Friday, March 31, 2006

Billy Speaks

iPod iChing - Artemis Ejected


It is friday, unbelievable so, and we do something topical...

Oh mighty iPod, was there a fifth planet "Artemis"? Specifically, was there a Mars mass, or larger, planetary body orbiting between Red Mars and Mighty Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which persisted in a stable orbit for several hundred million years before being ejected by Jupiter himself?

Whoosh goes the randomizer. Whoosh.

"...fight fight fight
just push it away
fight fight fight
just push it until it breaks"

#11 is Accidents Will Happen - Elvis Costello and #12 A La Volette - Sien Diels

"Accidents will happen
We only hit and run
I don't want to hear it
'Cause I know what I've done"

Well, I'll be darned. That's an unambiguous YES.
I am a convert. Congratulations Sean and John!

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

Mary Mack

They jumped so high, high, high
They reached the sky, sky, sky
And they didn't come back, back, back
'Til the 4th of July, ly, ly!

Should I be worried...?

The Big Kid now knows "Travelin' Soldier", "Landslide" and "Long Time Gone" by heart.

Still haven't explained "Goodbye Earl" fully to her.

Now if she'd only look past the atonal singing and truly appreciate Billy Bragg.
She's started on "Accident Waiting to Happen", maybe some "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" will move her along.
Or "Jerusalem"...


Sometimes we just link because connectivity is important

The Indomitable Jane Smiley preaches to the converted - You Read

NASA - they lied? about money?

Well, that didn't last...

Apparently the info provided to AbSciCon monday and tuesday was factually inaccurate, or reality challenged or some such.

NASAwatch has the ugly details

"...Reliable sources now report that at a Science Mission Directorate monthly meeting at NASA HQ today it was noted that no additional funds will be given to Astrobiology and that someone is going to have to go tell the astrobiologists that the claim made by Dantzler and Pilcher is not true."

Lying fuckers.

I expect some people will resign over this.
Or Cowing's sources are in error. Wouldn't bet on it though, this one is consistent with the inconsistencies at the Town Hall meeting.


missed opportunities

Argh. So Billy Bragg played DC last sunday, and I didn't even know. Didn't even think to look to check if he was in the US touring.
Not that I could have gone given the nature of the trip, but still.
I think I've seen Billy live 4 times, including once in the US (LA), only act I've bothered to see more than once.
Why? Think British Bob Dylan of the 80s - with punk influence, not hippie, and hasn't sold out yet either.

At AbSciCon there was, at NASA's request, a "Town Hall Meeting" to discuss the funding situation.
As mentioned before, some bones with bits of meat were tossed, looks like astrobio will get $10 million extra per year over the next three years (no word yet of where that money was taken from either...). This is enough that ongoing multi-year grants will not have to take (as large) immediate cuts, but not enough for new grants this year or next - though word is, as I mentioned, that two NAI centers will be picked in the current round after all (and my bet is still that Washington will be one, and I'd think VPL the other - unless it violates the "no $ to Ca" rule that seems to be in operation right now).

We'll find out soon if this works.

Then Congress gets it say.

BUT, there was one very important thing about the Town Hall meeting.
Only Astrobiology department staff from NASA were there to answer questions.
No one, near as I can tell, from Science Missions Directorate (or whatever it is called this week), no one even from Origins.
Certainly not anyone from the AA level. Hah.

On a lighter note: Les Halles - provincial french restaurant on Pennsylvania and 13th (right across from Ronald Reagan building) - recommended by senior NASA friend, and very nice indeed it is. Think "steak and frites" but well done.
Chef is actually famous in some way.
Service is mediocre bad, too busy, and I didn't look like a CongressCritter or some such important local, thankfully.

Oh, and the Denny's in Bedford, at the intersection of the Pa Turnpike and I-99 is quite good as Denny's restaurants go.
Very friendly service, fast, helpful and the food was edible. Munchkins were happy.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Artemis - the fifth planet

Lots of fun things at AbSciCon '06 so I'll cherry pick what I like.

Sean Raymond presented an interesting talk on Artemis, a fifth terrestrial planet (about Mars mass) that he conjectures existed in the Solar System for about 700 million years after formation.

The basic scenario is that among the "planetary embryos" that formed in the inner system, an additional Mars massed object formed and persisted at about 2 AU (outside the orbit of Mars). It loitered there in a near circular orbit for about 700 million years before being promptly ejected by Jupiter.

The Jupiter ejection of Artemis is conjectured to have come about from another recent dynamical model.
In this scenario the outer planets were in a more compact configuration, with Jupiter and Saturn in, or inside, a 2:1 orbital resonance, and Uranus and Neptune close in and reversed in position.
Interaction with an outer debris disk of planetesimals moved the outer planets out, and Jupiter inwards.
The outer planetesimals were ejected, Neptune flipped position with Uranus, and both moved outward along with Saturn.
When Jupiter and Saturn swept through the 2:1 resonance, it triggered strong perturbations of the inner terrestrial planets, and poor Artemis was ejected after interacting weakly with the inner planets.
This happened about 3.8 billion years ago, about 700 million years after the formation of the Solar System, and was also the event that triggered the Late Heavy Bombardment.

So Artemis is now drifting somewhere in interstellar space, all by itself. Be fun if it had a large moon, eh?
It would have gone into an epicyclic orbit about the Solar orbit, and could still be relatively close by, probably within few tens of parsecs of the Sun, unless a bad luck encounter with another star over the last 18 or so Galactic orbit sent it off in a very different orbit.

This has been postulated before, but the interesting thing is that the scenario is a little bit beyond a "just so" story, there are some kinematic anomalies that fit this scenario and further modeling, and observations, may refute the model, or confirm it indirectly.
We'll probably never know for sure.

This is NOT the same as this scenario...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

AbSciCon - random snippets

Hm. Lockheed serves a decent Cote d'Rhone. But, guys, session from 2-6 with drinks only at the break; then you can't serve finger sandwiches only at a "Meal Reception". Ah well, some downtown restaurants did well. Hosting it at the Smithsonian was brilliant. IMAX showing was decent, though I'd have gone for Harry Potter meself (Harry Potter on IMAX, who knew?).

Rumours that the funding crisis in astrobio was to be solved by taking the proceeds of the cash bar at monday nights reception are false. They know us too well, and knew we were too cheap to actually buy any drinks at those prices.

So... Town Hall: "we are going to give some money back to AstroBio, yay! No! Wait! Hah, fooled you, we gave to this other mission first..."

If I parsed it correctly, the current claim is that HQ was going to restore the AstroBio funding cut, honest they were, they had found the money. But... they decided restoring Dawn was more important. And who could argue with that.
Well, except that it is BS, really. They didn't "find" new funding for Dawn, nor was that money the one unique pot of NASA funding that could have restored AstroBio funding.

Ah well, goodish news is that allegedly two of the NAI Centers in the current round will be funded (the plan was for 4). Rankings have been made (I heard ~ 100 applications, including renewals). I have not seen those rankings. I'd bet on Washington and VPL, but what do I know.

Harrison Schmidt talked a good talk. Although it wandered a bit off topic onto Star Wars etc.

Er, there was some interesting science too, planets, and life and stuff...

DC net.celebrity blogging

So... found myself down at the Capitol end of the Mall for a while today. Interesting place.

What did we see:

a motorcade - 8 bikecops + 4 cars with sirens, black limos and 2-3 vans with large men in tight suits. Heading west on Constitution at about 2 pm.
I guess Cheney was done with lunch with the Senate Republicans.
Dude should walk, not that far, do him good. DC is not Baghdad, it is actually safe for politicians to walk across downtown, or so I have heard.

Checking out in the lobby, Markos " The Kos" Moulitsas! Am fairly sure, looked like him anyway, couldn't stop to chat. I had to dash back, forgot my badge, seemed friendly, I fear he may have been one of the neighbours the Big Kid kept up all night with her loud insistence on Things That Are Important At A Certain Age. Sorry dude.

Spotted on E Street - a toddler in an all 66North outfit - moss green, jacket and one of those excellent hats that only look good on kids. Cool.

Keith Cowing of NASAwatch. Just checked though, no hot stories about AbSciCon there or on Bummer.

Oh, and the restaurant we headed to for lunch had closed, accidentally stumbled on to the Andale on the 400 block of 7th Street (NW) instead.
It is an actual decent Mexican restaurant on the East Coast. As good as a good west coast restaurant (and, no, I haven't been gone that long). Recommended.

An Ethical Quandry

This is from real life, second hand.

You're taking an "ethics exam".
You know the "right answer" to one of the questions, namely the answer the instructor expects to be given as the correct answer. But, you disagree with the answer as being subtly flawed, and think the correct answer is slightly different.
You are fairly sure the instructor will downgrade your answer if it deviates from the "right" model answer.

Which is the more ethical thing to do: give the answe expected, or the answer you think is correct?

Monday, March 27, 2006

AbSciCon '06

Am at AbSciCon'06 in DC

Interesting venue - it is at the Ronald Reagan building, couple of blocks from the White House.
Fun, but somewhat unusual for this crowd. Security going in and out of the building is enough to be annoying and slowing everything down, but not apparently terribly useful. Nice security crew though, very friendly.

I am happy to say the Big Kid sat through a plenary lecture on Chemotrophy and evidence for early evolution of H2 metabolism (with the free hydrogen coming from water reacting with quenched rocks out of thermodynamic equilibrium). Neat stuff.
She also managed a fair part of the protoplanetary disk session (not enough Mars folks - want to keep the audience, must refer to Mars. Just ask anyone at HQ!)

It is a curious meeting, would normally have been out in Calif. but was brought here to showcase astrobio for HQ, at their insistence. And then they gutted the program a few weeks before the meeting.

At any given time a fair fraction of the attendees is down at the Capitol petitioning Congress, as good citizens should.

There's a "Town Meeting' tonight, with pre-meeting rumours of good news. We'll see. More of it tomorrow.

In the meantime, interesting news from south of the Mall:

first of all - HST and JWST is not enough to keep astronomy going folks. And just because "you" like those missions, doesn't mean you shoud be blase about cuts to "exotic" astronomy... you know who you are. You're there to represent the whole field, not your own research group. Don't make us remind you more forcefully.

Secondly, odds of HST actually being refurbished are well under 50%, probably under 10%.
NASA will probably launch another shuttle, to show they can. They probably won't launch any more than that, even if it goes well.
In the meantime several hundred million dollars will be spent on HST refurbishment activities.
[oo, er, timely blogger crash...]

Finally, JWST is a neat mission, it will do good stuff if it stays on spec, and the cost overruns are not that outrageous, yet.
Most of the quoted increase is change in accounting (full cost, plus count of running MODA!) and the cost of the delays and stretching of the schedule.
But, JWST will not be a "community" mission like HST. Sure there will be some GO programs, but it will do much more large science with pre-defined groups and GTO.
And, we're probably looking at a several year gap between HST and JWST, if you want to be realistic.
How much archive money do you think they'll pipe in to cover that gap? Not enough.

This may sound like a lot of whinging, but the problem we're facing as a community is that these flailing changes in budget and priority cause multi-year damage. People are forced out of the field, a generation of postdocs and students gets booted, and technical expertise built up over 20 years is thrown out the window.
But, worst of all, the younger people see this happening and figure that you'd have to be nuts to go through it!
And then we wonder why no one wants to do physical sciences any more.

Friday, March 24, 2006

iPod iChing - It from Bits?

Yay, friday busy friday.
So, iPod, Biggie today - the whole itty-bitty "It from Bit" concept (see also here). Anything to it?
You should know...

Whoosh goes the randomizer. Whoosh...

Er, that would be a "yes".

I guess the House has some way to go.
I guess I should be flattered by The Questioner, again.

Before I forget: #11 was Scenes from Childhood: Dreaming! and #12 was I Zimbra - Talking Heads
Wow, that'd be "YES" then...

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

The Future?
There is no good reason
I should have to be so alone
I’m smothered by this emptiness
Lord I wish I was made of stone


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Geek Date - how precise a pi do you need.

So... as we all remember, March 14th in the US is a special day, in particular just before 2 o'clock.

3.14 in US notation

So, here's a question for the true geeks.

How precisely do you have to time it, so that you get a complete Pi for that date.

ie 3.14 YYYY

so how many nths of a second (how many "xxx" digits) do you need to go to before you get the year (YYYY digits) as consecutive digits and can stop.


Which interesting year appears the earliest? And, no 6535 AD is not interesting unless you know something I don't.
You could make good crackpot case for it being interesting in other calendar systems though...

Double hint: most interesting years appear in the first 10,000 digits.

Year of my birth is unusually interesting, clearly.

The earliest year of the last century is easy and also interesting.

2006 is finitely interesting.

Of the last 2005 years, which is the last to appear in the decimal expansion of this form?

Dixie Chicks: future spending plans

A Dangerous Professor

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Danger! Danger! Professor alert.

Pat "The Assassin" Robertson speaks.

What a sad, pathetic little man.

Oh, if you think he is right? Do go to "Regent University", and may you get what you wish.
It is, after all, "America's pre-eminent Christian University", they say so themselves (not counting Boston U., Notre Dame, Georgetown, any of the Loyola's etc and so forth...) and Christian's are always modest and never lie.

No science department though. But John Ashcroft lectures there.

Books: how many significant figures?

So, there's two kinds of people in the world: readers and non-readers.
I'm packing up one room of books to make way for a new set of (bigger, better) built-ins (which also frees up one standalone bookcase, yay). This made me glance at my "pile".

There are well over 100 books on the "must read", probably 200+ on the "bought intending to read one day" and about 2-3000 on the "my wife's books, but I ought to read it too" (well, at least the materials science and history texts, I'll never get through all the cook books or fine art stuff, although Hockney and McGee look like "must reads").

So where are you?

  • Life's too short to read books
  • Well there's this one book I heard about
  • There's a few I picked up for weekends and vacations
  • few dozen I mean to catch up on
  • Hah, only a hundred? Piker.
  • Foundations of my house are cracking

The sad thing is that I literally can't get through them by priority, I have to mix some late nite lite fiction in to maintain my sanity and flush my brain...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Astrobiology in the US

Mama, I don't want to go to Mars

seen on - the source of all things Steve

VSE in light verse...

Caveat, I actually want to go to Mars. I'm like a total Space Cadet.
But... I missed the pre-kids window, so I'm really in no hurry now.
And I'd rather "do science" than feed aerospace contractors writing power point presentations.

a small victory

Monday, March 20, 2006

AstroBio: no new $

Well, the rumours are out and true, unfortunately.
E-mail from NASA HQ to wide enough a recipient list that it is de facto public:

"...As part of the ramp-down to the FY07 funding level[50% cut], the total budget for the program in FY06 has been cut 28% to just under $47 million.

Even at the requested FY07 funding level we will be able to support a vigorous program of astrobiology research and some technology development. Obviously, however, it will be about half the size of the current program. Getting from here to there will be challenging and painful...

The principal decision is to fully fund previous astrobiology competitive awards to the greatest degree possible. The implication of this policy is that our ability to make new awards in FY06 will be extremely limited. Nonetheless, we plan to go forward with panel reviews of the proposals we received in late 2005 for all four elements of the program. The proposing teams put an enormous amount of effort into preparing these proposals and they deserve at least the critical feedback provided by the peer review process. Having the peer review evaluations in hand will also allow NASA to make the most effective use of whatever funds are available for new awards.

I have also reluctantly concluded that, under the present circumstances, it is not sensible to go forward with new astrobiology solicitations in FY06. NASA has therefore canceled the three astrobiology elements of the ROSES-06 omnibus solicitation (Exo/Evo, ASTEP, ASTID). This decision can be reversed in the future should the budget picture change."

Translation: the proposals submitted last year, including renewal requests, will not be funded.
Reviews of submitted proposals were completed and feedback will be sent in, for guidance to authors, and so there is ranking in place in case a miracle happens.

Comment: even if Congress acts fast (eg by August) it will be too late to do any funding for this year, except possibly for top rated renewal proposals (who will now go into shut-down mode anyway and start firing people), and any proposal rated Excellent across the board. So no $ this year for anyone, any change will just roll into 2007 no matter what, even if miracles happen.

BTW, the following Astrobiology Institutes are up for renewal this summer (see here for list:

Rhode Island

I heard 100+ teams applied for funding in the current (and now defunded) solicitation round.

Professors Wishing Desperately...

Ben Praster, a senior in English at Penn State, writes an opinion column in today's Collegian, the Penn State University Park campus student newspaper.

Classroom debates necessary...

Ben makes a good argument, worth a read.

"...I find that most professors preside over quiet classes wishing desperately for someone to voice an opinion on anything, which is why I'm always curious about where these stories about liberal bias in classrooms come from."

He is right - if you have an opinion, voice it. You might be wrong, people might disagree with you. Suck it up.

the price of fame...

Damn, I do one little blog entry on cosmology, and not only does readership jump almost a factor of few, but my crackpot e-mail inflow jumps an order of magnitude too.
I never knew there were so many people who had proven Einstein wrong. Or so well...

I miss the old days, when they came on postcards densely written with bright, thick point ink.

I wonder if they guy who is a former Marine still cares enough to write. He was always fun.

Need to do a few boring old "stars and galaxies" entries, gotta resist the temptation...

Friday, March 17, 2006

iPod iChing - Classical Inflation

Argh, friday again and I'm a full cup behind on my caffeine dose...

So, we canter over to the mighty iPod, and ask a topical question: was there a period of classical inflation at the early stages of the Big Bang, as indicated by the new WMAP data?

Whoosh goes the randomizer. Whoosh.

  • The Covering: Polly Wolly Doodle - Twin Sisters

  • The Crossing: Love Lives Here - Billy Bragg

  • The Crown: Ah Violetta! - La Traviata - Verdi

  • The Root: When The Light Appears Boy - Cornershop

  • The Past: Buffalo Soldier - Bob Marley

  • The Future: Oliver Cromwell - Monty Python

  • The Questioner: In Love - The Datsuns

  • The House: Which Side Are You On? - Billy Bragg

  • The Inside: Cover Me - Björk

  • The Outcome: (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais - Clash

#11 is Hér Kemur Lillimann - Thorbjorn Egner, and #12 is Tortured, Tangled Hearts - Dixie Chicks

Well. The Root certainly speaks to the issue.
And The Inside is spot on.
As always The Questioner is so nice, thanks oh mighty iPod.
The House tells a story - which side are you on, boys?

So what do we learn from The Outcome: "Better Find Another Solution?" Or is that just sarcasm?
They won't notice anyway, they're all too busy fighting. Sigh.

The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got burton suits, ha you think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money
I'm only
Looking for fun.

I better go have another chat with Stephon - definitely a dreadlocks subtheme here.

As always, the Key
as explained by Sean

Cover Me - Björk
Cover me

While I crawl into the unknown
Cover me

I'm going hunting for mysteries
Cover me

I'm going to prove the impossible really exists
This is really dangerous
Cover me

But worth all the effort
Cover me

I'm going to prove the impossible really exists

NASA - ROSES 06 - KaPow!

LTSA in topical action...

And a lovely wee e-mail crosses my mailbox.

It is the long dreaded "Amendment to ROSES 06"...

ROSES-2006 is the NASA Omnibus Research Opportunities solicitation for research in space sciences, covering most of the research done by university researchers, including some competed missions, and a lot of the research center individual research level efforts.

So... here we go:


- Appendix C.18: Astrobiology: Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology.
- Appendix C.20: Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development and Mission Concept Studies.
- Appendix C.21: Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets.

UNDER REVIEW - Due Date Canceled but may be postponed

- Appendix A.5: Physical Oceanography.
- Appendix A.11: Earth Surface and Interior.
- Appendix D.3: Long Term Space Astrophysics.
- Appendix D.7: Terrestrial Planet Finder Foundation Science.


- Appendix A.3: Terrestrial Ecology and Biodiversity.
- Appendix A.8: Precipitation Science.
- Appendix A.10: Atmospheric Composition: Research and Modeling.
- Appendix A.14: Interdisciplinary Research in Earth Science.
- Appendix A.15: Earth System Science Research using EOS Satellites.
- Appendix B.2: Solar and Heliospheric Physics.
- Appendix B.3: Geospace Science.
- Appendices C.2 to C.12, C.16, C.17, C.19, and E.3: Planetary Science Research Program

There's a couple of rescopings - including APRA they will only accept proposals with 1 year periods so they have the flexibility to realign (cut) future funding as priorities are established.

So... they wiped out Astrobiology.

LTSA is the only long term (typically 5 years) "blue sky" program, and the selection is deliberately biased to junior researchers (senior postdocs and junior faculty, getting an LTSA can be make/break for an assistant professor heading for tenure).

Cutting TPF-FS makes sense when the mission no longer exists. But it kinda doubles the blow to people working in exoplanet fields.

Looks like ecology, climate and atmospherics ain't none too popular neither.
The "amendments" to those, at a glance, are all substantial cuts in available funding.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

WMAP for Dummies

WMAP is a small NASA satellite mission that is measuring the microwave background radiation, a diffuse electromagnetic glow that peaks at long wavelengths (down around millimeter) and is pervasive in the universe.
This radiation is the cooled afterglow of the Big Bang, the origin of the observable universe from a hot, dense initial configuration a finite time (about 13.7 billion years ago) in the past.

The primary task of the satellite is to measure the intensity of the radiation as a function of position on the sky at several different wavelengths, and to a lesser extent measure the polarization of the radiation (WMAP has some sensitivity to this, but is not designed to measure polarization).

First task is to subtract the "foreground" radiation, which is the irregular infrared radiation emitted primarily by cool dust in the Milky Way galaxy (this is a narrow ribbon of emission on the sky) and to a lesser extent the "zodiacal emission" of dust within the solar system.

The residual radiation has a very uniform characteristic temperature across the sky, an almost perfect "black body" radiation, with a temperature of about 2.73 K.
There are deviations from the mean temperature of about a part in million, these fluctuations, seen on scales ranging from a quarter of the sky, to degree scales (about the width of the Moon on the sky) code most of the detailed physics of formation and evolution in the early universe.

The WMAP data is reduced to a set of six primary parameters, and some secondary inferred parameters describing these physics. Data is considered in two ways - the constraints on these parameters from the WMAP data alone, and the constraints given data from other observations; and separately whether the different observations are consistent. (They pretty much are).
Formally, you can make different "prior" assumptions about what you know about the universe and then see what that tells you about the unknown parameters...

So, what do the results mean?

First of all, they are consistent with the standard model Big Bang theory for cosmogenesis.

The density of the universe is consistent with being exactly the critical density (and the allowed deviation from this is at most a few percent).
72% (or 74% depending on which prior you take in) of the universe consists of "dark energy", unknown something with an unusual characteristic - the pressure of dark energy is negative. This is characterised by the "w" parameter. w=-1 is consistent with a "cosmological constant".
w < -1 is often consider unphysical, but is it were so, the universe would be heading for a Big Rip in a finite time in the future. This seems now to be excluded.
0 > w > -1 implies that there is some (possibly dynamical or varying) equation of state for some dark energy stuff, sometimes labeled "quintessence". That would be interesting.
Current data suggests w is very close to being exactly -1, which strongly suggests it is a cosmological constant type of thing. This will disappoint a lot of particle theorists who would prefer a more exciting dynamical entity.

Dark matter is there at about 24% (22% with different priors folded in) of total universe content and the normal "baryonic" matter we are made of is about 4% of the universe. This dark matter is consistent with being "cold" dark matter.
Neutrinos make up about 0.1% of the mass of the universe, which constrains the neutrino mass in interesting ways.

If anyone cares, Hubble's constant, H0 = 73 km/s/Mpc +/- 3 .

The first stars formed early, at redshift of about 1512 (few hundred million years after the Big Bang (365 million)).
This was hinted at in the previous data and now looks quite solid. This is a bit surprising but consistent with interesting theories. (τ ~ 0.08, or 0.1 if you allow running power spectrum). The early reionization due to "first stars" is needed with the current parameters, but need not have been complete, data looks consistent with patchy ionization with maybe some "neutral zones" remaining down to redshift 7 or so.

The "spectrum of density fluctuations" in the universe is close to being "scale invariant" (crudely speaking fluctuations are independent of their size at the beginning). Which is parametrised by a number n=1. This is consistent with the inflation model for the Big Bang. Inflation theory in general predicts a small deviation from exact n=1, and the amplitude of this deviation (parametrised by the α and r parameters) is known to be small now, and small enough that some variants of the basic inflation theory are in trouble (but the basic inflation scenario is in very good shape, this tests competing theories of the exact mechanism for inflation).
WMAP is now claiming n is slightly less than unity, at some significant level, and that this is consistent with some small contribution from tensor modes. They like n=0.95 when combined with prior data, at about 3 σ from unity.
They favour dn/dlnk ~ -0.09 and tensor modes present (-0.06 without tensor modes), data is marginally inconsistent with a perfectly flat spectrum.

The fluctuations on very large scales due to gravitational radiation are small, small enough to start also testing some alternatives to the standard Big Bang. (eg Ekpyrotic theory looks to be in some trouble, shame its a cute theory)

There are some interesting technical issues: one is the anomalously low amplitude of fluctuation on the largest scales (l=2 mode), which has been suggested to imply the universe loops back on itself (has a non-trivial topology). Another is the "third acoustic peak" is now measured in position and amplitude, which constrains the physics of dark matter. Another is the deviation from scale invariance may be showing, but it is degenerate with whether the radiation field has a net "curl" (whether the temperature fluctuations are smooth or form vortexes with little whirls in them).

No big surprises, but lots of interesting constraints.

Next mission to tackle this will be ESA's Planck mission

Update: see Sean's comments and Phil's intro
I don't think the shift in the best estimate of τ is profoundly significant, and it is consistent with the 1st year WMAP range. The essential point is that there is early ionization with substantial energy input from a Pop III epoch at z > 10, and NOT that reionization just happens at z ~ 6-7. It is interesting to see whether early reionization was z=11, 15 or 20 but it doesn't change the essential physics of the argument for a Pop III contribution.

WMAP year 3 highlights

Ooh. l=2 anomaly is still there. Could be just Cosmic Variance
Apparently the "red" and "green" curves have lots of "scientific" information"!
Nice third acoustic peak...

WMAP year 3 data release is out.

Instant highlights:

Page et al - Polarzation analysis - no B modes. ΩGW h2 < 10-12 (95%) with r < 0.55 which is approaching the level where some simpler inflation models are ruled out, but not quite.

Hinshaw et al - Temperature - τ ~ 0.088, n = 0.95 +/- 0.02 - be interesting if this is really significantly different from unity

Spergel et al - The Fun Paper - w = -0.97 +0.07 - 0.09 (ie it is = -1!)
Ω = 1 Big Rip is probably ruled out now...

ΩΛ = 0.72 +/- 0.04

redshift of reionization is 12-24, optimal ~ 15 !!!

Dark Matter is non-baryonic

Either there is slight breach of scale invariance, or tensor modes are significant after all, need to read carefully to figure out why they are saying this.


WMAP announces the three year data results in 10 minutes.
There's definitely a buzz of anticipation in e-mail, but I have not heard explicitly of any surprises.
So either they're being very good, or its going to be reconfirmation of what we know.

But... at that minute I'll be in a mandatory administrative training seminar, which summarises my current life all too well...

WiFi is down in that room right now as well, I checked.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

So, you want to be an astrophysicist? v 1.99 - prospective grads

No Comment!

Welcome, prospectives...

JWST Nature summary

Nature has an interesting article on JWST and its cost and impact -

Despite this, the cost has continued to climb, alarmingly jumping almost $1 billion in 2005 alone (see graph). NASA's requirement that the programme beef up its contingency fund added a little over $200 million. A delay in the government's decision to move from a US launcher to the Ariane added an estimated $300 million as highly paid engineers were unable to move forward until they knew which rocket they were designing for. The situation is particularly embarrassing given that the cost of delaying the decision ended up being greater than the cost of the launch. That delay, and a NASA decision to rearrange the project's long-term budget yet again, saw the launch slip from 2011 to its current date of 2013. Every slip increases the total cost.

Rehashes a lot of known stuff, with interesting "astronomer quotes" interspersed, but it summarises a lot of the issues well.
Worth a read.

Ouch: dialog at LPSC

Seen on NASAwatch, Astronomy Magazine reports on some robust exchanges from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

Astrophysics types who weren't there (like me) need to read this.

Update: Emily at the Planetary Society Weblog has more, operative words are "ugly" and "angry".

So is Oliver Morton over on the Nature blog

Bad Astronomer joins in the fun

From his blog I forward news article
and a somewhat different perspective from Jeff at Space Politics

I'm getting really unamused hearing that people in DC "care" and "work hard".

SIM: East vs West fight

NASAwatch has copies of interesting e-mails: one from Weiler suggesting SIM is being oversold as an Earth finder; and a reply from Marcy justifying the claim.

So, Weiler has a point - SIM's primary mission is astrometry and planet finding was a secondary mission, originally a side-effect of the high precision astrometric capability. But Marcy is also right, IF there are Earth mass planets within 1 AU of the nearest 3-5 stars, then SIM will see the reflex motion of the star due to those planets orbiting it. A big IF, and one worth doing, although Kepler will be providing data before then about just how optimistic we ought to feel about that.

But, SIM can't wait for the Kepler results. And if it is significantly descoped it won't be sensitive enough to see habitable terrestrial planets anywhere.

What I really worry about is what this is symptomatic of: the natural but insanenly misguided tendency to defend by attacking. GSFC is not well served by attacking west coast centers, Ames and JPL are not responsible for cuts to high energy astrophysics and attacking their mission will only hurt space science overall.

Don't play negative sum games.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A tale of two missions...

Once upon a time, times were good and a space agency planned an ambitious mission.
A very ambitious mission. It would use never-before-built optics made with unequalled precision, and sensors which only existed as science fictional concepts in the heads of ambitious young engineers.
After several years, NASA decided the mission was too big and split it into two missions, one primarily for imaging, the other optimised for spectroscopy.
Then times got hard, and the two missions were merged, the mirror was descoped, the instruments were cut and compromised, the spectroscopy was compromised in exchange for imaging optimisation.

Finally, more than two decades after it was proposed, after 15 years of development, it was launched. And it did very well indeed. Still does. It may keep working and doing breakthrough (and bread'n'butter) science for more than a decade more.
And, shortly after it launched another agency launched a spectroscopy optimised mission which compliments the imaging mission relatively well.

The original spectroscopic instrument was moved to a mission for yet another agency, which failed... so they built it again and launched it again... where it failed again (just the instrument this time...). That was 30 years of trying, and in the meantime most of what was to be done got done in pieces and with other missions.

Who knows, maybe history will repeat itself.
It is just that 20 years is an awful long time to wait.

A personal milestone!

For the first time since the jan AAS meeting my mailbox is down to less than 1000 unresolved e-mails.
For today.

Yay me.

Monday, March 13, 2006

NASA: Dear Colleagues - You Move to Fast

NASA Associate Administrator Mary Cleave has a Dear Colleague Letter out - it is to you.
Read it, the whole thing.

Short version:

  • NASA science mission directorate is being reorganised into 4 bits

  • NASA will "reconstitute" the advisory committees - I'm still not clear why they were suspended for a year.
    One overall NAC, 4 Divsion committees (Earth, Sun, Planets, Astrophysics). + Planetary Protection as bonus.

  • "...It is the responsibility of [science] working with [exploration] to make sure that NASA conducts the science that enables human exploration, as well as the science that is enabled by human exploration..." - I think that might be the money quote
    So, magnetosphere and solar radiation environment is important; Lunar exploration is important.
    The rest, not so much.
    Interesting interpretation

  • It is official, science is losing $3 billion to shuttle. So they can shut shuttle down without losing face. But NASA will continue to make long term plans and shit.

  • R & A is to be cut 15%. Due to ongoing funding committments that means 50% cut in new funding. Ha Ha.
    But they will make sure student funding is maintained; just no postdoc positions.

  • We HEART heliophysics. Lucky sods.

  • Mars. We HEART Mars. But no humans - ignore what we said before.

  • Astrobiology has grown rapidly (because, like it used to be zero?) and therefore it needs to be cut before it becomes successful. Er, it is all about Mars anyways, and although we just said we HEART Mars, we're actually cutting Mars. Ha Ha.

  • Astrophysics: hey just be glad you got Hubble. Maybe. Anyway we'll continue to spend money on a refurbishment mission, so we can plan a different refurbishment next year when we change our mind again.
    More? You want more? Ha Ha.

Look! Charts and diagrams...
Read them carefully and you'll see we fire people who don't get with the program. Ha Ha.

Seriously: NASA makes multi-year plans, and announces research priorities, sometimes even in some accordance with the priorities suggested by those pesky advisory committees.
Universities and research organizations make plans and committ resources expecting these plans to have some semblance to reality... this means real money: faculty are hired, buildings built, labs equipped, students taken on, courses set up, in the expectation that there is some actual real long term interest in this capacity. Sometime around the 3rd or 4th time in short succession that these priorities are trashed and reset and whole sub-fields defunded just as the get going and have built up expertise, then the University admins notice, and they get pissed, and they won't play anymore. Well, not for about 5 years, and then we get New Deans and Provosts who have no institutional memory.
And you know what, $5 millions in Graduate Research Fellowships doesn't make up for it; hell, the GSRP stipend right now is so low that it costs universities several $k in unrestricted funds for top-up to minimal regular stipend each time someone gets one.

Hm, me thinks we start planning a telescope on the Moon. Again.
A real big, multiwavelength telescope...

Food, glorious food!
What wouldn't we give for
That extra bit more --
That's all that we live for
Why should we be fated to
Do nothing but brood
On food,
Magical food,
Wonderful food,
Marvellous food,
Fabulous food

Astronomy locator

Here is a web toy under development at MapMuse:

Astronomy locator - Observatories, Planetariums and Clubs - they are looking for missing info, I note Pennsylvania is a desert on their maps, might ponder sending them info...

I can forgive them for missing our planetarium - "the smallest east of the mississippi", but I know there's a good one in Philly!

An Abbreviated Guide to Teaching Evolution

AAAS put together a guide for teachers on evolution, through the Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

Materials were presented at last month's AAAS meeting, the guide with video of presentations is now on the web.

I encourage linking to it.

The AAAS Presentations with vidoes

Handout to Teachers (PDF)

Google Mars

Google Mars is up.
Like Google Earth but more colourful! Go wild.

Second of many, I hope.

(seen on NASAwatch)

Friday, March 10, 2006

More MRO

MRO orbit injection apparently successful

Now time to aerobrake, gently...

Most non-sensical use of science jargon in pop songs

Oo er. I just received, as a surprise, the complete box set, volume I, of Billy Bragg: The Early Years...

Way cool. Thank you, you know who!

So, listening, the first verse of Richard comes on...

...How can I go on
When every alpha particle hides a neon nucleus

Fortunately, as a tender frosh math physics student, who heard this live in late '83 on one of Billy's very first stops on what I believe was his very first nationwide tour, I did figure out how to go on. And thought it very cool indeed.
This was reinforced by Billy's late night Peel session shortly after, the not quite complete and very scratchy tape of that was a prized possession, until the re-mastered Peel Session CD came out.

But, I forgot, How could I go on?

And, how much worse can random injection of physics, or science, jargon in pop songs get.

Fortunately New England made up for it.
I wonder if the iPod is ready for this, it will certainly tilt the repertoire of responses...

DPW - told you so...

DPW solution

"...only 10% of the profit came from the US ports. Quite frankly the US operations suck, and are underproductive, the profit is mostly from Asian ports!

So, solution: it would actually pay for DPW to cut out the US ports and just take over the rest of P&O ports worldwide. It is good business and gets them and their buddies out of a political jam. Win-win? Who could say no?"

Of course the question is who is taking over? A spin-off shell subsidiary, or is it being sold to a US operator?

I still don't see where DPW is planning on making enough money to cover the loan costs. They must be betting on sharply increasing asian trade, with continued low operating costs and high margins.
They could still use some US west coast ports to link with their asian operations.

iPod iChing - Life on Enceladus

It is friday!. Even Sean is playing, so we do the trendy, slightly lazy thing and ask the obvious question:
Oh, mighty iPod - is there life on Enceladus?

Whoosh goes the randomizer... Whoosh.

#11 is Four Studies - Stravinsky; #12 is Fuglinn í Fjörunni - Þuríður Pálsdóttir

Hm. tricky. Covering is promising. The Crossing is a children's song about when Mummy gets fed up and walks out on her family because no one is helping. Don't know what to make of the Crown in this context.
The Root and The Past are right on target though. The Future is just a littany of life!
The Questioner is "the rescue of baby bear" from Hakkebakke Forest. Good stuff again.
The Inside again I don't see the connection, but The Outcome is looking good here.
Maybe I shouldn't have been so skeptical yesterday. Go Enceladus...

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

The Thin Ice: Pink Floyd

Momma loves her baby,
And daddy loves you, too.
And the sea may look warm to ya, babe,
And the sky may look blue.

Oooooo babe.
Oooooooo baby blue.
Oooooo ooohh babe.

If you should go skating,
On the thin ice of modern life,
Dragging behind you the silent reproach,
Of a million tear-stained eyes,
Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice,
Appears under your feet.
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind,
With your fear flowing out from behind,
You as you claw the ice.

NASA - ATP and BEFS '06 awards are cut

What can you do with a 0.8421 of a postdoc?

Just received an e-mail.
Short version is that the proposals selected for the 2006 (current year) Astrophysics Theory Program and the Beyond Einstein Foundation Science Program are to be cut. After the fact.
The cuts will be in the amounts awarded, not the number of selected proposals. Less money was provided for that (sub)line item after the selection was done, so the dollar amount provided is cut.

These programs primarily fund analysis and theoretical modeling support for current and future missions, as well as modeling of sources and future science targets. Typically they fund 3 year postdoctoral positions. Typical grant will fund one postdoc, or possibly 1/2 postdoc with some cost-sharing with another source of funding.

"...The final FY06 budget is less than what we had assumed when we sent out the acceptance letters, and so there will have to be reductions to the award amounts given in your acceptance letter, but these will be minor. [you will be receiving a] new letter giving your new grant amounts for FY06 and beyond. I remind you that, as your acceptance letters indicated, you should not incur expenses until you have an account officially set up."

The "jobs round" in astronomy is winding down, first round of postdoc offers traditionally require a response by Feb 15 (AAS rules) and second round offers are pretty much shaken out now. So... if you got your ATP/BEFS award letter before christmas, then you could just have advertised for a postdoc in time to have made an offer and got it accepted already.
Oops. No expense incurred yet, of course, just binding offers made for start in the autumn, and now there is not enough money to actually pay the person...
How many people have multiple grants they piece together, again?

Shades of the 1994 cuts, so far. We're not done yet.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

More on Enceladus

Ooh, pretty!

Ouch, this is getting way overhyped.
It is interesting, informative and good news, but it has taken off in a way that was clearly not expected, especially since the news has been hinted at for quite a while now...

Anyway, here's some links:

Nature has some of the images. That's actually funny, since Science has not yet got todays Science Express articles up, Nature is reporting on the Science paper before Science has it out.

Here's the official NASA spiel - good hustle by someone at PAO, they've bumped the press material onto the front page at as well

PS: Actual Science papers are out... - thanks Brian!

Failure to Falsify

It is spring break here, and one of my primary tasks was to catch up on refereeing backlog.
Yes, I've been a bad boy. No, if your papers review was umpteen weeks late odds are pretty high it was not actually me, but maybe it was. Only The Editor and His Scientific Editors know fer sure. And me.

But, the concerted effort brought to mind a comment I got when I were but a lad.
A not-unkind referee's report noted that my wonderful model was parametrised, with several essentially free parameters.
Now, this is a common practise in theory papers of all sorts, I hear even String Theorists are prone to such things...
Ideally this tests a theory, in so far as observations will tell us which choice of parameters is true, and this may then constrain the underlying physics (which ought to be parameter free, if we only understood it right, righ?).
But, there is a not-uncommon problem associated with this, which is that with enough theoretical parameters, and little enough data, you can fit anything. So observations provide no actual information to constrain the theory. The theory is unfalsifiable.

Now, the branching ratio for blue straggler formation channels in dense stellar systems is unlikely to lead to theocracy, decadal sectarian wars, or even harsh blog comments... but, the point remained: the "theory" was unfalsifiable and strictly viewed from the right paradigmic angle, Not Science.
Suitably abashed I thought hard, and modified the paper to explain how possible observations could test, and falsify, broad classes of competing scenarios (and about now, "we" are getting round to actually doing the observations, gotta love that Hubble, but I digress). Yay.

So... here I am plowing through papers to comment on, I press the "Send" buttons and lean back and reflect.
Dammit! I think almost all the model scenarios I just refereed are essentially unfalsifiable, the parametric uncertainties are large enough that observations will never rule them out as formulated. That is not to say the theory is out-and-out wrong, rather the phenomena may be dominated by other physical effects that were approximated over or out, and hence these particular effects may be irrelevant. Only observations can really determine if that is the case, but the degrees of theoretical freedom are large enough that you can still argue for the presence of the effect in some relevant scenarios even with negative results for any arbitary set of actual observations - short of observing the whole universe for all time, I suppose.

I hate it when that happens.

Fortunately I got more papers to referee now, so I can go overcompensate.
Hah, just kidding.

Holocaust History Project

Holocaust History Project

What I just said about some links just being made for the sake of the link existing

Iran: Early Warning

Early Warning blog on Iran

No comment: Sometimes web links are an inherent public good done to promote connectivity

JWST talking points

JWST is circulating an explanation for their cost increase.

From what I know, the "talking points" (from NASAwatch) are substantially accurate.
In particular a lot of the additional cost is due to:

1) Full Cost Accounting changing how NASA center costs is charged to mission (think of it as internal overhead)

2) Delay in choosing launcher. Politics of accepting it had to be sent on Ariane 5 were slow in coming in to accord with reality...

3) Inability to meet short term increased costs means schedule must be stretched, which costs more in total (it always does) then it would to just surge one year costs, but NASA budget doesn't have that flexibility.

rest is "normal" cost overruns ($200 million or so), inflation, added contingency funds (contingency funds scale non-linearly with cost, based on experience, as I understand it), and contractor cost increases.

Crazy way of doing things, but not entirely NASA's fault and only to a small extent the sciencists and engineers' fault...

Water on Enceladus

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Daily Show is back and on form. And on tape...
Colbert Show was good last night, stopped watching for a while, getting a bit repetitive.
It was, however, worryingly unfunny in places, not because it wasn't funny, but because the humour was cutting too close to the truth. Ornstein was surprisingly good as guest.

We're down to the last tub of skyr... wah. Won't make it to DC for a few weeks either. Stocked on smjör though.

I need data on non-LTE photodissociation constants and near-UV spectra. Really, such things should just be done ab initio, very tiresome. Might have to go to an actual library with like book things. Very quaint.

Protostars and Planets V Proceedings is up on the web and open for access. These are semi-definitive "state of the current art" review articles on planets, planet formation and protostars.
Worth a browse.

New Donut place in downtown has good coffee; good small doughnuts, and the guy who runs it is friendly.
Told him to get some benches and tables for when it gets warmer, like tomorrow apparently.

No winter this year I guess, unless you count that two week episode before christmas...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Better late than never...

Koufax voting is open

Go vote, there are interesting blogs in the Expert, Group and Unknown (aka MDoWR) categories.

PS: my students should not at all worry about the effect on my psyche of not receiving any votes at all...
I bite heads off students randomly anyway.
I voted for Effect Measure, they deserve wider recognition

How many parsecs was that?

I was kinda hoping for The Liberator, or mebbe the Tardis...

You scored as Millennium Falcon (Star Wars).
The world around you is at war.
Fortunately you know how to handle that with the greatest of ease.
You are one of the best at what you do and no one needs to tell you that.
Now if only the droids could be quiet for five seconds.

Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)


Serenity (Firefly)


Moya (Farscape)


Nebuchadnezzar (The Matrix)


Enterprise D (Star Trek)


Bebop (Cowboy Bebop)


Babylon 5 (Babylon 5)


FBI's X-Files Division (The X-Files)


SG-1 (Stargate)


Andromeda Ascendant (Andromeda)


Deep Space Nine (Star Trek)


Galactica (Battlestar: Galactica)


Your Ultimate Sci-Fi Profile II: which sci-fi crew would you best fit in? (pics)
created with

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Is there life on Mars?

Apparently so. has more like this little cutie.

Friday, March 03, 2006

iPod iChing - Simply Connected

Yay, it is friday and all is well.

So we cheerfully approach the Mighty iPod, start tackling The List...

So, Mighty iPod Dude: Is the Universe Simply Connected? Looking at the global topology and ignoring any sparse local holes...

Whoosh goes the Randomizer.

#11 is It's For You - Melissa Etheridge; #12 is Willow, Weep For Me - Billie Holliday

Well, the Covering is surreal enough, and the Crossing suggests a Famous Brit who has addressed this issue may need to be dealt with...
The Crown tells us the question is timely - WMAP 3yr data?
The Root just Rocks.

So, what of The Future - kind content free, unless I'm missing some subtext?
Unless you combine it with The House - people will decide this one on emotion?

The iPod still loves his Questioner, ah...
But I fear this will cause separatism per The Inside?

The Outcome mystifies me, upbeat and nice, but means nothing?

As always, the Key as explained by Sean

Visited States

Is this going to be on the test?

Have you ever had that sinking feeling when you are talking to a class and you see the slouch...

That one student with attitude who slumps in his seat (it is almost always a "he") and gets the slightly impatient what-am-I-wasting-my-time-on-this-for look and starts the attitude through body language.
Sometimes, just to prove he is paying attention he'll make a generic comment at the beginning of class, but as the others sit up straight and start interrupting with questions and comments he slouches further, starts fidgeting, looking out the window, furtively checking his watch.
This wasn't what he came to university for, he wants to hang with his buds, go to some games, get the credentials to make some real money; this class isn't even part of his major, just some requirement that the university makes him go through the motions for.
Most of the time you never get that students attention, sometimes you can find the button that gets his attention, makes him sit up, think "I didn't know that", maybe even a "wow"... everyone else is involved, concerned, thinking critically, looking for new angles, trying known approaches to solve the issue. He doesn't care, he's looking forward to the weekend, or spring break. Just get it over with, nothing important happens at university anyway, it is just a ritual to endure to please the parents and have the right creds.

Gotta keep trying to get through to those students though, some of them end up in positions of responsibility.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

I probably shouldn't have done that...

Just talked to a local journalist, got diverted into chatting and mentioned Tegmark's stuff on "anything goes".

Journo of course picks up on this and managed to fish a quote out of me:

"The universe is like a video game, and all possible ways to play it are played".

I may come to regret having said that. Even if it is true.


This is trivial, but it does not inspire confidence

Neither do comments #1 and 9 in the DoD reply

Maybe this is the explanation for the Geneva Convention breaches, they conflicted with the Homeland Security Directive on consistent identification format for federal employees and contractors

Gotta love snow days...


Recently I saw some slides from a public NASA HQ presentation made a few weeks ago.
It is on the timeline for the Terrestrial Planet Finder, and the Navigator program beyond that.

On one slide, there's a footnote - NSPD Jan 2004. with a quote from that directive that I paraphrase:
Use advanced telescopes to detect and characterize planets outside the solar system

Now, 2+ years ago I had a conversation with a guy from NASA HQ.
I wanted to know why the Beyond Einstein program had been deprioritized and Navigator (as it came to be called) jumped up, in spite of committee recommendations that the planet imagers followon later (I wasn't exactly displeased, I have reasons to want both programs to go ahead, but I was very curious what caused the change in priorities).
He told me that this was a National Security Directive and was not to be argued with by NASA HQ.
Executiver Order had jumped TPF to a top priority and anything associated with planet finding was pushed up as far as possible.

I blogged cryptically on this before - here and links in it

Here is the FAS list of known NSPDs, note most are not published and some are classified. Title of some is not known.

Then, in the AO for Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter there is an explicit reference to the Jan 2004 (Jan 14?) NSPD-31 with some text quoted.

Rationale: Established by NPSD31 (Section B, The Moon.)

(1.1.) All exploration programs shall incorporate explicit opportunities for public engagement, education, and outreach.

Rationale: Just as Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo challenged a generation of Americans, a renewed U.S. space exploration program with a significant human component can inspire us and our youth to greater achievements on Earth and in space.

Implement a sustained, safe, and affordable human and robotic program to search for evidence of life, understand the history of the solar system, and prepare for future human exploration.
Rationale: Established by NPSD31 (Goals and Objectives, first bullet).

Advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.

Rationale: Established by Presidents Space Exploration Policy Directive (NPSD31) (Goal and Objectives Goal), signed into effect on January 2004.

Be interesting to know Section A. And C if it exists...

Ok, NASA is a branch of the Executive, it is subject to direction by the President (within the authorization and budget appropriation Congress provides, and in compliance with US Laws and Treaties).
I am actually quite pleased that Space warrants not just a Presidential Directive but two of them (NSPD-40 also, which is clearly National Security relevant).

I am a bit puzzled as to why Planet Finding is a Presidential Directive on National Security, but I am sure there was fine rationale for it.

I am a bit disappointed that this bypassed prioritization and advisory channels, I tend to favour by-the-book process, but ok still, modulo the bloody whiplash the scientific community gets when reprioritization like that is done.

BUT, and riddle me this... WHAT CHANGED THIS YEAR???

In 2004 and 2005 we trash NASA science priorities in the name of NSPD-31 to put extrasolar planets first. Ok, we can do that.
In 2006, planets are like soooo last year and all future missions are indefinitely postponed, the labs shut down and science teams disbanded and the research funding slashed to pieces?

Is NSPD-31 superceded?
Is it revoked?
Is it creatively reinterpreted?

You couldn't run a High School Glee Club this way, much less a multi-billion dollar agency with National Security at stake.

So, someone please tell me there is an explanation for all this?

NASA - NYTimes lashes out

NASA - house science hearings

Webcast of hearings is on right now

Witness testimony is at this link, worth reading carefully. And contrasting.

Boehlert and Calvert's opening statements are also interesting and should be contrasted.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Katrina update

Crooks and Liars has a video of a briefing on Katrina from August 29th 2005. This is a link to it

Watch it, if you haven't seen it on the news, it is something that deserves reinforcement through links.
That is how the web works, thanks to Google.

The List

A non-trivial global topology for the Universe explained on Physics World

Unsolved Problems in Physics and Astronomy

A student of mine, as a minor side project for fun, is doing a list of unsolved problems in physics - broadly interpreted, and roughly cut into three sub-categories: the obvious major issues, anomalies that may be a hint of something interesting, and whacky speculative stuff.

The draft is now up, it is biased to our immediate interest, and we're soliciting more suggestions. I'm particularly interested in "minor anomalies" in table-top physics, and of course any major issues we left out.

This is not meant to be a definitive list, just something for people to browse and pivot their brains about. It would be fun to single out the next century's breakthrough anomalies, we'll find out the hard way.

E-mail suggestions to Joe, me, or leave them as comments

The final product will contain a link to one or more refereed articles as starters; links to one or more discussion on the web of the issue; and a short low level description of the problem accessible, hopefully, to the educated public.

If you send in feedback, any pointers to refereed (or arXiv) literature, and/or a website discussing it, would be helpful.

Spring into Summers

Apparently Summers resignation from the Harvard Presidency is an obligatory topic for all academics...

Here is my short take on it: Summers was trying to change a major university, rapidly and brusquely.
Academics are conservative, literally, they do not like change.

Push academics hard enough they push back, and they pushed Summers out.

Anything else is incidental or a post hoc rationlisation.

Self-perpetuating oligarchies are very robust, especially the old and rich ones.

Bra Bra

Ducks on Tjörnin - from DNA on

To Say Nothing of the Cat...

Effect Measure has a sobering entry on spread of avian 'flu to domestic cats.

The possibility of a triangle of infection between birds, cats and humans is intrinsically of concern.
The potential for cats to be either vectors or reservoirs for infection of humans, and birds, is of concern.
The transmission modes for the virus in confined cats is shit scary. Strong circumstantial evidence for infection through respiratory tract.

The death of cats is tragic in and of itself.

The The order to kill cats within 200m (1/8 mile) is problematic - it is a prudent public health measure, but one that will resonate poorly. If you think people are likely to shelter their pet birds rather than surrender them for culling, then you ain't seen nothing when the authorities come for pet cats...

Cats are quite well evolved to maximise parenting reflexes in humans, which arouses very strong emotions. There will be strong rationalisation by individuals as to why their cats are not at risk or a risk.

The immediately preceding entry on Effect Measure on firefighters and bird rescue is also interesting.

There was a story in an Icelandic newspaper earlier this week that kids now refuse to feed birds because of avian 'flu concerns. Björk sings of the essentialness of duck feeding on Gling-Gló's "Börnin við Tjörnina", we're seeing destruction of great traditions, already.

This is going to be a problem.

Time to go back and re-read Connie Willis's "...To Say Nothing of the Dog", and "The Last of the Winnebagos".