Wednesday, November 30, 2005

academic opinions

I shamelessly crib the mighty Steve and point you to other people's informed opinions this evening...

Crooked Reasons to go to Grad School

Economics of Academia

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

me too...

Anything the Spectator and Private Eye agree on has to be worthwhile.

Heard the Word of Blog?

See also Don't Bomb Me Blog

Hm. Ian Hislop and Boris "the Jackal" Johnson both.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That blogged with us upon Saint Sadwen's day.

NASA - not even Goddard will be spared

NASAwatch has the dirt as Ed Weiler tells Goddard to expect up to 1000 jobs cut by spring...

I didn't expect Goddard to take that heavy a blow. Makes it that much more important to them to keep the HST refurb mission in the pipeline and to keep Con-X alive. Hard to see how to do that and fund the JWST overrun.
Something has to give, and soon.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Lopi - walking in a winterwonderland

I walk to work; which is nice, if only because I then don't have to pay homage to the all-powerful Parking Nazis who secretly rule all academia...
But, sometimes it is a wee bit cold.
Then there's the whole sledding, building snowmen, occasional actual skiing etc and so forth.

What to do? Well, the ultimate garment for cold is "lopi" - which is the wool of the Icelandic sheep.

A "lopapeysa" - heavy sweater knit from this wool, is the perfect warmth layer, when combined with a windbreaker. If you have cold, windy weather and you need to be outside, you want this a layer with GoreTeX shell or equivalent, also combines with fleece. If the wind is low, it will do on its own.
A good sweater can last decades, if kept carefully and handwashed as rarely as needed.

Auxillary "lopa" items are also good - the socks are perfect (but will wear through). Gloves are good (but not for making snowballs, strangely). Hats and especially scarfs are wonderful made out of this stuff.

Traditionally you should have natural colours only, grey, white, black or maroon; although vegetable dyed stuff may be tolerated if you are not a purist. Designs ought to be traditional, although I have to admit some of the new modern stuff is cool.

Combined with 66North fleece and polartec stuff, you can get through anywinter weather. And enjoy it.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

public education - food for thought

kos diarist ruminates - I need to go back and read properly this commentary on the US public school system, so you probably should too

A Parthian shot from Robert May on academic research in the UK and general state of science. - Definitely worth a read or three! May was UK chief science advisor and Royal Society President.

Friday, November 25, 2005

iPod iChing - universal birth functions

It is friday, it is time for lazy lite late night blogging...

Oh, mighty iPod. Is the Initial Mass Function of main sequence stars really well approximated by a universal power law (with a break at the low mass end)? Or, excluding of course the metal free first stars, are there significant differences in the IMF depending on environment of composition?

Woosh goes the randomizer. Woosh.

  • The Covering: Unhappy Birthday - Smiths

  • The Crossing: The Crawdad Song - Twin Sisters

  • The Crown: Science Fiction/Double Feature - Rocky Horror Picture Show

  • The Root: For You - Tracy Chapman

  • The Past: Moon Hop - Derrick Morgan

  • The Future: Can't Stand Losing You - Police

  • The Questioner: Torture - Cure

  • The House: Cuna - Julian Bream

  • The Inside: The Wheels on the Bus - Twin Sisters

  • The Outcome: Sulk - Billy Bragg

For completists: #11 is The Lemon Song - Spilverk Þjóðanna and #12 Yankee Doodle - Twin Sisters.

Hm, so my take is that the question, despite my care is slightly ill posed, and the IMF concepts is an artificial projection seeking to simplify a more complex reality.
But, for those who care, there are two modes of star formation, excepting "first stars", and I am in trouble for raising the question.
We'll keep going, and stars will keep forming without regard for oversimplifications of theorists.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

through white and drifted snow...

well, that was a bit of a bust, if this is what the local weatherman thinks is 6 inches, he has some severe misconceptions.

Still, the ground is white, mostly, for now, and it was bloody cold today, even for me.

So, out comes the winter gear: and here is a clue 66 North!
Icelandic manufacturers of cold weather clothing. High street shops in Reykjavík and New York.

They are cool, reasonably well priced and extremely effective.
Their adult line is comparable to the high end mountaineering/skiing outfits that come in and out of trendiness, like Marmot, Spyder or North Face. But the kids line is awesome - both the polar tec fleece stuff and the rubberised rain gear.

Our kids love them, they stay warm (I had to call time and go in for cocoa today, the Big Kid was nice and toasty in her 66 North fleece ensemble), and the look cool.

Here is the original 66 Norður. They started off as makers of winter gear for high sea fishermen, branched out into workclothes (my "drillers" suit came from them, still have it somewhere, perfect for all nighter work up in the mountains of Iceland).

I recommend the Óðinn line, and any of the balaclavas. The Kría baby gear also works very well.
The Freyr rain gear is awesome for kids.

Most highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

NASA - it stings the nose

WaPo lead article on NASA funding bill just passed

"...the administration has no intention of spending extra money to deal with a shortfall that some space experts say could exceed $6 billion from 2006 to 2010, when NASA plans to retire the shuttle for good."

So, we're screwed. Didn't see that one coming, eh?

"NASA's budget difficulties have also been complicated by having to pay for about $400 million in special projects inserted, mostly by senators, into the agency's 2006 funding."

So, they want 19 shuttle flights, 18 to ISS obliged to international partners and one for HST servicing (yes, it is back on, no it is not funded, just required to be paid for out of the existing budget).

They can't shut shuttles down, not given JSC and KSC's location, and Congress is rightly scared that a "gap" in human spaceflight would become a chasm. So nothing will happen until 2009, at which point EVERYTHING will have been delayed by 5+ years and the long term cost will actually have been higher than if they'd just decide something now.

And cut the #&@%~)! pork. Bastards.

oh, how the wind doth blow

It is snowing, as promised, finally.
As of three hours ago we were in the half-foot zone, with a full foot due ~ 50 miles west of us, less to the east.
Might even stick through christmas, or not.

So, a century ago, it was implicit that a trip between neighbouring farms at thanksgiving would require a sleigh. Christmases were "Victorian", you know, picturesque snow. In over a decade in England at the end of the 20th century I saw snow maybe a couple of times at christmas. Even in Iceland, there were "brown christmases" some years, on the south coast.
Last year, here, it didn't snow until late january (though a couple of years ago there was an ice storm on Hallowe'en and the ice was still on the ground the next april.

But, the anecdotal trend is for snow later, with warmer autumns and less bitter winters. Total snowfall trends not clear yet, the bulk of the variability tends to come from late season march storms, with foot+ at a time. Rest of the variability is lake effect snow (early season cold air from Canada blowing over the warm water of the Great Lakes. If the wind is from the north we get heavy snow, if it is from the west, upstate New York gets it - Buffalo had 6 feet (almost 2 meters) in a single storm a couple of years ago).

Some of it is North Atlantic Oscillation shifts, a tiny bit is attributable to solar cycle variability. El Ninos also matter when they come. But the trending for the last century is for later winter and warmer weather. On average.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

My life... a cult classic, clearly

blogthings strikes again

The Movie Of Your Life Is A Cult Classic

Quirky, offbeat, and even a little campy - your life appeals to a select few.
But if someone's obsessed with you, look out! Your fans are downright freaky.

Your best movie matches: Office Space, Showgirls, The Big Lebowski

Courtesy of Bora

Iraq leaders: "resistance is a legitimate right for all people"

Grauniad really is on a roll today

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

Oh, bother.

Or as someone in blogland said: "don't let the door hit you on the arse"

A spontaneous confluence of correlated events seems to dictate the US Army will substantially withdraw from Iraq by late October 2006 +/- 1 month.

Question is whether it will be an Orderly Withdrawal, a Total Mess, or an Advance to the Rear
Hm, I wonder if Rumsfeld has read Anabasis - not in the original, the new lite pop version, of course.

Keats Really Was a Prat

Grauniad is on a roll...
Simon Singh expounds

It is well understood and accepted by most "intelligentsia" that education on a subject makes you more appreciative.
If someone were to claim that doing a BA in Art History "ruined van Gogh for me" or that English Lit degrees makes you less likely to appreciate poetry, one would wonder at it, and maybe worry some unusual bad experience had created a traumatic response to what most people feel is an ehancing experience that increases appreciation of the subject.

So what was Keats' problem? No, don't answer that, been done.

But it is grating that intermittent drunk sniping 200 years ago still lends legitimacy to what is at the core anti-intellectualism that would be considered somewhere between crass and moronic in any other context.

Clifford at Cosmic Variance was on this

In Praise of Physics - the Grauniad Gets It

Guardian Leader on crisis in physics education

short versions: "physics, physics, physics"

Good Dilbert, Bad Adams

PZ on pharyngula has been taking on newbie blogger Scott Adams of Dilbert fame

See here1, here2 and here3 for Adam's unvary foray into intelligent design vs evolution.

And here1 and here2 for PZs blistering counters.

FWIW Adam's screwed up, he knows it, and is backpedalling furiously while flinging fanboys and MBA talk back in his defence...

OTOH PZ could have been a little bit more charitable and gentle on the first rebuttal, and saved the Dobgert moments for the second wave, assuming Adam's had still bit.

So... are there "credible people" who can say why evolution is it, and ID is not?
Well, depends on whether anyone can say up front what constitutes credibility in an immutable sort of way. (That's a "no" btw, since apparently by definition, anyone who actually knows anything about the issue is uncredible...)

Now, I Am Not A Biologist, But... I have an advanced, solid science education, and I am a co-PI of an astrobiology center, where I get to spend a finite fraction of my time in graduate seminars and at review and research talks on biological issues.
In particular, a lot of the last 2-3 years have been spent listening to and talking about Evolution and Origins respectively, and they are slightly disparate issues.

So... lets see what my quick perspective is - caveat: I have no direct stake in this issue at the financial or career level, but I do have a stance. I consider my opinion informed.:

Evolution through descent and natural selection is a process.
There is absolutely no doubt at all that it takes place, we understand both the logical process, we know it is consistent, the microphysics is known, and the detailed processes are known. We understand selection, reproduction and neutral drift. We understand evolutionary dead-ends, runaway selection and conserved biochemical pathways. We understand the distinction between evolution of fundamental biochemical pathways and morphological changes in response to minor evolutionary changes. We understand the rate of evolution and the role of gene duplication, changes in activation, coding and copying errors vs mutation. This is as robust and coherent a scientific process as there can be. None of the processes are irreducibly complex. Not all the processes are known perfectly in all detail, but all are known to be knowable.

Speciation is ever so slightly trickier, but is clearly an evolutionary process and we understand conceptually how it occurs and on small scales how related species become reproductively isolated and drift until they are separate. Grand speciation follows from our understanding of small scale speciation, given time, isolation and selection pressures. Diversity is much broader than you would think from morphology, species that look grossly dissimilar are closely and obviously related and commonly descended from a shared ancestor, when studied at the genetic level.(I meant that the way it read - species that look very different are often similar genetically, but there is a very broad diversity which is mostly in species the general public knows nothing of and cares little about; charismatic fauna are not very relevant to genetic diversity).

Evolution of sexual reproduction, and multicellularity are broadly understood with some open issues, which are not irreducibly difficult in any sense, rather we don't know for sure what the dominant evolutionary selection factors were that forced the issue and made "expensive" pathways like that more fit. Oh, and we know what the word "fit" means.

Origin of life is trickier still. We have some hints of how life could have originated, and several not entirely satisfactory paths whereby organic chemistry processes could have lead to self-reproducing contained biochemical bundles, which would then very rapidly, through selection, lead to robust self-reproducing and selecting life.
What we do not know at some basic level is whether this was a freakishly unlikely one-off event, or an inevitable consequence of the richness of chemical and physical processes as soon as conditions get to be mild enough for long enough. We have our suspicions, but no proof.

Evolution is a science, it makes falsifiable predictions, is consistent and logical and subject to experimentation and observation.

Intelligent Design is not a science. It makes no falisfiable prediction, it could logically be correct, but there is no positive evidence anywhere for it (and logically, for any number of different, and contradictory, ID scenarios there ought to be proof positive and obvious). ID as a general concept is logically unfalsifiable, it is not a scientific explanation, it is not a scientific process as postulated (it could be, if any ID advocate were brave and smart enough to make testable, falsifiable claims of detailed processes - instead they invariable claim "prove me wrong", which is impossible).

Anyone with adequate scientific training, who follows current research in any of the major biological subfields recognises the multiple, consistent and universal evidence for evolution and natural selection. It is not an open scientific issue. There is no controversy. ID is wrong as postulated and not a scientific argument. End of story.

People can freely debate metaphysical issues and theology, and invoke any of the major ID variants, but they should not pretend that it is science.

Monday, November 21, 2005

How to ensure re-election of PA Congressmen

If you really want to ensure that a Pennsylvania congressman gets re-elected, get someone from Ohio to attack them personally...

Friday, November 18, 2005

Congressman Murtha

John Murtha 12th PA Congresional District

Marine enlisted.


Officer Command School

Captain USMC

Marine Reserves - volunteered for a Vietnam tour

2 Purple Hearts, Bronze Star with V

retired as Colonel after 37 years active + reserve

This is in his district

You so do not want to fuck with him.

iPod - the Next Generation

While we're at it: here is what iPods need next...

Airport chip set

Widgety mini-browser smart enough to dump the bandwidth intensive stuff and use ALT tags on regular websites

oh, and infinite disk drive capacity and battery life...

iPod - iRecipes - a wish

iPods need more stuff (maybe this exists, someone tell me).

We need a compact iRecipes indexed app. An ASCII based text database of recipes and instructions in a standard format


Name (++category)

Quantity Stuff (note)




With an option to embed small JPGs on video iPods.

And of course a widget to find and assemble public domain recipes.
And a "playlist" type option.

Apple, are you listening?

PS: duh. I am soooo out of touch, not only do these exist, but so do 100+ others, including a iBar recipe app
and podchemistry app. Cool

iPod shareware apps - I don't see one that lets you add recipes, but that must be trivial.

PodGourmet - I think iRecipes sounds better. Also a Vegan recipe version, which has more entries!

Ok, here is iRecipes - caution, I have not checked this, and no iPod compatibility I can see. Aargh. which links to this thing is a Windoze app. Yuck. Not recommended, but they have grabbed the domain. Bastards.

And another one. Don't like the look of that one either.

Imminence of the Eschaton: Google - a fallible god

Talking of Charlie, he makes an important and interesting point about why Google is subtly wrong in their legal fight with the Publishers...

Or, maybe this is a fiendishly clever ploy by Google to get the issue dead legally, since clearly the Publishers have the Money, but not the Right.

So, here's a subtle distinction - in copyright law, currently, there is no essential distinction between electronic publishing or paper publishing. In either case (caveat IANAL) the copyright is retained by author unless explicitly surrendered, transferred or forfeited.

So, if Google has implicit permission to index my web pages, including, for example, my lecture notes. Then why can it not index a paper copy of the same or similar material? If it may do the former, as it has been permitted to do, then it surely may do the latter, except where explicitly forbidden to do so.

Am I missing something.

Natural Selection, Actually.

Cartoon in 21 Nov New Yorker: Random mutation, or intelligent design? - you decide

A kind person would give the deluxe print to PZ.
T-shirts look tempting as well.

PS: thanks for the tip - I wish I could say I was current on this weeks New Yorker, but I am not.
Good pointer.

well, this is intelligent

There is a class of pundits who are usually described as "intelligent" even when one differs with their designs.

It is a rare occasion when I agree with a Charles Krauthammer op-ed

ID advocates of all flavours, please read it, and then think, long and hard, before spouting again.

iPod iChing - two black holes in the Milky Way center?

It is friday, and we ask a rather focused question of the mighty iPod:
is there a second, intermediate mass (greater than 100 solar masses), black hole in the inner few parsecs of the Milky Way, gravitationally bound to the primary central supermassive black hole?

Whoosh goes the randomizer. Whoosh.

  • The Covering: Blind - Talking Heads

  • The Crossing: Accident Waiting to Happen - Billy Bragg

  • The Crown: Feel So Different - Sinead O'Connor

  • The Root: Kátt er í hverjum bæ - Gáttaþefur

  • The Past: Ain't It Heavy - Melissa Etheridge

  • The Future: Aisle of Plenty - Genesis

  • The Questioner: Gartloney Rats - Pogues

  • The House: For You - Tracy Chapman

  • The Inside: Boulevard of Broken Dreams - Green Day

  • The Outcome: Take Down the Union Jack - Billy Bragg

#11 is Whatsername - Green Day and #12 is Debris - Billy Bragg.

So... The Root is a christmas song "joy in every town/farm".
My interpretation is that there are (of course) lots of black holes in the Milky Way centre, but not one that specifically fits my question. So... either the most massive low mass black hole is under 100 solar masses, or the nearest intermediate mass black hole is currently further than few parsecs from the center.

Looks like we're in for interesting times either way.

Questioner quite nice, yet again.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

New Vinge - Rainbow's End

deLong reports that Charlie Stross has a promo copy of the new Vinge novel - Rainbow's End (bastard!), due in stores May 2006.

Ah, well, may as well wait, I think the list of urgent "to-reads" is over 100 books now, and the last few months have seen an excess of very good new books (new GRRM! Simmons! etc and so forth).

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Who knew...

Strangely, if I have 5+ consecutive hours of meetings, and then have to do paperwork for an hour+, I find myself distinctly lack freshness and enthusiasm for presenting original thought, no matter how trite.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Triumph of evil

For evil to triumph, it is sufficient for men to agree to standardize on the operating system identified by administrators as critical to their requirements.

NASA: coteries of ex-admins

Julian Earls executive director of Glenn turned down an offer of the presidency of Alabama A&M.

For some reason it is officially denied that he had received anonymous threats after being offered the job; investigation called for anyway.

see NASAwatch for gory details

Click on both links and connect the dots for yourself.

Maybe there is a "coterie" of ex NASA administrators trying to take over the universities in the South...

The underlying cause of all progress

There are two primary reasons for advances in science:

1) improvements in technological ability to make measurements

2) improvements in notation for theoretical studies


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Hardhat - very droll

Pharyngula points us to another new, slightly amusing Web game quiz.

Results of this one seem slanted in some subtle way...


You are an atheist, a rationalist, a believer in the triumph of science and of reason over libido. You can’t stand mumbo jumbo, ritual, spiritual nonsense of any kind, and you refuse to allow for these longings in others.

Astrologers, Scientologists and new–age crystal ball creeps are no different in your view from priests, rabbis and imams. They’re all just weak–minded pilgrims on the road to easy answers. Nature as revealed by science is awesome enough for you, but it’s a nature that needs curbing and taming by us on our evolutionary journey to perfection.

Your heros are Einstein, Darwin, Marx and — these days — Gould, Blakemore, Watson, Crick and Rosalind Franklin. Could you be hiding a little behind those absolutist views, worried that, if you let in a few doubts and contradictory ideas, the whole edifice might crumble? Loosen up a bit and try to enjoy the amazing variety of human belief systems. Don’t worry — it’s unlikely you’ll end up chanting your days away in some distant mountain cult.

What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.

Monday, November 14, 2005

adopt-a-blog: the young 'uns

adopt-a-blog, because connectivity is good, and because I feel like it.

  • Powers of Four - Matt Turk, grad student at Stanford. Traitor! I'll be out on the west coast Real Soon Now and then... er, well you can show me how those simulations are working out, and tell me what cool things I am now missing out on.

  • She is angry, she is Stanek. Michigan grad student, but we won't hold it against her. We almost wrote a paper together once
  • . She dissects the Disney Princess Phenomenon, as a loser in this fight, I say "good luck". I personally am astonished at Disney's ability to exactly invert the moral of almost every adaptation they do, sometimes twice (cf Pocahontas vs Pocahontas II, both of which are obnoxious and neither true to life).
    Hm, I should probably use her astro-ph listing as a reading list for this sub-field. Hadn't noticed it before.

  • Adam Solomon He is in high school. He does astronomy. Hm, he does not believe in applying to "safe" universities. He read "So, You Want to be an Astrophysicist?" ;-)

  • Uncertain Principles - Chad Orzel Junior faculty in chem phys. Spotted on Cosmic Variance. I know this guy from the old days, I'm guessing science fiction on the Net in Ye Olde Days.

Go take a look.

Silber speaks: you listen

Brad deLong recommends the Power of Narrative blog by Silber

harking back to a Making Light recommendation

They're right: recommended.

For an interesting sample, see here on how the administration discovered torture.
Apparently if you use the North Korean torture techniques used to train US soldiers to resist torture if captured, then it is not torture for US soldiers to use them. Huh? Silber explains where this came from.

Or to summarise: "if it were done to our people, would we call it torture?"

Flash: "getting cold gets you colds..."

Spotted on Cosmic Variance...

Ya know, when I were a lad, there was an absolute rule for kids: they had to be dry and warm in winter or they would get a cold.
So, no swimming if the temperature was below -7, and no outdoor gymnastics either; and if you got snow inside your clothes or were out to long in the cold, then you got a change of dry clothes and a warm drink immediately.

So I made the mistake of mentioning this in the US on occasion. Poo, said they (quite reasonably, this was in California); colds are due to viral infections, not discomfort. "Old wives tales" (they were very ideologically unsound out west back then).

But, said I, rhinovirus infections are endemic and chronic sub-clinical infections common; is it not plausible, as opposed to scientificially demonstrated through hugely expensive controlled double blind studies (ok, single blinds), that getting very cold and wet is stressing and will lead to a temporarily depressed immune system allowing infection to flare?

Whatever, said they. Well, actually they agreed this was plausible, but quite correctly remained skeptical until actually demonstrated through a suitably rigorous study.

And, now the Welsh have done so. Bless them, and the little Grauniad too, good science journalism

Friday, November 11, 2005

Skyr, glorious skyr!

we have a confirmed skyr sighting at a Whole Foods...

so, here is the deal.
At least one of you guys is at a uni that is in a city with a Whole Foods which carries skyr and is within 4 hours drive of glorious Centre County PA.

So &#$!!_$%! invite me for a talk, pronto. I'll drive out with a cooler or three.

It is a humanitarian thing to do.

And if you do, I'll tell you about kex.
You know the "powder milk biscuits" in Prairie Home Companion...?
They exist.

Though apparently will ship... must investigate.
There used to be a but they vanished suddenly off the net. Guess after the first rush of 2000 starving expats business was not sustainably large enough.
There's more of us now, and we're richer...

The True Model for Academic Science Careers

Cosmic Variance is doing another career vs family debate, quite a good one.

But this got me thinking: as legend has it, scientists (at least in theoretical physics and math) do their great work early, and then for most of them, that's it. They're done, and just hang out as mediocre teachers and reactionary pundits, with a rare few becoming great administrators. (great good or great bad, either way they're great...)

So, why are universities paying megabucks over the decades to keep these bums on, they're washed out, far better to hire fresh blood. In fact, if this is correct, the very last thing any sensible research university would do is hire a hot-shot theorist who has just had a huge paper with kazillion cites - 'cause what are the odds the same person will make another breakthrough.

SO... physics departments should switch to an NFL draft model. Pay huge bonuses for the hot shots, and very high base pay even for journeymen researchers fresh out of university, with the understanding that 50-70% will wash out in the first year or two; and that the average career is only a few years, and then you're replaced by some new hotshot.

Sure, there will be a few Doug Fluties and Jerry Rices who hang in there impossibly long still productive; but most people get 3-6 years of research and then they are dumped from the research league.

Then what? Well, there's alway car sales and doing the talk circuit, but think about it - there's high school science coaching, universities where actual teaching is done by faculty, and there will be a steady need for administrators and research coaches at the research universities and centers, for those with the aptitude or connections, who just have to stay in the game. Just like in football.
And then of course there is television, always a demand for someone who can come up with a pithy quote or give inside insight to the fans at home.
Pro-wrestling... not so much.
Nor would I go with the bodyguard business, unless you wanna be the "geeky tech" assistant on the team, who is always killed (or apparently killed but restored after the panel screenings) right before the climax shoot out.

So, you make the big bucks early, with signing bonuses. A small percentage has long productive careers, but most burn out and retire to related but alternate careers where they use their skills but aren't actually doing frontline research per se...

Of course if there are areas of research where long time scales and depth of experience is more valuable than flashes of innovative insight, then they're either screwed, or should go for a different management model.

Any resemblance to the current way of doing things is coincidental.

But, it'd have been interesting to get $200k minimum salary + signing bonus as a postdoc...

PS this post had more contextual freudian mistypes than any to date: "pity quote" and "hot short theorist" being my favourites.

iPod iChing - Ka-Ching - li'l black holes at the LHC

Its friday again (again?) and we must ask... tonight a big but indolent question.

Oh great and mighty iPod: if the Large Hadron Collider is completed and operated to specifications, will it in fact lead to the creation of particle states analogous to quantum black holes, as speculated in some recent papers?

  • The Covering: NPWA - Billy Bragg

  • The Crossing: What Color Are You Wearing - Twin Sisters

  • The Crown: Add it Up - Violent Femmes

  • The Root: Stay Up Late - Talking Heads

  • The Past: Refavísur - Bessi Bjarnason

  • The Future: Finland - Monty Python

  • The Questioner: Lifetime Piling Up - Talking Heads

  • The House: Instrumental

  • The Inside: Something Changed - Pulp

  • The Outcome: Ólafía og Óliver - Björgvin Halldórsson

For completists: #11 is Brass in Pockets - Pretenders; #12 is Recondita Armonia - Pavarotti.

Hm, tough one. "Refavísur" is from a play about animals in the forest, and is the "song of the fox", he's going out hunting for a li'l mouse (this ends badly, for the fox).
The Outcome is a children's song about a cute couple who are well matched and like each other.

NPWA: "Are you listening? No Power Without Accountability" - angry Bragg.

Add It Up is a song of frustration. In fact that is the consistent theme, frustration and love denied.

So, sorry folks. No li'l black holes at the LHC. Back to the blackboard.

"Stop asking questions that don't matter anyway..."

But, eventally, something will change and someone, beyond the current question, will make good out of this. Eh?

The Crown is clearly pointing to the discussion going on a Cosmic Variance...

Mighty is the iPod. Wise is his High Priest.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

Craig Wheeler wrote an SF novel?! , And it is now a movie...?!

Cosm - by Benford. Not his best, but good airplane read

The Questioner?

I can see my lifetime pilin’ up
Reaching from my bedroom to the stars
I can see the house where I was born
When I was growin’ up - they say that
I could never keep my trousers up
I remember days and crazy nights
Are there any pirates on this ship?
And if they sober up - they’ll have us
Home by morning

Paris tonight

The Paris riots are somewhat bemusing; the proximate cause was tragic but not really riot material, so some other underlying cause must have been triggered by the deaths.
The US right wing is almost gleeful in their proclamations of the riots as evidence for an Islamofascist fifth column undermining European society: "it is war" the bloggers proclaim.
Well, no, it is not: it may just be frustration riots by an economic underclass discriminated against for too long, a classic case of people thwarted rising - riots happen when there is unfulfilled hope, not when there is hoplessness.

However, you might think fundamentalist Islamic organisations wanting to damage western societies would use the opportunity to leverage the riots, keep them going, use them for cover, do some damage.

So, tonight is the night: it is evening there, will people go home after prayer and renew more intense rioting, or have some vin rouge and a ciggie and everything will fade away quietly.

We'll know in a few hours. I suspect and hope this will turn into much ado about nothing. With some token changes in social policy and some small political shifts - some will move right in reaction, others will look to help integrate second generation immigrants. Big danger in the medium turn is whether the nationalist right gets a significant boost from the rioting, that would cost Europe very badly in the long run.

Remembrance Day 11:11:11 11/11

"Gathered at the cenotaph
All agreed with hand on heart
To sheath the sacrificial knifes"

One of the more deeply revealing things about Europe is to drive through middle and north England, for example, and stop at small and medium sized towns and look at the cenotaph. There is almost always one there, somewhere near the town center, and the list of names and dates is agonising.
Think of it as 100 Vietnam War memorials, done in neo-classic style and scattered through thousands of towns.

It moulded European attitudes for the last 87 years, and will continue to do so for at least another decade.
After that, people might forget. Which might be bad.

Bully for BD

I shamelessly crib from Steve and commend you to Lance Mannion's analysis of Doonesbury

Thursday, November 10, 2005

NASA - HST degrades, little by little

e-mail "heads-up" from NASA; apparently chip 4 on the Wide Field/Planetary Camera(2) is on the fritz.
Probably defunct for any scientific purposes.

WFPC2 is mostly superceded by the Advanced Camera for Surveys, but not entirely. More to the point, it reminds us that things in space break, which is why refurbishing them can be a good idea.
If the refurbishing is properly funded, done expeditiously, and done well...


Political Compass - it is silly but fun.
Wouldn't read too much into it.

FWIW I am about {-4,-6} which puts me near the Dalai Lama.

Who knew.

NASA - Darkness as Dawn goes on hold

Seen on NASAwatch

NASA ordered the Discovery class Dawn mission to stand down for its 2006 launch.

ie they are to put launch on indefinite hold.
Sounds like there were some technical issues, but unless someone ain't telling, they sound like "normal difficulties".
Real problem seems to be NASA cuts and JPL cuts in particular.

Dawn is an ion engine propelled mission to the asteroids Ceres and Vesta.


GRB optical transient RAPTOR movie - Way Cool

Gamma Ray Burst 051109A went off yesterday; it has a bright optical transient (z ~ 2) and was caught by lots of observatories (first published spectrum came from HET, way to go).

The RAPTOR team at Los Alamos put together a pair of movies of the data showing the fading in the first 20 minutes, going from about 15th magnitude to 17.5 (that is a factor of 10 fading in 20 minutes, the bright end is quite bright by astronomical object standards, but is almost 10,000 times fainter than can be seen by the naked eye).

First Four Minutes

Next Half Hour


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

NASA: Porkies galore

NASA watch has a partial list of earmarked Congressional pork line items.

Read 'em and weep

Now, some of these are undoubtedly worthy projects, and could prove it in open competition at the NSF or DoE,
but almost all of these have, on the face of it, nothing to do with NASA specifically or space science or engineering in general.

Oh, and a few of these cancelled would restore funding for the Astrophysics Data Program or Long Term Space Astrophysics which are some of the primary funders of postdocs and junior faculty across the board in US universities. Just a few of them...

PS for some reason, our front office gave me a stress dot for my wrist this morning.
Strangely it is now a "calm blue", clearly I have achieved Zen and nothing can disturb me.

Actually a close friend of mine was picking up his passport for a trip to Jordan on monday (the passport pick up), what I haven't figured out is whether that meant he already left for Jordan yesterday or was planning to later this week.
Nope, still not brown...

PPS: just got voice mail, he's still in Europe, not going until later. One of his co-workers was there already, but not at any of the hotels blown up.

Intelligent Design in Dover Pennsylvania

Dover CARES sweeps school board elections.

Phew. It was a shockingly close election though, even if you factor in the incumbency.

Here is WaPo article and Scientific American chimes in

So PA is smarter than KA I guess; this week, in one small part of the commonwealth.
Too close for comfort. Expect law suit will also close this out with vengeance.

One round won, but not a knockout yet.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"Coterie of Lesbians"?

The Santa Cruz Sentinel, that stalwart of the liberal media, has a peculiar editorial on saturday...

Apparently a powerful coterie of lesbians has taken power out west, and is corrupting our precious bodily fluids, or something.
Well, about time.

Seriously. I don't know what happened in the Greenwood resignation,but the innuendo in the media is disgusting; I do wish they'd be as fervent in chasing innuendo of corruption and glad handing when it involves middle aged rich white men, but those don't congregate in coterie's I guess. They do wotchamacallems instead. Dings of Dicks? English is a very flexible language.

The publicly stated reasons for Prof Greenwood's resignation are on the face of it ridicilous.
I presume there is more to the story, but I suspect the root cause is that some angry white men didn't like being stepped over, and they are now doing payback through their buddies in papers. The SF Chronicle should be doubly ashamed of itself.

Monday, November 07, 2005

eh, what do they know...

blogthings has fun little blogthings to play with

You Should Get a PhD in Liberal Arts (like political science, literature, or philosophy)

You're a great thinker and a true philosopher.
You'd make a talented professor or writer.

So close...

I'm not scary...

Pharyngula tells me to find out how scary I am.

Not, as it happen

You Are Not Scary

Everyone loves you. Isn't that sweet?

Must be the cat thing... Better late than never.

Academic gossip

Inside Higher Ed has some curious short stories:

Greenwood is out as UC provost - resigned over "irregularities". Something weird here, both instances seem trivial on the surface. Sounds like someone wanted her out and found technicalities to leverage. Or there is more to this.
An anonymous comment is actively solicited...

Tenure track blogger Drezner landed a tenured position at Tufts after Chicago dumped him. See here.
One down, one to go, eh?
Maybe we should start a game of "where is Sean now"? ;-) I happen to hear he has visited some fun places recently. Wonder what invitation he will accept next...

Same item says NSF budget compromise was passed, and it is maybe not as bad as one might fear. I wait to see the APS analysis of how much actually gets through to research lines... \glyph-of-holding-breath

NASA: I heart space, but this is friggin' ridicilous

I've been trying to digest Griffin's testimony to Congress on budget constraints (courtesy of NASAwatch):

the issue is simple: there is a ~ $5 billion shortfall in the next few years (cumulative, and this is realistically an understimate)

this is because NASA is trying to return shuttles to flight, at the same time as they try to accelerate Crewed Exploration Vehicle development to replace the shuttle; at the same time as they have ~ 15% in Congressional earmarks which require funding be taken from real projects.

This can not be done under the budget they have: so, either shuttle is shutdown immediately, and the Space Station very shortly after (modulo the Russians and ESA keeping it); this means no HST refurbishment, which is now allegedly a top priority again. (Meaning presumably one of first 3 shuttle missions after return to flight).
Or, the Exploration program is delayed a few years; we'll see if it survives the 2006 State of the Union speech.

Or, something else gives. Well, everything else, starting with aeronautics, then climate and earth science, and finishing with a large gouge from space science. We're talking maybe 10-30% cuts in these sectors. Ouch.

Cost overruns in space science have not helped, a couple of the big projects have blindsided HQ with sudden large overruns that were disguised for too long. But, a little part of the overruns is that no one knows what f'ing budget they will have next year because the administration changes priorities every year. You can't run multi-year projects if your budget projections have to allow for factors of 2-3 variation from year to year, with zero notice. I hear budget numbers now change about every 2 weeks as HQ shuffles funds to try to float projects through the fiscal year.

Incidentally, I also hear that a lot of "second year funding" is coming in at a small percentage (50% or less) of the total award. With a promise the rest will come along during the year; but it makes people real uneasy when at the beginning of the fiscal year only a small part of the promised amount is actually handed out. This is salary money for soft money people, it can't be rolled over indefinitely.

NASAwatch also has the weekly roundup of RIFs and layoffs.

Good news is that there was still funding over in exploration to do an "advanced concept" study of using Blacklight Power for Rocket Engines, back in 2002 that was...

I'll give them this - if 20++eV monatomic hydrogen is being produced in low temperature electrically pumped plasma, then, yes, it'd produce spectacular thrust... 21,000s theoretically for a "p=3 hydrino state"[sic], about 40 times better than a LOX/H2 rocket.
A working thruster was built, that allegedly produces excess power, but strangely no excess thrust or high velocity hydrogen was seen.
So they need more money.
The high speed hydrogen shouldn't be subtle, I'm surprised it is so hard to measure...
Budget info was missing from this report but phase I grants were typically $75k apparently.

I'm actually genuinely ambivalent about things like this; an "advanced concept" funding line should be doing "what if" tests on beyond standard physics models; BUT, some level of consistency and sanity needs to be maintained. The claimed excess power in this stuff varies by 2-3 orders of magnitude from experiment to experiment, and the claimed principal physical effects (such as a large population thermal H atoms with very high mean effective temperatures) are not subtle things that need high precision spectroscopy.

I heart the Grauniad...

...but, their science coverage has ranged from mediocre to embarrassing.

This piece on "alternative energy" is just downright embarrassing, in a not so nice humiliating sort of way. Crosses the line of open-mindedness into "brains fall out" territory.

A serious newspaper wanting to actually report on something like Blacklight Power claims should at least spend some time getting informed criticism of the issues.

Having read over some of the claims, it is my professional opinion that Blacklight Power's theory is complete garbage. It is so thoroughly wrong that it does not even make contact with real physics.

I predict that no working device, producing sustained power, in the quantity claimed to be available, will ever be built using this technology.

Just for completeness, here is Rathke's rather terse deconstruction of the theory; and Naudt's even terser semi-defence (Naudt notes that the Klein-Gordon equation permits a n < 1 solution for a bound state that is square integrable, from which one might conclude that if the electron were a relativistic scalar the hydrogen atom would have an additional permitted bound state; but it is not).

I looked at some of the experimental papers: all the usual alarm bells go off - the bulk of the cites are to other papers by the authors, the rest are mainly to reviews or old generic work; small fractional power excess claimed using calorimetry of apparatus with large input power and poorly standardised power sources; spectra with "arbitary unit" y-axis calibration and commentary which makes no sense; obvious "sanity checks" and tests of consistency not mentioned or not carried out.
Don't believe it.

Friday, November 04, 2005

iPod iChing - Star Light, IR bright, Were you the first star? We ask tonight

It is friday. Yay.
And in our lazy laconic way, we ask the All Knowing iPod: about this foreground subtracted Spitzer image everyone is talking about... are we really seeing redshifted emission from "first stars" at redshift greater than 10?

Whoosh. The randomizer whooshes...

  • The Covering: Let's Dance - Davie Bowe

  • The Crossing: Super Heroes - Rocky Horror Picture Show

  • The Crown: Take Down the Union Jack - Billy Bragg

  • The Root: Late Night Blues - Don Carlos

  • The Past: Down All the Days - Pogues

  • The Future: Donna Non Vidi Mai - Pavarotti

  • The Questioner: Interlude III - instrumental

  • The House: Dreaming - Blondie

  • The Inside: I Like to Write, Spell and Read - Twin Sisters

  • The Outcome: Have a Heart - Bonnie Raitt

For completists: #11 is Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry and #12 is Dai campi, dai prati - Pavarottis.

Hm. Interesting. The past and key events is all very encouraging. But the Future suggests something is wrong, combined with the House it tells me the conventional wisdom is on the wrong track. However, if we work hard at calculating this properly, we will in fact see the light from the first stars if we persevere. More so if we look at #11 and #12.

So, the iPod says: this is not the first light, but keep at it. Wise is the iPod, slightly confused is his High Priest.

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

PS: Matt - I don't know what the reaction at Stanford was to all of this, but you may want to keep quiet about this heresy.
If there's going to be a fight, let it be NoCal vs SoCal, I have no dog in this, yet.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

adopt-a-blog: a quick crawl

adopt-a-blog, because connectivity is good, it is quick and easy, and I feel like it.
Not to be confused with the more serious adoptachineseblog

  • Ástarfleyið most popular blog on this week, apparently a blog of a cast of some popular TV show. Darned if I know. Could be a reality show or a sitcom. I am so out of it.
    Ah, Ástarfleyið here we go, Reality Show, boys and girls get taken places and drink a lot. Presumably hoping for some spontaneous sexual activity... Apparently on a new TV station, Sirkus, has some trendy stuff.

  • Quantum Pontiff Found on the TTLB ecosystem. Had seen as a listing on various science blogrolls and finally clicked. Hm, Techer, Quantum Comp type. Interesting mostly science oriented, active. Recommended.

  • California Eating Amy is in San Francisco, it is her job to know where to go for food. I am so jealous. She likes Bonny Doon
  • clearly a person of impeccable taste.

  • girl in greenwood Another TTLB fishing expedition; lowest ranked blog in the next category above, today. Nursing student in Seattle. Stream of consciousness and general life. Good taste in books, at a glance.

Actually, thinking about it, I don't think I could stand Icelandic Reality Television.
I already have to deal with Lazytown...

Dover PA: not so intelligent maybe


a Kos diarist notes that the President of the Dover School Board got a $850 donation to buy "Of Pandas and People" a creationist text for the Dover schools.
Problem is, the money was solicited from a church, and the protagonists then claimed under oath to not know where the money came from, in contradiction to previous testimony.
Apparently the judge is not amused.

One day I'll have to read the court transcripts myself, sounds like it is getting quite amusing.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What is Planet? Why a Planet. Just a Planet.

I think I was unnecessarily cryptic yesterday on the "what is planet" mini-controversy.

The current semi-formal definition of a planet is: a body with a mass greater than or equal to Pluto and less than 13 times the mass of Jupiter that is orbiting a main sequence star or stellar remnant.

The controversy comes in two forms: one relates to the definitions of "planet" within the Solar System, and specifically whether Pluto is a planet or a "minor planet", merely the most massive of the family of Kuiper Belt Objects.
The second issue is for extra-solar planets; namely what is a planet outside the Solar System - that controversy is primarily related to issues of precedence, "who discovered planets first". Namely if you can define anything discovered before what you discovered to be NotPlanet, why then you discovered the first planet. Parenthetically, one should note that Nobel prizes are never awarded for being second. They go to first discoverers, method and technique developers, and "great body of work" and "amazing breakthrough" theorists.

So: in astronomy, objects are usually categorized phenomenologically - based on how they look, literally. This leads to embarrassing inconsistencies when we eventually understand the actual physics behind the appearance (eg Object X for which object class X is named, is in fact not an object of class X. Or, type Ib is a phenomenological class I, distinct from type Ia and in fact a part of class II...)

So, in the solar system, "planets" are resolved objects, that are round and orbit the Sun.
They have anomalous proper motion by virtue of orbiting the Sun, and they are finite sized, so resolved when observed through a telescope, and in words of a pioneering net.crackpot, they are not "space potatoes".
There is a minimum mass at which a rocky object undergoes elastic deformation under its own gravity to have a surface tracing a 2D contour of constant potential energy (isopotential). Minor planets are lumpy.
Conveniently, for historical reasons, Pluto is above this line and therefore a planet.
For obscure historical reasons, some people would like Pluto not to be a "real planet". Other people just strive for annoying consistency and want Pluto not to be a planet for such reasons.
One inconsistency is that this definition leaves the lower mass boundary for planets satisfyingly vague, it'd depend on the equation of state of the stuff making up the planet (since elasic deformation depends on composition) and low mass gaseous planets would have minimum mass that'd depend on temperature (cool).

So, for historical reasons a lot of people want to leave Pluto as a planet; for consistency reasons, others would like Pluto demoted and be the largest of a new class of minor planets.
Note that the most massive moons are already as massive as the least massive planets: in astronomy classes of objects overlap and have vague boundaries. Such is life.

Now, with extrasolar planets, life gets more complicated. For one, most of our observations are marginal and the data from which classes are formed have systematic (eg knowing M/sin(i) rather than absolute M) and random uncertainties.

Most people agree that a sensible boundary for the upper mass bound is "deuterium burning limit"; the mass at which objects sustain for a while thermonuclear fusion of deuterium in their core. For hydrostatic models of approximate solar composition, that boundary is at about 13 Jupiter masses. So, anything above that is a brown dwarf.
Bad news: if you look at core temperature profiles during formation, then depending on how and when the mass accreted onto the core, there may be temporary fusion of deuterium down to as low as ~ 3 Jupiter masses, if I understand the results correctly. People whose observations are biased towards the higher masses, especially with that annoying 1/sin(i) factor, tend not to like this "correction" to the definition so much.

Lower mass limit: well, we don't need to worry about that so much for extrasolar planets, yet. Only pulsar detections can probe that low, although other techniques will probe to lower masses surprisingly soon.

Some people feel that we should not define planets phenomenologically, the definition should be based on physical processes; one such being the formation mechanism.

Planet mass objects could form in three ways:

1) core accretion: whereby dust aggregated into dust-bunnies (in Spaaaace), into pebbles/snowflakes, into boulders, into planetesimals, into terrestrials, into super-Earths, and then at some (few) Earth masses there is runaway gas accretion into ice giant or jovian (or not, you could just stop at a lower mass for whateve reason).

2) disk instability: this is an old idea, recently resurrected for various interesting reasons. In this model, (some) giant planets form when a cold protoplanetary disk becomes gravitationally unstable and density maxima become self-bound and accrete gas to become jovian or superjovian planets. This may happen if the cooling time of such density structures is rapid enough, so it tends to happen in the outskirts of protoplanetary disks. The process is rapid; the resulting structure has either no rock or ice core, or a fairly modest one formed by segregation after formation. Process 2) could happen independently and concurrently with process 1), or they could both happen, with process 2) promoting process 1).

3) failed brown dwarfs: spheroidal instabilities in gas clouds lead to few jupiter mass (or less?) bound gas masses, which ought to grow to stellar size, but something interrupts (or even partially reverses) the accretion process and the star "fails" and is left as a low mass core with no fusion. This could happen in isolation, or in a dense star forming region, so the resulting core could end up bound to a star through dynamical processes.
Either way, I think it is already clear that the lowest mass brown dwarfs (ie H/He dominated spheres formed in isolation through spheroidal collapse of Jeans unstable gas) will overlap in mass with the most massive jovian planets formed in disks (and if you favourite core accretion scenario terminated formation at some safe mass like 3 or 4 jupiters, then we can always make "blue straggler planets" and collide two super-jovians formed in a disk to make a super-duper jovian of 5+ jupiter masses. Repeast as necessary...)

4) Something completely different. There are reasons to worry about anomalous and rare formation channels for planets to explain "exceptions", but not here and now. Yes, I know I said 3 at the beginning, that was deliberate.

So some people would like only objects formed by process 1) to be planets.
Problem is that it is very hard to observe a jovian mass planet indirectly and know how it formed (though there are some ideas on looking at the mass/radius relation, for cases where the radius is measurable, or composition, or even the effective damping constant to collective oscillations). Which is why astronomy like phenomenological definitions.

So the big outstanding issues for extra-solar planets are:

1) are "planets" only around main sequence stars or also around stellar remnants?
Well, people who observe main sequence stars would like planets to be only around stellar remnants. Then, conveniently, the first discovered planets (Wolszczan's pulsar planets) would retroactively not be planets and 51 Peg would be the first discovered planet.
However, this definition would require planets around white dwarfs not to be planets either. So when the Sun goes off the main sequence and completes its RGB and AGB evolution, the planets would no longer be planets even though half of them at least would still be there and be pretty much the same as before.
This is taking inconsistency to an unnecessary level (caveat: I am not a disinterested observer in this, so "bring it on", and I will test my newly discovered amazing jiu-jitsu bureaucratic powers...)

On a slightly different note: what about planets around brown dwarfs? They are easy to detect, but is a 5 jupiter mass object orbiting a 15 jupiter mass primary really a planet, or a low mass brown dwarf binary?
What about a 5 earth mass object orbiting a 15 jupiter mass primary?

2) are free floating objects with mass in the planet range actual "planets"? Well, no one, except the people who do IR observations of low mass free floating objects, wants to call them planets. They are sub-substellar objects.
Which is a bit annoying, since it means that you could make perfectly respectable planets around a main sequence star, of any appropriate mass, and in whichever way is approved, and then at an arbitary late time you could dynamically eject those objects into interstellar space, at which point they would abruptly not be planets anymore...
Consistency is, however, overrated.

Amusingly, there is a finite probability that we could observe a system whereby a planet has been formed, and is in the process of being ejected - in that it is on a dynamically unstable or even unbound trajectory but is still within the system...
Planet, or not planet? You decide.
(Odds are surprisingly good: timescale for the ejection is ~ 100 years or so, but a formally unstable system could be observed for 10,000 years or more. Young systems probably eject 1++ planets in the first 1-10 million years, so if we observe 10,000+ low mass protostars or pre/early main sequence stars with ages less than 10 Myrs, odds become pretty good we'd catch a system in the process of ejecting an excess planet).
Detecting interstellar planets is not too hard: they are IR bright when young; conceivably observable through mid-IR + parallax and/or proper motion at late times; and almost certain to be seen in microlensing searches.
There may well by between 10 billion and a trillion free floating planets (whose total summed mass is still negligible) in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knew.
Oh, and as David Stephenson noted, free floating planets can be habitable (liquid water on the surface) for interestingly long time (order Gyr). That'd be a twist.


more paranoid ramblings

Hm, so I see Blair today insists that military action against Iran is "not on the agenda". Smart man Blair, he knows of course that such a statement could mean one of two things...
this btw coincided with Iran removing its ambassador to the UK, apparently because he was pragmatic and reasonable.
Part of a "clean house" sweep firing 40 Iranian ambassdors and consuls and replacing them with hardliners. Yay.

Unconfirmed anecdotal comments by someone who is current and informed boiled down to "Syria? No. They need those for Iran."

Of course anyone who really knew would not be able to tell me.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Pluto a Planet again? Is anything a planet?

So, if Pluto really has three moons does it increase its stature in the "is it really a planet?" game?

My sense is "yes", but then I am in the liberal "of course Pluto is a planet" camp... but then I'm in good company on that one. Phbt.

See here and here

More seriously, it is clear that the IAU will be re-visiting the definition of planet soon.
And for mostly impure motives (hint: changing the definition so that a planet is only something orbiting a main-sequence star is not going to help anyone convince the Academy that they should get the Nobel prize. Chasing the wrong variable, as I understand how the process works).

This is going to be a bad and nasty process. On the other hand, the community does need to decide whether to go with a traditional, and possibly inconsistent, phenomenological definition; or to go with a consistent physical definition that may be undecidable for any given object.
It is somewhat aesthetically objectionable that under the current definition, a perfectly nice planet, like the Earth, would cease to be a planet if we were to be inadvertently ejected into interstellar space. The Earth as a sub-substellar object just doesn't sound right just because there is some accident of orbital mechanics.


WGESP IAU definition

The Berkeley definition

Note the "stellar remnant" variant. Under one definition, when the Sun exits the AGB phase, the planets cease to be planets, even though they were planets for 9-10 Gyrs. But if a planet is ejected through dynamical instability at any point, it ceases to be a planet under either definition.

On the other hand, no one seems to want a low mass object formed in isolation to be a planet; even if it quacks like a planet. And phenomenologicall it'd be impossible for the foreseeable future to untangle the dynamical history of free floating planet-like objects.

Double bah.