Saturday, December 30, 2006
This being a film, the science had to be simplified due to time constraints. That's always true. But Gore simplifies by ignoring important points. To him, all recent warming of the Earth is human-caused. No time is spent on the important issue of how much of the measured warming can definitely be ascribed to human actions and how much is normal long-term change expected for a planet in an interglacial warm period.
The visual effects are mostly effective, even if some (like the drowning of Manhattan) illustrate "worst case" scenarios that Gore presents as likely, if not certain. Gore blames Hurricane Katrina on human-caused warming, which is hardly established fact, and, in a litany of side effects of warming, he includes the emergence of drug-resistant tuberculosis. (Huh?)
While Gore mainly points the finger at the U.S., he does a good job of making it clear the situation is global by spending some time on the contribution to greenhouse gases made by China's rapid population and economic expansion.
At one point, Gore throws out a very important statement that needs support. He says that if we "do the right thing" (changing energy technologies, ending greenhouse gas emissions) we will "create new wealth and jobs." That may be true, but it requires explanation, especially when not a word is said about the costs (hundreds of billions of dollars, on a global scale) involved in changing over from fossil to renewable energy.
As a movie, the film meanders. Detours on Gore's personal life and political experiences make the viewer suspect this is a bit of a campaign commercial as well as an environmental film. There are bits that don't make sense (the weird Simpson-ish animation near the beginning, for example) and could have been replaced with more scientific information.
Overall, Gore set out to make a point here, and he generally does it well. He's become more relaxed and engaging than he was as a candidate, although my 10-year-old (who watched with me for a school assignment) still compared him to a "really boring teacher." Still, there is too much oversimplification and overstatement involved in driving the point home. Gore leaves himself open to criticism, some of it accurate, that could have been avoided if the film spent more time on the science of the core subject and less on everything from Gore family farm to non-warming-related extinctions.
So see the film, but don't take it as the whole story of a complex subject.
Friday, December 29, 2006
THANKS to Robyn Kane for pointing me to this item.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
As the nation pauses to remember the late President, who died this week at 93, it is worth remembering that he was a member of the House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration which, in 1958, helped draft the Space Act that created NASA. While the brevity of Ford's term and the economic conditions at the time meant he made no major changes in the space program, he always supported space exploration. American space achievements during his time as President included the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission, the landing of two Viking spacecraft on Mars, and the opening of the National Air and Space Museum.
COMMENT: I met Ford once, as he accepted an invitation to address our Air Force ROTC dinner when I was in college in 1977. He seemed genuine, straightforward, friendly, and relaxed: truly a man who, in Kipling's phrase, "can walk with kings / nor lose the common touch."
"I have to say, this is probably the most depressing hearing I've sat through." - Rep. Gordon discussing proposed FY 2007 NASA science budget
"The American people, the taxpayers, expect more from basic science research than new knowledge alone." - Energy Secretary Bodman
"Some people attack Members of Congress for having Potomac fever. I think some Members of this House have Mars fever. The fact is, if we are going to make a choice about where to put the best money, right now, I think a far better bet is law enforcement." - Rep. Obey
"These agencies, which are not exactly on the tip of the tongue of most Americans, are keystones of our Nation's economic future." - Rep. Boehlert on NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NIST
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
To me, it's a very strange amalgamation of the serious and the offbeat.
Stories selected include include the demotion of Pluto from planetary status and the discovery of an Iron Age murder victim who used hair gel (seriously). There are two entries concerning the Judas gospel (in my opinion, an overhyped story of a text which seems no more authentic than many other post-Pauline writings). Then there are new species discoveries in Indonesia, the death of Steve Irwin, and some more oddities like an oversized rabbit terrorizing gardens in the UK.
Frankly, this is pretty disappointing. The magazine's website does not explain the criteria behind the selections, but a source with the prestige and authority of the National Geographic should be explaining to people what the ten most important stories were and why.
Monday, December 25, 2006
Friday, December 22, 2006
Thursday, December 21, 2006
UPDATE: Dr. Darren Naish comments, correctly, that this is not by any means the first sauropod from Europe. I relied on the LiveScience.com story saying it was without checking any other sources, so that error is my fault. Naish knows whereof he speaks: his own sauropod discovery came to light in 2004. See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4031789.stm
Naish's own blog on the sauropod dubbed "Angloposeidon" from the Isle of Wight, along with other matters paleontological and zoological, can be found here:
Side note: the LiveScience.com story has not yet been corrected, so at least I beat them to posting the correction. I sent the author an email documenting the error.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
First, NASA's 3-kg GeneSat-1 is on orbit and looking perfect as it begins its mission of studying the growth of bacteria in microgravity.
Today, the Space Shuttle will begin deploying a series of microspacecraft for three missions. The Shuttle has not been used much recently as a satellite launcher, since the cargo capacity is usually taken up by equipment for the International Space Station. Microsatellites, though, can take advantage of the small amount of leftover capacity on ISS missions.
The first satellite to be deployed is the smallest. The Microelectromechanical System-Based PICOSAT Inspector (MEPSI), smaller than a coffee can, will demonstrate its ability to maneuver in space and inspect larger vehicles. Next out will be the Radar Fence Transponder (RAFT), built by midshipmen at the US Naval Academy to test space surveillance and communications protocols. The final microsatellite mission, the atmospheric neutral density experiment (ANDE), is a Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) project using two satellites.
COMMENT: Microspacecraft are not the answer for everything we want to do in space. They cannot, for example, handle high-resolution imaging or bulk communications traffic. However, tight budgets for space hardware and high launch costs, combined with steady advances in miniaturizing space technology, guarantee them a bright future.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
THANKS to Dr. Cherie McCollough, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, for pointing me to this item.
NASAWatch suggests this collaboration may go still further...
Meanwhile, in space, the shuttle Discovery will undock from the International Space Station today after a complex mission involving four spacewalks and the rewiring of the ISS' power system. Keep up with the mission at:
Thanks to Kris Winkler for the first item in this post.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
For full information on the continuing story, see the Nature Conservancy/Big Woods Conservation Partnership site at:
First, the Minotaur is based on a converted Minuteman ICBM, which makes it the most economical operational launcher now available in the U.S. (SpaceX's Falcon 1 will be less than half the price, at $6.9M, but has yet to fly successfully.) The total mission cost was given at $60M, including the booster, both satellites, and $621,000 for range costs.
Second, this launch marks a return to orbital missions for Wallops. NASA fired Scout orbital boosters from this location for many years, but it's been two decades now since Wallops was used for anything larger than suborbital (sounding) rockets.
Third, the payloads are milestones in the use of small spacecraft. The larger is the Air Force's sensing and communications experiment, TacSat-2. Riding along is NASA's GeneSat-1, a three-kilogram microsat carrying bacteria whose development will be studied in orbit.
Finally, there is the commercial aspect of the launch. The launch pad used was leased from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.
Congratulations to all the people and agencies who made this historic flight a success.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Orbiting objects like the International Space Station will benefit from this reduction, since a cooler thermosphere is less dense and thus causes less drag. (Thermospheric drag is predicted to drop about three percent by 2017.)
Unfortunately, low-orbiting space junk and debris benefits the same way, meaning it will be a hazard to space travelers longer than expected. The other long-term effects of this cooling of the thermosphere are unknown at this time.
COMMENT: If the baiji is going extinct, it will be the first cetacean driven out of existence by humans (in its case, by pollution and heavy boat traffic) in recorded times. Human activity has cost the planet at least two other marine mammals, the Japanese sea lion and (most scientists agree) the Caribbean monk seal. Two other small cetaceans, the vaquita and China's finless porpoise, another river-dweller, are on the edge. Will we act? There is hope, I think. It's hard to get most people excited about an insect or a toad going extinct, but dolphins and seals and their kin are kin to us. People notice them. And we would certainly notice their absence.
"The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."
- William Beebe, 1906.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
THANKS for this item to Dr. Cherie McCollough.
According to Dr. Christopher Raxworthy of the American Museum of Natural History, the organs of a century-old turtle are virtually indistinguishable from those of a teenage specimen. He says, “Turtles don’t really die of old age."
Part of the reason is that turtles - somehow - can turn their heart off when it's not needed. The Smithsonian's Dr. George Zug (a delightful fellow who I interviewed on cryptozoology back in 1988) told writer Natalie Angier, “Their heart isn’t necessarily stimulated by nerves, and it doesn’t need to beat constantly. They can turn it on and off essentially at will.”
The turtle's only problem is us. Of the 250-odd species, perhaps half are in some level of difficulty. Some, like the giant leatherback of the seas, may be headed for extinction. It's important to save the turtles of the world: not just for their own sakes, but for what they might be able to teach us.
THANKS for this article to Kris Winkler.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
As researcher Ron O'Dor put it: "We can't find anyplace where we can't find anything new."
Two years of study by Eric Regehr of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) indicate that warming has reduced the sea ice in Canada's Hudson Bay area (which is to the east of the Beaufort Sea coast but at a similar latitude), and contributed to a 22% decline in polar bear numbers. Polar bears spend much of their lives on the sea ice along the coast, hunting seals. A decline in the ice cover shrinks the polar bears' range, increasing the competition for the small number of seals frequenting an area. If the ice melts entirely, the bears are forced onto shore, where they are sometimes driven to invade garbage dumps and come in close contact with humans. Younger bears are likely to lose out in this more competitive and dangerous environment, and if fewer young animals survive, the population inevitably drops.
While it's not clear yet whether the population in Alaska has not shown the same effects, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to take action to protect the Alaskan population.
Friday, December 08, 2006
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Monday, December 04, 2006
COMMENT: In a way, this is what Apollo should have been. If we were going to put in the money and accept the risk to land humans on the Moon, we should have aimed for a permanent base, where science, resource extraction, and other activities could be carried out. NASA did not lack for ambition in those days, but found it impossible to get the funding required. Now the big question is whether we will commit the money to get this new vision turned into hardware. NASA today takes about 0.7% of the federal budget. Executing the new Vision for Space Exploration will require a steady increase, but not a large one, to 1% or a bit more. It's not small potatoes, but it's not beyond our reach.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
COMMENT: As impressive as this mission is, it would be more impressive if the ISS partners, particularly the U.S., had funded the work planned and required to maintain a crew larger than two people. With only two astronauts normally on board, and key science sections like the centrifuge module stranded on Earth, we are risking a vehicle and a brave and talented crew to support a space station that is not getting very much done in terms of science and exploration. And we're doing it on a schedule-driven night launch of the Shuttle, which the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended not be done since it limits the effectiveness of optical cameras looking for launch damage.
I agree with the idea that a permanent human presence in space is at least symbolically important, and the experience gained in assembling the station will be useful for future endeavors. As to the risk, there will always be risk in space travel, and we have to accept that if we want to further out from Earth. All that said, the objectives should be more important than to support a minimal station that makes the news only when there's a commercial stunt like launching a golf ball.