Archive for September, 2010

Interesting Reading…

Posted in Astronomy with tags , , on September 30, 2010 by davidnm2009

Oddly enough, on telescope deadline day, a lot of interesting papers have a habit of turning up on arxiv.org, as people try and drum up interest in their proposals.

This in particular caught my eye:


http://arxiv.org/abs/1009.5733

Basically, the authors are claiming the discovery of a 3.2 Earth-mass planet, orbiting inside the habitable zone of the star Gliese 581. If substantiated, this object would be the current best candidate outside of our solar system for a ‘habitable’ planet. (Although I dare say, at 3 Earth masses the surface gravity would probably be a bit high for human beings…) Now, I haven’t had a chance yet to read the paper thoroughly, so I’m not going to comment as to whether I buy it or not, but it’s certainly interesting.

In addition, there’s also another paper on one of the other planets in the Gliese 581 system (planet d, as it happens). This object is sort-of around the outer fringes of the system’s habitable zone, so depending on its atmosphere it may or may not be warm enough for liquid water. This paper is looking at the impact its atmosphere may have on this situation.

This is all ahead of the flood we can expect next year, when the 400 or so held-back Kepler objects go public. Interesting times…

Mini-Hiatus

Posted in Personal on September 29, 2010 by davidnm2009

Blog-age will be rather light, probably until at least Friday.

It’s crunch time if I want this telescope proposal to go somewhere (deadline is 11 AM tomorrow…).

Super-Wheat

Posted in Science with tags , , on September 26, 2010 by davidnm2009

Okay, I’ve talked about food security a couple of times before, and let’s face it, I’ve been pretty pessimistic in the past. However, potentially at least, the genome of wheat business could be good news. Improved crop yields, resistance to disease, resistance to water shortages and climate changes … all of these could be very important, given our current global circumstances.

However, before we all get maniacally excited and decide the world is saved and there will be no more problems, nevah EVAR!, a couple of notes of caution:

  • 1. Sequencing the genome is the start, not the end. For instance, the human genome has been sequenced for a decade or so, but genetic medicine remains something of a pipe dream. We still don’t have a clear idea what all of those 30,000 or so genes do, let alone how they interact with each other. And this is the case of the most well-studied organism on Earth, as well.
  • 2. What about the proteome? I can’t help but notice no mention of the wheat proteome. And presumably, umm, if the plan is to use genetic engineering to make super-wheat, then the enzymes and so on are going to become important, right?
  • 3. The social-political dimension. Look at what happened with GM food. And, umm, that’s what super-wheat will be, basically. If there’s no market for it, then the research risks remaining an academic curiosity. And I’m afraid this isn’t one those things where we can turn around at the last minute and pull a super-food out of our backsides at the last minute … I’ll agree that the NIMBYs might change their minds about GM when the dieback begins and they get a bit hungry, but it’ll be far too late by then. There is a widespread, and growing, distrust of new ideas and technologies, partly fueled by things like the ghost-writing scandal, and partly by dodgy politics, and this is a major barrier.

Now, I should stress that I’m not trying to belittle the research in question. Quite the contrary. I think it’s interesting, I think it’s an important beginning and I think it could be very significant. As I said earlier, this could be very good news. However, I got annoyed with the breathless and giddy tone of some of the reporting in parts of the media.

Admittedly, I shouldn’t be surprised by idiot journalists either failing to understand or just plain mis-representing what they’d been told, but critical thinking is a key part of any scientific endeavour. (It’d be interesting if journalists had to cite a bibliography to support their assertions…) And to make this go somewhere useful, a lot of critical thinking will be needed.

To Go Or Not To Go?

Posted in Art, Personal with tags , , on September 24, 2010 by davidnm2009

This is one of those things that I feel like I should go to, but have mixed feelings about:

Ways of Knowing: Arts and Science’s Shared Imagination – an arts/sciences interdisciplinary conference being run at Hertfordshire next week.

On the face of it, that sounds right up my street, and it’s also in memory of someone I knew who died earlier this year 😦 And also it’s free to register, and local, both of which are pro’s.

However, a couple of things have rubbed me up the wrong way. One is that no-one here in Astronomy knew about this until about a month after the calls for proposals ended, despite the fact that we’re, umm, literally just on the opposite side of the street from the Art Department. Looking at the list of talks, I can’t see many that seem that specifically on the science side either.

And we have had a couple of previous inter-disciplinary experiments here. What they most successfully achieved was highlighting the culture differences between the science and arts groups, sadly. And it occurs to me that this could just happen again, particularly if all the talks are from one side of the aisle.

Also, there’s the issue that on Monday, a new telescope proposal landed in my lap. It’s due at midday next Thursday, and it’s already a trainwreck. I’ll probably be a trainwreck as well by next Friday, given past experience. So there’s that to consider as well.

Hmmm…

Fingers Crossed…

Posted in Personal with tags on September 16, 2010 by davidnm2009

I sent the revised version of my paper back to the referee earlier today. We shall see what happens next.

Wish me luck!

Intimate Language

Posted in Language with tags on September 13, 2010 by davidnm2009

Languages are strange things. There are rather a lot of them, for starters – several thousand worldwide, by some estimates. Of course, where the cut-off line is between a dialect and an actual language is, I’m led to udnerstand, somewhat controversial. (One definition is along the lines that a language is a dialect with an army!) Anyway, academic squabbles aside, it is clear that there are a lot of them, and many of them have very distinct properties.

One intriguing idea is the possibility that a society’s beliefs and ideology might be to some extent mirrored in its language. By learning the language, you could in a sense learn something of the worldview too.

One example is the treatment of social status.

Asian languages tend to have an emphasis on respect and hierarchy. Arguably the extreme end might be Japanese, which places a significant emphasis on the relevant status of speaker and listener. Korean also has an elaborate system of titles of relative respect, all of which carry with them specific connotations. One thing that these countries have in common is that they were all influenced by Confucian theory, with its emphasis on ‘respect’ toward those of higher status – which came first, one wonders, the social theory or the titles?

This tendency is rather less pronounced in the West. Perhaps this reflects Western society’s greater emphasis on the individual and on personal liberty. However, even on the Continent, one finds a clear and strong distinction in the second person. One does not address one’s family and friends as one would business or professional acquaintances. To make a mistaken use of ‘du’ in German, for instance, is to commit a significant social faux pas! So far, so dignified.

But there’s an anarchist lurking around the fringes of the Continent.

Weirdly enough, that anarchist is called English. You see, modern English seems to put next to no emphasis on the relative stations off addresser and addressee. We only ever refer to each other as ‘you’ – there is no vous and tu and no du or Sie. We refer to our friends and family in the same grammatical manner as we would use for business colleagues or high-ranking public officials. This is quite unusual.

Except, interestingly, we did once have an intimate second-person form – thee and thou. ‘You’, very strictly speaking, is actually the formal variant of the second person. In the Middle Ages, one would address public officials and strangers as ‘you’ – theeing and thouing was reserved for private acquaintances, much like on the Continent.

But then, for some reason, something happened. The ‘informal’ second person fell out of use. There is one theory that I’ve heard. This notion holds that the intimate second-person fell out of use due to the Industrial Revolution. Put simply, the abrupt and fast changes in the economic structure had a knock-on effect on the social structure, as people of modest means could suddenly become fabulously wealthy (not possible before). Suddenly it was no longer absolutely clear who had status relative to whom, and people started using the formal second-person as a way of hdeging their bets.

I don’t know how true this suggestion is, but it would tie in with the idea that language and culture are intertwined.

Kaput Hard Drive…

Posted in Personal with tags on September 7, 2010 by davidnm2009

…and an open request.

Because it never rains but it pours, the day after I got back from Seattle my computer had a bit of a meltdown (it was a Ubuntu-and-partitions thing). Now, I’ve still got all of my critical data, thank goodness. (Also, don’t worry the master-file for ‘The Misfits’ lives on my laptop, which was unaffected.)

But I have lost some files, though. They’re mainly Poser stuff. So, if anyone who sees this has a copy of the Obiwan chain axe and Chaos backpack props, and feels like helping a distressed astronomer, I’d be much obliged if you could e-mail me the .obj files.

Oh, and the obligatory moral of this tale: Back. Up. Your. Data.

Edit: Problem solved. Thank you!