Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

July 1 2015 7:00 AM

Which Hunt?

In early June, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt was asked to speak at a luncheon sponsored by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations at a science communications meeting in South Korea.

What he said there is now Internet history. He made a series of sexist comments, saying that the problem with “girls” in science is that they fall in love with the men; the men fall in love with them; and when you confront them, they cry. He then went on to suggest labs should be single-sex.

Advertisement

When I first read this, I figured it was a joke. A very poorly conceived one, and a really dumb one to make, especially given that crowd. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Many science journalists were at the lunch and witnessed the whole thing, including Deborah Blum, Ivan Oransky, Charles Seife, and Connie St. Louis. After discussing what they saw and heard, they decided St. Louis should write an article about it on her blog at Scientific American. What’s very important to note here is that both Blum and Oransky have corroborated St. Louis’ report, multiple times. Seife did as well. Blum asked Hunt about his comments, and he confirmed that he thought women were too emotional to work with men in labs.

In other words, it’s clear that even if he framed it as a joke, he was being sincere in his meaning and intent.

Then it all hit the fan. For one thing, on Twitter, news of his comments went viral very rapidly. The hashtag #distractinglysexy went viral, an amusingly tongue-in-cheek way for women to mock the idea that women are too emotional or liable to fall in love in the lab. For another, Hunt was asked to resign from his honorary position at the University College London. He also resigned from the board of the European Research Council and the Biological Science Awards Committee of the Royal Society.

Mind you, he is a retired professor, and was not fired or asked to resign from any paying positions. He lost no employment over this, despite some people claiming otherwise.

At this point the backlash began. Richard Dawkins, who, honestly, should know better by now than to wade into controversies about sexism, defended Hunt against what he termed a “witch hunt.” However, there didn’t appear to be any organized campaign to get him fired, and furthermore the University College London says it did not ask him to step down due to the social media uproar, but because of Hunt’s own remarks.

A lot of electrons have been spilled over whether Hunt went on to say, “Now seriously…,” which would indicate he was actually joking. Seife (who, again, was there at the luncheon) says Hunt never said this.

Hunt’s comments and the defense of them were bad enough, but the situation has taken an even worse turn.

The execrable Daily Mail has waded into this. On Friday, it published what can only be called a hit piece on Connie St. Louis which, bizarrely, was endorsed by Dawkins.

To say the article is problematic is to severely understate the case. It attacks St. Louis’ credentials; however, she is an award-winning journalist, former president of the Association of British Science Writers and was recently elected to the board of the World Federation of Science Journalists. The City University London (where she is a senior lecturer) has publicly supported her after the Daily Mail article came out. St. Louis points out numerous errors in the article there as well.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Daily Mail is to journalism what ipecac is to digestion. Also, a perusal of links to their articles running down the right-hand side of their site doesn’t exactly show them to be champions of women’s rights.

I also found it very odd that the article also dismisses statements corroborating St. Louis’ claims by Blum and Oransky (and it doesn’t even mention Seife)—who, I remind you, were all there at the luncheon and agree on what happened. Why single out St. Louis here?

And now another attack piece on St. Louis has been posted on the far-right-wing Breitbart site, saying she has become immune from criticism because she’s black.

Yes, you read that right. And that’s not all. In a sentence so tone deaf I’d swear it’s parody, the author, Milo Yiannopoulos, writes*:

St Louis is responsible for the sacking of Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize-winning biochemist who became the target of an online lynch mob after his comments about women in science were taken out of context.

Yes, again, you read that right. You might ignore the obviously incorrect statements in that one sentence (Hunt wasn’t sacked, he was asked to resign from an honorary position; and as we’ve seen his comments were not taken out of context), but it’s much harder to ignore that, in an article attacking a woman because she’s black, Yiannopoulos used the phrase “lynch mob.”

Yikes.

Yiannopoulos, for his part, is a vocal advocate for Gamergate, a movement that claims it’s  “actually about ethics in gaming journalism” (a phrase so thin it’s become a standard Internet joke), but which has also been viciously attacking women online. Yiannopoulos appeared on the British 24-hour news channel Sky News to “debate” this topic with Dr. Emily Grossman; while glib, his arguments were unconvincing, and unsurprisingly Grossman has been receiving misogynistic backlash for her appearance (that link also shines a light on more of Yiannopoulos’ incorrect statements).

Clearly, this is quite the rabbit hole.

A lot of people are trying to squeeze this whole Tim Hunt affair in a “he said/she said” frame, but what they’re missing is twofold: Even if he was making a joke initially, he meant what he said, and that’s why he’s suffered the consequences of it, and either way this event has once again shone a spotlight on the rampant sexism in society in general and in the sciences specifically.

So what now? The good news is that at least this important issue is getting airtime, getting discussed. The problem is it’s also getting hijacked, distorted, and drowned out by nonsense. This happens every time institutionalized sexism is discussed.

As always, it’s important for men to speak up as well. This isn’t a women’s problem, clearly. It’s something we all need to be aware of and to speak up about.

And in the end, while the spotlight may be on Hunt and what he said, that light has certainly cast a very large reflection on the rest of us.

Here are other articles I’ve written on this issue:

*Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misspelled the last name of writer Milo Yiannopoulos.

Video Advertisement

June 30 2015 1:12 PM

Pluto Grows Under New Horizons’ Watchful Eye

Right now, Pluto is about 25 pixels across in the New Horizons space probe’s long-range camera. In a week it’ll be 50 pixels across. A few days later it’ll be well to 100 … and then it’ll grow by the hour.

What will we see? I wrote about all this for my twice-monthly column for Sen.com. Go see! It’s subscription only, but c’mon. I’m worth it.

June 30 2015 7:00 AM

A Refreshing Illusion: Flat Glass of Water

I love fun illusions, and I happened upon one that’s pretty interesting to see: an artist draws a glass of water that is startlingly 3-D:

Oddly, the illusion is actually more convincing to watch at lower resolution and with a smaller window; that washes out the pencil strokes and actually makes the illusion more realistic. I can’t remember the last time I saw something like that.

Advertisement

This type of art is becoming common in street drawing; a Web search will yield a bazillion very cool examples.

This technique is called forced perspective, in that it takes the cues your eyes and brain use to estimate relative distance (like, when one object is closer than another) and plays with them, forcing you to interpret those cues a certain way.

When the artist rotates the drawing so the top of the glass is toward you, it looks all weird and distorted because your brain is confused. I love the irony; it shows you this is a drawing and not real, yet your brain may take a moment or two to actually settle with that. Our brains just love to be fooled.

My friend and evil twin Richard Wiseman* is a master at this. Watch this video he created:

Richard is a psychologist who studies things like this. I strongly urge you to watch the videos on his Quirkology YouTube channel and to read his books. It’s really good stuff.

... and please check out what I still consider the single greatest illusion of all time.

Tip o’ the Necker Cube to David Darling.

*He claims I’m the evil one, thus proving he’s the evil one.

June 29 2015 7:00 AM

Weighing a Galactic Monster 

How do you weigh a black hole?

That is, to be more precise (or pedantic), how do you figure out what the mass of a black hole is?

Advertisement

There are actually lots of ways, but they all depend on a very simple law of gravity: If you’re orbiting something (whether it’s a black hole, a star, a planet, or anything else), the closer you are, the faster you’ll go.

If you start there, and make a few assumptions, then all you need to do is observe stuff orbiting the black hole, figure out how quickly it’s moving, and boom. The black hole mass falls out.

Astronomers have been doing this for a long time. Observing stars in motion—literally, watching them physically move over several years—in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy shows that the supermassive black hole residing there has a mass of more than 4 million times that of our Sun.

Another way is to look at the motion of stars and gas in another galaxy. We can’t see their stars moving directly, but as they zip around the central black hole, sometimes they move toward us and sometimes away. That creates a Doppler shift, a shifting of the light emitted toward the blue and red end of the spectrum. The amount of Doppler shift depends on the velocity of the population of stars and/or gas as they orbit, and that means you can get the black hole mass that way. For example, gas in the center of the galaxy M84 was used to find its black hole has a mass of over a billion times that of the Sun!

Now astronomers have used a different way, though based on this same idea. They used ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, to look at light emitted by the molecules HCN (hydrogen cyanide) and HCO (there’s no specific formal name I could find for this, but it’s a carbon atom bonded to an oxygen and hydrogen atom) in the galaxy NGC 1097. ALMA is very precise, and they were able to find both the location of the gas and its velocity.

Coiled Creature of the Night
NGC 1097 as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope in infrared, showing the entire galaxy. The tiny ring at the center is the ring seen in the top photo.

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/The SINGS Team (SSC/Caltech)

This gas orbits well outside the black hole, and there are stars there too, millions of them. To account for them (because if they don’t, they’ll get too high a mass for the black hole) they used Hubble observations of NGC 1097. They then fit a series of models, each using different black hole masses, to see which one fit the observed velocity of gas best.

Their result: NGC 1097 has a 140 million solar mass central black hole. That’s way beefier than ours. Also a bit higher than previous estimates of 100–120 million.

The reason this is important is that a lot of galaxy characteristics seem to be affiliated with how massive the central black hole is. We can only measure the motion of stars and gas near the center of nearby galaxies, but some of these other characteristics can be seen in galaxies much farther away. If we can get good measurements in different ways for nearby galaxies, we can use that to bootstrap our measurements for the more distant ones.

Also, NGC 1097 is a barred spiral galaxy, and for various reasons these can be very difficult beasts to observe and get the mass of their black holes. These new results should help resolve some of those issues.

So there you go. If you want to take the measure of a black hole, you have to see how things behave nearby it. That’s probably good advice for many things in life, but nothing more so than the heftiest single objects in the Universe.

June 28 2015 11:57 AM

Uncrewed SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Explodes After Launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded about 2 minutes and 20 seconds after launch Sunday morning. No people were onboard; it was an uncrewed resupply mission. The cause is not yet known.

Here is video of the event (launch is at 51:48, the explosion at 54:05):

Advertisement

SpaceX has not released details yet; a press conference is scheduled for no earlier than 12:30 EDT. I’ll update here when I know more.

Looking at the video, the explosion doesn’t release flames, but instead you see a vaporous white cloud blow away. My guess—and I’m no expert—is that this was a pressurized cryogenic tank failure of some kind. But again, we’ll know more very soon.

Update 1, June 28, 2015 at 16:10 UTC: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk just tweeted that it looks like a tank overpressurization event, as I had guessed:

We should know more soon.

Update 2, June 28, 2015 at 17:25 UTC: At the news conference, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell noted that first stage flight went well, and the problem that led to the loss of the vehicle lay elsewhere. They have telemetry from the Dragon capsule from the event, and they are investigating it.

Dragon
I cannot be sure, but I think this may be the Dragon capsule falling away after the mishap.

Photo by NASA/SpaceX, from the video

Also, I think you can see the Dragon capsule falling away seconds after the explosion. This is a screen grab from a YouTube video, taken at the 54:09 mark. It’s about the right shape, and it’s not too much to think it would survive the destruction of the upper stage. SpaceX hasn’t said, so this is in no way official, but I’m speculating again that there was a tank rupture as per Musk’s earlier tweet. This would’ve led to a big blowout of gas, which caused the vapor cloud. Then the pressure of the rocket’s flight through the air led to the catastrophic collapse of the upper stage. Dragon may have just fallen away after that. It’s also possible the range officer exploded the rocket after seeing the problem. We’ll know more soon. But again, this is guesswork on my part.

The Dragon capsule on top of the rocket had food and supplies for the astronauts on ISS. The three astronauts on board have enough food to last for many months, so they should be OK for now. Also on board the Dragon was an adapter ring for the ISS that would allow future commercial vehicles easier docking access.

This is the first SpaceX failure since it began resupply missions to ISS, but the third overall failure to ISS, including the loss of a Progress vehicle in April and the Orbital Antares rocket in October of 2014. This comes at a time when the Senate has been trying (wrongly, in my opinion) to cut back on funding for SpaceX and other commercial companies, so I expect we'll see statements from those senators on this event shortly. Read them with a grain of salt. Again, we'll know more shortly. Stay tuned.

Correction, June 28, 2015, at 17:50 UTC: I originally misspelled Gwynne Shotwell's first name.

June 28 2015 7:00 AM

California May Make It Harder to Opt Out of Getting Vaccinated. I’m OK With That.

Update, June 30, 2015: SB-277 is now a law. YES.

California may be about to pass a law that only allows parents to opt their public school–attending children out of vaccines for medical reasons. Personal or religious objections will no longer be accepted.

Advertisement

This bill, SB-277, has been approved by the state Assembly, and is going to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown to be signed or vetoed. It’s hard to say what he will do, as he can be unpredictable.

I’m writing this to urge him to sign it. I support this bill.

While this issue can be subtle, when all is said and done, I support mandatory vaccines for public school children. I’ve been pretty clear about it:

If you want to rely on the public trust then you have an obligation to the public trust as well, and part of that obligation is not sending your child to a place with other children if they aren’t immunized against preventable, communicable diseases.

Some people want to claim religious exemption from getting vaccinations, but I don’t find this argument compelling:

I do understand that people might have a religious belief against vaccinations. However, I think religious exemptions can and should only go so far. Certainly they stop dead when religion impinges on my rights to have my child attend a school that is safe. 

By the by, there are very few religions that preach against vaccination (one exception: the Dutch Reformed Church, and there was a major measles outbreak in one of their communities in the Netherlands in 2013). The idea of a religious exemption is, to me, something of a non-issue. But, in the end, I don’t think there should be a religious exemption, either.

Certainly there should be some medical exemptions; some children are allergic to some of the ingredients in vaccines, for example. But these too are relatively rare.

When it comes to refusing vaccines, the largest group is obviously composed of people who think vaccines are somehow harmful, or that mandatory vaccination is taking away their rights.

For those opposing it because they think vaccines are unsafe, well, they’re just wrong. There’s no delicate way to put that, no cushioning it. The claims of health concerns from anti-vaxxers are long, but completely unfounded. Vaccines don’t cause autism. Andrew Wakefield, whose research is the very basis of the modern anti-vax movement, has been called a fraud, has been shown to be guilty of scientific misconduct, shown to have had a massive conflict of interest in his study, shown to have acted unethically, and simply shown to have been wrong. I mean, sheesh.

Vaccines don’t have toxins in them at anywhere near the levels needed to cause problems (as doctors say, dose makes the toxin). Vaccines are effective, their benefits vastly outweigh any small risk, and they are a medical triumph.

For those opposing the bill because they are concerned about parental rights, that’s understandable, but limiting parents’ rights is in some cases justified, especially for the child’s health or for the public welfare. In fact, your rights already are limited. As one obvious example, you can’t drive your child around in a car without them in a safety seat if they’re young, or without wearing a seat belt for older kids. Heck, the state has the right to take your child away from you if you are obviously endangering, neglecting, or abusing them … a sad necessity, but a necessity all the same.

If you don’t vaccinate your child, and there is not a medical reason for it, then you are needlessly endangering your child. It’s really that simple.

And it’s worse even than that. You’re also endangering every child who goes to school with your child.

There are a lot of horrid diseases with devastating health effects that we can stop dead in their tracks with vaccinations. Yet we see outbreaks of them all the time in America, and in many cases it’s because people aren’t vaccinating.

This recent bill in California was spurred by the outbreak of measles that occurred at Disneyland in early 2015. But the need for it is far more broad than that.

Gov. Brown: Please sign that bill into law. You could be saving a lot of children's lives.

June 27 2015 7:30 AM

The Summer Triangle ... Up Close

If you go outside after sunset—and can tear your eyes off of the spectacle of Venus and Jupiter slowly merging in the west—turn around and look to the east. Not long after the sky gets good and dark, you’ll see a trio of bright stars not far above the horizon. Day by day, as summer shambles on,* these stars will be higher in the sky, seemingly strengthening as the season does as well.

This is the iconic Summer Triangle, made up of three of the brightest stars in the sky: Vega, Deneb, and Altair. Straddling the Milky Way, to thousands of amateur astronomers the trio is a sure sign of the season.

I’ve seen countless wide-angle shots of them, placing them in context in the sky, but master-astrophotographer Rogelio Bernal Andreo has done something different; he's taken close-ups of each star, to show what they look like as individuals:

June 26 2015 7:30 AM

What Lurks in the Outer Solar System?

Where does the solar system end?

You might think of the solar system as being the Sun, a bunch of planets*, and various asteroids and comets.

Advertisement

But it’s more complicated than that. Nothing in the Universe ever really has sharp boundaries when you look at it closely. And just because some stuff is big and bright, and other stuff faint and distant, doesn’t mean you can just pick and choose where the city limits lie.

Neptune may be the outermost big planet, but there’s a whole slew of icy objects out past it. And some are way, way past it. And, not surprisingly, they’re weird.

What may be surprising is how much these tiny, distant chunks of frozen water plying the deep black have affected the history of our solar system, and even our very planet. A large fraction of your body is water, and a large fraction of that may have come from the Space Beyond Neptune.

*How many? Oh, roughly a dozen. Maybe fewer.

June 25 2015 3:23 PM

What Is Glittering at Pluto’s North Pole?

As the New Horizons spacecraft nears Pluto, more details are coming into view, and we are beginning to see surface features on the tiny world.

And that means we’ll see things that are … odd. Perhaps “as yet unexplained” is a better term, since we’re seeing these markings for the first time in human history. The press releases have been amazing, but the images released have been enlarged and processed in complex ways to bring out details.

Advertisement

But as the probe gets closer, we can see details without such means. The raw data are posted online within hours of them being transmitted back to Earth, and that means they are available for perusal.

I was looking at a pair of fresh ones taken just today, June 25, at 05:37 UTC (just after midnight, more or less, U.S. time), when New Horizons was just 22.9 million kilometers from Pluto. They’re amazing. Both Pluto and its large moon Charon show all kinds of features, as you can see at the top of this article (the only processing I did was a straight enlargement and a brightness/contrast fiddle). Overall, Charon is much darker than Pluto, but even then surface features are clearly visible.

But that bright spot on Pluto surprised me. That’s near its north pole, and it’s been seen before in earlier images, basically as a splotch. In this image it’s quite obvious.

I wondered if perhaps this was an image artifact, like a particle hit on the detector, but in fact it’s the same in the other image taken 30 seconds earlier. Here are the two shots side by side:

Pluto
Pictures of Pluto taken at 05:37:30 (left) and 30 seconds earlier (right), enlarged and contrast enhanced.

Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The spot is very small, probably on the same scale as a single pixel or two in New Horizon’s long-range camera. That means a slight change in the pointing can make its shape look different. Remember too this image is enlarged by a factor of about 10, which can play with the shape as well. While the shape you see may not be real, the brightness contrast is.

But the important thing to note is that it’s seen in both pictures. I’ll note too that Pluto was in a different spot in the camera’s field of view, too, so this isn’t some bad lone pixel either, messing with the shot. This bright spot is quite real. Measuring the pixel brightnesses, it looks to be about twice as bright as the surface around it.

Right now, Pluto is only a couple of dozen pixels across in the long-range camera’s view. New Horizons is moving so rapidly that in 10 days Pluto will be twice this size, and will double again five days after that. Features that are tantalizingly fuzzy now will continue to sharpen, and then we’ll see Pluto as it truly is.

Is this spot at the north pole a fresh impact? Is it nitrogen in its atmosphere freezing out as Pluto slowly moves away from the Sun on its elliptical orbit? Is it one big spot or a lot of little ones (like the weird ones we see on Ceres)?

Give it a couple of weeks. Because that's how close we are. After more than nine years and 5 billion kilometers of travel, New Horizons is about to give us quite a show.

Tip o' the lens cap to Karl Battams for noting new images had arrived.

READ MORE STORIES