Archive for the Social Concern Category

Hot Earth Dreams, by Frank Landis

Posted in Books, Reviews, Science, Social Concern with tags , on December 1, 2015 by davidnm2009

Unfortunately, climate change is something that matters to all of us, and is going to matter even more as this century wears on. With this grim fact in mind, Hot Earth Dreams is a serious work of speculation on what the Earth’s warm, storm-ridden and wet future might be like.

The short version is, we’re completely and nightmarishly fucked. Things aren’t quite as bad as is conceivable, but there aren’t many grounds for optimism either.

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Everything Else Is Speculation…

Posted in Astronomy, Personal, Science, Social Concern with tags , , on December 8, 2011 by davidnm2009

…I did promise I’d break my silence if anything interesting comes up, and I guess Kepler-22b counts. It’s just a pity that the news has already been enveloped in a fog of the worst sort of pseudo-scientific disinformation.

I think Kepler-22b is an exciting and significant result, and I’m enjoying watching the Kepler candidates followed up. However, I’m depressed to see that the press coverage here has been even more woeful than usual.

Here’s the TL;DR version; the relevant paper is right here. It’s a planet, it exists, it’s ‘Earthlike’ in the sense that it’s probably-but-not-certainly a terrestrial, and it orbits inside a star’s habitable zone. Other than that, we don’t know that much about it.

Longer version … there’s a lot of crap floating around about this object. Allow me to cut through the haze by listing the details that aren’t speculative:

  • The star (Kepler 22) is a type G5, so somewhat solar-like, but also somewhat cooler and fainter (K-22 has an effective temperature of 5518 K, against 5578 K for the Sun).
  • The planet has a radius of 2.38 times that of the Earth, with an error range of 0.13. Or to put it another way, it’s somewhere between 28,700 Km and 32,000 Km in diameter. (I’m rounding to the nearest ~100 Km there, incidentally.)
  • Based on the (lack of) Doppler shifting in the star’s light, the planet must weigh less than 124 Earth masses. By contrast, Jupiter weighs 317.7 Earth masses, so K-22b is definitely a planet and not a star or brown dwarf.
  • The orbital period is 290 days.
  • The blackbody temperature for 22b – assuming a terrestrial reflectivity! – is 262 K, or -11 degrees Celsius.

And, umm, that’s it.

The temperature figures that are getting a lot of attention are somewhat inferential. First off, the orbital period has been used to infer an orbital radius; this isn’t a problem, incidentally. (Although note that it tells us little about the temperature on K-22b today, as the number you’ll get out from this won’t tell you anything about eccentricity, inclination and so on, and these could all impact on surface temperature.)

The real issue is that this number doesn’t include any atmospheric effects – the number of 22 degrees was arrived at by assuming an exactly Earthlike reflectivity and an exactly Earthlike atmosphere. (The blackbody temperature for Earth is -19 degrees Celsius; the atmosphere adds another 30 or so degrees in greenhouse heating.) Neither of these is likely at all for K-22b. The combination is particularly unlikely.

The paper-writers, I want to note, make no bones about the limitations of this calculation:

  • …Using Equation 2, and assuming a planet with a surface and an atmosphere with thermal properties similar to that of the Earth (which is unlikely) and a Bond albedo of 0.29, the surface temperature of Kepler-22b would be approximately 295 K. [295 K = 22 Celsius. Emboldening added by me]

Needless to say, the press are conveniently ignoring that bit. If they even noticed that it was there in the first place, that is.

Depressingly, the press coverage about this object seems to be telling us a lot more about the media than it is about exoplanets. It’s almost a classic case of ‘churnalism‘, where lazy and/or time-pressed journalists simply regurgitate press releases, with neither fact-checking nor criticism. It’s also one of the reasons why more and more people are abandoning the mainstream media – if all you get is a mix of rented-mouth propaganda and stale churnalism, one has to wonder what the point of the media actually is?

Ahem. Yes, as it happens, I do feel strongly about factual accuracy in science-related articles (note that I’m not linking to any of the offending articles – if you must find them, Google is your friend). Anyway, ranting about press releases and dodgy newspapers aside, I think the point I’m trying to make is that Kepler-22b and their ilk are interesting and exciting objects, and as such they deserve to be considered on their own, factual merits, not on the basis of vague, ill-informed, emotive guff.

Also, there is a further problem with this. Declaring each new planet ‘habitable’ could have the effect of raising the public’s expectations – only to dash them down again. First off, it’s not a fair way to treat people, secondly it’s bad for public understanding of science and thirdly, it could backfire on the world of astronomy. Do we want the taxpaying public to be conditioned into a cynical expectation of disappointment? I think not!

Anyway, I would write more, but I don’t wish to add any more idle speculation to an already ill-informed debate.

Bad Times

Posted in Personal, Social Concern with tags , , on August 9, 2011 by davidnm2009

Just a small PSA regarding the current events around the UK; I’m horrified by all of it. In fact I suppose I should admit that watching the news the other day had me close to tears. This is a dreadful business, and I hope it stops soon. This violence and looting isn’t helping anybody. It’s just harming the economy, and thus people’s jobs, and it’s also destroyed the homes and property of many innocent people. It’s not making any kind of point now, and in fact may well end up backfiring badly on the people doing it. (I dread to think how this is going to combine with the immigrant-phobia meme that seems so prevalent around the country now.)

It’s time this stuff ended. Please. Before any of this gets any worse.

I hope that everyone reading this is safe, and I hope that things remain that way.

(Regarding my own situation, I’m very fortunate that where I am seems to be calm at the moment, and there’s no sign of that changing. Thank goodness.)

Surprisingly Durable

Posted in Science, Social Concern with tags on March 14, 2011 by davidnm2009

Just a quick note – The Register has some commentary on the post-earthquake problems at the Japanese nuclear plants, the point being, that although what’s happened isn’t good, it could actually be rather a lot worse.

And, in fact, the surprise is indeed that it isn’t worse. What you haven’t heard amongst the media-frenzy of FUD is that the radiation leaks have actually been mild and only one of the containment vessels themselves has been breached (and that appears to be a minor incident rather than a major one). In fact, out of eleven reactors in the affected area, only three have had trouble.

So, actually, overall this incident is arguably a qualified success for nuclear safety. Bear in mind that the earthquake in question was five times – five times! – larger than the maximum for which any of these plants were devised. In fact, it’s now been rated as the 4th most powerful earthquake since records began. There simply is a limit to how much you can plan for an event that extreme.

Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this from listening to the mainstream media. They’re doing their best to add even more fear and panic to a febrile, horrible situation by wibbling loudly and repeatedly over the word ‘radiation’. It doesn’t helped that most media people (I use the word in its most generous sense) probably have no actual understanding of what radiation is, either.

(To clarify, so far almost all of the emissions from the reactors have been short-lived isotopes like Nitrogen-16. Short-lived here means a half-life of several seconds. Or to put it another way, in the time it takes you to sneeze, a good chunk of the emission has decayed into something boring and harmless. These sorts of things just don’t hang around long enough in the environment to be a major problem.)

So actually, I would contend that the news here is surprisingly good. Or at least, ‘surprisingly good’ compared to what you might reasonably expect in the aftermath of the fourth-most-powerful earthquake in more than a century.

Seeds for Optimism

Posted in Personal, Social Concern, Speculation with tags , on March 12, 2011 by davidnm2009

I’ve talked a lot on here about what I fear for our future. I thought instead, for once, it might be nice to talk about what I’d like to see instead. After all, whatever we do today, the future will arrive. And maybe having something to aim for will help. And let’s face it, I’m a bit too prone to glass-half-emptiness, so a look at more cheery possibilities is doubtless healthy.

So, I would like to see:

  • A lower population: It’s hard to see how our current numbers can be sustained for very much longer. Next year, the population is forecast to hit 7 billion. The typical population for a species of large mammals is something like 300,000 – 3,000,000. We’re too numerous by a factor of several thousand. A world with a population of (say) 1-2 billion instead still has enough people to support a decent quality of life, but not so many that it risks blue-screening the ecosystem.
  • Cleaner technology: There are all sorts of clean-tech ideas out there, and many of them could be implemented right here, right now. The reason why they’re not? A combination of vested interests who make money out of the status quo and also a public that seems to want to passively consume rather than seek out innovation.
  • And end to Big Oil: Let’s face it, the oil addiction is probably one of the worst mistakes we’ve made over the last century or so. The sad irony is, it was probably avoidable, too. Getting away from the rampant guzzling of petrochemicals would also do a wonder for the environment.
  • Democracy: should liberty simply be the privilege of the West? No, obviously not. There would be a lot to be said for a loose, democratic global federation. I say ‘loose’ and ‘federation’ as I don’t imagine it would a) be possible to establish a planetary unitary state or indeed b) actually a good idea. But one can imagine a future world existing as a confederacy of small-ish democracies, and being reasonably happy.
  • Capitalism: might be an interesting experiment to try. What we have at the moment resembles it in about the same way that a deformed moth resembles a dragon. (It’s fascinating how many advocates of Adam Smith haven’t actually read him – let’s not forget, folks, amongst other things he calls for a progressive wealth tax!) Also, commensurate with the above, we need to devise some effective means to build the ecological cost of goods into their economic one.
  • Colonies: I think colonies on other planets would be an experiment worth undertaking. The idea would be to establish self-supporting societies, rather than ‘cargo junkies’ permanently dependent on the next food-freighter from Earth, I might add. I would also like to see more progress in both human and astronomical space exploration.
  • Freedom of conscience and freedom of speech: things that exists today in places, albeit only in imperfect form. But I take it as perfectly obvious and perfectly reasonable that people should be free to practise their religious convictions (and indeed also not practise, if that is their choice) and that all people should be free to speak their minds as they choose. The only jusitifiable limitations on these are to prevent harm to others – and by that I mean physical harm. (Hurt feelings suck, I do agree, but none of us can expect to get through life without being offended every now and then. And it probably wouldn’t be healthy for us if we did.)

The funny thing is, I don’t see anything in that list that strikes me as inherently-impossible.

A Gradual Reversion?

Posted in Social Concern, Speculation with tags , on March 10, 2011 by davidnm2009

I have an odd theory about religion in Britain. Here we go…

Census time has come round again. People across the country are getting white and purple forms through the post. These forms ask questions on various topics, most of them rather dull. But controversially, a question on religion was added into the 2001 Census. That’s still there in the 2011 census.

And it brought an odd phenomenon to public attention.

Basically, a lot of people tick ‘Christian’ on that question; the 2001 Census found that about 72% of the country described themselves as such. Nothing odd so far, obviously – Britain is at least theoretically a Christian country. However, a lot more people call themselves Christian than actually seem to be. Church attendance is low. Polls tend to suggest ambivalence about religious ideas; as one example, a 2006 ICM poll found that only about 33% of people described themselves as ‘religious people’. In the same poll, 43% also said that they never attend religious services. Also overt, evangelical proselytising is both rare and also generally somewhat disapproved of. (As a purely anecdotal example, in my area we have a very active Mormon church. The reaction it gets in my social circle is one of some irritation! It doesn’t help that they like to jump in front of you when you’ve got heavy shopping bags…)

By and large, the British public seems to use the term ‘Christian’ effectively as an ethnic descriptor, rather than as a religious one. (On factor feeding into this, I suspect, could possibly be misgivings over overtly-racial bases for collective identity.)

That said, characterising the British people as atheistic seems to me to be a step too far. Certainly some of us are non-believers (hi! *waves*), and the country as a whole has no particular problem with non-theism. Thing is, while many of the British people may not identify with a specific church in terms of their beliefs, they do seem to have a spiritual sense of sorts. As one piece of evidence, a 2005 Eurobarometer poll (pdf) found that 38% believed that ‘there is a god’ and 40% believe there is “some sort of spirit or life force”, whereas only 20% said they wholey-disbelieved.

So, that’s the nice, data-based section of the post out of the way. Now we proceed to my speculation…
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On Design Faults

Posted in Evolution, Social Concern with tags , , , , on August 17, 2010 by davidnm2009

Evolution is becoming a contentious and increasingly-political topic, and it’s becoming one of the places where the world of science intersects with the world of politics. Unfortunately, the cultures of the two worlds are very different, and the intersection can be rather ugly. Science is the realm of facts and politics arguably that of opinion. You see this very clearly in the ‘evidence’ (such as it is) that gets presented in debates on the topic of evolution. All too frequently, these get hung up on the issue of fossils.

Now, fossils are fascinating things, and I don’t suggest otherwise. They have a lot to add to our knowledge and they give us a unique window into the lost world of millions of years past. However, they are not the be-all and end-all of evidence for evolution. Another important source of the evidence is anatomy, both human and not. There are some aspects of physiology that just don’t make any sense outside of an evolutionary context.

Consider, for instance, the coccyx and the fovea.

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