Blue Cat Blog

Humans: smart enough to have ideas; foolish enough to believe them

Switching back to Blogger

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I’m switching back to my Blogger blog, at least for a while, because I want to use a neat gadget that WordPress doesn’t support. It’s NeoEarth from NeoWorx. It’s an interactive map of everyone looking at the site.


Written by Russ Abbott

August 7, 2009 at 9:00 pm

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O’Reilly says higher Canadian life expectancy is “to be expected” because “we have 10 times as many people”

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Couldn’t resist. See MediaMATTERS for America.

Written by Russ Abbott

July 30, 2009 at 7:42 am

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Why they’re called the Van Allen belts —

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Bob Park

Bob Park

rather than being named after a Russian scientist.  From “What’s new” by Bob Parks.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: WHY THE USSR LOST THE SPACE RACE. Launched on 4 Oct 1957, Sputnik carried no instruments.  It just beeped as  it passed overhead to taunt Americans.  But a month later, Sputnik 2 carried a Geiger tube and a radio transmitter to relay the Geiger output back to Earth.  It also carried a tape recorder to store data when the satellite is over the horizon, but it wasn’t working on launch day.  Soviet scientists placed a call directly to Premier Nikita Khrushchev requesting permission to delay the launch for a day, but Khrushchev refused; he wanted to announce another successful launch at a meeting of heads-of-state the next day.  At the very dawn of the space age, politics was already getting in the way of scientific discovery. Thus it was that the Soviet Union failed to make the first important discovery in space science, as we see below.

VAN ALLEN BELTS: THE FIRST IMPORTANT DISCOVERY IN SPACE. On 31 Jan 1958, only four months after Sputnik, the US launched Explorer 1 carrying an experiment designed by James Van Allen, Physics Chair at the University of Iowa.  It was just a Geiger tube, a radio transmitter, and a recorder — but the recorder worked.  Data from a full orbit confirmed the existence of charged particle bands around Earth, now known as the Van Allen belts.  It was the first major discovery from beyond the ionosphere. Soviet scientists were crushed; only four months after Sputnik the US had taken the lead in space science and has never relinquished it. Manned space flight remains a sideshow.  In the end, all that will endure is the science.  James Van Allen was the true American space hero.  During a long talk with Jim a year before his death in 2006, he summed-up manned space flight: “It’s so old– fashioned.”

Written by Russ Abbott

July 24, 2009 at 7:13 pm

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They wanted to be next to each other when they died

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Here are excerpts from an article from the NYT on a British orchestra conductor who ended his life so that he could die with his ailing wife.

[O]ne of Britain’s most distinguished orchestra conductors, Sir Edward Downes, had flown to Switzerland last week with his wife and joined her in drinking a lethal cocktail of barbiturates provided by an assisted-suicide clinic.

Although friends who spoke to the British news media said Sir Edward was not known to have been terminally ill, they said he wanted to die with his ailing wife, who had been his partner for more than half a century.

The couple’s children said in an interview with The London Evening Standard that on Tuesday of last week they accompanied their father, 85, and their mother, Joan, 74, on the flight to Zurich, where the Swiss group Dignitas helped arrange the suicides. On Friday, the children said, they watched, weeping, as their parents drank “a small quantity of clear liquid” before lying down on adjacent beds, holding hands.

“Within a couple of minutes they were asleep, and died within 10 minutes,” Caractacus Downes, the couple’s 41-year-old son, said in the interview after his return to Britain. “They wanted to be next to each other when they died.” He added, “It is a very civilized way to end your life, and I don’t understand why the legal position in this country doesn’t allow it.”

Sir Edward, who was described in a statement issued earlier on Tuesday by Mr. Downes and his sister, Boudicca, 39, as “almost blind and increasingly deaf,” was principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra from 1980 to 1991. He was also a conductor of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, where he led 950 performances over more than 50 years.

Lady Downes, who British newspapers said was in the final stages of terminal cancer, was a former ballet dancer, choreographer and television producer who devoted her later years to working as her husband’s assistant.

“After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems,” the Downes children said in their statement. …

Attempting suicide has not been a criminal offense in Britain since 1961, but assisting others to kill themselves is. But sincethe Zurich clinic run by Dignitas was established in 1998 under Swiss laws that allow clinics to provide lethal drugs, British authorities have effectively turned a blind eye to Britons who go there to die. …

But British news reports about the Downeses’ suicides noted one factor that appeared to set the case apart from others involving the Dignitas clinic: Sir Edward appeared not to have been terminally ill. There have been at least three other cases similar to the Downeses’, in which a spouse who was not terminally ill chose to die with the other. …

Friends of Sir Edward said that his decision to die with his wife did not surprise them. “Ted was completely rational,” said Richard Wigley, the general manager of the BBC Philharmonic. “So I can well imagine him, being so rational, saying, ‘It’s been great, so let’s end our lives together.’ ”

Written by Russ Abbott

July 15, 2009 at 9:55 pm

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MOND, an alternative to dark matter

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Moty Milgrom

Mordehai Milgrom

[Modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND)] provides an alternative theory to dark matter to explain why stars orbiting at the edge of spiral galaxies are not flung out into space. These stars are travelling at speeds too fast for conventional gravity from the mass at the heart of a spiral galaxy to hold them in their orbits, so something else must be keeping them on track.

One theory is that invisible dark matter provides that extra pull. But an alternative is MOND, devised in the early 1980s by Mordehai Milgrom, now at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

One of the suggestions behind MOND is that the gravity experienced by the galaxy’s outer stars is somehow stronger than what would be expected under Newtonian physics. MOND has it that below a critical threshold acceleration, called a0, gravity switches from the conventional Newtonian form that weakens with the inverse-square of distance to a stronger form that declines merely with the inverse of distance.

In other words, Milgrom proposed that gravity was stronger than expected at the low accelerations experienced by the outermost orbiting stars.

By quantifying a0 at 10-10 metres per second per second, this single parameter makes it possible to explain stellar motion in hundreds of spiral galaxies. By contrast, the dark matter idea requires different amounts of the stuff with a different distribution in each galaxy.

This theory has been around for a while. But now it may be possible to test it.

Milgrom reasons that if Newton’s laws are correct, there will be a region between the sun and the centre of the galaxy where the gravity from both cancels out. But this is also where any MOND-based departure from Newtonian gravity will most clearly show up. In other words, if there is gravity in this region, where there should be none, then MOND exists.

If MOND exists, it will appear as if there is an anomalous, “phantom” mass in that region, exerting a gravitational force on the bodies in our solar system. And because this phantom force originates from a broad zone rather than a defined single point, it would exert a pull on the planets from two directions at the same time – a so-called “quadrupole” effect.

Written by Russ Abbott

July 14, 2009 at 5:10 am

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Individual benefit vs. collective harm

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in a nice column Robert H. Frank of Cornell discusses cases in which individual benefit produce collective harm.

[The] mutation for larger antlers served the reproductive interests of an individual male elk, because it helped him prevail in battles with other males for access to mates. But as this mutation spread, it started an arms race that made life more hazardous for male elk over all. The antlers of male elk can now span five feet or more. And despite their utility in battle, they often become a fatal handicap when predators pursue males into dense woods. …

If male elk could vote to scale back their antlers by half, they would have compelling reasons for doing so, because only relative antler size matters. Of course, they have no means to enact such regulations.

But humans can and do. By calling our attention to the conflict between individual and group interest, Darwin has identified the rationale for much of the regulation we observe in modern societies — including steroid bans in sports, safety and hours regulation in the workplace, product safety standards and the myriad restrictions typically imposed on the financial sector.

The message is that there are certain sorts of competitions that if permitted would be harmful to society. For example, we should not permit workers to compete with each other by agreeing to work under increasingly hazardous conditions. Competition of that sort might produce economic benefits for the immediate employer, but the overall cost to society of that sort of competition would out-weigh whatever immediate economic benefit such competition would produce.

Similarly certain forms of financial competition–especially those that involve extraordinary leverage among large organizations–should not be permitted. These competitions will produce economic gains, but they may also result in losses that are catastrophic not only to the competitors but to society as a whole. That, of course, is the argument for regulation of financial transactions.

Written by Russ Abbott

July 12, 2009 at 7:52 pm

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Making tools a part of our bodies

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From The

Researchers claim to have the first direct evidence of a century-old idea that using tools changes the way the human brain perceives the size and configuration of our body parts, according to a study published in the June 23 issue of Current Biology.
Holding the tool at an elongated
arm’s length

Image: Lucilla Cardinali

“To be accurate in doing an action with a tool, you need to make the tool become a part of your body,” the study’s first author Lucilla Cardinali of the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in Bron and Claude Bernard University in Lyon told The Scientist. “Your brain needs to take into account that the action is performed with something added to your body part.” …

Michael Polanyi made this point half a century ago in his Personal Knowledge.

Our subsidiary awareness of tools and probes can be regarded now as the act of making them a part of our own body. The way we use a hammer or a blind man uses his stick, shows in fact that in both cases we shift outward the points at which we make contact with the things that we observe as objects outside ourselves. We may test the tool for its effectiveness or the probe for its suitability, e.g., in discovering the hidden details of a cavity, but the tool and the probe can never lie in the field of those operations; they remain necessarily on our side of it, forming part of ourselves, the operating persons. We pour ourselves out of them and assimilate them as parts of our own experience. We accept them existentially by dwelling in them.

Written by Russ Abbott

June 22, 2009 at 3:52 pm

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