an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘skepticism’ Category

how to define a planet: the problematic case of Pluto

leave a comment »

Pluto, with its ‘heart-shaped’ area known as Sputnik Planitia, imaged by New Horizons, July 14 2015

A while back I listened to a podcast from Point of Inquiry, in which two planetary scientists, Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, involved in NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, were separately interviewed, and were inevitably asked about Pluto’s demotion from planet status. Having not followed this issue, I was surprised at the response. So it’s time to take a closer look.

Of course I should be writing ecstatically about the New Horizons mission, not to mention those of Juno, Cassini, Mars’ Curiosity and so forth, and hopefully that will come, but the controversy about Pluto immediately struck me, as I thought, in my naïveté, that its demotion was a consensual thing amongst astronomers, with only the ignoroscenti (my neologism) left to mourn the fact (not that I mourned it particularly – Pluto still existed after all, and it didn’t care a jot what we thought of it).

Pluto, discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, was accepted as the ninth and final planet in our solar system for decades until the nineties, when another Kuiper belt object was discovered (besides Charon, Pluto’s large moon), and the Kuiper belt itself became a thing, in fact a massive thing, far bigger than the ‘familiar’ asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. We now know of more than 1000 kuiper belt objects, with at least 100,000 believed to exist. The Kuiper belt is widely spread out from the orbit of Neptune, and though Pluto is its largest and brightest object, it’s not the most massive. Presumably it’s for this reason that Pluto was demoted – what with the scattered disc and the Oort cloud there seemed to suddenly be a host of objects that could be included as planets, so it was thought better to exclude Pluto, or to demote it to dwarf planet status, presumably along with other assorted Kuiper belt objects (KBOs), rocks and iceballs that were worthy of the designation. That seemed okay to my thoughtless mind, but here’s what Alan Stern had to say on the subject:

Well, you know, we don’t really honour that classification in planetary science, that was really done by a group of different astronomers who don’t know much about planets. Let me give you a technical term, we call it BS. You know what BS stands for don’t you? Bad Science. Now you wouldn’t ask a podiatrist, a foot doctor, to help you if you had a cardiovascular problem with your heart, that’d be the wrong expertise, though they’re both doctors you’d be going for a cardiologist. And if you had a real estate problem you probably wouldn’t go to a divorce attorney, even though they’re both attorneys. In the space field we have many professions, we have engineering professions, we have many different scientific specialties, etc. Astronomers really don’t know much about planets any more than I’m an expert in black holes in faraway galaxies. They had a little meeting in 2006, they were worried that school children would have to memorise the names of too many planets, so they wrote a definition that limited the number of planets to eight. Now, right after that, Ira Flatow called me up on Science Friday and said, would you debate Mike Brown, who was one of the proponents of ‘let’s limit the planets to eight’, and I said, sure, and we got on the phone and it’s Science Friday live, and Mike Brown makes his case and says, ‘look we just can’t have 50 planets, it’s too many to remember.’ Now, I found that anti-scientific, it seems like engineering the definition, versus letting it inform you, but Ira said, Alan what’d you think, ‘can’t have 50 planets’, what d’you say back to MIke? I said, ‘well if you can’t have 50 planets then we’re probably going to have to go back to eight states, I guess’. And he was speechless…

I love that story – though no doubt Mike Brown would’ve told a different one. So let’s turn Stern’s objection into an inquiry. Was it scientifically correct/accurate/fair to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf/minor planet?

Happily I just happened to listen to a podcast of the Skeptics’ Guide a few days later, which has led me to a more detailed piece on Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog on the Pluto controversy. Apparently, in the above-mentioned 2006 meeting they decided that to be classified as a planet, a body in our solar system should meet 3 criteria:

  • it has to orbit the sun
  • it has to be spheroid (i.e. have the mass to be so, due to its gravity),
  • it must have cleared its orbit of other objects.

Now this third criteria immediately seems the dodgiest, as it sounds like it’s designed to eliminate any KBOs. And how do we know an orbit is cleared? After all, one day, a comet or asteroid may strike us, because our orbits have coincided this time around. And why is that third criterion even important?

Novella cites a recent paper by planetary scientist Phillip Metzger who argues that the third criterion is invalid and that nothing about a body’s orbit should be in the definition since orbits can alter due to external influences. Only characteristics intrinsic to the body should be included in the definition. This would essentially leave one criterion standing – that of sphericity. And even then, how sphere-like does a planet have to be? Another ‘problem’ with Metzger’s definition is that it would include moons, such as our own, and many others. Novella has his own classifying suggestion, which sounds promising to me:

We keep criteria “a” and “b” and drop “c”. However, we add that the object must not be in a subservient orbit around a larger object. What does that mean? If two objects, like the Earth and Moon, are in orbit around each other, and the center of gravity (barycenter) lies beneath the surface of one of the bodies, then the smaller object will be said to orbit the larger object, and is a moon. Therefore Europa, which is large enough by itself to be a planet, would instead be considered a moon because it orbits Jupiter.

I need to further explain the term ‘barycentre’, for my own sake. Think of two bodies in gravitational relationship to each other. Inevitably, one of them will be more massive, and will exert a greater gravitational force. An obvious case is the Earth and the Moon. Between the two there is a point, the ‘centre of gravity’, or barycentre,  around which the two bodies revolve, but because the Earth is a lot more massive that the Moon and they’re relatively close to each other, that barycentre is actually close enough to the Earth’s centre to be within the mass of the Earth, with the result that only the moon revolves. The Earth, though, is very much affected by the Moon’s gravitational field, which causes a slight wobble as well as tidal effects on the Earth’s surface. 

Interestingly, Novella’s reclassification would include Charon, Pluto’s ‘moon’, as a planet (as well as Pluto of course) because its size relative to Pluto puts the barycentre at a point between the two bodies, rather than within Pluto. So Pluto-Charon would be reclassified as a binary-planet system. It would also promote Ceres, in the asteroid belt, and Eris and Makemake, two recently discovered Kuiper belt objects, to planetary status. That takes the current eight up to thirteen, with others yet to be discovered. 

It’s unlikely of course that the astronomical overlords who reclassified Pluto would be swayed by any mere outsider’s view, however well-reasoned, but this examination of the issue is a reminder of just how dubious the reasoning of ‘experts’ can be, and how important it is to question that reasoning. Size apparently does matter to these guys, but this new category of ‘dwarf’ or ‘minor’ planet seems inherently unstable, and will probably become even more so as the number of discovered exoplanets increases. Will it be mass or volume that’s the decider, and what will be the mass or volume that decides? And does it really matter? It’s only nomenclature after all. And yet… The difference between an asteroid and a comet is important, is it not? And so is the difference between a planet and an asteroid. And so is the difference between a moon and a planet. And so… is it not? 

Written by stewart henderson

October 14, 2018 at 1:09 pm

Always chemical: how to reflect upon naturopathic remedies

leave a comment »

most efficacious in every case

So here’s an interesting story. When I was laid up with a bronchial virus (RSV) a few weeks ago, coughing my lungs up and having difficulty breathing, with a distinct, audible wheeze, I was offered advice, as you do, by a very well-meaning person about a really effective treatment – oregano oil. This person explained that, on two occasions, he’d come down with a bad cough and oregano oil had done the trick perfectly where nothing else worked.

I didn’t try the oregano oil. I followed my doctor’s recommendation and used the symptom-relieving medications described in a previous post, and I’m much better now. What I did do was look up what the science-based medicine site had to say about the treatment (I’d never heard of oregano oil, though I’ve had many other plant-based cures suggested to me, such as echinacea, marshmallow root and slippery elm – well ok I lied, I found the last two on a herbal medicine website).

I highly recommend the science-based medicine website, which has been run by the impressively-credentialed Drs David Gorski and Steve Novella and their collaborators for years now, and which thusly has a vast database of debunked or questionable treatments to explore. It’s the best port of call when you’re offered anecdotal advice about any treatment whatsoever by well-wishers. Not that they’re the only people performing this service to the public. Quackwatch, SkepDoc, and Neurologica are just some of the websites doing great work, but they’re outnumbered vastly by sites spreading misinformation and bogus cures, unfortunately. It’s almost a catch-22 of the internet that you have to be informed enough to use it to get the best information out of it.

As to oregano oil specifically, Scott Gavura at science-based medicine proves a detailed account. I will summarise here, while also providing my own take. Firstly people need to know that when a substance, any substance –  a herb or a plant, an oil extracted therefrom, or a tablet, capsule or mixture,something injectable or applied to the skin, whatever – is suggested as a treatment for a condition, they should consider this simple mantra – always chemical. That’s to say, a treatment will only work because it has the right chemistry to act against the treated condition. In other words you need to know something (or rather a lot) about the chemistry of the treating substance and the chemistry of the condition being treated. It’s no good saying ‘x is great for getting rid of coughs – it got rid of mine,’ because your cough may not have the same chemical cause as mine, and your cough in February 2007 may not have the same chemical cause as your cough in August 2017. My recent cough was caused by a virus (and perhaps I should change the mantra – always biochemical – but still it’s the chemistry of the bug that’s causing the problem), but no questions were asked about the cause before the advice was given. And you’ll notice when you look at naturopathic websites that chemistry is very rarely mentioned. And I’m not talking about toxins.

Gavura gives this five-point test for an effective treatment:

When we contemplate administering a chemical to deliver a medicinal effect, we need to ask the following:

  1. Is it absorbed into the body at all?
  2. Does enough reach the right part of the body to have an effect?
  3. Does it actually work for the condition?
  4. Does it have any hazardous, unwanted effects?
  5. Can it be safely eliminated from the body?

The answer to Q1 is that oregano oil contains a wide variety of chemical compounds, particularly phenolic compounds (71%). It’s these phenolic compounds that are touted as having the principal beneficial effects. However, though we know that there’s some absorption, we don’t have a chemical breakdown. We just don’t know which phenolic compounds are being absorbed or how much.

Q2 – No research on this, or on absorption generally. Topical effects (ie effects on the skin) are more likely to be beneficial than ingested effects, as the oil can maintain high concentration. This would have no effect on a cough.

Q3 – According to one manufacturer the oil has ‘scientifically proven results against almost every virus, bacteria, parasite, and fungi…’ (etc, etc, but shouldn’t that be bacterium and fungus?). In fact, no serious scientific research has ever been conducted on oregano oil and its effectiveness for any condition whatsoever. So the answer to this question is  – no evidence, beyond anecdote.

Q4 – There have been reports of allergic reactions and gastro-intestinal upsets, but the naturopathy industry is more or less completely unregulated so you can never be sure what you’re getting with any bottle of pills or ‘essential oils’. As Gavura points out, the lack of research on possible adverse effects, for this and other ‘natural’ treatments, is of concern for vulnerable consumers, such as pregnant women, young or unborn children, and those with pre-existing conditions.

Q5 – At low doses, there’s surely no concern, but nobody has done any research about dosing up on carvacrol, the most prominent component of oregano oil, which gives the plant its characteristic odour. Other organic components are thymol and cymene.

 

So there’s no solid evidence about oregano oil, or about the mechanism for its supposed efficacy. But what if my well-wisher was correct, and something in the oregano oil cleared up his cough – twice? And did so really really well? Better than several other treatments he tried?

Well, then we might be onto something. Surely a potential billion-dollar gold-mine, considering how debilitating your common-or-garden cough can be. And how, if not cleared up, it can leading to something way more serious.

So how would a person who is sure that oregano oil has fantastic curative properties (because it sure worked for him) go about capitalising on this potential gold-mine? Well, first he would need evidence. His own circle of friends would not be enough – perhaps he could harness social media to see if there were sufficient people willing to testify to oregano oil curing their cough, where other treatments failed. Then , if he had sufficient numbers, he might try to find out the causes of these coughs. Bacterial, viral, something else, cause unknown? It’s likely he wouldn’t make much headway there (most people with common-or-garden coughs don’t go to the doctor or submit to biochemical testing, they just try to ride it out), but no matter, that might just be evidence that the manufacturer was right – it’s effective against a multitude of conditions. And yet, it seems that oregano oil is a well-kept secret, only known to naturopathic companies and health food store owners. Doctors don’t seem to be prescribing it. Why not?

Clearly it’s because Big Pharma doesn’t support the stuff. Doctors are in cahoots with Big Pharma to sell attractive pills with long pharmacological names and precise dosages and complex directions for use. Together they like to own the narrative, and a multi-billion dollar industry is unlikely to be had from an oil you can extract from a backyard plant.

Unless

Our hero’s investment of time and energy has convinced him there’s heaps of money to be made from oregano oil’s miraculous properties, but that same investment has also convinced him that it’s the chemical properties that are key, and that if the correct chemical formula can be isolated, refined and commercialised, not only will he be able to spend the rest of his life in luxury hotels around the globe, but he will have actually saved lives and contributed handsomely to the betterment of society. So he will join Big Pharma rather than trying to beat it. Yes, there would have to be a massive upfront outlay to perform tests, presumably on rats or mice at first, to find out which chemical components or combinations thereof do the best job of curing the animals, who would have to be artificially infected with various bugs affecting the respiratory system, or any other bodily system, since there are claims that the oil, like Lily the Pink’s Medicinal Compound™, is ‘most efficacious in every case’.

But of course it would be difficult for any average bloke like our hero to scratch up the funds to build or hire labs testing and purifying a cure-all chemical extract of oregano oil. Crowdsourcing maybe, considering all the testimonials? Or just find an ambitious and forward-thinking wealthy entrepreneur?

Is that the only problem with the lack of acceptance, by the medical community, of all the much-touted naturopathic cures out there? Lack of funds to go through the painstaking process of getting a purefied product to pass through a system which ends with double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled human studies with large sample sizes?

Permit me to be sceptical. It’s not as if the chemical components of most herbal remedies are unknown. It’s highly unlikely that pharmacologists, who are in the business of examining the chemistry of substances and their effects for good or ill on the human body, haven’t considered the claimed cornucopia of naturopathic treatments and the possibility of bringing them into the mainstream of science-based medicine to the benefit of all. Yes, it’s possible that they’ve missed something, but it’s also possible, indeed more likely, that people underestimate the capacity of our fabulous immune system, the product of millions of years of evolution, to bring us back to health when we’re struck down by the odd harmful bug. When we’re struck down like this, we either recover or we die, and if we don’t die, we tend to attribute our recovery to any treatment applied. Sometimes we might be right, but it pays to be skeptical and to do research into a treatment, and into what ails us, before making such attributions. And to do so with the help of a good science-based medical practitioner. And remember again that motto: always chemical. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 24, 2018 at 10:18 am

the strange world of the self-described ‘open-minded’ part two

leave a comment »

  • That such a huge number of people could seriously believe that the Moon landings were faked by a NASA conspiracy raises interesting questions – maybe more about how people think than anything about the Moon landings themselves. But still, the most obvious question is the matter of evidence. 

Philip Plait,  from ‘Appalled at Apollo’, Chapter 17 of Bad Astronomy

the shadows of astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin on the Moon during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission - with thanks to NASA, which recently made thousands of Apollo photos available to the public through Flickr

the shadows of astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin on the Moon during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission – with thanks to NASA, which recently made thousands of Apollo photos available to the public through Flickr

So as I wrote in part one of this article, I remember well the day of the first Moon landing. I had just turned 13, and our school, presumably along with most others, was given a half-day off to watch it. At the time I was even more amazed that I was watching the event as it happened on TV, so I’m going to start this post by exploring how this was achieved, though I’m not sure that this was part of the conspiracy theorists’ ‘issues’ about the missions. There’s a good explanation of the 1969 telecast here, but I’ll try to put it in my own words, to get my own head around it.

I also remember being confused at the time, as I watched Armstrong making his painfully slow descent down the small ladder from the lunar module, that he was being recorded doing so, sort of side-on (don’t trust my memory!), as if someone was already there on the Moon’s surface waiting for him. I knew of course that Aldrin was accompanying him, but if Aldrin had descended first, why all this drama about ‘one small step…’? – it seemed a bit anti-climactic. What I didn’t know was that the whole thing had been painstakingly planned, and that the camera recording Armstrong was lowered mechanically, operated by Armstrong himself. Wade Schmaltz gives the low-down on Quora:

The TV camera recording Neil’s first small step was mounted in the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module, aka Lunar Module]. Neil released it from its cocoon by pulling a cable to open a trap door prior to exiting the LEM that first time down the ladder.

Neil Armstrong, touching down on the Moon -an image I'll never forget

Neil Armstrong, touching down on the Moon – an image I’ll never forget

 

the camera used to capture Neil Armstrong's descent

the camera used to capture Neil Armstrong’s descent

As for the telecast, Australia played a large role. Here my information comes from Space Exploration Stack Exchange, a Q and A site for specialists as well as amateur space flight enthusiasts.

Australia was one of three continents involved in the transmissions, but it was the most essential. Australia had two tracking stations, one near Canberra and the other at the Parkes Radio Observatory west of Sydney. The others were in the Mojave Desert, California, and in Madrid, Spain. The tracking stations in Australia had a direct line on Apollo’s signal. My source quotes directly from NASA:

The 200-foot-diameter radio dish at the Parkes facility managed to withstand freak 70 mph gusts of wind and successfully captured the footage, which was converted and relayed to Houston.

iclez

Needless to say, the depictions of Canberra and Sydney aren’t geographically accurate here!

And it really was pretty much ‘as it happened’, the delay being less than a minute. The Moon is only about a light-second away, but there were other small delays in relaying the signal to TV networks for us all to see.

So now to the missions and the hoax conspiracy. But really, I won’t be dealing with the hoax stuff directly, because frankly it’s boring. I want to write about the good stuff. Most of the following comes from the ever-more reliable Wikipedia – available to all!

The ‘space race’ between the Soviet Union and the USA can be dated quite precisely. It began in July 1956, when the USA announced plans to launch a satellite – a craft that would orbit the Earth. Two days later, the Soviet Union announced identical plans, and was able to carry them out a little over a year later. The world was stunned when Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4 1957. Only a month later, Laika the Muscovite street-dog was sent into orbit in Sputnik 2 – a certain-death mission. The USA got its first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit at the end of January 1958, and later that year the National Aeronautics and Space Administraion (NASA) was established under Eisenhower to encourage peaceful civilian developments in space science and technology. However the Soviet Union retained the initiative, launching its Luna program in late 1958, with the specific purpose of studying the Moon. The whole program, which lasted until 1976, cost some $4.5 billion and its many failures were, unsurprisingly, shrouded in secrecy. The first three Luna rockets, intended to land, or crash, on the Moon’s surface, failed on launch, and the fourth, later known as Luna 1, was given the wrong trajectory and sailed past the Moon, becoming the first human-made satellite to take up an independent heliocentric orbit. That was in early January 1959 – so the space race, with its focus on the Moon, began much earlier than many people realise, and though so much of it was about macho one-upmanship, important technological developments resulted, and vital observations were made, including measurements of energetic particles in the outer Van Allen belt. Luna 1 was the first spaceship to achieve escape velocity, the principle barrier to landing a vessel on the Moon.

After another launch failure in June 1959, the Soviets successfully launched the rocket later known as Luna 2 in September that year. Its crash landing on the Moon was a great success, which the ‘communist’ leader Khrushchev was quick to ‘capitalise’ on during his only visit to the USA immediately after the mission. He handed Eisenhower replicas of the pennants left on the Moon by Luna 2. And there’s no doubt this was an important event, the first planned impact of a human-built craft on an extra-terrestrial object, almost 10 years before the Apollo 11 landing.

The Luna 2 success was immediately followed only a month later by the tiny probe Luna 3‘s flyby of the far side of the Moon, which provided the first-ever pictures of its more mountainous terrain. However, these two missions formed the apex of the Luna enterprise, which experienced a number of years of failure until the mid-sixties. International espionage perhaps? I note that James Bond began his activities around this time.

the Luna 3 space probe (or is it H G Wells' time machine?)

the Luna 3 space probe (or is it H G Wells’ time machine?)

The Luna Program wasn’t the only only one being financed by the Soviets at the time, and the Americans were also developing programs. Six months after Laika’s flight, the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik 3, the fourth successful satellite after Sputnik 1 & 2 and Explorer 1. The important point to be made here is that the space race, with all its ingenious technical developments, began years before the famous Vostok 1 flight that carried a human being, Yuri Gagarin, into space for the first time, so the idea that the technology wasn’t sufficiently advanced for a moon landing many years later becomes increasingly doubtful.

Of course the successful Vostok flight in April 1961 was another public relations coup for the Soviets, and it doubtless prompted Kennedy’s speech to the US Congress a month later, in which he proposed that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

So from here on in I’ll focus solely on the USA’s moon exploration program. It really began with the Ranger missions, which were conceived (well before Kennedy’s speech and Gagarin’s flight) in three phases or ‘blocks’, each with different objectives and with increasingly sophisticated system design. However, as with the Luna missions, these met with many failures and setbacks. Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 failed on launch in the second half of 1961, and Ranger 3, the first ‘block 2 rocket’, launched in late January 1962, missed the Moon due to various malfunctions, and became the second human craft to take up a heliocentric orbit. The plan had been to ‘rough-land’ on the Moon, emulating Luna 2 but with a more sophisticated system of retrorockets to cushion the landing somewhat. The Wikipedia article on this and other missions provides far more detail than I can provide here, but the intensive development of new flight design features, as well as the use of solar cell technology, advanced telemetry and communications systems and the like really makes clear to me that both competitors in the space race were well on their way to having the right stuff for a manned moon landing.

I haven’t even started on the Apollo missions, and I try to give myself a 1500-word or so limit on posts, so I’ll have to write a part 3! Comment excitant!

The Ranger 4 spacecraft was more or less identical in design to Ranger 3, with the same impact-limiter – made of balsa wood! – atop the lunar capsule. Ranger 4 went through preliminary testing with flying colours, the first of the Rangers to do so. However the mission itself was a disaster, as the on-board computer failed, and no useful data was returned and none of the preprogrammed actions, such as solar power deployment and high-gain antenna utilisation, took place. Ranger 4 finally impacted the far side of the Moon on 26 April 1962, becoming the first US craft to land on another celestial body. Ranger 5 was launched in October 1962 at a time when NASA was under pressure due to the many failures and technical problems, not only with the Ranger missions, but with the Mariner missions, Mariner 1 (designed for a flyby mission to Venus) having been a conspicuous disaster. Unfortunately Ranger 5 didn’t improve matters, with a series of on-board and on-ground malfunctions. The craft missed the Moon by a mere 700 kilometres. Ranger 6, launched well over a year later, was another conspicuous failure, as its sole mission was to send high-quality photos of the Moon’s surface before impact. Impact occurred, and overall the flight was the smoothest one yet, but the camera system failed completely.

There were three more Ranger missions. Ranger 7, launched in July 1964, was the first completely successful mission of the series. Its mission was the same as that of Ranger 6, but this time over 4,300 photos were transmitted during the final 17 minutes of flight. These photos were subjected to much scrutiny and discussion, in terms of the feasibility of a soft landing, and the general consensus was that some areas looked suitable, though the actual hardness of the surface couldn’t be determined for sure. Miraculously enough, Ranger 8, launched in February 1965, was also completely successful. Again its sole mission was to photograph the Moon’s surface, as NASA was beginning to ready itself for the Apollo missions. Over 7,000 good quality photos were transmitted in the final 23 minutes of flight. The overall performance of the spacecraft was hailed as ‘excellent’, and its impact crater was photographed two years later by Lunar Orbiter 4. And finally Ranger 9 made it three successes in a row, and this time the camera’s 6,000 images were broadcast live to viewers across the United States. The date was March 24, 1965. The next step would be that giant one.

A Ranger 9 image showing rilles - long narrow depressions - on the Moon's surface

A Ranger 9 image showing rilles – long narrow depressions – on the Moon’s surface

the strange world of the self-described ‘open-minded’ – part one

leave a comment »

my copy - a stimulating and fun read, great fodder for closed-minded types, come moi

my copy – a stimulating and fun read, great fodder for closed-minded types, comme moi

I’ve just had my first ever conversation with someone who at least appears to be sceptical of the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 – and, I can only suppose, the five subsequent successful moon landings. Altogether, twelve men walked on the moon between 20 July 1969 and December 10 1972, when the crew members of Apollo 17 left the moon’s surface. Or so the story goes.

This conversation began when I said that perhaps the most exciting world event I’ve experienced was that first moon landing, watching Neil Armstrong possibly muffing the lines about one small step for a man, and marvelling that it could be televised. I was asked how I knew that it really happened. How could I be so sure?

Of course I had no immediate answer. Like any normal person, I have no immediate, or easy, answer to a billion questions that might be put to me. We take most things on trust, otherwise it would be a very very painstaking existence. I didn’t mention that, only a few months before, I’d read Phil Plait’s excellent book Bad Astronomy, subtitled Misconceptions and misuses revealed, from astrology to the moon landing ‘hoax’. Plait is a professional astronomer who maintains the Bad Astronomy blog and he’s much better equipped to handle issues astronomical than I am, but I suppose I could’ve made a fair fist of countering this person’s doubts if I hadn’t been so flabbergasted. As I said, I’d never actually met someone who doubted these events before. In any case I don’t think the person was in any mood to listen to me.

Only one reason for these doubts was offered. How could the lunar module have taken off from the moon’s surface? Of course I couldn’t answer, never having been an aeronautical engineer employed by NASA, or even a lay person nerdy enough to be up on such matters, but I did say that the moon’s minimal gravity would presumably make a take-off less problematic than, say, a rocket launch from Mother Earth, and this was readily agreed to. I should also add that the difficulties, whatever they might be, of relaunching the relatively lightweight lunar modules – don’t forget there were six of them – didn’t feature in Plait’s list of problems identified by moon landing skeptics which lead them to believe that the whole Apollo adventure was a grand hoax.

So, no further evidence was proffered in support of the hoax thesis. And let’s be quite clear, the claim, or suggestion, that the six moon landings didn’t occur, must of necessity be a suggestion that there was a grand hoax, a conspiracy to defraud the general public, one involving tens of thousands of individuals, all of whom have apparently maintained this fraud over the past 50 years. A fraud perpetrated by whom, exactly?

My conversation with my adversary was cut short by a third person, thankfully, but after the third person’s departure I was asked this question, or something like it: Are you prepared to be open-minded enough to entertain the possibility that the moon landing didn’t happen, or are you completely closed-minded on the issue?

Another way of putting this would be: Why aren’t you as open-minded as I am?

So it’s this question that I need to reflect on.

I’ve been reading science magazines on an almost daily basis for the past thirty-five years. Why?

But it didn’t start with science. When I was kid, I loved to read my parents’ encyclopaedias. I would mostly read history, learning all about the English kings and queens and the battles and intrigues, etc, but basically I would stop at any article that took my fancy – Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Isaac Newton as well as Hitler, Ivan the Terrible and Cardinal Richelieu. Again, why? I suppose it was curiosity. I wanted to know about stuff. And I don’t think it was a desire to show off my knowledge, or not entirely. I didn’t have anyone to show off to – though I’m sure I wished that I had. In any case, this hunger to find things out, to learn about my world – it can hardly be associated with closed-mindedness.

The point is, it’s not science that’s interesting, it’s the world. And the big questions. The question – How did I come to be who and where I am?  – quickly becomes – How did life itself come to be? – and that extends out to – How did matter come to be? The big bang doesn’t seem to explain it adequately, but that doesn’t lead me to imagine that scientists are trying to trick us. I understand, from a lifetime of reading, that the big bang theory is mathematically sound and rigorous, and I also know that I’m far from alone in doubting that the big bang explains life, the universe and everything. Astrophysicists, like other scientists, are a curious and sceptical lot and no ‘ultimate explanation’ is likely to satisfy them. The excitement of science is that it always raises more questions than answers, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, and we have human ingenuity to thank for that, as we’re the creators of science, the most amazing tool we’ve ever developed.

But let me return to open-mindedness and closed-mindedness. During the conversation described above, it was suggested that the USA simply didn’t have the technology to land people on the moon in the sixties. So, ok, I forgot this one: two reasons put forward – 1, the USA didn’t have the technological nous; 2, the modules couldn’t take off from the moon (later acknowledged to be not so much of an issue). I pretty well knew this first reason to be false. Of course I’ve read, over the years, about the Apollo missions, the rivalry with the USSR, the hero-worship of Yuri Gagarin and so forth. I’ve also absorbed, in my reading, much about spaceflight and scientific and technological development over the years. Of course, I’ve forgotten most of it, and that’s normal, because that’s how our brains work – something I’ve also read a lot about! Even the most brilliant scientists are unlikely to be knowledgeable outside their own often narrow fields, because neurons that fire together wire together, and it’s really hands-on work that gets those neurons firing.

But here’s an interesting point. I have in front of me the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, issue 75. I haven’t read it yet, but I will do. On my shelves are the previous 74 issues, each of which I’ve read, from cover to cover. I’ve also read more than a hundred issues of the excellent British mag, New Scientist. The first science mag I ever read was the monthly Scientific American, which I consumed with great eagerness for several years in the eighties, and I still buy their special issues sometimes. Again, the details of most of this reading are long forgotten, though of course I learned a great deal about scientific methods and the scientific mind-set. The interesting point, though, is this. In none of these magazines, and in none of the books, blogs and podcasts I’ve consumed in about forty years of interest in matters scientific, have I ever read the claim, put forward seriously, that the moon landings were faked. Never. I’m not counting of course, books like Bad Astronomy and podcasts like the magnificent Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, in which such claims are comprehensively debunked.

The SGU podcast - a great source for exciting science developments, criticism of science reporting, and debunking of pseudo-science

The SGU podcast – a great source for exciting science developments, criticism of science reporting, and debunking of pseudo-science

Scientists are a skeptical and largely independent lot, no doubt about it, and I’ve stated many times that scepticism and curiosity are the twin pillars of all scientific enquiry. So the idea that scientists could be persuaded, or cowed into participating in a conspiracy (at whose instigation?) to hoodwink the public about these landings is – well let’s just call it mildly implausible.

But of course, it could explain the US government’s massive deficit. That’s it! All those billions spent on hush money to astronauts, engineers, technicians (or were they all just actors?), not to mention nosey reporters, science writers and assorted geeks – thank god fatty Frump is here to make America great again and lift the lid on this sordid scenario, like the great crusader against fake news that he is.

But for now let’s leave the conspiracy aspect of this matter aside, and return to the question of whether these moon landings could ever have occurred in the late sixties and early seventies. I have to say, when it was put to me, during this conversation, that the technology of the time wasn’t up to putting people on the moon, my immediate mental response was to turn this statement into a question. Was the technology of the time up to it? And this question then turns into a research project. In other words, let’s find out, let’s do the research. Yay! That way, we’ll learn lots of interesting things about aeronautics and rocket fuel and gravitational constraints and astronaut training etc, etc – only to forget most of it after a few years. Yet, with all due respect, I’m quite sure my ‘adversary’ in this matter would never consider engaging in such a research project. She would prefer to remain ‘open-minded’. And if you believe that the whole Apollo project was faked, why not believe that all that’s been written about it before and since has been faked too? Why believe that the Russians managed to get an astronaut into orbit in the early sixties? Why believe that the whole Sputnik enterprise was anything but complete fakery? Why believe anything that any scientist ever says? Such radical ‘skepticism’ eliminates the need to do any research on anything.

But I’m not so open-minded as that, so in my dogmatic and doctrinaire fashion I will do some – very limited – research on that very exciting early period in the history of space exploration. I’ll report on it next time.

Written by stewart henderson

February 25, 2017 at 12:34 pm

So why exactly is the sky blue? SfD tries to investigate

leave a comment »

Canto: Well, Karl Kruszelnicki is one of our best science popularisers as you know, and therefore a hero of ours, but I have to say his explanation of the blueness of our daily sky in his book 50 Shades of Grey  left me scratching my head…

Jacinta: Not dumbed-down enough for you? Do you think we could form a Science for Dummies collaboration to do a better job?

Canto: Well that would really be the blind leading the blind, but at least we’d inch closer to understanding if we put everything in our own words… and that’s what I’m always telling my students to do.

Jacinta: So let’s get down to it. The day-sky is blue (or appears blue to we humans?) because…?

Canto: Well the very brief explanation given by Dr Karl is that it’s about Rayleigh scattering. Named for a J W Strutt, aka Lord Rayleigh, who first worked it out.

Jacinta: So let’s just call it scattering. What’s scattering?

Canto: Or we might call it light scattering. Our atmosphere is full of particles, which interfere with the light coming to us from the sun. Now while these particles are all more or less invisible to the naked eye, they vary greatly in size, and they’re also set at quite large distances from each other, relative to their size. The idea, broadly, is that light hits us from the sun, and that’s white light, which as we know from prisms and rainbows is made up of different wavelengths of light, which we see, in the spectrum that’s visible to us, as Roy G Biv, red orange yellow green blue indigo violet, though there’s more of some wavelengths or colours than others. Red light, because it has a longer wavelength than blue towards the other end of the spectrum, tends to come straight through from the sun without hitting too many of those atmospheric particles, whereas blue light hits a lot more particles and bounces off, often at right angles, and kind of spreads throughout the sky, and that’s what we mean by scattering. The blue light, or photons, bounce around the sky from particle to particle before hitting us in the eye so to speak, and so we see blue light everywhere up there. Now, do you find that a convincing explanation?

Jacinta: Well, partly, though it raises a lot of questions.

Canto: Excellent. That’s science for you.

Jacinta: You say there are lots of particles in the sky. Does the size of the particle matter? I mean, I would assume that the light, or the photons, would be more likely to hit large particles than small ones, but that would depend on just how many large particles there are compared to small ones. Surely our atmosphere is full of molecular nitrogen and oxygen, mostly, and they’d be vastly more numerous than large dust particles. Does size matter? And you say that blue light, or blue photons, tend to hit these particles because of their shorter wavelengths. I don’t quite get that. Why would something with a longer wavelength be more likely to miss? I think of, say, long arrows and short arrows. I see no reason why a longer arrow would tend to miss the target particles – not that they’re aiming for them – while shorter arrows hit and bounce off. And what makes them bounce off anyway?

Canto: OMG what a smart kid you are. And I think I can add more to those questions, such as why do we see different wavelengths of light as colours anyway, and why do we talk sometimes of waves and sometimes of particles called photons? But let’s start with the question of whether size matters. All I can say here is that it certainly does, but a fuller explanation would be beyond my capabilities. For a start, the particles hit by light are not only variable by size but by shape, and so potentially infinite in variability. Selected geometries of particles – for example spherical ones – can yield solutions as to light scattering based on the equations of Maxwell, but that doesn’t help much with random dust and ice particles. Rayleigh scattering deals with particles much smaller than the light’s wavelength but many particles are larger than the wavelength, and don’t forget light is a bunch of different wavelengths, striking a bunch of different sized and shaped particles.

Jacinta: Sounds horribly complex, and yet we get this clear blue sky. Are you ready to give up now?

Canto: Just about, but let me tackle this bouncing off thing. Of course this happens all the time, it’s called reflection. You see your reflection in the mirror because mirrors are designed as highly reflective surfaces.

Jacinta: Highly bounced-off. So what would a highly unreflective surface look like?

Canto: Well that would be something that lets all the light through without reflection or distortion, like the best pane of glass or pair of specs. You see the sky as blue because all these particles are absorbing and reflecting light at particular wavelengths. That’s how you see all colours. As to why things happen this way, OMG I’m getting a headache. The psychologist Thalma Lobel highlights the complexity of it all this way:

A physicist would tell you that colour has to do with the wavelength and frequency of the beams of light reflecting and scattering off a surface. An ophthalmologist would tell you that colour has to do with the anatomy of the perceiving eye and brain, that colour does not exist without a cornea for light to enter and colour-sensitive retinal cones for the light-waves to stimulate. A neurologist might tell you that colour is the electro-chemical result of nervous impulses processed in the occipital lobe in the rear of the brain and translated into optical information…

Jacinta: And none of these perspectives would contradict the others, it would all fit into the coherence theory of truth…

Canto: Not truth so much as explanation, which approaches truth maybe but never gets there, but the above quote gives a glimpse of how complex this matter of light and colour really is…

Jacinta: And just on the physics, I’ve looked at a few explanations online, and they don’t satisfy me.

Canto: Okay, I’m going to end with another quote, which I’m hoping may give you a little more satisfaction. This is from Live Science.

The blueness of the sky is the result of a particular type of scattering called Rayleigh scattering, which refers to the selective scattering of light off of particles that are no bigger than one-tenth the wavelength of the light.

Importantly, Rayleigh scattering is heavily dependent on the wavelength of light, with lower wavelength light being scattered most. In the lower atmosphere, tiny oxygen and nitrogen molecules scatter short-wavelength light, such as blue and violet light, to a far greater degree than long-wavelength light, such as red and yellow. In fact, the scattering of 400-nanometer light (violet) is 9.4 times greater than the scattering of 700-nm light (red).

Though the atmospheric particles scatter violet more than blue (450-nm light), the sky appears blue, because our eyes are more sensitive to blue light and because some of the violet light is absorbed in the upper atmosphere.

Jacinta: Yeah so that partially answers some of my questions… ‘selective scattering’, there’s something that needs unpacking for a start…

Canto: Well, keep asking questions, smart ones as well as dumb ones…

Jacinta: Hey, there are no dumb questions. Especially from me. Remember this is supposed to be science for dummies, not science by dummies

Canto: Okay then. So maybe we should quit now, before we’re found out…

References:

‘Why is the sky blue?’, from 50 shades of grey matter, Karl Kruszelnicki, pp15-19

‘Blue skies smiling at me: why the sky is blue’, from Bad astronomy, Philip Plait, pp39-47

http://www.livescience.com/32511-why-is-the-sky-blue.html

http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/blue-sky/en/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_scattering_by_particles

Written by stewart henderson

December 15, 2016 at 4:35 am

matriarchy – surely it couldn’t be worse than patriarchy?

leave a comment »

25622754

In one of the international English classes I occasionally teach, we have an opportunity for debate. Here’s a debate topic I’ve thought up but haven’t yet tried out: If 90 to 99% of the world’s business and political leaders were female, instead of male as they are today, would the world be a better place to live in?

It’s not a question that’ll find a definitive answer in the foreseeable future, but my strong view is that the world would be better.

Why? I’m not entirely convinced that women are the gentler sex, and I’m very wary of succumbing to a facile view of women as inherently more calm, co-operative and conciliatory, but I think that on balance, or statistically, they’re more risk averse, less impulsive, and, yes, more group-oriented. Whether such tendencies are natural or nurtured, I’m not at all sure. It’s a question I intend to investigate.

So to stimulate myself in pursuing the subject of patriarchy and its obverse I’m reading Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, a rather optimistically-titled book by an American doctor and teacher, Melvin Konner. It’s one of many sources of information I hope to access in the future. It argues that there are fundamental differences between males and females, and that females are the superior gender. I’m not sure about the ‘fundamentals’, or categorical differences, but I agree that the current differences can and probably should be interpreted in terms of female superiority. Certainly, given the needs and responsibilities of humanity in this time, woman appear to have more of the goods than males for facing the future. After all, if we look back at the last 6000 or so years of human history, it’s dominated by male warfare, and if we look at today’s most violent and brutish cultures, they’re clearly the most patriarchal.

Of course if you believe that women and men are fundamentally different, as Konner does, then it becomes straightforward to argue for women being in control, because it’s highly unlikely, indeed impossible I’d say, that these fundamentally different genders are precisely equal in value. And given the devastation and suffering that men have caused over the period of what we call ‘human civilisation’, and given that women are the (mostly) loving mothers of all of us, it seems obvious that, if there is a fundamental difference, women’s qualities are of more value.

On the other hand if you’re a bit more skeptical about fundamental differences, as I am, and you suspect that the idea that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is as applicable to women as it is to men, you’ll feel rather more uncertain about a profoundly matriarchal society. And yet…

I draw some inspiration for the benefits of matriarchy from the closest living relatives of homo sapiens. There are two of them. The line that led to us split off from the line that led to chimps and bonobos around 6 million years ago. Chimps and bonobos split from their common ancestor much more recently, perhaps only a little over a million years ago, so they’re both equally related to us. Chimps and bonobos look very very alike, which is presumably why bonobos were only recognised as a separate species in the 1930s – quite extraordinary for such a physically large animal. But of course bonobo and chimp societies are very very different, and vive la différence. I’ve written about bonobo society before, here and here, but can’t get enough of a good thing, so I’ll look more closely at that society in the next few posts.

I think I'd rather be a bonobo

I think I’d rather be a bonobo

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by stewart henderson

August 25, 2016 at 10:55 pm

a statement of intent: blogging on patriarchy

leave a comment »

meg-sullivan-quote-ill-be-post-feminist-in-the-post-patriarchy

Okay I’ve recently become a bit depressed that my blog is heading south, comme on dit, being read by nobody, due largely to my personality. A recent SBS program on the celebrated Dunedin longitudinal study of human behaviour and personality told us that there were five essential personality types. Three were considered ‘normal’, and they were the well-adjusted (40% of the population) the confident (28%), and the reserved (15%). In case you can’t add, this makes up some 83% of the population. The other 17% can be divided into two rather more dysfunctional types, the under-controlled (10%) and the inhibited (7%). You’re more than welcome to be healthily skeptical of these categories, but I’m prepared to take them as granted.

I’m not sure if I’m fully in the reserved category or the inhibited one, but I’m quite certain that most of the problems or failings of my life have been due to inhibition. For example, I live alone, have very few friends and no family connections and I visit and am visited by nobody. I have no sex life but a strong sex drive – make of that what you will – and I like other people very much and have many heroes and heroines, and I believe strongly that humans have gotten where they are through communication and collaboration. We’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. I love children and would love to have been a father…

Enough, I hope you get the picture. What’s interesting is that, in accord with Dunedin’s personality types, my character seems to have been fixed in early childhood, which I spent largely enjoying my own company, but also being fascinated by the world, soliloquising on it at delightful length. And sometimes, as I grew older, falling to despair, weeping at night over a projected future of loveless isolation. Oh dear.

So what does this mean for my blog? Writing a blog that’s sent out into the public domain is surely not an inhibited act, and craving attention for it is arguably not what a reserved person does. It’s a puzzlement. In any case, I will try harder to expand my readership by writing shorter pieces and narrowing my focus. I’ve decided, for the time being at least, to confine my attention to a subject I’ve long been bothered by: patriarchy. I want to critique it, to analyse it, to examine what the sciences say about it, to shine lights on every aspect of this, to my mind, benighted way of thinking and being-in-the-world. I’ll take a look at bonobos, the Catholic Church, homophobia, the effects of religion and culture, male and female neurophysiology, history, sex, workplaces, business, politics, whatever I can relate to the main subject, which surely will provide me with a rich, open field. And I’ll try, really try to communicate with other bloggers and commentators on the subject. Maybe I’ll become just a little less reserved before it’s too late. It’ll be a cheaper way of getting myself out of a rut than visiting a psychiatrist, of whom I would be healthily if self-servingly skeptical.

Written by stewart henderson

August 21, 2016 at 5:01 pm