Tag Archives: science

The Traffic Jam They Don’t Talk About

 

This coming Monday, August 21st, is the Great American Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to pass through a large part of the United States since 1979 and the first coast-to-coast American total solar eclipse since the Woodrow Wilson administration.

The narrow zone of totality crosses from Oregon to South Carolina.  And many eclipse observers who can afford it and can get the time off will travel to the area.  As predicted, the airlines have jacked up their fares substantially.  Other observers will drive to the path of totality.  Even if they get to the path ahead of time, in most cases, they will have to drive quite a bit more to dodge cloud cover.

640px-Traffic_jam_Charleston_WV_20080321

The interstates may not be the only superhighway clogged with eclipse traffic.

If lots of eclipse observers do this simultaneously, there will be huge traffic jams on the highways reminiscent of what happens with those mandatory evacuations that they have for coastal storms.  But, aside from the photo illustration, this post will concentrate on the other traffic jam – the one nobody talks about as well as how effective a possible remedy would actually be.

 

It has been known for quite some time that NASA-TV will be having quite a bit of coverage of this event.  Sounds like a good idea.  But due to the fact that very few, if any, cable services and only one satellite network carry NASA-TV (the reasons for this will be the topic of a future post), this means that NASA-TV is pretty much an Internet-only TV channel.  This works under normal conditions, but is a major problem for events like the eclipse.  For those who are a bit unfamiliar with how the Internet works, NASA-TV uses web servers to put their content online.  And these servers can only handle up to a certain number of people hooking up to them to view the content.  As the number of people viewing increases, the performance of the server in delivering the content deteriorates.  If the number gets high enough, it malfunctions.  Historically, this has happened to NASA quite often during major events.  Not surprisingly since their computer hardware, like everything else, was put in by the lowest bidder on a government contract.  While this isn’t too bad for rockets as the engineers at those contractors work with physical things and they generally do a reasonably good job building rockets, when it comes to computers, those people are a different breed.  In physical engineering, it is common practice to build things a bit stronger than they actually need to be so there is some reserve capacity and also to cope with the unexpected.  However, when it comes to web servers, computer people tend to go with the minimum capacity for the job.  It would be better if they followed what I call “The Roebling Rule” (named in honor of the Roebling company that built the Brooklyn Bridge).  They insisted that, if a part on the bridge was supposed to support one ton, it had to be able to support six to ten tons.  As a result, the Brooklyn Bridge is a sturdy structure that is still around today.  Another company built a similar bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, but was told to keep the budget down.  Due to the corners that were cut, the bridge had to be replaced years later at enormous cost.

The other online eclipse coverage sites also suffer from the small server problem.  The Exploratorium in San Francisco has done eclipse coverage in the past and has had problems.  Compounding things are their rather amateurish production skills.

On top of all this, those people who do not have broadband Internet or have metered bandwidth (only so many gigabytes per month) will have problems accessing the online coverage.

If only there was a way to get video coverage of the eclipse that didn’t depend on bandwidth and server issues and can handle any number of viewers… wait, such a technology does exist and we have had it for years… television!

While this eclipse is well suited for television coverage as it does pass through quite a few cities and towns in the United States, the response from the mainstream (referred to hereafter as “lamestream” to use a term coined by Jim Kurdyla of Facebook fame) media has been extremely underwhelming.  The remainder of this post will discuss the TV eclipse options known to me as of the moment of this writing.  Some of this information may be subject to change.  Here goes…

One would expect that the lamestream broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and PBS) would have an interest in this.  Sadly, that interest appears to be rather small.

ABC: This network was probably the first national broadcast network to announce eclipse coverage.  The show will feature Sara Haines, Rebecca Jarvis, T.J. Holmes, Ginger Zee, Matt Gutman, David Kerley, Nick Watt, Adrienne Bankert, and Eva Pilgrim.  I suppose if you crammed all their astronomical knowledge together, you might get something equivalent to an entry-level amateur astronomer.  There are reports that some affiliates will go above and beyond this.

CBS: The national network seems to be taking the wimpy way out on this one.  They will only be having coverage online.  Some affiliates, mainly those along the path of totality, may take matters into their own hands.  One reason given by some wags is that CBS doesn’t want to preempt their daytime programming at eclipse time.  This consists of two daytime dramas (News flash: Daytime drama is a dying genre) and “The Talk”  Guess they don’t want to preempt “The Talk” or it might get Les Moonves in trouble with the wife at home.

Fox: Unknown.  They might decide to leave it up to affiliates.

NBC: Evidently realizing what ABC is doing, NBC will be doing a one-hour national show as well.  It will be hosted by Al Roker, Lester Holt, and Dylan Dreyer.  Not ideal, but it is better than CBS and Fox.  Wonder how these astronomical lightweights will manage?

PBS: Some PBS stations (not all) will be carrying a one hour program titled “Total Eclipse Live”.  I have no further details on it.  But, later that evening, PBS will show its talent for after-the-fact coverage of astronomical events with a special episode of “Nova” that will incorporate some footage from that day’s eclipse.  This is a rather rapid turnaround since it usually takes a few weeks at least for the “Nova” crew to put together something on an astronomical event.  As with the other networks, some affiliates might do something on their own.

Eclipse coverage is a lot like the Emmy awards in the fact that cable channels trounce the broadcast ones.

The Science Channel: This network is going to cover the eclipse completely in a program called “The Great American Eclipse”.  And in a departure from what the commercial broadcasters are doing, this program will be hosted by actual astronomers.  And, if that isn’t enough, there will be a recap show that evening.

The Weather Channel: The one channel on just about every cable system is doing quite a bit of coverage on eclipse day.  Their special “Total Solar Eclipse” will feature coverage from all over the eclipse track as well as from a ship off South Carolina.  And they are prepared.  In the event of bad weather at any location, NASA-TV coverage will be used as backup.

Of course, this information may be subject to change between now and the eclipse.  So, if you can’t see totality or are clouded out, keep an eye on the TV listings.  But, if you are where the eclipse is visible, don’t forget to see it for yourself (using proper safety methods).

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Are Eclipse Pundits Out of Touch?

As most people (at least the intelligent people who read blogs like this one) are aware, there will be a major total solar eclipse on August 21st, 2017.  This will be the first total solar eclipse to cross a large portion of the United States since 1979.

There are also a number of people and websites promoting this event and discussing many aspects of the upcoming eclipse.  Some of these experts are undoubtedly well known to those who follow space science.  While they go on and on about how communications have improved since 1979 and how the social media we have now was not around back then, there is one major change in our society that these eclipse pundits have ignored, willingly or otherwise.

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This condition is true of quite a few people who would like to observe the total phase of the eclipse

The eclipse pundits, in their effort to show off their calculation skills as well as sell safe solar viewers, maps of the eclipse path, eclipse books, and other related chotchke, have failed to realize that the ranks of the working poor have swollen since 1979.  A very large and growing number of the American public is poorer now than they were in 1979.  What does this have to do with the eclipse, they might ask?  Quite a bit.

While most of the country lives within several hundred miles or so of the path of totality, weather prospects are not equally good along the whole length of the path.  If one wants a reasonable guarantee of the weather, they have to go out west to states like Oregon (the eastern part), Idaho, Wyoming, and Nebraska.  Unfortunately, if most people want to get to those destinations in a reasonable span of time, that means flying.  And, in addition to the airline industry abuses that have made it into the news recently, flying is a major hassle and is very expensive (as I wrote in my previous eclipse post, I predict airfares will experience a sharp upward spike just before the eclipse).  Add the other associated expenses, flying to see the eclipse will cost quite a bit, possibly beyond the reach of observers who aren’t well off.

Then there is the option of driving.  While it is flexible, it does have some downsides.  For one, the range is considerably limited and it takes quite a bit of time to cover significant distance.  And, given the fact that when one reaches their destination, weather prospects could force them to drive even further, possibly hundreds of miles. This makes it a bit difficult for some working poor to figure out how much time to budget for an eclipse trip.  While some have paid vacation time they can take (they still need to figure out how much time an eclipse trip would need), others do not have that luxury.  In other words, they can take the time off, but they won’t get paid for it.  In that case, they would have to balance how much pay they can afford to lose with the other costs of an eclipse trip.  Don’t count on being able to reduce the time of an eclipse trip by speed.  In addition to the likely traffic congestion on major roads leading to the track of totality, it is very likely that local and state law enforcement anywhere near the path of totality will be out in full force looking for anyone who puts the pedal to the metal as well as anyone who puts in marathon driving sessions (the police can bust people for driving tired).  And, according to posts on some eclipse forums, parking regulations will be very strictly enforced as well.  Another factor that has to be considered is the price of gas.  I would not be surprised to see a major upsurge in the price of gas around eclipse.  The people who run oil companies may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.  It is very unlikely that these companies are totally unaware of the eclipse.  Since most cars can only go about 200+ to about 300 or so miles on a tank of gas, there could be several fill ups involved in an eclipse road trip.

This discussion of time brings up another issue: accomodations.  Already there have been numerous reports of motels engaging in price gouging for accomodations anywhere near the path of totality.  Expect to hear more as time goes on.

Now, how do the eclipse pundits propose on dealing with these problems, if they even acknowledge them at all?  One solution that has been proposed smacks of the logic Marie Antoinette was said to have used when she was informed of the bread shortage in Paris (and supposedly uttered “Let them eat cake”).  Some pundits have proposed that people get RVs (Recreational Vehicles).  This ignores the obvious facts that RVs are very expensive vehicles and tend to have rather poor gas mileage.  They also do not consider that an RV can’t generally be parked just any old place when used for the purpose of lodging.  That means one also has to find an appropriate place to stop, something that might be scarce in the days before the eclipse.  Yes, I have learned that it is possible to rent RVs, but that isn’t terribly cheap and might be daunting to someone who is unfamiliar with RVs.

Another proposal is that people camp.  While this does get around the enormous cost of the RV suggestion, it has some problems of its own.  You just can’t pitch your tent anywhere.  Several years back, there was this little old thing known as OWS (Occupy Wall Street)* where a number of people pitched tents in Zucotti Park in New York City and caused much consternation with the city government.  Also, in recent years, there have been a number of occasions where homeless people have set up tents in spots that were not considered appropriate.  Local governments have undoubtedly learned from those events and naturally restrict camping to certain areas, mostly campgrounds that have been set aside for such purposes.  And with such areas, one needs reservations.  If you have to change plans due to the weather, there goes whatever you spent on the reservation (that would also apply to anyone who books a motel).  Even if you are able to camp, there is the obvious lack of amenities and that could be an issue for those who are unfamiliar with camping.  (* The Occupy Wall Street reference is for historical purposes only.  This blog does not necessarily agree or disagree with the cause)

One of the most limited proposals I have read suggested staying with friends or relatives who are near the path of totality.  While this does get around some of the problems, it absolutely requires that one have friends or relatives who live near the path of totality and would not mind visitors staying at their place for a while.

The eclipse pundit approach to solving eclipse travel problems can be described charitably as throwing spaghetti against a wall in that they will throw out any idea, regardless if it is practical, that crosses their minds and hope something sticks.  Less charitably, but probably more accurate, is that they are simply out of touch with the socio-economic reality many Americans live with.  It takes surprisingly little to join the ranks of the working poor.  An unexpected expense, a downturn at work, or a combination of these is all it takes.  And given the fact that many people in the private sector have not seen any real raise in years means that recovering from a downturn in fortunes is slow at best.  Most of these eclipse pundits are fairly secure in their financial situation and they think little of traveling hundreds or thousands of miles for an eclipse.

As illustrated by the issues brought up during the March for Science this past April, now is not a good time for science to ignore a growing segment of the American society.  Given the challenges science faces with this administration, it needs all the public support it can get.

Does anyone have real workable ideas as to how people can resolve these issues surrounding the Great American Eclipse?  Do you think my assessment of eclipse punditry is too harsh?  If so, feel free to defend the eclipse experts.  Let’s hear from you.

Has Science Been Fair to the Fair Sex?

I know Women’s History Month is almost over, but the points raised in this post are still very valid.

The film, “Hidden Figures” has been in the news quite a bit recently.  It is a dramatization of the real-life story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who did heavy-duty mathematical calculations at NASA in the 1960s. Even though computers did exist in those days, they were the size of large refrigerators and had far less computing power than even the lowly Commodore VIC-20 (a nearly 40-year old personal computer).  Thus, humans were still needed to do the mathematical work that the early manned space missions required.

However, those women had several things going against them.  One was that they were women.  Another was that they were African-American.  On top of that, NASA facilities were mostly in the South.  In the case of Kennedy Space Center (though it wasn’t called that until after the assassination of John F. Kennedy), it was due to considerations of orbital mechanics.  As for the other NASA centers, it was to placate influential politicians.  As a result, segregation was in full force at the time.  Johnson and her team worked in a separate office, had a separate lunch area, and were treated as second class people by most at NASA.  However, John Glenn judged them by their work and treated them well.  In fact, he demanded that Johnson personally handle the computations for his orbital flight.

This got me to look back at other women in the history of science.  It turns out that the snubs and treatment that Johnson and her team got were not new.

One famous example was Caroline Herschel.  Due to her growth being stunted in childhood by disease, she was quite short.  On top of that, her parents told her that she would amount to nothing.  However, she helped out her brother, William Herschel, the greatest observational astronomer of his era.  Eventually, she learned enough that she became an observer herself, discovering several deep sky objects as well as a few comets.  Despite her superb training, her contributions were largely forgotten.  Even among modern astronomers, she is little known.

Another case was Maria Mitchell.  She was born into a Quaker family and, since the Quakers believed in equal education, she received far better education than most women of that era.  Mitchell developed an interest in astronomy early in life and became one of America’s first professional astronomers and the first female one.  During the 1840s, the King of Denmark gave an annual award to people who discovered comets.  In 1841, Mitchell discovered a comet and was up for the award.  However, there were astronomers who felt that she did not deserve to get it and raised quite a furor over the matter.  Finally, the Danish authorities intervened and Mitchell got her medal.

Jumping forward to the early 20th century, Harvard Observatory hired a number of women to do mathematical work and measurements of images on glass photographic plates.  Much like Katherine Johnson and her team, these women were referred to as “computers”.  Unlike Johnson, these computers earned sweatshop wages.  But, it was far safer than most of the work women got in that era, working in dangerous mills as well as garment manufacturing (anybody recall the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?). One of these women, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was assigned the task of studying stars on glass photographic plates.  Her job was to locate stars in the Magellanic Clouds that varied in brightness.  Doing so, she discovered that one class of stars (what we call Cepheid variables) had a brightness that was proportional to their period (cycle of variability).  This became known as the period-luminosity relationship and laid the foundation for finding distances to nearby galaxies.  Since she was just a lowly computer, her bosses took credit for the discovery.  But the truth eventually won out and the story is well known in astronomical circles today.

I could go on and on with other examples, such as the career of Lise Meitner, who had to contend with sexism as well as the rise of Nazi Germany, the story of how Watson and Crick might have “borrowed” information from a female colleague to aid their discovery of the structure of DNA, but here is a case of how a woman scientist made a discovery, only to have it stolen from her.

In 1968, Jocelyn Bell was working at Cambridge when she made an odd discovery.  When the radio telescope was pointed at a spot in the constellation of Vulpecula, a rapid pulsing signal was detected.  The pulses were very precise, enough that some people thought it was an alien radio beacon.  This idea soon fell by the wayside and it was learned that the object responsible was a pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star that emitted radio energy like the beam of a lighthouse.  Once the significance of this became apparent, Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle, Bell’s bosses, took credit for the discovery.  Though she did win a Michelson Award (along with Anthony Hewish) in 1973, she was totally ignored when the Nobel prize in physics was handed out in 1974 with Hewish and Ryle getting the prize.  Despite protests from other prominent physicists, Bell was denied Nobel recognition.  While the history books got things right in the end, it was too late for Bell to get the prize.  But she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II some years later.

Sometimes, the side of good wins.  In 1979, Voyager 1 passed through by Jupiter and made many observations.  About three days after closest approach, navigation engineers were poring over the images sent back.  This was to refine the position of the spacecraft as well as the orbits of the Galilean moons.  One of those people, a woman by the name of Linda Morabito, noticed something odd in an image of Io.  It appeared that there was a limb of another moon peeking out from behind Io. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Morabito enhanced the image and, probably echoing the thought of Han Solo when he first saw the Death Star, found that was no moon.

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The first image of Io’s volcanism

It was actually the plume from a volcanic eruption on Io, the first display of active volcanism outside Earth.  Morabito was determined to get credit for this find and pushed her case.  Finally, with the mainstream media on her side, she was credited with the find, securing her place in scientific history.

These days, Morabito is involved in advocating for science.  In additon to her personal website, she also maintains a Facebook group, Linda Morabito’s Space Place where she offers commentary on various scientific issues.

So, as Women’s History Month draws to a close, remember the contributions women have made in science and let’s hope for the day when science gives credit where it is due without regard to whether it was a man or a woman who made the discovery.

Lunar Mythbusting

Tonight is October 8th, which has been declared International Observe the Moon Night (IOMN).  Personally, I would choose a date as close to September 13th as possible to take a jab at the late Gerry Anderson and his bit of lunar lunacy known as “Space: 1999”.  Yes, I know I missed that date as well on this blog, but I had other issues to deal with.  With IOMN clouded and/or rained out tonight for a large portion of the United States, I thought I would provide some educational lunar entertainment to make up for it.  So, I dusted off an article I wrote for the Asterism (AAI’s long-defunct newsletter) and I’m using it for material here.

Some years ago, I went to a convention and saw Dee Wallace, best known for playing the mom in E.T. The Extraterrestrial. She was quite nice and she was also there to push DVDs of “The Howling”, a werewolf movie she was in. I took the opportunity to explain to her that I didn’t find werewolf stuff too interesting due to my knowledge of the Moon and the fact that it exerts no strange influences. Dee agreed, but she said that the myths about the Moon were quite pervasive in popular culture, even after the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon without anything strange happening to them. So, let’s take a detailed look at why the Moon, while interesting, is not mystical.

Time and Tides: People who believe in the mystical powers of the Moon often point out that it could exert its spooky actions through tidal forces. On the surface, this might seem reasonable. After all, anyone who has spent more than a few hours by the ocean or a bay has noticed that the water rises and falls due to tides. Some have argued that, since the ocean is water and people are mostly water in terms of composition, lunar tides should affect people and their behavior. They point to claims of increased weird behavior at times of full Moon and then the old stories always say that werewolves change from people to beasts at full Moon.

However, the “Full Moon effect” has been shown to be false by numerous statistical studies. Also, if one knows how tides work, it is easy to see that they cannot influence living beings.  Tides result when the side of an object nearest a gravity source experiences a greater pull than the opposite side does.  In the case of the oceans, the sea facing the Moon is about 8,000 miles closer to the Moon than the ocean on the opposite side of the Earth. Since the Moon is about a quarter of a million miles away, the diameter of the Earth is a measurable fraction of that distance and the ocean feels the effect of the difference.

Now, consider the case of a human being. To make things as fair as possible to the werewolf buffs, our example will be a player from the NBA who is seven feet tall. The difference in the pull of lunar gravity between the top of his head and the soles of his feet is so close to zero that it can be considered zero for any practical purpose. Even the varying distance of the Moon from Earth (the Moon’s orbit is slightly elliptical), while important for ocean tides, does not alter this conclusion.

It could be argued that tides do influence some living creatures since a number of sea animals lay eggs at times of very high tides. This is the result of their biological clocks, not lunar influence. And they are not infallible tide predictors as the large number of horseshoe crabs that die stranded on beaches each spring can attest to.

Blinded By The Light: Anyone who has been at an observatory on a public night during a full Moon knows it can appear very bright, especially through the telescopes. This brightness is deceptive. Actually the Moon reflects light about as well as the pavement of a road (an albedo of about 7%). It appears bright because the Moon is surrounded by nonreflecting space, so even a dark object like would appear bright. But that is not the whole story.

It is known that the full Moon appears about ten times as bright as it does at first or third quarter. Before people knew much about the Moon, this must have appeared strange. But there are two reasons for this effect. First of all, during full Moon, the Sun is overhead as seen from the lunar surface. There are no shadows. At other times, there are always some shadows formed by mountains and crater rims. But the other reason was only discovered after the Apollo missions returned lunar samples to Earth.

Most of the Moon is covered in a layer of dust, which is essentially lunar rock that has been pulverized by eons of micrometeorite impacts. When samples of this dust were studied on Earth, it was discovered that there were numerous tiny bits of glass in it. The glass formed as the impacts of micrometeorites melted little bits of surface material. The bits of glass give lunar dust a weak retroreflective property like those reflectors embedded in many roads. Due to this effect, the lunar dust actually reflects a bit more light towards Earth at full Moon.

No Cheese, Green or Otherwise: The final proof against strange lunar influence is the composition of the Moon itself. It is now widely believed that Moon formed as the result of a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized planetesimal in the early days of the solar system, which sent debris from the Earth’s mantle into space.

Because of this origin, only about a dozen minerals make up the Moon. Besides basalt and anorthosite (basic igneous rocks), most of these are oxides of iron, titanium, chromium, aluminum as well as some silicates, along with some minerals rich in potassium and rare earth elements. Recently, something new has been added to this list. In 1998, the Lunar Prospector probe found evidence of hydrogen-rich material in some permanently shaded craters near the lunar South Pole. While it could be buried water ice from ancient comet impacts, hydrated minerals and cometary hydrocarbons have not been ruled out. While this mix of minerals is interesting to those who want to build lunar bases, it is about as non-mystical as one can get.

As one can see, the Moon is an interesting place with great potential importance for humanity’s future. Now, isn’t this far more interesting and exciting than mysticism and werewolf stories?

Going Buggy Over the Rio Games

Friday, August 5th marks the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.  This time around, the Games are quite controversial with allegations of corruption amongst the various contractors, incomplete work, the fact that this is taking place during a political coup in the host country, etc.  But one thing that is getting lots of press is also one of the smallest (literally) issues.

By now, most people have heard about the Zika virus.  It is mainly known from Brazil, though it has appeared in other parts of the world as well, is spread by mosquitoes and, in most cases, the symptoms range from none to rather minor.  That is if the victim isn’t a pregnant woman.  By processes that are poorly understood at present, the Zika virus can cause microcephaly (an abnormally small head due to an abnormally small and deformed brain).  Microcephaly is incurable and untreatable.  Naturally, this has caused a great measure of concern.  So much so that some athletes have bowed out of the Games (even male athletes who, last time I checked, can’t get pregnant).  Even TV networks have changed their plans with NBC replacing some of the female reporters they were originally going to send with Meredith Vieira and Hoda Kotb (that is not a typo – it is an issue of transliterating her Egyptian last name from Arabic writing to Western writing).

There is also some concern in the United States as the mosquitoes we have are capable of carrying the virus.  But what I think has the government in near panic mode is the fact that Zika is a nightmare for the right-to-life crowd.  For most other birth defects, they can argue that, with appropriate therapy, the victims can have some semblance of a life.  They also claim that future advances in fetal surgery and other medical technology can mitigate defects as well.  Not so with microcephaly.  That’s it.  Hence the pressure that is being exerted on the scientific community to derive some sort of method to combat Zika and its mosquito carriers.

At least one scientists claims they found a weak spot in the mosquito genome that would make it possible to wipe them out completely.  Then there is talk that a vaccine is being worked on.  However, given past history in humanity’s struggle to deal with mosquitoes, there is ground for skepticism.  Mosquitoes are highly adaptable and have a proven ability to acquire resistance to whatever insecticide or strategy we can throw at them.  And it does seem unusual that someone claims to be near to developing a vaccine for a virus that is little known.

If the effort to control Zika is as successful as the effort to control other mosquito-borne diseases, Zika is here to stay.  Since it mainly poses a threat to pregnant women, perhaps it might be a good idea to consider strategies from that angle.  Perhaps it might force people to actually put some thought into the idea of whether or not to have kids.  Currently, most people put more thought into choosing players for their fantasy sports teams than they do in reproduction.  There could be other changes in how people reproduce.  Can you think of some?

Of course it could be worse.  In Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Galapagos”, he postulated a microbe that destroyed the ovaries.  It spread throughout the world via air travel until the only group that wasn’t affected was a band of tourists in the Galapagos Islands (hence the title).  Cut off from the rest of the world due to the disease, the tourists are the last breeding set of human beings.  Over long spans of time, the humans gradually evolve into something resembling a very intelligent and dexterous seal.  The story was said to be inspired by Vonnegut hearing about the evolution of Darwin’s Finches (birds on the islands that evolved from a single group of birds blown to the islands in a storm).  Then there is the story and film “The Children of Man” which recounts how human reproduction ceases and the utter chaos that takes place when a pregnant woman is discovered.

While Zika is nowhere near as bad as its fictional counterparts, I think it may take some effort and time to come up with ways to bring it under some measure of control.

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?

Indonesian Insult?

Just because this blog is titled “Space Between the Lines”, that does not mean that it will focus only on space science.  Also, even though Glenn Wargo’s “Astrology Notes” are the most popular posts in these parts, not everything here will be happy-go-lucky fun and games.

One of the interesting things about science is that it has all kinds of people.  Normally, this is a strength as it offers many positive examples of minorities and women who achieve greatness.  However, when you have all kinds of people, you also have some who are not the nicest of people and even some downright troublemakers.  Some troublemakers, like the late Halton Arp in the field of astronomy, were relatively harmless.  Then you have those who will stoop to some pretty low levels just to push their agenda.

Before I get to an example of someone who likely crossed the line to push their view, here is a little background.  Back in 2004, a group of scientists working on the island of Flores in Indonesia found the remains of a few rather short individuals.  They were no taller than about three feet and had adult teeth, but rather small brains.  After much study, it was concluded by the vast majority of scientists that these individuals were not modern humans, but rather some more primitive species, dubbed H. Floresiensis.  Opinion is divided as to whether these represent a dwarf variety of H. Erectus or something along the lines of H. Afarensis.  I sort of lean towards the H. Afarensis opinion.

Just when everything seemed to be mostly resolved, along comes Robert B. Eckhardt, a professor of developmental genetics and evolution at Penn State.  Eckhardt recently published a paper that claimed the individuals discovered on Flores were not a new species, but rather deformed modern humans who suffered from Down’s Syndrome.  The announcement was carried widely in science media including Space Daily.  I am sure that most readers of this blog are as disgusted as I am to hear someone, a scientist no less, imply that those with Down’s Syndrome are deformed freaks.

Believe it or not, this is not the first time another species in our genus was described in this kind of manner.  In 1829, the first bunch of H. Neanderthalensis bones were discovered near the Neander valley in Germany (hence the name of the species).  When examined, they appeared somewhat similar to human bones but there were some differences.  In 1856, eminent German pathologist Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902) explained that the bones were those of a cavalry soldier from Napoleon’s army who suffered from severe rickets and had further deformities from his military career.  He then wound up with severe head injuries in battle and died in the valley.  Virchow can be excused since nobody knew anything about evolutionary biology in those days and the idea that there were species that went extinct was fairly new.  But Eckhardt can’t use those excuses today.

Eckhardt’s assertion can be proven wrong on several points.  One of the major lines of evidence that identified the Flores bones with H. Floresiensis was the bone structure of the wrist.  Some of the bones had a more primitive shape than that found in humans.  While Down’s Syndrome may have effects on the skull, it does not affect the wrist bones.  Also, Down’s Syndrome does not cause a small brain to the extent that was found with the Flores remains.

Another argument has to do with the adult teeth found in the jaws.  This would imply that these individuals lived to adulthood.  In primitive societies (and some not as primitive), people with birth defects were considered bad omens and signs of divine disfavor, as described in a recent post on EsoterX.  Such folks probably would not live very long, either being killed or dying from bad treatment.  Lest anyone think that regarding those with birth defects as monsters or warnings of divine anger was a phenomenon of stone age cultures, Dr. Beachcombing of Beachcombing’s Bizarre History had a post describing how children in some rural areas of Europe with severe mental issues were considered non-human and were often killed, even up until the 19th century.  In fact, no less a figure than Martin Luther (founder of Protestantism) once claimed that a child, who we today would consider severely autistic, be put to death.  When the Electors (a fancy German term for a group of princes) refused, Luther then suggested that the local populace should pray daily for the elimination of said individual.

Finally, there is the lore of the inhabitants of Flores.  They describe a creature they call “Ebu Gogo” which matches the physical description of H. Floresiensis to a T.  You are probably thinking “So what? Lots of cultures have legends of ‘little people’.”  True.  But in almost all of those legends, the “little people” (fairies, leprechauns, elves, etc.) are described as having some kind of supernatural ability.  The Ebu Gogos do not. They are described as stupid, greedy thieves with no powers whatsoever.  According to local lore, it was their penchant for thievery that got them wiped out when the local humans decided that enough was enough.

If these points are not enough, it seems that there may be some irregularities about Eckhardt’s paper and how it got published.  These are described in this newspaper article.

All of this makes one wonder why there are some people who would go to such lengths and stoop so low just to keep those individuals from being classed as a new species? What could be their motivation(s)?