Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

March 19 2015 1:54 PM

Ted Cruz Goes Full Orwell

In case you haven’t heard, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is not a fan of reality.

Earlier this week, Cruz went on Late Night With Seth Meyers, and they discussed the issue. What Cruz said, in its entirety, is what comes out of the south end of a north-facing bull. Watch:

Here’s the transcript:

I just came back from New Hampshire where there’s snow and ice everywhere. And my view actually is simple: Debates on this should follow science, and should follow data.  And many of the alarmists on global warming, they got a problem cuz the science just doesn’t back them up. And in particular, satellite data demonstrates that the last 17 years there’s been zero warming. None whatsoever. It’s why—you remember how it used to be called global warming and then magically the theory changed to climate change? The reason is it wasn’t warming, but the computer models still say it is, except the satellites show it’s not.

There’s so much wrong in what he said that it’s almost cartoonish. It’s a tour de force of wrongness.

Let’s go point by point.

First: It’s cold in New Hampshire! Yes, because global warming doesn’t mean the Earth is always hot. It still gets cold because we have seasons; the Earth’s axis is still tilted. This is a standard denier talking point meant to distract from the real issue. Cruz starting off with this line is a sure-fire way of knowing that he’s got his head firmly planted in the sand. As Stephen Colbert wrote, brilliantly mocking this kind of ridiculosity, "Global warming isn't real because I was cold today! Also great news: World hunger is over because I just ate."

Next, Cruz is right in one sense; we should follow the science. But the real science, not the nonsense he’s saying. Real science doesn’t cherry-pick one result that appears (incorrectly) to back up an outrageous claim, but ignore the overwhelming amount of evidence that this claim is dead wrong.

He says satellite data shows no warming. That is wrong, wrong, wrong. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, his saying this shows at best a gross misunderstanding of the data. And there is a vast amount of data from other sources showing the Earth is warming up. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in February 2015, “[n]ine of the past 12 months have been either warmest or second warmest on record for their respective months.” And 2014 was one of if not the hottest year on record.

getting hot
Top: The global temperature trend over time, from 1950–2014, in degrees Celsius per decade. Red means it's getting hotter. Notice anything? Bottom: An "anomaly plot"; the annual global temperature trend over time where the average from 1951–1980 is set to 0. This shows what the actual temperature increase in degrees Celsius is.

Both diagrams from NASA/GSFC/Earth Observatory, NASA/GISS

But of all the bizarre nonsense Cruz said in that interview, what really got my teeth grinding was his comment about how it used to be called “global warming” but now we call it “climate change” because the evidence doesn’t support warming. That is at the level of weapons-grade irony. The idea to start calling it “climate change” came from a Republican strategist, in an effort to make it seem less threatening.

By saying that, Cruz has gone full Orwell: His own party made that change in phrase, but he’s accusing scientists of doing it.

Ted Cruz is a flat-out science denier. He’s unworthy of a leadership position, especially one that deals with science. Yet he’s chairman of the Senate subcommittee overseeing NASA, and he wants to run for president.

If there’s anything that can counteract global warming, it’s the chill in the air I feel from having to write that last paragraph.

Correction, March 23, 2015, at 16:20 UTC: I originally misstated that the bottom plot in the picture had the average from 1950–2014 set to 0. The average is from 1951–1980.

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March 19 2015 12:00 PM

You Are Gopher Launch

After this morning’s post, we all need a Unicorn Chaser.

I don’t usually post cute animal videos, but this one is pretty dang cute and is at least marginally apropos of the blog: At the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome rocket launch site, a prairie dog made its home in the ground. Not just anywhere, though: Right in the middle of the rail tracks over which a monster transporter moves.

Someone put a pretty nice webcam on the side of the hole, facing the launch site, where a Proton rocket waits for launch!

(I suggest setting the playback to 2x the normal rate.)

I love how the rodent watches the people moving … until its observations are so rudely interrupted. Also, if you’re going to install a camera in an animal’s hidey hole, make sure it’s secured well!

By the way, a lot of sites are calling the animal a gopher, but it looks more like a prairie dog to me. If there are any varmint experts reading, I’m listening.

Tip o' the nose cone to Jason Davis via Emily Lakdawalla.

March 19 2015 7:00 AM

Fear Mongering in the NYT: Does Wearable Tech Cause Cancer?

Tl;dr: There is zero direct evidence that wearable tech causes cancer. The indirect evidence ain’t too good, either.

I suppose it’s a natural human reaction to worry a bit when some new technology is announced. Will it hurt privacy rights? How will it affect the way people interact?

Will it give people cancer?

Of course, that last one will give you a frisson of fear, an unconscious and reflexive chill that bites the back of your brain before a more rational reaction can kick in.

The last time this happened was with cellphones, which we’ll get to in a moment. But with Apple’s announcement of its new watch, it’s not surprising at all that people might be concerned over any possible health impacts.

What does surprise me is that the New York Times would publish an article that is basically little more than fear mongering about it. The article, written by Nick Bilton, uses classic pseudoscience techniques: speculation based on insignificant evidence, wordplay to make things sound worse than they are, and relying on an “expert” who is anything but.

Let’s be clear: There is no direct evidence wearable tech will cause health problems like cancer. None. Bilton admits that pretty much up front, but then goes on to speculate based on health concerns over cellphones, and that’s where the article goes off the rails.

Bilton plays up a study released in 2011 by the World Health Organization, which looked into any possible connection between cellphone used and brain tumors. The first and foremost thing you need to keep in mind is that no definitive connection was found. There was some, very slight, evidence that there might be a connection, but statistically speaking it was indistinguishable from there being no connection at all.

Despite this, the WHO put cellphones on its list of potentially harmful products, specifically Group 2B: possible carcinogens. Why? Because while they couldn’t prove a connection between cellphone use and brain tumors, they couldn’t rule it out either. Hence “possible” carcinogen.

Note: Other Group 2B substances include pickled vegetables and coffee. So there you go.

Bilton cites this study, but says

After dissecting dozens of peer-reviewed studies on cellphone safety, the panel concluded in 2011 that cellphones were “possibly carcinogenic” and that the devices could be as harmful as certain dry-cleaning chemicals and pesticides. (Note that the group hedged its findings with the word “possibly.”)

Note he uses the word “hedged,” thus placing doubt into the reader’s mind. But he doesn’t include the necessary detail that no link was actually found. He also mentions a Swedish research study that seemed to show a connection, but as noted medical skeptic Orac points out, that’s the only study out of a great number that has seemed to see a connection. A lot of other studies don’t show a connection at all (here’s a great synopsis at the Mayo Clinic site). I’m not saying the Swedish study is wrong, but it seems odd that no one else has ever found a statistically significant connection.

Bilton talked to the leader of that study, which is fine. He didn’t talk to any researchers who found no connection, though.

As another expert, Bilton talked to Joe Mercola. My jaw dropped when I read that. Let me be very clear here: Mercola is a quack. You can read about his background at Quackwatch, but a good thing to note is that in 2005 the Food and Drug Administration ordered him to stop making illegal claims about the “alternative medicine” Mercola sells through his website. It sent a second order in 2006. And another in 2011.

Mercola is anti-vax. He’s been a bully about it, too. He promoted and sponsored an anti-vax ad in Times Square a few years ago. But he has very basic misunderstandings about how vaccines work. He promotes the nonsense that is homeopathy.

More to the point, Mercola has also written a great many articles playing up the dangers of cellphones and—shocker—sells products to minimize your exposure to cellphone radiation.

Bilton going to him as an expert on health is like going to Ken Ham as an expert on evolutionary biology.

I was rather surprised to see that Mercola didn’t immediately latch on to the idea that wearable tech is dangerous (though I’m sure, given time, he’ll be selling products to counteract its effects), but he does say:

“But if you’re buying a watch with a cellular chip built in, then you’ve got a cellphone attached to your wrist.” And that, he said, is a bad idea [due to radiation from 3G connections].

Except, as I’ve pointed out, no real connection has ever been found. Sanity check: If the connection were as strong as Mercola and others claim, it should scream out in real-world studies; hundreds of millions of people use cellphones. That’s a big sample size. Yet the incidence of brain cancers hasn’t risen.

The obvious conclusion from all this is that cellphones are not a risk here, and so extrapolating to wearable tech is completely groundless.

One more note: The very first paragraph of Bilton’s article recalls when doctors promoted cigarettes in the past. That is a classic pseudoscience technique: poisoning the well against science right away, trying to foment distrust of doctors and medicine. That’s not just bad writing; it’s downright irresponsible.

I expect this kind of thing from rags like the Daily Mail or other fact-free tabloids, but from the New York Times? Wow.

Update, March 19, 2015, at 20:20 UTC: After a large outcry about this, the New York Times ombudsman published an article saying that Bilton's article "needed much more vetting." Bilton is quoted in the piece defending his article, but in my opinion is doubling down on what he wrote. I don't see anything in what he said that changes what I wrote here.

March 18 2015 7:15 AM

Orion: Going Deep

One of the most globally recognizable constellations in the sky is, undoubtedly, Orion. Straddling the equator of the sky, it can be seen from literally every point on Earth, and its resemblance to a human standing upright spans cultures. It’s a landmark (skymark?) in the early months of the year, up high at sunset, and a favorite among astronomers.

I’ve looked at it hundreds of times. Thousands. I've used my eyes, I’ve used binoculars, I’ve used a series of telescopes for decades to probe the wonders inside Orion’s boundaries.

And in all that time, with all that experience, I’ve never, ever seen it like this.

March 17 2015 11:45 AM

Space Invaders Invade Space!

I’m not trying to give away my age or anything here, but I remember seeing my first Space Invader console. At the time, the best you could do at home was playing Pong or some variant of it that involved a couple of dots and a line moving around on your screen, and believe me, it was the coolest thing we’d ever seen.

One day I was at a sci-fi convention (Disclave? Balticon? One of those) and saw a crowd of people in the dealer room. I walked over and saw them clustered around a standup console, and it was thumping ominously. I couldn’t see the screen, but the thumping got faster, and the people were cheering and clapping. What the heck …?

Once I saw the game I knew right then that everything was about to change. It was amazing. Of course, that seems like ancient history these days, but history has a way of coming back up on you … way, way up.

That is a picture of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti holding a mosaic tile on board the International Space Station. She’s in the cupola, which has windows facing in different directions, providing the exact kind of view a space invader would have shortly before landing on our fair blue world.

The tile is part of a series done by French artist known as Invader, and they appear all over the world. And now, I suppose, above it. Cristoforetti will use it as a way to inspire young children to create art by mixing geometry and colors, which I think is a fine thing to do.

And while it was fun for me and also a way to dump a couple of hundred kilos of quarters over the years, to kids these days that experience for me is history. Maybe this is a way to teach them that, too.

Previously in Slate:

March 17 2015 7:15 AM

An Astronomical Conversation

On Feb. 26, 2015, I had the pleasure of being a guest at the Florida Institute of Technology, to speak on stage with my friend and astronomer Hakeem Oluseyi. Hakeem is a professor there, and the idea was to have a public discussion about current topics in astronomy—not so much a talk by one person, but more of a guided conversation between two friends. It was moderated by FIT astronomer Dan Batcheldor.

We talked about the weird plumes or clouds seen in the upper atmosphere of Mars, a recent spate of fireballs seen across the country, and also the retraction of the BICEP2 observatory claim of seeing direct evidence of cosmic inflation. That was the idea, at least; of course given two garrulous astronomers who love astronomy and science, the talk was pretty free-range. We wandered a bit.

The entire talk (including the Q&A afterward) is available for your eyeballs:

Of all that, my favorite part is at the 1:26:30 mark, when two young girls (around 10 years old, maybe younger), asked a question I hear a lot: Why are we spending money on space when we have so many problems here on Earth? This is a very common question, and one that seems like a natural one, but it’s based on a false premise. Actually, two: One is that there isn’t enough money to do both, when in fact there is (we just choose to waste a lot of it on things that are not helping and which in fact are hurting us)

But the other false premise is that the money we spend on space doesn’t help us here on Earth. But the real case is that money we spend on space has a direct effect on everyone on Earth! It helps develop new technology with wide-ranging use, it stimulates the economy, and it helps us better understand our planet—the only one we have, and one on which we’re having a vast and profound impact.

I think it also does something intangible but also crucial: It inspires us. The beauty, the mystery, the sense of adventure … these are all things that tickle the backs of our brains, give us a sense of being alive, tell us of things greater than ourselves.

Humans could live our entire lives eating bland food, drudging through uncompelling work, plodding along one foot after another, our heads hung down and looking only as far forward as the next footstep.

Space exploration lifts our heads up. It shows us the sky, the stars, the Universe, an entire cosmos just begging us to learn more about it.

Humans are capable of greater things. Every once in a while, we just need to look up and be reminded of that.

March 16 2015 11:30 AM

Does Astrology Work? I’m Gonna Go With “No.”

Of all the pseudoscience still pervading the human brain, astrology is probably the oldest. As I point out in an episode of Crash Course Astronomy, millennia ago it kinda made sense; there were cycles to the stars and the seasons, and with our lives so tied to agriculture and weather, it was natural to suppose the stars affected us in other ways.

But now, after centuries of scientific investigation, we know better. Or we should. Apparently, we still don’t. Astrology still gets a lot of play in the media, despite having no good evidence for it and an overwhelming tsunami of evidence against it.

Still, here we are. For the lunar eclipse that occurred in October 2014, a reporter for Time magazine interviewed an astrologer on what the eclipse meant and passed the vague, ineffective advice on to the public. As you might imagine, I have something to say about that. So here’s Episode 2 of my new video series, “Bad Astronomy,” where I point out just why astrology doesn’t work, even more so in this specific case.

As a reminder, this will be a regular video series, going up every Monday. Next week we will be back to actual science, happily. And don’t forget to take a look at the first episode, too: “Surviving a Close Call With a Black Hole.”

March 16 2015 7:00 AM

Politics Is Poisoning NASA’s Ability to Do What It Needs to Do

Well, I told you so.

When Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was made head of the Senate committee in charge of NASA’s funding, I (and many others) were appalled. Cruz is a science denier, flatly claiming global warming isn’t happening.

This is an issue, since many of NASA’s missions are directly focused on examining the amount, extent, and impact of that warming. And rightly so.

While Cruz may not be able to directly impact NASA’s budget, he can certainly make things difficult on the agency and pressure others to change NASA’s emphasis. He made this very clear last week when he held a meeting with NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden as a witness. Cruz opened the session asking Bolden about NASA’s core mission, a clear shot at the idea that they should be looking outwards, not down.

Throughout the session, Cruz downplayed Earth science, claiming that NASA has lost focus on exploring space. It’s clear everything he was saying came from his stance of global warming denial.

And that is utter nonsense, to be incredibly polite. Pure and simple.

Bolden shot back, saying, “We can't go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes underwater and we don't know it—and that's understanding our environment.” In other words, we must study the Earth and its changing climate. Studying our planet is at least as important as studying others.

Second, as Bolden also points out, NASA has been gearing up for doing more human exploration for some time now.* While I am not a fan of the Space Launch System rocket, it will certainly be able to lift a lot of payload into orbit and beyond (though at huge expense). And SpaceX is working on the Falcon Heavy, which will launch well before SLS gets off the ground and will also be capable of heavy lifting. Its first demo launch will be in just a few months.

Over the years, NASA has had to beg and scrape to get the relatively small amount of money it gets—less than half a percent of the national budget—and still manages to do great things with it. Cruz is worried NASA’s focus needs to be more on space exploration. Fine. Then give them enough money to do everything in their charter: Explore space, send humans there, and study our planet. Whether you think climate change is real or not—and it is— telling NASA they should turn a blind eye to the environment of our own planet is insanity.

Bear in mind, too, Cruz has his sights set on the White House. That’s where NASA’s budget starts. Under a Cruz administration, NASA’s Earth Sciences program would be screwed.

There’s more. A few days before Cruz held his session, the House Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (which has NASA in its jurisdiction) also held a meeting with Bolden as a witness. The chairman, John Culberson, R-Texas, is a friend of NASA; he was the one who fought for more money in NASA’s budget for a mission to Europa.

But even he holds some mistaken ideas about the agency. Right now, we depend on the Russians for access to the International Space Station, and given Russia’s current volatility (to say the least), Culberson asked Bolden what contingency plans NASA has if Russia decides to pull out.

Bolden said the only contingency we have is commercial flight to get humans into space. Culberson took issue with that:

Bolden: Had we gotten the funding that was requested when I first became the NASA administrator, we would have been all joyously going down to the Kennedy Space Center later this year to watch the first launch of some commercial spacecraft with our crew members on it. That day passed. And I came to this committee and I said over and over, if we don’t fund commercial crew. …
Culberson: Had NASA not canceled the Constellation program we’d be ready to fly within 12 months.
Bolden: Mr. Chairman that is not correct … whoever told you that, that is not correct.

Hearing Culberson say that makes me grind my teeth. The Constellation rocket system was way behind schedule and well over budget, and that’s why President Obama canceled it, correctly in my opinion. If we had kept it going I’d bet we still wouldn’t be able to put people into space today. At least not without huge impact to NASA’s other capabilities, due to its fixed budget.

And Bolden is right. Over the years, the president’s NASA budget request for commercial flight has been slashed by Congress over and again (in FY 2012 it was cut by more than 50 percent). If that money had instead gotten to NASA, we might very well already be celebrating the launch of Americans into space by an American rocket. Instead, here we are, dependent on the Russians.

Watching Congress grill NASA over what is Congress’ fault is frustrating to say the least.

I have issues with the president’s requests for NASA as well, and I’ve been vocal about them. But on the balance, it’s been Congress that has been slowly squeezing the life out of NASA’s ability to return to human spaceflight. And the shenanigans there still continue, since there has been a lot of political tomfoolery involving SLS, especially when it comes to SpaceX. I suggest Culberson talk to his colleagues about that before complaining to NASA that they can’t do what they’ve been mandated to do.

Look. NASA is the world’s premier space agency. Yes, I am an American, and yes, I say that with pride. Certainly, the European Space Agency is doing fantastic things and will continue to do so, but NASA has done more, gone farther, and been more a source of inspiration than any other.

But the politics of funding a government agency is tying NASA in knots and critically endangering its ability to explore.

At one point in his meeting, Culberson said, “Everything NASA does is just pure good.” That’s a nice sentiment. It would even better if Congress and the White House would let them do it.

My thanks to NASA press secretary Lauren Worley for the budget numbers pertaining to commercial space flight.

March 15 2015 7:30 AM

What Causes an Aurora?

I write a lot about aurorae, the lovely and eerie glowing lights at extreme latitudes caused when subatomic particles from the Sun are channeled down into the atmosphere by Earth’s magnetic field.

Whenever I do I always wind up having to write a brief explanation of how they work; that’s the responsibility of a science writer.

But my burden is now eased a bit thanks to this well-done video giving a solid overview:

What I like about the video is that it covers the basics without giving too much detail or worrying over distracting side issues. And I have all those covered in earlier posts! So, for your brainy pleasure, here is more detail on …

In fact, gathering all these links in one place will make my life a lot easier next time I post a gorgeous aurora time-lapse!

My thanks to David Miles, part of the Investigations of Cusp Irregularities sounding rocket program, who sent me some links about the ICI-4 rocket campaign, which led me to the video.

March 14 2015 7:15 AM

Mars Mars The Martian

So I read the sci-fi book The Martian a while back, and I loved it. It’s hard sci-fi, an adventure tale with a lot of solid science and engineering in it. Despite being laden with technical stuff, it’s a page-turner, and I highly recommend it (especially since it’s being made into a movie with Matt Damon).

It seemed pretty accurate to me (I spot-checked some of the math, actually, because me = dork), but I’m not an expert in Martian geography. It turns out the terrain astronaut Mark Watney had to drive over on Mars is actually a little bit different than advertised.

I didn’t know this, but planetary geologist Alfred McEwen did! The folks with HiRISE (a camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) got him to describe the landscape there, and I’m honored they asked me to record an audio version of the article.

They also made a video using HiRISE images of the area in questions, and it’s very cool. It still blows me away that we can get images like this of Mars!

I imagine the movie of the book will make extensive use of HiRISE images. If they stick close to the book’s story, this’ll be a great movie. I can’t wait!

(N.B. The title of this post makes sense when you realize the second word is a verb.)