Archive for March 2014

Flop Sweat, GOP edition

March 30, 2014

At least some Republicans have grasped what it means — maybe for 2014, certainly later — if/when Obamacare is and is seen to be a success:

“I don’t think it means anything,” [Sen. John]Barrasso said on “Fox News Sunday” about the news that 6 million people had signed up for health care plans. “I think they’re cooking the books on this.”

Barrasso, (R-Not-Liz-Cheney’s-real-home-state) is not your garden variety Republican talking horse. He is, in fact, the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee — which is a post that puts you on the GOP leadership team in the upper house. This is, in other words, someone taken seriously by people who have plenty of evidence to suggest they shouldn’t. And this Very Serious Person is telling the Most Misled Viewership™ in America that any reports that might have troubled their spotless minds about the possibility that Obamacare may succeed are skewed, false, nothing-to-see-here-move-along lies of the sort they’ve come to expect from the Kenyan Mooslim Usurper.


Given that the argument for the last several months has been that the new health care law is an obvious and abject failure, just waiting for that one last shove to send it crashing on to the ash-heap of history, evidence of the law actually functioning pretty much as designed is a disaster.

I suspect Barrasso grasps the difficulty he faces. Facts have a habit of willing out — and the many millions covered by the new health marketplaces, by Medicaid, by extended access to their parents’ policies — are going to be acutely aware if their health insurance falls under renewed threat. So (in a rhetorical move that might confuse the uninitiated) Barrosso adds the inevitable “numbers are irrelevant” dodge:

Barrasso said people care more about what kind of plans people are purchasing and whether they can keep their doctors, not how many people have signed up for new plans.

Maybe so. Fox News viewers (and anchors) may continue to believe this kind of nonsense. But those who have the good fortune to live in places where denialism isn’t what’s for breakfast know better. And they vote. As do their kids, their friends, the whole shooting match.

I just hope they do so this November.

Image: Frans Hals, Regents of the St. Elizabeth Hospital of Haarlem, 1641.




The Way We Live Now

March 25, 2014

Via friend/great science writer Steve Silberman, this very funny, hurts-too-much-to-laugh insight into the tools with which our corporate overlords wrest control of our brains:

Oh brave new world that has such creativity in’t

The Most Exciting Sentence I’ve Read This Decade…

March 18, 2014

…Would be this one:

 We find an excess of B -mode power over the base lensed- CDM expectation in the range 30 < ` <  150, inconsistent with the null hypothesis at a significance of >  5 δ.

That’s from the abstract to this paper, released yesterday, in which the team using the BICEP microwave detector at the South Pole reports on their analysis of three years of data taken from 2010-2012.

So what’s that all about?  It’s the best evidence yet that a fundamental pillar of Big Bang cosmology is right, that a concept named inflation does in fact describe what happened within the first instant of the formation of our universe.  Here’s how Alan Guth, the inventor of the idea describes it:

This theory is a new twist on big bang theory, proposing a novel picture of ho the universe behaved for the first minuscule fraction of a second of its existence.

The central feature of the theory is a brief period of extraordinary rapid expansion, of inflation,  which lasted for a time interval perhaps as short as 10^-30 seconds.  During this period the universe expanded by at least a factor of 10^25, and perhaps a great deal more. [Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe, p. 14.]

Guth’s initial version of inflation theory has been refined significantly since its origins in the late 1970s, and in its modern form inflation has become part of the basic toolkit of cosmological investigation.  The universe we observe doesn’t make sense unless something occurred to explain, for just one example, the way the universe looks basically the same everywhere, when viewed on the largest scale.  Inflation as the idea has evolved has become the best available explanation (though there have been competing models) for this and other observed cosmological properties.  But the challenge has been to find some tell-tale sign that shows* that inflation actually happened.

It’s been clear for a long time where such signs might lie:  in the cosmic microwave background (CMB),  a snapshot of the cosmos taken at a moment called “recombination,” when the universe cooled down enough to permit electrons and protons to come together to form (mostly) neutral hydrogen atoms.  Photons — light — that up till that moment had been embraced in electromagnetic dances with charged particles were then unshackled to fly freely through space, carrying with them the traces of where they’d been just before that liberation — which came just 380,000 years after the big bang.


Over time (13.8 billionyears), thatextremely hot (energetic) spray of light has cooled to 2.7 Kelvins — 2.7 degrees above absolute zero — and is now detectable as those very long wavelengths of light called microwaves.  This  microwave background was identified in 1965 as a generalized blur covering the entire sky; increasingly sophisticated measurements have revealed more and more detail.  Over the last twenty fiveyears those observations have turned into a probe of what happened between the big bang and the flash of the CMB itself:  each newly precise measurement constrains the possible physics that gave rise to the details thus revealed.  Step by step, each new level of detail narrow the options for what could have occurred during the big bang era — and the chain of events that lead from cosmic origins to us becomes increasingly clear.

In the 1990s,  improving resolution of CMB images revealed spots on the sky where there is slightly more energy in that microwave background — corresponding to regions in the early universe with slightly more matter-energy than surrounding regions.  Such variations account for why there are lots of galaxies full of stars in some places, and vast voids in other:  over millions and billions of years, gravity can work on very slight variations in initial density to sort matter into that kind of pattern.

With the advance of both space and ground based microwave imagers, it’s become possible to sample the CMB in vastly greater detail, and thus uncover much more than the simple (easy for me to say) evolution of structure in the universe.  For example, CMB researchers have identified several acoustic peaks in the background — literally, the ringing of the early universe, pressure waves produced by the interaction of light and matter in the very early universe.  The particular properties of those peaks reveal basic facts about the universe — and help distinguish between different theories about how we get the cosmos we inhabit from the big bang whose traces we see in the CMB.

Before today, the state of play was that CMB results were most consistent with the  predictions of inflation, compared with other candidate ideas.  At the same time though, observations that are consistent-with are not the same as direct observations of the cosmological equivalent of the miscreant’s fingerprints on the knife.  That’s what the BICEP results deliver.

In simplest terms:  modern theories of cosmic inflation say that immediately after some tiny perturbation occurs that marks the birth of a universe, it gets pulled apart by inflation — which you can think of as negative gravity, a gravitational field that stretches space-time.  The inflationary episode is so powerful that it expands the infant universe by orders of magnitude in fractions of a second — as some say, inflation provides the bang in the big bang — and it’s so violent that as space-time undergoes such wild tugs, ripples form.  Those ripples are gravitational waves — predicted by Albert Einstein, inferred from the behavior of pulsars, but never detected directly.  An observation of such primordial fluctuations, variations in the strength of the gravitational field from point to point in the early universe, would offer the first direct glimpse of traces of an inflationary episode marking the birth of our cosmos.

And that’s what BICEPs results contain:  the team led by John Kovac at the Harvard – Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Clem Pryke at the University of Minnesota, Jamie Bock at Caltech/JPL, and Chao-Lin Kuo of Stanford and SLAC report the detection of the signature of gravity waves in the CMB with the properties corresponding to those predicted to be produced by inflation.

In slightly more detail, the BICEP experiment observed a particular pattern of polarization in the light (microwaves) of the CMB that inflation would be expected to produce.   (Many more details:   web resources from the BICEP team and partner institutions;  quick semi-technical gloss on the results from Sean B. Carroll;  Matt Strassler’s take; Dennis Overbye’s account in the NYT.)

One key caveat before the wind up:  this is one result from one group.  It is reported with great confidence (that five sigma claim).  But something this big needs independent confirmation — data from the Planck satellite for example, or more ground based observations from other microwave detectors.  This isn’t yet a done deal.

Such confirmation (or disproof) will come fairly quickly — a few years at most.

In the meantime, assuming the data do hold up, what would that mean (forgive me) more cosmically?

At the very least:  that we now understand in previously unattainable detail how our current habitat emerged from nothing (or better, “nothing”).  That the idea of a multiverse — other patches of space time that underwent an inflationary episode to form island universes of their own — has now gained a boost (if one patch of space-time can inflate, so could others)….

…or to put in mythic terms:  there is grandeur in this view of life (the cosmos).  Paraphrasing an old friend, astronomer Sandra Faber, with this new, richer, more fully realized picture of the birth of the universe we have once again enriched that creation story that only science tells, the one that connects the earth we inhabit today with a process of cosmic evolution that we now can trace back all the way to just the barest instant this side of the point of origin.

A good day.

*To a close approximation — this is physics.  You want certainty, become a mathematician.

[Thanks to Dr Katherine J. Mack of the University of Melbourne, aka @AstroKatie, who helped make sure no egregious errors slipped through.  Any mistakes, major or minor, that remain are mine, all mine.]

Image:  J. W. M. Turner, The Beacon Lightc. 1840

PS:  Bonus video showing one of the founding architects of inflation theory receiving news of the result:

Inequality Kills. Policy Drives Inequality. Elections Matter

March 16, 2014

Annie Lowrey in The New York Times today:

Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. Just outside of Washington, fat government contracts and a growing technology sector buoy the median household income in Fairfax County up to $107,000, one of the highest in the nation. McDowell, with the decline of coal, has little in the way of industry. Unemployment is high. Drug abuse is rampant. Median household income is about one-fifth that of Fairfax.

One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq.

There have long been stark economic differences between Fairfax County and McDowell. But as their fortunes have diverged even further over the past generation, their life expectancies have diverged, too. In McDowell, women’s life expectancy has actually fallen by two years since 1985; it grew five years in Fairfax. [Links in the original]


Lowrey is careful to note that the causal connection between poverty and longevity (or its absence) is hard to establish, and the data are both incomplete and fraught with co- and confounding factors.  But such caution does not in the end distract her from the basic point of her reporting:

It is hard to prove causality with the available information. County-level data is the most detailed available, but it is not perfect. People move, and that is a confounding factor. McDowell’s population has dropped by more than half since the late 1970s, whereas Fairfax’s has roughly doubled. Perhaps more educated and healthier people have been relocating from places like McDowell to places like Fairfax. In that case, life expectancy would not have changed; how Americans arrange themselves geographically would have.

“These things are not nearly as clear as they seem, or as clear as epidemiologists seem to think,” said Angus Deaton, an economist at Princeton.

Further, there is nothing to suggest that, for a given individual, getting a raise in pay or moving between counties would mean outliving her peers.

“The statistical term is the ecological fallacy,” Mr. Kindig said. “We can’t apply aggregate data to an individual, and that’s underappreciated when you’re looking at these numbers.” But, “having said that, I still think that the averages and the variation across counties tells us a lot,” he added. “We don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good here.”

Despite the statistical murk, many epidemiologists, economists and other researchers say that rising income inequality may be playing into the rising disparity in health and longevity. “We can’t say that there is no effect, just because we don’t have clear methods to test the effect,” said Hui Zheng, a sociologist at Ohio State University…

Mr. Zheng has also posited that inequality, by socially disenfranchising certain groups and making them distrustful of public systems, may have a long-range effect on health.

To some extent, the broad expansion of health insurance to low-income communities, as called for under Obamacare, may help to mitigate this stark divide, experts say. And it is encouraging that both Republicans and Democrats have recently elevated the issues of poverty, economic mobility and inequality, But the contrast between McDowell and Fairfax shows just how deeply entrenched these trends are, with consequences reaching all the way from people’s pocketbooks to their graves.

I’ll mostly pass over Lowrey’s seeming willingness to take as hopeful recent Republican rhetoric on poverty absent any policy proposals that would do anything about it, whilst continuing to propose, inter alia, the destruction of Obamacare, the one program she cites as having the potential to help.  This kind of both-sides-ism seems to be an ineradicable MSM pathology.

What matters much more is the basic point to draw from the evidence within Lowrey’s piece:  poverty kills — or perhaps better, wealth saves. Increases in inequality correlate with an increasing gap between rich and poor on the most basic of measures, how long we all get to enjoy the pursuits of life, liberty and happiness.  Policies that drive such inequality, or do nothing to mitigate, are implicated in those lost years, in deaths before time.  Those policies are the current program of the Republican Party.

Literally:  Vote like your live depends on it.

Image: Albrecht Dürer, The Death of Crescentia Pirckheimer, 1504.

I Didn’t Know The FSM Loved TBogg This Much…

March 14, 2014

Or me, for that matter.  What fun we will have:

Fox News contributor and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin will be launching her own digital video channel, tentatively called “Rogue TV,” a source familiar with the project told Capital….


Palin’s channel will feature video commentaries from the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, discussing current events and political issues….

“Think of it as a video version of her Facebook page,” the source said….


I have to hear that again:

“Think of it as a video version of her Facebook page,” the source said….

Oh joy! Oh rapture!  Television history in the making.

It will also have advice and guidance from Palin, such as tips for parents and recipes. There are also tentative plans to have subscribers engage in regular video chats with Palin.

My mom always told me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say…

Oh hell. Why not.  Quick folks, tell me true: who among you wants to take parent advice from Sarah freaking Palin, that model of continence and … hell, I’m not going to fill in that blank.

Recipes, maybe.  You never know.

Go read the all the hilarious goodness here.

BTW:  Palin will go Rogue on TAPP — which is an online TV service founded by MSM types so beloved of the former half-term can’t-hold-a-job ex-governor who will now be able to serve word salad (with a side of bile) via the intertubes.  That’s not exactly the penthouse of contemporary broadcasting.  I do think that online video is the way we’ll receive all our programming very soon, at this very moment Palin on “Rogue TV” is kind of like Nickleback doing a gig at the local motorcycle shop.

On the upside, we’ll be able to get some more metrics on the true reach of Palin’s grift.  The article mentions it will cost $10/month to subscribe.  That’s real money.  Be interesting to see what Palin can actually draw at this point in her magnificent con.

And last — I’m so glad TBogg will have so much new material with which to hold us all in

Image: B. W. Kilburn, The Idiot Monument, Monumental Park, Colorado 1877.

Oklahoma, Jake

March 13, 2014

I have to confess.  Can’t claim I’m terribly surprised by this:*

There’s not been a lot of discussion of evolution in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos so far, and yet a very slight reference to it was so upsetting to Fox’s Oklahoma City affiliate that they just “happened” to run a promo for the nightly news over the show’s sole mention it, as you can see in the above video.

Hit the link (to the delightful io9) to see what so spooked the delicate sensibilities of the good folks at Fox25 Oklahoma City.


On the one hand, I’m glad:  the competitive advantage of the science-friendly states can only grow in the face of willed ignorance elsewhere.  On the other, I’m terribly sad.  I don’t live only on my block; I’m a citizen of a commonwealth, a country and a member of  a global commons.  The more such idiocy persists, the more we all lose.

*Back when I was working w. Neil deGrasse Tyson on the NOVA series Origins, I made the film on the evolution of the universe to the chemical conditions compatible with earth-like life.  I wanted to call it “In the beginning,” for obvious reasons.  My elders and betters morphed that to “Back to the Beginning” — which manages to offend those who would be offended anyway while losing all the force of original.  So it ain’t just Fox, ya know.

Image via.

Tonight! ‘Net Radio: Me and Eileen Pollack on “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science”

March 12, 2014

That’d be my regular monthly gig co-hosting Virtually Speaking Science, tonight, Wednesday March 12, 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT.

Eileen Pollack is now a professor at the University of Michigan, teaching in the creative writing M.F.A. program there.  She’s a celebrated novelist and writer of short fiction, essays, and what is called (alas, in my view — and not her fault) “creative” nonfiction.  You can get hold of her works here.  All in all, hers is an enormously impressive record of a life in letters, of worlds made in words.

Eileen Pollack in 1978 was someone quite different (weren’t we all…) That spring, she graduated from Yale with highest honors in physics — only the second woman in the history of the university to complete that major.  What happened to take someone who was, on the accolades, one of Yale’s most accomplished undergraduate physicists, and turn her to a radically different path?

Pollack answered that question and raised another one in her New York Times Magazine article “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science?” published last October.  In her case, no one told her she might have a shot at a career in math or physics.  So, as conditioned by her context’s views on female capacity and the maleness of science as any of the male professors who never thought to encourage her, she gave up the joy she found in equations and the ideas they expressed, and moved on.

So far hers is a sorrowful but not unfamiliar story.  The history of barriers to entry in science is a miserable one, but not unknown.  But Pollack’s curiosity — and more — flared in 2005, when then Harvard president Larry Summers mused about a possible biological deficit — at least when it comes to the extremes of mathematical capacity — might explain why men so outnumber women in the physical sciences.  Pollack is gentle with Summers himself, whom she’s known for decades , but the controversy created a need to know the answer to the underlying issue.  It’s a fact that there are many more men than women hold positions in the upper echelons of scientific research.  But why?


Pollack’s article, and the book that will emerge from her enquiry, engage that question, and the explanations she’s coming to are at once depressingly reminiscent of her own story, and extend them, to account for the persistence of cultural and social bias even when (a) formal discrimination is prohibited by law and (b) members of a community — like physics departments — pride themselves on their ability to separate emotion and unconscious impulses from the exercise of reason.

In other words:  being smart is no protection against hidden biases, or even against accepting the evidence of bias when rigorously documented…and the revolution isn’t won yet, not by a long shot.

Pollack and I will be talking about all that, the whys the wherefores, and some thought as to what it will take to turn formal commitments to gender equity (and by extension, equity for the whole host of relevant modifiers) into actual practice, the simple fabric of society.

Join us!  Live or later here.  Or, if you are virtually real, at the Exploratorium’s Second Life joint — 6 p.m. this evening, March 12, 2014.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, Experiment with the Air Pumpc. 1768