- Give the gift of Astronomy. Specifically, give a telescope, with all of the filters and fun that go with one. I've got my eye on the Celestron Omni XLT 150, which looks like a great starter reflector. Sure, you could spend less for a wobbly mount or a smaller aperture (or even, if you're not careful, rotten optics), or spend less for a Dobsonian mount (which is fine, you still get a great aperture for a good price). I just really, really like the look of this one. Trust me, it's solid and stable, as you'll find if you have to have it shipped (tube and mount together will weigh about 60 lbs.)
- Give the gift of Chemistry. Specifically, give a chemistry set. If you don't have the capital to spend building your own, from a book like Robert Bruce Thompson's Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture, then you should look at one of the top chemistry sets currently on the market, the Thames and Cosmos C3000 Chemistry Set. It's big, it's bold, and it's probably a little too safe. But it's a start.
- Give the gift of Nature. I'd pick a spotting scope, for observing wildlife, or a good pair of binoculars. Since we have the binoculars, I'd pick the scope, just for variety. For the scope, you can go larger and heavier, but there's a nice light one, again by Celestron, the 50mm Mini Zoom. It's waterproof, has a three power zoom, and comes with a small tripod. The optics are really crisp and nice.
- Give the gift of Microscopy. You can do a lot with a microscope, as Natalie Angier points out in The Canon. There's a lot of amazing stuff to see, and a good scope can let you look at both slides and larger, three dimensional objects. The T-2400 model from Ken-A-Vision is a good place to start, at an affordable price, but if I'm picking for myself, then I want the T-2200, also from Ken-A-Vision. It's more expensive, but you get more for your money.
- Give books and magazines... The book listings you can find anywhere and everywhere. If I were picking a magazine for myself, it would be along the lines of Skeptical Inquirer, Seed, Make, Scientific American, Mineralogical Record, or Astronomy, for a start. It's the gift that comes round four or more times a year!
20 December 2008
19 December 2008
13 December 2008
11 December 2008
The team used the central stars as "test particles" by watching how they move around Sagittarius A*. Just as leaves caught in a wintry gust reveal a complex web of air currents, so does tracking the central stars show the nexus of forces at work at the Galactic Centre. These observations can then be used to infer important properties of the black hole itself, such as its mass and distance. The new study also showed that at least 95% of the mass sensed by the stars has to be in the black hole. There is thus little room left for other dark matter.
"Undoubtedly the most spectacular aspect of our long term study is that it has delivered what is now considered to be the best empirical evidence that supermassive black holes do really exist. The stellar orbits in the Galactic Centre show that the central mass concentration of four million solar masses must be a black hole, beyond any reasonable doubt," says Genzel [Reinhard Genzel, leader of the team from the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching near Munich]. The observations also allow astronomers to pinpoint our distance to the centre of the Galaxy with great precision, which is now measured to be 27 000 light-years.
-- ESO Press Release, 10 december 2008
10 December 2008
"One explanation for the carbon dioxide, says Swain [Mark Swain of NASA's JPL], is that because the planet lies so close to HD 189733, completing an orbit in just 2.2 days, it receives an unusually high dose of ultraviolet light from the star. The intense ultraviolet radiation could have altered the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere, breaking down compounds and creating new ones. If other explanations can be ruled out, “this would be the first real evidence that [ultraviolet starlight] can make a substantial contribution to the atmosphere of these extrasolar planets,” Swain says. In the solar system, for example, ultraviolet light from the sun is believed to have triggered complex chemical reactions in Earth’s early atmosphere."
-- Science News, 9 December 2008
"The new finding “means that three of the Big Four biomarkers for habitable/inhabited worlds have now been seen: water, methane and now carbon dioxide,” Boss [Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institute for Science] says. “The only one that has not yet been detected is oxygen/ozone.”
09 December 2008
08 December 2008
05 December 2008
- Prothero, Donald: Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (linked above) - there's a short section whales, but this is the book you want for the grand argument about evolution and fossils.
- Thewissen, J. G. M., Editor. The Emergence of Whales: Evolutionary Patterns in the Origin of Cetacea (Advances in Vertebrate Paleobiology)
- Zimmer, Carl. At the Water's Edge: Zimmer's excellent and thoroughly readable book on the subject
- Afarensis' longish post on the evolution of whales
- PBS's Evolution of Whales page
- Philip D. Gingerich's Evolution of Whales Page - Dr Gingerich is one of the key researchers into whale evolution, having discovered first pakicetus fossil back in 1978. An extensive bibliography of papers on the topic is included.
- The TalkOrigins Evolution of Whales page, also extensively footnoted
- The Wikipedia Evolution of Cetaceans page (also thoroughly referenced
04 December 2008
- That astrology books come out every bloody year to sell you an explicit forecast for your life
- That the people who came in, specificially looking for the new astrology books, were a bit odd (subjective and annecdotal, yes, but also telling)
- That astrology books have different predictions in them from the things in the newspaper.
I could have noticed other things, but that's the easy list, because I want to get on to the clip. Roll James Randi, from his UK television series, "James Randi, Psychic Investigator" (must have been in the early 90s, I would guess), and his celebrity guests (watch the audience pan, or read the clip name):
FRY: Well, I've looked at him, you see.
03 December 2008
"Mark Witton identified the creature from a partial skull fossil from which he was able to estimate that it would have had a five-metre wingspan - bigger than a family car [emphasis added] - and would stand over one metre tall at the shoulder.He said: “Some of the previous examples we have from this family in China are just 60 centimetres long - as big as the skull of the new species. Put simply, it dwarfs any chaoyangopterid we’ve seen before by miles.”-- University of Portsmouth website
02 December 2008
Dr B*** K*******
Principal, Park Hill High School
7701 NW Barry Rd.
Kansas City, MO 64153Dear Sir,It has come to my attention that, in response to one of your science teachers espousing creationist and / or "intelligent design"-based views in a high school biology class at your school, your response to the concerns of district patrons has been that the teacher in question should "teach the controversy". I have to say that I am gravely disturbed by this response, if it has been accurately reported. I have the pleasure of working in Parkville, and I regularly encounter both your students and their parents in the course of my duties at a retail establishment in Parkville.I would like to take a few moments to highlight for you several matters in response to that assertion, matters which you may have overlooked in arriving at this extraordinary view.
- Science is a collective endeavour. It does not consist merely of lone, self-proclaimed elite individuals, squatting indelicately in their towers of ivory and delivering edicts to an unwilling world. Science is a collaborative effort which has, in the past two, or three, or four hundred years, built upon an ever-growing foundation of knowledge and understanding to fashion the world in which we now live. Our technology, our medicine, our standards of living and perpetuating ourselves in this world: these are down to science. All of these developments – some might say advancements, if they are thinking linearly – have not been positive, and there have been mis-steps. But in the main, if you were given the choice of living at the beginning of the 18th century, and the beginning of the 21st, which would you choose? That is a choice – perhaps over-portentuous but well-intentioned – illuminated in the light of the knowledge of science.
- Most people view a hierarchy of evidence and proof in science differently from the conventional understandings: this is because there are specific technical definitions in science which fall outside the colloquial definitions given to these same words. For example, the arrangement of the words:
- Theories... would conventionally be arranged, according to their general usage, as such: Facts, Laws, Theories, Hypotheses. However, for the purposes of science, they are organised thusly:
- Facts... demonstrating the scientific notion that "facts" are observable features in nature, that from these we derive "hypotheses", that should hypotheses survive scrutiny they can be construed as "laws", and that laws are the foundation of grand, over-arching "theories". Thus, to call something a "theory" (as in evolution, gravity, structure of the atom, electromagnetism, et cetera), you are really referring to the "fact" in colloquial usage (my description is after that found in Scott, E., Evolution vs. Creationism, p. 11).
- In biology, among real, practising biologists, there is no controversy over evolution. Give me a number of the community of professionals that you would like to tell you that - ten, one hundred, one thousand - and I will send some emails and provide those names and statements. I would also direct your attention to this well-documented article from Wikipedia, The Level of Support for Evolution. Of particular interest may be the section, Other Support for Evolution, which includes the numerous court decisions, at the state and federal level, which have addressed the teaching of creationism and "intelligent design" in schools. A shorter, similar list can also be found on the website of the National Centre for Science Education. We’ve been down this road before – in the courts. In every case since 1968, the teaching of creationism has been rejected in public schools, either at the state or the federal level.
- Your school’s very admirable mission statement:
“Mission Statement: Through the expertise of a motivated staff, the Park Hill School District provides a meaningful education in a safe, caring environment to prepare each student for success in life.”
-- Park Hill High School Course Description Handbook, p. 1… is most laudable indeed. However, having introduced narrowly defined theistic beliefs of a particular religious sect (and no one except the most gravely misguided would suggest that Intelligent Design creationism is anything other than that) into one of the school’s core curriculum classes, how does your establishment define the act of attempting to “prepare each student for success in life”? By introducing artificial divisions within the student body, at tax-payer expense, I would argue that you are undermining the future success in life of your student body.
- I would direct you again to the student handbook, describing the content of the Biology curriculum:” Course Description: A survey course that covers the principles governing all life and includes the following topics: the origin of life, cells, cell reproduction, genetic natural selection, classification, evolution, ecology, environmental issues and chemistry of life. Similarities and diversities of life processes are explored with emphasis on discovery and critical thinking through various laboratory experiments.”
-- Park Hill High School Course Description Handbook, p. 56… this mention, in fact, is more specific than the standards given by the State of Missouri (found here). Intelligent Design creationism, it should be noted, appears on neither. Nor should it.This mantra of "teach the controversey", of trying to make a real and useful comparison between the established science of evolutionary biology and the whimseyless nonce of intelligent design fails also to take into account something fairly central to the discussion: presentation bias. If a teacher presents only the storyline forged by the ID movement to a classroom full of students who are not conversant with either the raw data, scientific method, or the fully tested and predictive nature of evolutionary biology, and they don’t understand how science works (see point 1, above), then they are not being “taught the controversy”. If the teacher says something on the order of “Darwinists claim that we are all descended through evolution from monkeys, ha ha, isn’t that stupid”, then they are not being “taught the controversy”. They are being taught – if you can honestly call it that – from a position of fraudulent authority, and they are being taught deliberate and methodical mendacities. “Teach the controversy” sounds all very fair and upright and red-blooded and American and all of that, but it is a deception. And I feel reasonably certain that you can see that, if you take a short time to examine the matter thoroughly.If there were a genuine “controversy” in biology, scientists would be the very first to take it apart, down to its very atoms, to see if it were plausible, possible, or not. Science, as an endeavour, as a way of thinking, must always evaluate new ideas in light not only of the existing data, but of any new data that might be found, or as a consequence of employing a new approach to that data. If Intelligent Design creationism were valid, if they had any bearing whatsoever on science and nature, they would already be a part of the scientific vocabulary and arsenal. With the exception of a minute proportion of the scientific community, these two ideas have been examined, reviewed, and found to be sorely wanting.In conclusion, I must state not only how disappointed I am that any educator would adscribe to such views, but that he or she would feel the need to support them when they were expressed by someone over whom they had direct authority. I cannot stress strongly enough that these views, as they have been represented to myself and to others, are not merely incorrect or unscientific (although they are both): they violate established precedents in American Law. I would therefore urge you to reconsider not only your support for this position, but the prestige and position of your school, which I have otherwise thought to be well-regarded.In closing, I would emphasise that there are numerous resources for you to use in order to make an informed decision on this point. I would also heartily recommend that you view the PBS NOVA episode entitled Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, regarding the Dover, Pennsylvania trial over the teaching of Intelligent Design creationism (it’s freely available online, you can find it here, through the Mid-Continent Public Library system (you have a branch right down Barry Road at Boardwalk, just around the corner from Hobby Lobby), or for purchase at venues like Amazon.com), and there are, of course, countless books, titles and authors of which I will gladly list for you. One which immediately springs to mind is Ken Miller’s new book, Only a Theory (again, it’s in the library or available through the normal retail outlets), which I am reading right now and finding most illuminating. Should you have any questions, please feel free to drop me a line.In so saying, I remain,Gravely concerned and very sincerely yours,William Nedblake