Saturday, July 12, 2008

Experiment IV

Many of my favorite bloggers post YouTube music videos they like. I don't watch them all, but often I do, and often enough, I really enjoy them. Here's one example from Becky's blog, "A Girl in Short Shorts." (about a third of the way down the post) This is a group called Rasputina doing Heart's rock-n-roll classic, "Barracuda..." on cellos. Sometimes the singer's voice seems a little off to me, other times she seems to transcend the original, but this is definitely a fascinating sound.

I'll just go ahead and blogroll her now: Becky is very much the libertarian, so there is plenty in her philosophy and approach to ideal governance that I disagree with. But she is clearly knowledgeable, eminently reasonable, and and as a result, makes generally persuasive arguments. In particular, her analysis of economic issues is shrewd and informed, and provides a perspective that I don't find elsewhere. As in the example above, she has turned me on to many female musical artists that I otherwise wouldn't have come across (and I love female musicians, particularly their voices). I very much admire Becky's strength and ability to choose her own way, and to explain and defend those choices to someone who is different from her in many ways. It is important to me to try to understand what and how other people are thinking; Becky is an outstanding example of someone who makes me feel like I understand humanity just a little bit better.

But the whole point is, I've really enjoyed other people's music video posts, so I'll try to put up a few of my own from time to time. Kate Bush has long been on my list of favorites. I find that many of the college age folks I know from around here don't know her work at all, but really like it when I lend them a CD. Experiment IV is from her first hits album, "The Whole Story." I appreciate it when a musician adds a new piece to a hits album; on the other hand, if I already have most of their stuff, it's irritating to have to get a whole new album just for a song or two. If you're a fan of the TV series "House," you may recognize a young Hugh Laurie as one of the techs in the video. Lyrics here.

"Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter."

The first I saw of this, I figured it was satire. The second time, I asummed that the second blogger had picked up the first's thread. Turns out, the UK telegraph has reported this as an actual quote from our A-hole-in-chief as he prepared to leave the G-8 summit.

The American leader, who has been condemned throughout his presidency for failing to tackle climate change, ended a private meeting with the words: "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter."

He then punched the air while grinning widely, as the rest of those present including Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy looked on in shock.

Pollution kills people. That's not funny. Pollution degrades the environment, causes billions in property damage, stresses and kills other organisms. It's not all preventable, but it can be reduced. Joking about it like this is beyond poor taste. Words fail me.

Jesus wept.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


There's a new volcanic eruption going on in Hawaii, and a Reuters video popped up at Scientific American. Although they can look scary, Hawaiian-style eruptions are basically gentle compared to other types. For example, note that in this video, the lava is fairly fluid- that is, it flows easily- and that in the shots of the lava lake, there are some bursts of gas, but they don't splash all that much:

Basaltic lava tends to have low viscosity (resistance to flow) and low gas content- on the order of a few tenths of a percent by weight. In contrast, more silica-rich lavas, such as rhyolite or dacite, tend to have a high viscosity- almost to the point of being solid- and high gas content, on the order of 3-4 percent. This means that the vapor pressure is extremely high, and the confining pressure is also high. If you've ever taken a small amount of gunpowder and lit it, you know it makes a nice little ball of fire and sparks. But that's very different from taking the same amount of gunpowder confined in a shell and firing it: in the latter situation it creates a substantial explosion, not just a pretty little fire. The confinement of gas (mostly water) in volcanism is what leads to the the most violent, dangerous eruptions. They're just steam explosions. Steam explosions that loft millions of tons of incandescent semi-molten rock into the air, yes, but simple steam explosions just the same.

The May 18, 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption is undoubtedly the best-known eruption to most Americans, though as big eruptions go, it really wasn't extraordinary. The 1991 eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines was about ten times larger, but I couldn't find a good video focusing on the great eruption. Probably the most famous eruptions of all were the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. The biggest eruption I'm aware of in the Geologic record was the eruption at Yellowstone about 600,000 years ago, which some have estimated to have produced 600 cubic miles of ejecta- over a thousand times the amount produced by Mt. St. Helens.

Mercury: Birth of the Inner Planets

Artist view of a protostellar accretion disc. (©David Darling) From U. Hawaii, here.

About 4.7 billion years ago, a massive cloud of dust and gas began to collapse. As it collapsed, it began to spin faster and faster; random collision between molecules and dust particles flattened the cloud into a rotating disk. Near the center of the disk, the density of dust and gas became so great that the material couldn't escape; neither could heat. Pressure- and thus temperature- skyrocketed. Finally the temperature and pressure became so high that atoms of hydrogen began to fuse together to form helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy.

And so our sun was born.
This famous image, often referred to as "The Pillars of Creation" shows a number of protoplanetary disks (aka. "proplyds") emerging as the Eagle Nebula is ablated by stellar winds and light pressure from nearby young, hot stars. The protoplyds are the darker, denser knots of dust and gas. Each of these are several or more times farther across than the diameter of Pluto's orbit.

The so-called nebular hypothesis is a fairly old idea, as scientific ideas go. The original idea- that a cloud of dust and gas collapsed to form the solar system- dates back to the 1730's. Other hypotheses have been developed, but the nebular hypothesis is the one that has best withstood the steadily increasing torrent of observations.

A Hubble Space Telescope image of the AB Aurigae disk. Note in the lower left corner of the right-side picture the small ellipse showing the size of Pluto's orbit on the scale of that image.
From here.

The disk that remained after fusion ignited the central ball of gas into a true star (the presence of fusion is the criterion that distinguishes a "star" from an enormous ball of gas) had developed areas of higher density that would eventually become planets. Gravitation- more important for larger particles- and electrostatic forces- more important for smaller particles- continued to pull material together to form larger and larger objects: dust, grains, rocks, and planetesimals. After the sun ignited, the sudden flux of heat would drive off the outermost layers of gas in a powerful solar wind. Additionally, radiant energy would tend to drive volatile materials- hydrogen, helium and water- outward, away from the inner solar system. I want to focus primarily on the inner four planets here (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars), but this is why the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) are larger and composed mostly of gasses.

Protoplanetary disk HH-30, showing the polar jets, thought to dampen angular momentum.
Credit NASA/ESA.

Even after the sun ignited, the disk continued to slowly contract. To get the system to contract, you have to remove angular momentum. This has been a puzzle, but recent images from the Hubble telescope and other observatories have shown that polar jets (material being ejected along the star's axis of rotation) and the strong magnetic field of the newly-born star may provide a mechanism to remove angular momentum from the stellar system. The University of Hawaii site has a terrific computer simulation/animation (partway down the page) showing how twisting magnetic fields in a young system could transfer angular momentum into these polar jets.

Areas of higher density pulled more material into themselves. Once this process of planetary collapse got underway, the rapidly growing protoplanets became so gravitationally dominant that they rapidly cleared their orbits of smaller objects. (This ability of a planet to clear its orbit is the reason that Pluto is no longer considered a planet by many astronomers: Pluto has not accomplished this feat.) The time from the beginning of planetary collapse to completely sweeping up the remaining debris is only a couple of hundred thousand years.

Hubble image of Fomalhaut showing the enormous separation between the ring center and the actual star; this is interpreted to indicate that there is a large planet present in the system in addition to the visible objects. The planet is not directly observable with current technology, but the rings would not be stable in this configuration without another source of gravity. According to the press release accompanying this image, the suspected planet is probably a little inside the ring's inner edge, which would correspond to 1 1/2 to 2 times the distance of Pluto from the sun.

Within 100 to 200 million years after the great cloud of gas and dust began to collapse, the overall structure of the solar system was much as we see it today. Many of the particulars had not evolved into their current conditions (e.g. atmospheres, surface conditions), but the bulk compositions and general orbital positions were much as they are now. The current estimate for Earth's age is 4.55 billion years. Plenty has happened since then, and our home almost certainly did not have oceans until a couple of hundred million years later. So had you taken a look at it then, it might not have been recognizable. But for practical purposes, everything that makes Earth (and the other planets) was in place, just organized a little differently.

We happen to be edge-on to see the protoplanetary disk around Beta Pictoris. This disk appears to have an interesting secondary disk. Presumably, collisions between particles in the two disks will ultimately cause them to merge into one.

This is as good a time as any to point out that what drew me to science- and what draws many scientists- is the aesthetic: the sense of awe and of beauty- as much as or more than anything else.

Next: Meteorites and the composition of the rocky planets.

Drinking Liberally

I heard about the group "Drinking Liberally" on a couple of blogs I read regularly; I don't remember which ones offhand, but they're based in Philadelphia and Seattle. I liked the pun, and I liked the idea. Not political activism, just people with similar attitudes getting together and discussing matters of mutual interest and concern.

So I did the Google thing, and found this site, which allows you to look up chapters in your state. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Corvallis has a chapter. I'm not much of one for the bar scene, and I'm definitely uncomfortable going into a situation with a bunch of people I don't know, so even though I found the info six weeks ago, I hadn't gone to one of the meetings until yesterday.

Actually, I wouldn't have looked up the info at all, but one of my friends here at my favorite coffee shop seemed really interested after I described it. So when C. came in yesterday, I explained that there was a meeting. We ended up going downtown to Squirrel's at 5:00.

It was pretty informal, in the sense that the conversation wandered without any discernible direction or purpose. I have a very hard time making sense out of conversation when there is much background noise; this is one of the big reasons I don't really care for bars. So I was struggling to catch enough to interpret what people were saying, then trying to infer enough to fill the holes that hadn't made sense. There were topics that were more interesting, topics less so. The two topics I remember chiming in on were Jared Diamond's Collapse and cement manufacturing as a major component of CO2 emissions. (I include the link so you can look at reviews, not to recommend you buy it; any library is likely to have one or more copies.)

Overall, despite the downsides I seem to have emphasized above, it was a pleasant experience, and I expect I'll go again from time to time. The Corvallis chapter meets on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month from 5:00 to 7:00; you can sign up for a reminder e-mail at the link above. There are other Oregon Chapters in Portland, Salem and St. Helens.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ozma of Corvallis

A bit more than a month ago I talked about the cat that adopted me, here. I'd love to post a picture, but I don't have one. She's a fairly typical grey and black tiger stripe. Easy food has made her a little chubby, I guess, but not too bad. She still jumps up to the porch, six feet, almost silently- so she's not too heavy.

Like most cats, she wants attention when she wants it, but not when she doesn't. She's perfectly happy to sleep most of the time, though since she moved in she has shown that she wants to keep me in sight, even when her eyes are closed. I've decided to call her Ozma, after the Princess of Oz.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I was pretty amused and flattered that she brought a cheeseburger- yeah, it was half eaten, but not by her. Well, she has brought me two more present since then, and frankly, it's a little weird. A couple of weeks ago I got up and walked out to the living room, and there was what looked like a pile of dog poop that had been stepped in- brown, flat, dry, and curled up at the edges. Ugh. So I went and grabbed a paper towel, wondering why the hell a cat would bring me dog poop: she's got food, water, shelter and affectionate scratching when she wants it. What'd I do? When I picked it up, it was obvious that it wasn't dog poop. I looked a little more closely...

Two dried up pieces of pastrami, with solidified cheese between them.

I guess she likes me.

I have what amounts to a cubic meter of plastic grocery bags stuffed into the closet where the water heater is, next to the kitchen. Occasionally, she'll yank one out of the pile and play with it. I assumed she liked the noise. About a week ago, she walked over toward the kitchen where her food is, and simply disappeared. I got up to figure out where she'd got off to, and as I walked by the closet, a paw shot out of the bottom of the pile of plastic bags and swatted my ankle. She has dug a lair, or perhaps set up an ambush location, about a foot into the base of the pile.

I have heard her jump up onto the porch at night then crunch away for a few minutes, so I'm pretty sure she does catch the occasional rodent. I've never seen any physical sign, but it sounds like little bones being eaten. She has several times brought in good-sized moths, and spent 10 or 15 exuberant minutes playing catch and release. When she's playing, she has a way of snapping her head from side to side that reminds me of a dog playing tug-of-war with a rope, except she holds the object down with one paw- whether it's a moth or a plastic bag, gapes her mouth and bares her fangs, and just snaps her head around. It's a hell of a show, but I can't help but wonder if she's just posturing to scare her victims. I don't think she's ever eaten any of the bags, but I'm certain they're absolutely petrified by her. With the moths, she finally forgets the "release" part of "catch and release", which sort of obviates the "catch" part, too. There are never any little moth corpses left that I've noticed.

She was out and about when I got up this morning. I noticed something in lumps by the porch door. It was wet and cold and smelled like chicken; I looked more carefully and it looked like rice pilaf. There were several lumps, each about the size of a peach pit. She had to have made multiple trips.

How the hell does a cat understand what kinds of things people might eat? I wonder if I could teach her how to wash dishes... nah.

Speaking of "chicken odor" one of the funniest things I've read in a while is over at Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes. His stuff is always entertaining, but you know, like Orwell said, some posts are more equal than others. The first portion of the post, before he starts talking about his plans to torment students in a class next fall (I kid... sort of), is what you need to read- though that part has its moments too. Down to the word and a half, "-esque proportions." Keep a straight face. I dare ya.

Roll Out the Blogroll III

So I haven't been on this every day... I'll get there, I'll get there.

Hullabaloo- More lefty News, analysis and opinion. Digby posts on at least one of the other blogs I read (Whiskey Fire), so I often see the same posts in different places through the day. In addition, as one of the great commentators of Left Blogostan, he's excerpted everywhere- so he seems kind of omnipresent. The only problem I have is that he block quotes at great length, sometimes very great length. When he gets to the comments, they tend to be sharp and concise, but I really didn't need to read two pages of text to get the point. I want to read mostly his stuff, not the material he's criticizing. Molly Ivors' rants on Dowdy show up here too. So overall, I tend to skim over the long quotes here, and focus on the juicy bits of analysis.

The Daily Howler- If you really want to be depressed about the state of the media in our country, this is the site for you! On the other hand, if you really want to understand how laziness, bias, illogic, self-serving image-making, and sheer incompetence from media types is warping our ability to make informed judgements, then this is the site for you. Bob Somerby is the wonk of wonks when it comes to drawing and quartering the logic of so-called journalists. There are times when I feel like he's driving home carpet tacks with a nine pound hammer, but there are other times I just want to jump up and shout "Hallelujah!" This one is not daily for me, simply because it can be some real work sometimes. But I will admit that as a general rule, if I make the effort, he makes it pay off. This was another blog that I started reading early on: Somerby has archives going back ten years.

The Realty-Based Community- Lots of shorter posts compared to the last two. Mark Kleiman, another major name in liberal analysis, does an excellent job of getting to the point, providing enough context to set up the situation, then targeting the flaws (or strengths) that jump out at him. He is also notable for providing plenty of embedded links to relevant, supporting, or background articles, and even to clarify terms that the less savvy of us might not know. For example in a post today, I learned what IOKIYAR means. LOL.

TomDispatch- I'm not sure if the format here is exactly considered "blog," but this is a great one, whatever it is. Three to four times a week, a mid-sized essay is posted, either by Tom Engelhardt or by another author, with Tom writing an intro piece to set the context. The three blogs listed above are very much "right now this minute" oriented- that's not a bad thing, as long as you remember what happened yesterday (and they do, believe me, they do), and tie in the news from yesterday and last week to today's events. That is a great failure of MSM to me- readers (and especially watchers) are not expected or encouraged to remember what happened an hour ago, let alone last week. In contrast Tom Dispatch tends to look carefully at systemic issues- things that,yes, are going on right now, but have also been evolving and getting more pernicious over the last months and years. These tend to be exactly the sorts of things MSM misses entirely. It requires the reader to remember some of the obscure mid-to-late-Section-A articles from last year and the years before that. Case in point: the current introduction is about the trans-Afghanistan oil pipeline proposed to bring petroleum to the Indian Ocean from the Caspian Sea/Aral Sea Basin- importantly, without passing through Russian satellites or Iran. As it happens, I've been aware of this since the early 90's because I tend to glom onto any geology info I encounter. That area has been known for at least a couple of decades as an enormously important exploration target; after the collapse of the Soviet Union western oil companies couldn't wait to get in. And they still can't. The problem though is that there's no good way to get the stuff out once you've got it. So at any rate, that's just the background that Englehardt addresses in setting up for the main essay. News is great, intelligent liberal criticism makes it better, but sometimes you just feel like curling up with a book. These essays are not book-length, but they work toward that level of analysis.

Jesus' General- One of the great satirical blogs out there. Some of the posts are serious, but more than half are great fun. Many are faux missives written in the style of a social conservative, ending with "Heterosexually yours..." The War of 1812 video I posted yesterday was found here. If you're a fan of The Colbert Report, you'll like this one too. Another tip o' the hat: July fourth is the one holiday that I really have an inviolable personal tradition for: I find a copy of the Declaration of Independence and read it. As I mentioned on the 5th, the Interzone closed early, so I didn't get a chance to post the text as I had intended. I found a copy and read it, but JG posted the text. And hot linked each of the signatories to short biographies. Now I don't really "celebrate" the 4th, but I do reflect on it, and how profound that event was. JG not only shares this attitude with me, he can craft sincere-sounding lines that are so absurd, yet so similar to what we hear from the right, that the resulting cognitive conflict will blow out your skull unless you burst out laughing. This one is a precious resource, up there with oil.

Followup: For some reason I can't get the daily howler to "take" in my blogroll. I'll try again some other time, but the hotlink should get you there for the time being.

Best Headline Ever in a "Serious" News Source

U.S. exports cigarettes, bras, bull semen to Iran
From here. The scary thing is, they use the first two to seduce the cows....


Eleven articles have been published in the most recent issue of the journal Science on the January flyby of the planet Mercury by the MESSENGER probe. Messenger is an acronym for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging. This picture has shown up in a number of news sources over the last few days, and it is beautiful.

I should be very clear that this is a false-color image. A number of different shots are taken with optical filters that each pass a different band of wavelengths ("colors"), creating a number of different black and white images. I don't know in this case how many bands were used or at what wavelengths, but often the bands are either in ultraviolet or infrared, outside the range we actually perceive with our eyes. The idea of "color" in these ranges isn't meaningful, except you can image them, then convert them to colors we do perceive. You can study these images individually, and you can convert each to a particular color that highlights features of interest and combine all the images into one, as was done above.

Mercury in visible light looks like this:
This last picture looks very similar to our moon. The expectation was that, at least on its surface, Mercury would resemble the moon in its composition.

It doesn't.

The moon is covered with basalt, an iron-rich rock, as are Venus and Mars for the most part. Most of Earth is covered with basalt: the ocean basins are created as intrusions and extrusions of basalt at the mid-ocean ridge system. But Earth is unique in the Solar System in having active plate tectonics. Processes arising out of Earth's tectonism create conditions in which magma (molten rock underground) can segregate into different fractions with differing compositions.

In the first picture, the big light orange splotch (labeled "C") is the Caloris Basin, one of the larger known impact basins in the Solar System- not the biggest but a big one. The colors here indicate a much lower proportion of iron than one would expect if the rock was basalt. The black arrows point to what are thought to be explosive volcanic centers, which are also iron-deficient. The white arrows point to areas of rock that appear to be similar in composition to those of the Caloris Basin. This presents a puzzle: how is Mercury's composition so different than we expected? How does our new knowledge of Mercury's composition inform our ideas of the planet's evolution? Scientists love puzzles like this. I'm planning and gathering information to lay out what we know of the early history of the Solar System, how rocks are formed here on Earth, what we know of the geology of Mars and Venus, and how all that relates to our ideas about Mercury and its history. I just love this stuff, and I'm pretty excited about this new information.

As I mentioned, MESSENGER made its first flyby in January. It will make another in October of this year, a third in September of next year, then settle into an orbit around the planet in March of 2011. So more data will come in over the next few years, with the best in about 3 years. Scientists will be puzzling over the innermost planet for some time to come. In the Meantime, here's the MESSENGER homepage (check out the orbital diagrams here). And here's the most detailed article I've found- I haven't laid my hands on the Science issue yet. The Website does post the introductory essay here, but the articles aren't open to the public. You can, however, read the abstracts; links are posted below the intro essay.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The "Plan"

My Brother feels I'm "a little hard on John McCain." I feel like I'm pretty snarky, and thus perhaps not serious enough, and therefore, not hard enough. I hope I get back to this and post my own reaction, but in the meantime, McCain's economic "plan" was apparently leaked in the last day or so. D-day has a pretty serious reaction here. I just checked, and I'm the only one who has commented so far. Matthew Yglesias has a somewhat more snarky reaction here. My reaction is, at this point, probably best expressed in the comment to D-day: I can't get my mind around it. I'll need to chew on this one for quite some time before I can react coherently.

The War of 1812

From "Jesus' General," one of the great satirical sites out there.

My sister and her family live outside of Toronto, and my Mom spends a great deal of her time in a little town called Rosseau, about 3 hours north of Toronto. I'm very fond of Canada. We in the US have an amazing ignorance of our northern neighbor. I'm not going to claim I'm as well informed as I'd like to be, but there's some basic information everyone should know. For example, Canada is our biggest trading partner. I think a lot of people might guess China. Another stat, even more surprising: Canada is our largest foreign source of oil, 76 million barrels per month- nearly double 2nd place Saudi Arabia's 44 million barrels per month. Canada has so much to be proud of: natural beauty that's different from, but rivals, ours; wonderful, kind, intellegent people; a health care system that serves everyone, terrifically friendly cities and so on. So I got a kick out of this video. The fine print at the end says "No Americans were harmed in the filming of this video." If it gets your dander up, go rewatch "The South Park Movie," and pay particular attention to the song "Blame Canada." Consider this to be good-natured payback.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Proof That Astrology is a Crock

Today, both the Shrub and the Dalai Lama were born... different years, I guess. But still, are there two more differing personalities alive today? Also, in an odd coincidence that just occurred to me, today is my mother's birthday. Happy Birthday, Mom! Happy Birthday, Dalai Lama! I don't need the Secret Service riding my butt, so I'll just stop there.
Followup: The barrista now working here at my favorite coffee shop pointed out that someone born on today's date would be a Cancer. I guess I would agree that the one I didn't wish a happy birthday to is, in fact, an out-of-control mass of malignant tissue, but the other two certainly aren't. And I don't think astrology could have helped you make an accurate prediction on the matter. So I stand by my point.