Monday, January 29, 2007

"Hubble's primary camera shuts down"

This is disappointing.

BALTIMORE - The primary camera on the Hubble Space Telescope has shut down and is likely to be only marginally restored, NASA said Monday, a collapse one astronomer called "a great loss."

While other scientific work can still be done by the aging observatory, the unit that failed, the Advanced Camera for Surveys, is the one most scientists depend upon. NASA scientists say they expect to be able to restore just one-third of its observation ability, probably by mid-February.

"We're not optimistic at all" about returning it to full function, said Dave Leckrone, a senior scientist on the Hubble at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

But, it's really not all that bad.
However, all is not lost. Next year NASA plans to send space shuttle astronauts to upgrade the popular telescope in a mission to install new instruments that will actually exceed the capabilities of the current system.
Let's hope we get many more stunning images from this machine, images like this.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"NASA marks anniversary of Apollo deaths"

The nation is recalling the deaths of astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee as they sat in the Apollo 1 module 40 years ago today. A fire broke out in the cabin, killing all three astronauts. Their deaths were tragic, but we learned from that horrible day.

The deaths of Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee forced NASA to take pause in its space race with the Soviet Union and make design and safety changes that were critical to the agency's later successes.

"I can assure you if we had not had that fire and rebuilt the command module ... we could not have done the Apollo program successfully," said retired astronaut John Young, who flew in Gemini 3 with Grissom in 1965. "So we owe a lot to Gus, and Rog and Ed. They made it possible for the rest of us to do the almost impossible." [ellipsis in original]

Let's remember them.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Mars' missing air might just be hiding"

Good news for fans of terraforming, like me.

What happened to Mars' atmosphere — and by association, its water — is one of the central mysteries surrounding the Red Planet today. One idea was that the atmosphere was eroded over the course of several billion years by the sun’s solar winds.

The new findings, detailed in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, suggest this might not be the case.

Hidden reservoir?

Where the atmosphere went is still unclear, but the authors speculate that it might still be contained somewhere beneath the Martian surface.

"There are different alternatives," said study leader Stas Barabash of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna, Sweden. "One is that it is still stored somewhere on Mars in some hidden reservoir we cannot find."

I say let's get up there, find that hidden atmosphere -- if it does indeed exist -- and let it loose. And, the sooner the better for the entire human race.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The most sexually suggestive sports headline of the day

"Streaking Red Raiders Host Red-Hot Aggies"

It's not what you think. The Texas Tech basketball team has been winning lately, not running around naked. And they are taking on Texas A&M, which currently has a record of 16-2.

That's all.

Banning slurs

In light of the previous post about magical properties being ascribed to certain words, I point out Eugene Volokh's discussion of a proposal in Brazoria, Texas to ban the mere utterance of nigger. He thinks the proposal is unnecessary.

(1) Words that "by [their] very utterance tend[] to incite an immediate breach of the peace" and are "directed to the person of the hearer" -- which is to say personal insults said to a particular person, and not just insulting words about third parties said in a general speech, on a billboard, in a book, and so on -- are indeed unprotected by the First Amendment, under the so-called "fighting words" exception. ...

(4) The ordinance is also superfluous. Texas Penal Code 42.01(a)(1) already makes it an offense if a person "intentionally or knowingly" "uses abusive, indecent, profane, or vulgar language in a public place, and the language by its very utterance tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace"; Texas courts have read this as limited to "fighting words," but of course covering all such insults, not just "nigger." The offense is "a class C misdemeanor," which may be punished by a fine of up to $500, the same fine the ordinance would impose.

I think I agree. Fighting words of all kinds are already banned throughout the state, and racial and ethnic slurs would be included. I see no reason to single out any particular word for the special status of non-utterance.

UPDATE: Brazoria has abandoned this effort.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Magicking words

I had thought that the belief that certain words contained inherent magical abilities -- and that the mere utterances of such words caused dark and mystical things to happen -- had pretty much faded into history. At least in the U.S.

But, apparently jinxes are alive and well.

Arnold Zwicky points this out at Language Log ("On the offensive language beat: use vs. mention, avoidance"): "Believing that some words are so intrinsically offensive that they should never be uttered, even to describe their offensiveness or to report on offensive uses, is believing in verbal magic."

He's talking about faggot, and specifcally about the flap that arose when actor Isaiah Washington denied insulting a co-worker by using the actual word faggot. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation thinks Washington should not have ever uttered the word, even to deny it, which smacks of belief in magical properties that are tied specifically to the word spoken and not the intent.

This is nonsense, and I thank Mr. Zwicky for addressing the matter.

Monday, January 22, 2007

"Earth's Moon Destined to Disintegrate"

La Luna could be on a course to complete disintegration!

'Reaching the Roche limit means that the gravity holding it [the Moon] {sic} together is weaker than the tidal forces acting to pull it apart,' [Iowa State University's Lee Anne] Willson said.

The Moon will be torn to pieces and every crater, mountain, valley, footprint and flag will be scattered to form a spectacular 23,000-mile-diameter (37,000-kilometer) Saturn-like ring of debris above Earth's equator. The new rings will be short-lived. Theory dictates they'll eventually rain down onto Earth's surface.

'Particles of different masses will have different survival times; the smaller particles will be removed first, and the biggest ones last. Most of the ring particles would be gone by the time the Earth reaches the stellar photosphere,' Willson said.

Don't fret too much, though. If this happens, it won't be for another 5 billion years or so.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Trivializing terrorism

I'm generally appreciative of the intellect of Stephen Hawking. He's a very intelligent man who has the rare ability to communicate complicated mathematical and cosmological theories in terms that are generally understandable to the average layman, like me. But I have a problem with an attitude he has expressed in an AP story about the latest adjustment to the Doomsday Clock ("Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight").

In the story, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists -- which is responsible for setting the clock -- is portrayed as now more concerned about the threats from global climate change rather than nuclear disaster. That's a major departure from their original concern, and I think that they should not confuse the public into thinking the threat from global warming is even remotely the same as that posed by nuclear weapons. But Hawking, who is involved with the group, thinks otherwise, and he made the following egregious statement:
"Terror only kills hundreds or thousands of people," Hawking said. "Global warming could kill millions. We should have a war on global warming rather than the war on terror."

Unbelievable. This statement suggests that we can do something to alter climate change to the benefit of humanity and that there is nothing we can do to effectively reduce the threat of Islamic fascists who wish to destroy the West.

I respecfully disagree with the distiguished Mr. Hawking. We might be able to do something about global warming, but I know that we definitely should be doing something about the threat of terrorism. We can't simply give up the fight against al-Qaeda and their ilk. That only encourages them. If we back off, they will come after us with even more vigor, emboldened in our timorousness. And, if they should ever add nuclear weapons to their arsenal, they could do more sudden damage to people, property, and the environment than any eventual climate change could do.

The terrorists are an immediate threat, and we should never think of abandoning the war on them.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Cassini Photo Contest

NASA is polling the public to help them pick the best photo taken by the Cassini spacecraft in the last year and a half.

I'm voting for this one.

Fighting panda extinction

As if they didn't have enough troubles reproducing as it is! ("Male panda said too fat to have sex")

BANGKOK, Thailand - Chuang Chuang the Panda is just too heavy to have sex. Thai authorities have put him on a strict diet as part of a long-running campaign to get him to mate with female partner Lin Hui at the Chiang Mai Zoo in northern Thailand.

"Chuang Chuang is gaining weight too fast and we found Lin Hui is no longer comfortable with having sex with him," said the zoo's chief veterinarian, Kanika Limtrakul, adding that Chuang Chuang weighed 331 pounds while Lin Hui is only 253 pounds.

So he's going on a diet. Because his mate doesn't like him so fat.

Humans to the rescue, once again.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Fighting panda extinction

The evolutionary dead-enders known as pandas are getting some more help in Memphis ("Zoo again tries to inseminate panda"):
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Workers at the Memphis Zoo tried for a second time Monday to artificially inseminate a young female panda after she and a male companion failed at mating the old fashioned way.

And, why were the Memphis pandas so unsuccessful? Oh, yeah, because:

Panda's [sic] are notoriously poor breeders — a main reason their species is endangered — and females have only three days a year in which they can conceive. It's also hard figure out if they're pregnant or not.

Females go through a period of pseudo-pregnancy after their reproductive periods end, and a pregnancy cannot be confirmed until a few days before birth. [emphases added]

They sure like to make it hard on all the well-meaning humans that are trying to help them.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Fighting panda extinction ...

... by gushing and fawning whenever the rare product of their bad mating habits goes on display.

ATLANTA - The giant panda cub Mei Lan made her media debut Friday, romping about a Zoo Atlanta exhibit area for a crowd of reporters and cameras while her mother chomped bamboo. ...

Although Mei Lan can walk, she is a little wobbly on her feet and tumbles easily. At four months, she is becoming more curious and tends to explore quite a bit, zoo officials said.

"Each week you think she's about as cute as she can get, and then you have to revise your estimates," said Dwight Lawson, vice president for animal programs and science at the zoo.

Mother Kim Dobso teared up when she laid eyes on Mei Lan.

"She's a miracle," she said.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Britain considers plans for solo moon missions"

Go Britain!

LONDON (AFP) - Britain is considering plans for its own moon shot, the BBC said, citing plans submitted to the body that funds British space exploration.

Proposals for two missions have been submitted to the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, and the first, if approved, could be launched by 2010.

I wish the British well, and I'd like to see more nations venturing into the vacuum. Preferably with some cooperation between them, but solo if necessary.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Searching for life on Mars

Could Mars be teeming with life, but we just haven't been looking for it in the right way? Could our past efforts actually have destroyed organisms inadvertently? One scientist thinks so.

In the '70s, the Viking mission found no signs of life. But it was looking for Earth-like life, in which salt water is the internal liquid of living cells. Given the cold dry conditions of Mars, that life could have evolved on Mars with the key internal fluid consisting of a mix of water and hydrogen peroxide, said Dirk Schulze-Makuch, author of the new research.

That's because a water-hydrogen peroxide mix stays liquid at very low temperatures (-68 degrees Fahrenheit), doesn't destroy cells when it freezes, and can suck scarce water vapor out of the air.

The Viking experiments of the '70s wouldn't have noticed alien hydrogen peroxide-based life and, in fact, would have killed it by drowning and overheating the microbes, said Schulze-Makuch, a geology professor at Washington State University.

This is all very intriguing, but I think we should be exploring Mars with a focus on eventual colonization. Seeking and finding Martian microbes is a laudable endeavor, but even more important is finding another home for our species.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Fighting panda extinction

Good news for panda lovers everywhere.

BEIJING - A mini-baby boom last year has pushed up the number of pandas bred in captivity in China to 217, state media said Wednesday.

Some 34 pandas were born by artificial insemination in 2006 and 30 survived — both record numbers for the endangered species, Cao Qingyao, a spokesman for the State Forestry Administration, was quoted as saying by the Xinhua News Agency. ...

Giant pandas have a very low fertility rate because they are sexually inactive. Female pandas become pregnant only once a year and deliver two cubs at most each time.

Those pandas. They need all the help they can get.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Looking out for us

As this new year gets under way, I want to honor those people who are doing the tough job of protecting us from the world's bad guys, and I resolve to thank each and every one of them I run across in my daily life.
Without them, there would be no us.