Tag Archives: lamestream media

Is Resistance (to Light Pollution) Futile?

For the benefit of the few readers of this blog who may not be familiar with the term, light pollution is excessive and misdirected outdoor lighting that makes it difficult to impossible to observe objects in the night sky.

With the definition out of the way, some organizations such as the International Dark Sky Association and Globe at Night claim that their efforts to raise awareness of this issue have met with a measure of success.  While this may indeed be the case, I think the progress has been minimal.

One example concerns Earth Hour, which was from 8:30 PM to 9:30 PM on March 28th.  What is supposed to happen during Earth Hour is that people are supposed to shut off their outdoor lighting for the duration.   Instead, very little of the sort actually happened as is usual for every year this event has been held.  The lamestream media did give it some mention and pointed out that some towns and cities celebrated it.  These “celebrations” were quite noncommittal and merely involved turning off the outdoor lights around a prominent local landmark or two.  Besides this governmental involvement, nobody appears to have done anything.  Yet, when there is an occasion that asks for people to turn lights on, such as the National Night Out held every August, the level of participation is very high.  Apparently, people have a strong aversion to turning off their outdoor lights even though it costs them money for the electricity and the security benefits are limited (according to sources such as the FBI).

What I would like to see is a city or town decide to celebrate Earth Hour with a partial reenactment of a World War II-era blackout.  Younger readers of this blog might not be aware that, during the war, people were in fear of being bombed at night by the enemy.  For the British, this fear was very real as the Luftwaffe frequently bombed targets in Britain under the cover of night during the early part of the war.  In the United States, the fear was more hypothetical as the capabilities of the enemy were not well known.  While the country was definitely out of range of German aircraft, the range of the Japanese planes was largely unknown in the early days of the war and there was speculation that they could reach targets on the west coast.  To frustrate night bombers, towns and cities adopted a blackout strategy where, when a signal was given, every source of possible outdoor illumination was either shut off or completely shielded.  While this was not 100% effective in Britain (the Germans had an early sort of radio navigation), it did make it harder for British cities to be struck, and in the United States, blackouts did raise war awareness among the public.  Getting back to the main point of the paragraph, towns and cities should celebrate Earth Hour by turning off as much outdoor illumination as possible (except traffic signals) and possibly even compete with one another for achieving the greatest light reduction.

Another example was a recent news article that carried a night-time satellite image of the Korean peninsula.  South of the 38th parallel, there were brightly lit cities and towns.  North of it, almost complete darkness.  The author of the article was implying that light pollution is a sign of economic vigor and is a good thing, despite growing evidence of health and ecological problems it causes.  By not having light pollution, North Korea was dysfunctional.  Actually, one doesn’t need a satellite image to figure that out.  Any society where the police manual has a chapter devoted to cannibalism has very serious problems and lighting is not going to fix that.

However, for any serious progress to be made against light pollution, there would need to be a change in mentality that I do not see happening.  An example of the kind of thinking that helps perpetuate light pollution was aired on my local AM radio station.  Every Wednesday morning, they have a short (about forty minutes) program hosted by Milton Paris, titled “Getting Ahead in Business”.  Each program, Paris would bring on a business owner that he met at one of his public functions and that owner would describe his business while Paris would ask questions and make favorable comments.  Recently, he had the owner of a sign company and the two of them waxed rhapsodic over illuminated business signs.  The part that caught my attention was when they said that it made good sense to leave said signs on all night as advertising.  Aside from the obvious contribution to the light pollution problem, such an approach would be wasting money for those businesses since they would be spending money on electricity to power the signs when there is nobody around to see them.  While I am not advocating doing away with illuminated business signs, nor am I against their use for advertising, I believe that an intelligent business would have them shut off after a certain time when potential viewers of the signs are not around.  After all, a sign shining at three in the morning is not likely to be seen by anyone except the occasional over-the-road truck driver or police officer on patrol.  In short, why pay to put on advertising when there is no audience?

The point of all this is that there cannot be much real progress against light pollution until the mindset of leaving lights on all night even when there is no need for them is changed.  Does anyone see any way to change that?

Could This be Historic?

First off, many apologies for the lack of postings in the last several weeks.  Unfortunately, it was a case where work obligations, the holiday rush, and a computer project conspired against blogging.  Now on to the post.

Unnoticed by the lamestream media as it was recovering from their New Years’ Eve hangovers, reporting on the effort to retrieve bits and pieces of plane wreckage from the Java Sea, and covering the violent rampage in France, a discovery was made that could potentially be one of the greatest in the history of history.

The last several months, the websites that deal with weird stuff of dubious validity would carry reports of someone claiming to spot something in the images from the Curiosity Mars rover that look like one kind of odd object or another.  However, someone recently came forward and announced that they saw something amazing in some of those images.

According to this Space Daily article,  Nora Noffke, a geobiologist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, noticed something familiar in an image taken of a sedimentary rock formation.  What appeared in the image resembled a sedimentary layer that contained the fossil remains of a microbial mat, a flat, slime-like mass of microorganisms that forms in bodies of water under favorable conditions.  When alive, sediment grains get stuck in the mat and that leaves telltale markings when the sediments turn into rock.

Noffke has studied microbial mats and the fossils they form for over twenty years and she claims that, after very detailed analysis of the images from Mars, these features do bear very strong similarity to known microbial mat fossils on Earth.

If this can be confirmed, these would be the first fossils found outside of Earth and the first evidence of extraterrestrial life.  But that is the problem.  While Curiosity did take detailed images, it turns out the rover is not well equipped to confirm whether these are indeed fossils.  It is quite likely that any organic compounds in the material have long since disappeared and it has also been announced that one of the analytical instruments on Curiosity suffered some contamination on landing, therefore compromising any effort at detailed measurements.

So, it may be a very long time before we can either send a probe with advanced instruments capable of testing for microfossils, return samples to Earth, or have human geologists examine them on Mars.

To her credit, Noffke is keeping an open mind to the possibility that the markings are of strictly geological origin.  While this would not be as amazing a discovery as microfossils, it would still indicate that Martian geology has some surprises, which would be of scientific significance as well.

Any opinions?

Is “The Big Bang Theory” the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” of Space Science?

Since it is the start of the new television season, I thought it would be a reasonably appropriate time to bring this up.

For the benefit of those readers who are either young or are not too familiar with the history of radio and television, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a program that started out on radio in 1928 and was created by two white actors/writers Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll who were inspired by a conversation they overheard between two African-American janitors.  Originally, it was a 15-minute nightly dramatic program and, in 1943, morphed into a weekly sitcom that ran until 1955 and finally a music program from 1955 to 1960.  During its radio run, Gosden and Correll did most of the voices (being radio, they could get away with it).  In 1951, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” moved to TV and had an all-African-American cast.  The TV version was almost immediately met with divided opinion in the African-American community.  Some had no problem with it.  Others, such as the NAACP, felt it perpetuated negative stereotypes.  The opinion of the NAACP carried the day and the show was taken off the air in 1953, though it managed to hang on until 1966 in syndication.  Here is an article with some detail on the program.

Now, back to the present discussion.  “The Big Bang Theory” is a sitcom which deals with a small group of scientists (presumably astrophysicists and others who work for NASA) and their misadventures.  However, it is not a flattering portrayal and, in my opinion, perpetuates negative stereotypes about people in the sciences much the same way “Amos ‘n’ Andy” perpetuated negative African-American stereotypes.   For instance, the scientific protagonists on “The Big Bang Theory” are portrayed as extremely inept and dysfunctional in any area outside of science and technology.  Being an amateur astronomer and follower of space science, I have seen many in the field who are totally unlike what you see on that sitcom.

For instance, there were some members of my astronomy club who served with distinction in the military (in World War II, no less) and went on to make inventions, including one (a means of measuring errors in transmitted data) that had impact in the nuclear industry, was used by the U.S. Navy, and probably had a role in the creation of what we would later call the Internet.  Then there was one member who endured terrible hardships (the Ukranian famine as well as a stint in a Nazi slave labor camp) and went on to become a very productive citizen and prominent member of the club.

I have also seen some professional astronomers who would not look out of place in a country-western bar.  Most space scientists I have seen look perfectly normal.

This raises the question of why Chuck Lorre, the creator of the show, would choose to have such a stereotypical depiction of space scientists.  After all, I doubt he would be crude enough to insult people like those club members I mentioned above.  Granted, there may be some in the field who share some of the traits of those sitcom characters, but in this day and age, we are supposed to frown on such stereotyping in entertainment media.  It wasn’t that long ago that a sitcom was yanked off the air because of a single joke based on a Puerto Rican stereotype.  I suspect that he feels that it is acceptable to ridicule small groups who lack clout in the lamestream media, ones who are unlikely to lead sponsor boycotts or other types of resistance.

Since the show does well in the ratings and rakes in huge amounts of money in syndication, it is unlikely that it will ever be retooled to address this grievance.  The best that could be hoped for in this regard would be the addition of some space scientists who are not stereotypes to balance things out.  However, this is also unlikely.

One solution I would suggest is that Chuck Lorre take some actions on his own to show that he is not against space scientists.  For instance, a publicized donation of a significant sum to a group like the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) or the Planetary Society would be a good move.  Another would be to show support for amateur astronomers, possibly by making cast members available for personal appearances at astronomy events (with either Lorre, the production company, or CBS eating the appearance fees).  These actions would be like the requirements that a polluter take steps to mitigate the effects of the pollution they create.  In addition, these steps would bring useful publicity to astronomy and space science.

Do you have any suggestions on how to counter negative space science stereotypes?  Are these negative depictions an issue or are they best ignored?

Planetariums vs. Observatories

As an amateur astronomer, I believe that planetariums and observatories have their place and that there is normally no cause for conflict, though my club, Amateur Astronomers, Inc., had a rather heated debate many years ago (long before my time) about whether or not they should have a planetarium and an observatory.  However, I imagine that the issue had more to do with limited space, resources, and funding than with anything concerning philosophy.

However, the lamestream media (while I would like to take credit for coming up with that term to describe the mainstream media, it was actually coined by the writer(s) over at the Anomalist website) seems to believe there is some sort of competition and they take sides (so much for journalistic objectivity).  Consider the following example:

Back on August 8th, the weekend section of the local Gannett newspaper had a piece that was billed as being about planetariums and observatories.  Said piece was on the two central pages of the section and consisted of one large article about a planetarium, along with some photos.  The remaining space was taken up with a listing of planetariums in the state (reasonably complete) and there was a very tiny section which had a rather incomplete listing of observatories (while my club’s main observatory was mentioned, the vast United Astronomy Clubs of NJ – UACNJ – complex of observatories at Jenny Jump State Park was not mentioned at all.

One might be tempted to consider this bias merely an isolated example.  But there was an article in the local Greater Media paper a few years ago where a columnist was talking about an interest in the night sky and thought the best way to satisfy it was visiting a planetarium.  No mention of astronomy clubs or their observatories whatsoever.  In the words of Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond): “Once is bad luck, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action”.  Based on the articles I read, we are well into the coincidence stage, but I suspect this phenomenon may be a bit more widespread.

What could cause this bias?  Perhaps reporters are intimidated by amateur astronomers, their clubs, and observatories.   Or do they feel that actually going to an observatory, listening to a lecture, and actually walking up to a telescope to use their own eyes to see something is way too much effort for them and their readership?  Could it be that they are so accustomed to watching movies that the only way they might find space interesting is if it is presented like a movie with special effects?  Which of these do you think is accurate?  Or do you have a theory of your own?