Thursday, August 21, 2014

Crazy Motorcycle Accident ...

Wait for it ...
This guy may be the luckiest motorcycle rider of all time. It is ALL about the physics: inertia, conservation of momentum, conservation of energy ... this guy needs to thank the laws of physics for his life - and maybe his bike for taking the brunt of the collision.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Volcanic Eruptions on Io.

In 2010, the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland halted air traffic in northern Europe for 6 days and emitted at a rate of about about 1 gigawatts (1,000,000,000 watts) at its peak.  The Earth is, of course, capable of producing even more violent volcanoes than that - for example, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Pinatubo, Mount Vesuvius. In fact, Mt. Tamboro in Indonesia produced an eruption so large in 1815 that the emitted dust blocked out sunlight for so long that summer in Europe that year was overly cool and crops failed.  1815 is known as the year without the summer.


But volcanoes are not unique to Earth.  Old volcanoes are found on Mars (e.g., Olympus Mons) and today there are active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io - discovered in the late 1970s  as Voyager 1 flew past.  


Io, only about 25% the size of the Earth, has volcanoes that out shine the Earth's volcanoes - by orders of magnitude. In 2013, newly volcanic eruptions on Io were discovered and observed with some of the worlds largest telescopes including the Keck Observatory and the Gemini Observatory.  These volcanoes emitted nearly 10000 times the power of the Icelandic volcano of 2010, measuring nearly 10 terawatts (10,000,000,000,000 watts) at its peak.

In August of 2013, I was observing at Keck Observatory doing high resolution imaging of Kepler planetary candidate host stars when I received an email from Imke de Pater about an eruption on Io asking if could I take some infrared imaging for her at the end of the night. Always willing to help another astronomer, I said yes. But more fundamentally, as an astronomer who studies exoplanets, I saw this as a nice opportunity to more closely connect one end of solar system formation/evolution to another.  In a very basic sense, the physics that guided the formation and evolution of our solar system is the same physics that guided the formation and evolution of all the extrasolar systems that we are finding around other stars. Understanding our solar system will help understand all the other systems we are finding and vice versa. 

Our universe and its content is simply amazing ... and awe inspiring.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Irresponsibility of CNN

CNN is probably the most popular news agency in the United States and is seen throughout the world.  When I travel outside the US, the single most prevalent news agency I see, after the local news sources, is CNN.  CNN has developed an ireport portion of their website designed to enable every day people to contribute to the news around you - in kind of a blog format.  Sounds like a great idea, huh?  Let people do the reporting - except people, in general, have no journalistic training or sense of journalistic integrity.  By sponsoring such a s site, CNN lends credence to these reports as true and factual but with zero oversight or accountability.  A bad place to be for journalism.

Journalism is the 4th Estate that has the primary responsibility of reporting the news in an accurate and unbiased fashion.  That, of course, is always difficult because when people (journalists, editors etc.) are involved, human tendencies, viewpoints, and biases creep into the stories - both in terms of what is said and not said, but also in terms of what is deemed important enough to show or not.  But there is an implicit trust on the part of the people that, on average, the media does this correctly and above board.  CNN is trusted that most of what you read and see is correct or that it will be corrected if a mistake is made.  Indeed, it is the specter of responsibility and accountability that makes the journalists respected and admired.

The blog-o-sphere does not have this same level of commitment or integrity.  Anyone can write an online blog (case in point - you are reading one), and anyone can espouse their opinions, and anyone can make their opinions look as if they reflect reality with an unbiased analysis of the facts.  That is what makes the freedom of the internet so important - and potentially so dangerous.  Propaganda works by only displaying the facts (or falsehoods) that support your aims.

Is CNN a propaganda machine?  No, I don't believe so, but I do believe that CNN (and many news agencies) are more worried about ratings than their responsibilities as the 4th estate.  Many news agencies believe that they need to maintain ratings in order maintain reporting.  They see a cause and effect of good ratings leading to staying in business; I maintain that, in the long run, good reporting yields good ratings.  The newspapers that still exist today do so because they provide good reporting not because they put ratings first.

While CNN appeared, in the 80s and 90s, to have a US-progressive agenda, they are much more balanced now - some may disagree with that, but overall, I think this is true.  But CNN has reached a point of putting ratings first.  When the Malaysian airliner went down, during the same time period of the Crimean and Ukrainian crises, CNN spent the majority of their time reporting on the airliner while most other news agencies were focusing on the crisis in Europe. Ratings ... Ratings ... Ratings.

One might argue, "well that is what the people want to hear about."  Maybe, but that is not the charge of the journalistic agencies.  The agencies have a responsibility to report truth and inform the people of what is happening in the world. And, I would further argue that the people will listen/watch/read a news agency regardless of what they broadcast because they go to the news agencies to hear what is important.  The journalists help the people decide what is important and what is needed to be done.  The media creates cause-and-effect, whether they like it or not and whether they admit to it or not.

Returning to CNN's ireport; CNN, a well-known and respected news agency, is supporting a blog site that reads like a journalistic news site and that is just plain irresponsible and potentially dangerous.  It does not matter that CNN claims no responsibility because the articles have not been vetted or fact checked. In fact, that is part of problem.  Anyone can post nearly anything and CNN claims no responsibility - a "not our problem or responsibility" attitude. That is akin to me, a professional astronomer, going to my community and friends and stating that the world will end in two weeks from an asteroid collision with the Earth (see below).  Most people will certainly believe me because I am reputable and they will not check the facts for truth or accuracy.  The same is true for CNN, and in fact, CNN has Community Rules for posting which make it appear that stories are indeed true or they would not appear on the site.

On CNN ireport right now has a story about a potential asteroid collision with the Earth in 2040.1   The story is ludicrous, but that does not mean it is not given credence by readers because it is associated with a reputable news agency.    This is just one story; how many more articles like this are there; how many more articles with much more serious overtones and consequences are on ireport? Somewhat apropos to my point, there was a blog on CNN's ireport explaining just this concern.

If people want to blog (information or misinformation) with little oversight, there are plenty of ways to do that (again, you are reading one of those).  But CNN has a responsibility to ensure the integrity of their content and the quality of the reports to which they supply access.  In science, the publishing journals do their best to maintain the reputation of the science that is published.  In journalism, the same standard needs to be true, especially, given that decisions based upon what we learn from the media can (and often does) affect millions of people.

CNN should get out of the business of ratings and get back to the business of journalism.

1. This report is no longer available.  CNN has removed it, but only after the story became viral and only after NASA released a statement that the story was false.

Brains Work In Mysterious Ways

Optical illusions work because most of what we see is actually what we perceive.  Our brain is a highly functional image processor - well, actually, sensory processor.  Our senses send data to our brain, but it is our brain that makes sense of data.  For example, stare at the dot in the center of the image on the right.  The other three dots will disappear.  This is because our brains are designed to detect and focus on movement.  The yellow dots don't move and our brain washes them from the scene.  Only when a blue cross passes behind the dot does the the difference engine in our heads kick and periodically register the yellow dots.  Brains are amazing!  Go check out some other optical illusions. (I promise - no scary surprises).

Friday, May 23, 2014

Lest We Forget ...

Speaking your mind, reading what you want, praying (or not) to whom you wish, gathering as you see fit, electing your government officials, owning your own property, and the list goes on and on; rights and privileges we take for granted in our daily lives.  Rights and privileges that are protected and guaranteed by the highest governing document in the United States, the Constitution.  We may argue and disagree about the details and scope of these rights and privileges, but we have the right and privilege to argue about the details and scope.  

We have those rights, in no small manner, because thousands of men and women, here in the United States and around the world, have sacrificed their lives in order for us to remain free. This weekend is about remembering those who gave their lives so that you and I have the freedoms we so cherish and often forget we even have.  So stop, just for a moment, this weekend and remember them; thank them.