death from the skies

I finished Phil Plait’s new book, Death from the Skies. He hits the twin goals of entertaining and educational and makes it look easy. Running through all the ways the cosmos might kill us, the astronomer manages to pack in a lot of amazing information about the universe. He transmits his own excitement and astonishment with funny asides and sheer exuberance. If you’ve ever heard Phil speak in person or seen him on a video you can’t help but hear his voice as you read the book.

A few surprising (to me) facts:

  • Every second, the Sun converts 700 million tons of hydrogen to 695 million tons of helium. The remaining five million tons is turned into energy in this fusion process. Every second!
  • When a massive star explodes (a hypernova) it creates a gamma ray burst that could destroy life on Earth even if the star is thousands of light years away. Not likely to happen to us soon.
  • A fast moving mini black hole with a mass of ten billion tons (smaller than an atom), would pass through the Earth without eating up a great deal matter or slowing down much.

My favorite phrase in the book is some variation on, “And then it gets worse!” It comes up over and over again as the author spins out each cosmic disaster. He loves his gargantuan disaster scenarios like the true science (and science-fiction) fan that he is. I’m not saying that science geeks want disasters to happen; they’re just good at creating accurate portrayals.

The text contains a galaxy of asterisks with notes at the bottom of the page. Some notes are humorous asides, most are explanatory and helpful. Sometimes he gets a little carried away with these footnotes, but it’s usually from eagerness to include more cool information, so this is easily forgiven.

dangblog gives it four mutated thumbs up. I just made up the mutated-thumbs-up scale, but I think this is a pretty good rating.

big gravity, little moons

I never dreamed I’d live to see images like these.

Enceladus against the backdrop of Saturn

Monstrous cloud vortex at Saturn’s south pole. (one pixel = one mile)

Moons and rings Look at the shadows of the rings on Saturn, and the colored bands of cloud.

The diameter of Saturn isĀ  9.47 times the diameter of the Earth. It was the Bad Astronomy blog that got me clicking around these Cassini photos.

“mind” the gap

According to this article from New Scientist, creationists have a new strategy in their never ending push to get religion into science class. They are trying hard to convince people that the existence of consciousness cannot be explained by reference to the physical brain. Therefore the mind must be “spiritual” in nature. It must be heavenly. Like a multitude of new agers, some are saying that quantum physics somehow makes this all true. (See my rant about such ridiculous misuse of science at the end of this earlier post.)

Anyway, it’s all another “god of the gaps” argument. If science can’t explain it yet, then god did it. An old version of this argument is that thunder and lightning must be evidence that the gods are angry. More recently the argument was that bacterial flagellum (the little propellers bacteria use to move) could never be explained by evolution, so god must have made them. Of course, just like thunder and lightning, we now actually have a pretty good idea of how flagellum came to exist.

This whole notion that whatever we don’t understand yet is proof of god just isn’t going to fly. In this particular instance, a little time spent in an Alzheimers ward or a head trauma clinic might convince you that one’s state of consciousness is directly related to the physical brain. Meanwhile, science is making gradual progress in understanding the brain and there’s no reason to suppose we won’t someday know the physical factors that create consciousness.

Creationists: mind the gap in your understanding of reality. The rest of you: be wary of attempts to degrade science education–we can’t afford it.

Extra reading assignment: An in-depth discussion of the philosophical and scientific issues surrounding mind/brain can be found on the always excellent Neurologica Blog. There are posts before and after the one I’ve linked to that also address the issue.

horror, rocky, show

Music that once stuck a middle finger into the face of parents and civil society now cycles endlessly on oldies commercial radio. What was once shocking on stage and the movie screen is now retro entertainment for people my age and older. Gray-haired folks made up much of the matinee audience at Burien Little Theater’s “Rocky Horror Show.” That’s life.

It was a pretty good production–an aerobic workout of a performance with the requisite large cast that included a respectably demented Frank, a fine Brad and Janet and some other standouts. Let us pay special homage to Michelle Flowers, who was outstanding as Columbia, and Mok, who played a raging Eddie and a befuddled Dr. Scott.

Fun was had, time was warped. The theater is inviting different local politicians to play the role of narrator each show. Congresshuman Jim McDermott, is scheduled for this weekend, I believe.

gag

I saw a bumper sticker that said something like, “Burning Man is the darndest thing you’ll ever see.”

Everyone has a different breaking point with Burning Man. For some, when they stopped letting people shoot guns and drive at high speeds with their headlights off; that was the end of the event as far as they were concerned. For others, it was when they let 5,000 people in; not just the cool people. (It’s up to 50k now.) For me, this bumper sticker could be the first crack in the wall. Next bumper stickers to expect: “Burning Man Fire Conclave-2004,” or, “I’m a Burner!”

If the people in that car were purposely trying to destroy the event, that’s fine. If they were trying for ultra irony, maybe a few points. But I fear the worst. The end is near.

grow the pie!

I was listening to the radio on my way home from work. John McCain was saying something about how Obama wanted to re-distribute the economic pie, but McCain wanted to grow the pie. I spontaneously said aloud, “Grow the pie!” I said it a few more times; louder. Too bad I was alone in the car. Grow the pie is a great slogan for all occasions.

Somebody cuts you off on the freeway. Roll down the window and yell, “Grow the pie!” An attractive person walks by on the sidewalk. In a deep voice: “Hey, baby…grow the pie.”Notice how different the effect is depending on which of the three words you emphasize and how fast or slow you say it.

In the marketing department where I work we have a unique insult–”Hey font face! That’s right, I’m talking to you, font face!” I’ll give you that one for free, but you have to pay me for each use of “grow the pie.”