of possibilities it embodies adds a little joy to the picture?  So much the better.

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A mother cradling her infant child.

If the better angels of human nature were to prevail, this picture could become one of those pictures — a single frame that captures an essential piece of the 21st century.

Two human beings, stripped way past bare: two brains, connected in a universal human pose, a mother cradling her infant child.

SaxeTakahashi_MRI_April2015

Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist (and my colleague) at MIT, is a maestro of the camera that can make such images, the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI. To create an fMRI portrait, a subject must lie still inside a narrow cylinder, the inside of a giant electromagnet. The artful manipulation of electromagnetic fields catches the brain in the act — not quite the act of thinking, but of working, nerve cells grabbing oxygen to power the action that ultimately adds up to an idea, a gesture, a feeling.

Making a functional magnetic resonance image demands a lot of its subjects. In a return to the earliest days of photography, you have to lie still for minutes to allow the fMRI machine to complete its tour of your skull. “Moving just a millimeter leaves a blur on the screen,” as Saxe writes at Smithsonian.com. “The mother and baby must hold their pose, as if for a daguerreotype.”

Saxe’s work centers on a fundamental question: How people grapple with the realization that other people have thoughts inside their heads — an area of research called “theory of mind.”

Becoming aware of the fact that people around you are thinking and learning to analyze what those thoughts might be, is a capacity that human beings develop over time — which has led Saxe to attempt to make fMRI images of ever younger children. That allows her to track how growing brains, growing people, form the ability to imagine the reality of other’s minds.

There’s no science in Saxe’s picture of herself with her son — or rather, there’s no data to be used in any formal extension of her theory of mind research. Instead, one reading of the image is simply as a marker, a measure of the current state of a scientific project. Saxe writes that the juxtaposition of her mature brain with the just-getting-started one of her son is the “depiction of one of the hardest problems in neuroscience: How will changes in that specific little organ accomplish the unfolding of a whole human mind?”

That is: This picture captures a key step in the process of discovery — the moment when a human invention extends the reach of human senses into realms that were until then not just unexplored but unreachable. New instruments don’t just reveal more of something, more detail, better precision, or what have you. Often, as here, they open windows onto whole new vistas. We’re a very long way yet from answering Saxe’s question, but in the sight of her and her son’s brains we can recognize that an answer is possible.

That’s reason enough to borrow an afternoon of scanner time — but that’s not the whole story behind this picture. Saxe says she and her colleagues made this particular fMRI image “because we wanted to see it.” She reads in it a specific story, an argument. Mother and Child is an old, old trope, in art and in human experience, and as Saxe writes, there is a reflex to elevate “the maternal values, and the women who embody them” to the exclusion of the possibility (or propriety) of those same women exercising their smarts in any out-of-the-home role.

Mary_Cassat_-_Mothers_Kiss_-_NGC_29879

Saxe with her son, depicted and depicting — as she writes, neuroscientist and mother — collude in the same single frame. That was the goal, to create “an old image made new.” And there it is, in the traditional gesture of a mother kissing her child, and the utterly new view of that caress from the inside out.

To me, for all that Saxe’s gloss is so clearly readable in her picture, there’s a yet broader idea expressed. There’s a lot of loose talk around the so-called two cultures of the humanities and sciences, often presented as two sharply distinct ways of making sense of the world. Saxe’s picture gives the lie to that simplistic framing. Art does many things, but certainly one of them is to give us images that confront us with shards of the strange experience of being human. Science, an artful craft, can do the same — as it does here.

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Back to regularly scheduled rage, weariness, snark, schadenfreude, celebrations of the discomfiture of our adversaries and random brain bubbles after this.  Happy Saturnalia, all.

Image:  Mary Cassatt, Mother’s Kissbetween 1890 and 1891.


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