Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On being agnostic


When it comes to questions of god or spirituality I have, more often than not, been quiet on the subject. I've had plenty of conversations about it with friends and family and certainly don't mind discussing it when asked. But I don't generally shout it from the rooftops or buy billboards or create commercials for TV. In contrast I've been subjected to a constant stream of of ads in print, billboards and on television telling me that I need Jesus and that Mormon's are awesome.

Enough. I'm done being silent. I'm fed up having religion pushed on me and being told I would burn in some nasty hot place down below. Fed up hearing about how there is a war on Christmas and Christianity. I call bullshit. If you want to believe in unicorns or the flying spaghetti monster or a Beluga Whale named Marv that can heal the sick with a wink, please, be my guest. But please, do you have to convert me? Must you push and push and push your belief into every corner of the planet?

Let me offer a few observations on your religion (if you have one).

1. It is, quite simply, make believe. I say this because religion is, more often than not, based on a book of some sort written by a guy (usually) or a group of guys (usually) that made it all up. Seriously. They made it up. No proof at all. I went up into the hills and heard a voice. On and on and on.

2. In any good creative story there is revision and boy do we have plenty of that. From year to year, decade to decade the rules change. Oh, you can do that now because some white dude in a closed room with other white dudes decided it is now ok. Or it's not. I can't remember. But, apparently these fellas have a hotline to the big fella in imaginaryville. It seems a bit fishy to me. No Marv, I was not offering you a fish.

3. Why the aggression? In it's most recent form it is very interesting to look at the religious right in the U.S. They are in a constant cultural war against those that are different from they. I don't doubt that much of this is a part of a scheme of distraction by those in power that would much prefer the vast sea of poor people fight amongst themselves but nevertheless it is a constant wave of aggression that often spills over to actual violence against very real people who's sole crime is being gay or different from the believer in some way. Yes, apparently it's okay to hurt people.

4. Why the violence? Yes, the aggression spills over to violence. Be it war or hate crimes, the history of religion is chock full of violence. I don't think I need to create a sub-list here do I? Jesus carried a machine gun you say? Why not, it's no sillier than all the other stuff he did. And Jesus said unto Marv, "I have no fish today."

I could go on with this list and I probably will at some point in the near future. My reason for bringing this up today is that I've recently had a string of interactions with religious folks that pushed me to the conclusion that organized religion really does require a kind of willful ignorance and a partial if not nearly absolute suspension of critical thinking. There is a fear of the unknown. As the thinking goes, if I don't immediately understand a particular phenomena it's better to construct a story about how a wizard in the sky created said phenomena.

This is where science comes in. We don't have to rely wizards an whales to make sense of the world around us. Just as Copernicus and then Kepler and Newton successfully challenged the make believe constructions of the church 500 years ago, today's scientists are, everyday, moving our understanding of how the universe works forward. The scientific method is a fantastic tool in that it is the basis for getting at the truth. No, we don't have it all nor will we ever. It is an exploration and the point is to make the effort. At no point is it helpful to step back and say, I don't understand this right now so it cannot be explained and must be the work of a higher power. That is the moment of giving up and choosing to fill a gap in knowledge with silly putty. It's not necessary. It is perfectly ok for us to have gaps in our understanding. There will always be such gaps and that's what moves us forward.

So no, I won't be accepting Jesus Christ and I sure wish you'd stop telling me I should. I'm not making a war on your religion though I find it interesting that you are so quick to think war is being made upon you. What I AM doing, in response to your constant crowing, is a bit of my own tweeting. Tweet tweet. Translation: there is no proof that there is a god. In many thousands of years no proof has been offered. Furthermore, your churches have historically, and are this very day, attempting to stand in the way of our understanding the universe. Please stop.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Climate Change and Science Literacy

UNEP Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report Finds Climate Change Goals Growing More Elusive:
Global greenhouse-gas emissions already have passed the point where the worst effects of global warming could be averted, and they are still rising, according to the third annual United Nations report on the so-called emissions gap.

Some countries have made pledges to help reverse this trend by lowering their emissions. However, the report by the U.N. Environment Programme warns that the gap between these pledges and reductions necessary to cap average global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2020 continues to widen.
We, as citizens lack the understanding and the will to make the changes necessary in our own lives. "Our" government is also unwilling to do what needs to be done. Over. It won't just be our children and grandchildren that will suffer, we all already are. It's true that no particular storm or weather event can be attributed to man made climate change but the science is pretty clear that we are already feeling it in our obviously changing weather patterns.

Which brings me to my next topic: science literacy. We are in this position because science is slow and takes time and because people do not understand the basic scientific process. Without an understanding of how science works people are easier to manipulate on issues that require such an understanding. In this case various global industries that have benefited from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels have actively sought to confuse the public to protect their profit source.

It is unfortunate that capitalism does not prioritize the public good but that's another topic for another time. Suffice it so say that capitalism has, thus far in it's history, demonstrated that it does not seem to be able of co-existing with the needs of our planet's ecosystems. Regardless of that discussion, we know that these industries have spent many millions of dollars to convince the governments and people in general that the science of climate change is uncertain. They have been very effective at exploiting a general lack of understanding of the specifics of climate science and science in general.

If we are to move forward we have to build a process and a system for teaching basic science literacy. At the very least we need for the adult citizens of our planet to have a basic understanding of the scientific method. Though that is just one part of minimal understanding it is fundamental and is the starting point for giving people the tools to evaluate the information (or disinformation) that is available.
To that end folks have been working in recent years on developing a global network of science cafes. In Madison County our little discussion group, fondly referred to as the Geek Parade has decided to open itself up a bit to the general public and will be making an effort at more organized, public discussions. We'll be getting started in January 2013!

We have a long way to go. Science literacy in the U.S. is low as evidenced by such indicators as acceptance of evolution which is one of the lowest of all western nations, 40%. I'm excited that we've gotten the ball rolling in our county, but it is distressing that there are only 4 such groups in the state. Well, there are 4 that are a part of the Science Cafe network. There may be others which meet that I am, at the moment, unaware of that are not listed. Certainly there are various other groups such as astronomical societies that advance science literacy but it is not really the broad-based organized effort that is needed.

Baby steps.

The Whirlpool Galaxy

I was able to squeeze in about 1.5 hours of viewing this morning just as the moon set and before the sun rose. My main subject was M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, in Ursa Major. Unfortunately there was still a good bit of moon light in the sky so I'll I definitely want to revisit this one for the best possible view. That said, it was still pretty dark and the view was quite nice, I just know it will be better with darker skies.

 Even with the lighter sky I believe I was able to make out a hint of the spiral structure. M51 is not alone though, it has a neighbor galaxy, NGC 5195, with which it has been interacting for hundreds of millions of years. In fact it is believed that it is due to these interactions with NGC 5195 that the the spiral structure of M51 is so pronounced. Quite a pair!

In addition to the Whirlpool Galaxy I also got a look at two other Messiers, M89 and M90. I'll definitely revisit both of those when skies are darker.  A bonus, the above mentioned NGC 5195 is a  member of the Herschel 400! That brings me to 92 of 110 Messier objects and 112 of the 400 Herschels. Not to bad for just over two months of viewing!

 Three months ago I would have told you that my brand new 8" Dobsonian telescope would be all I would need. Well, I can tell you, that as much as I enjoy the views that this scope provides, I am excited about someday seeing these objects with a 16" scope. So much of what is now a hint of structure will be far more obvious with a larger scope. That said, I'm happy to have started with the 8" and know that many people use such a scope for many years. It's good to know what is possible with this aperture and, in fact, learning to star hop with it has been a joy, viewing the faint fuzzies with it has required time and effort. I feel like I am earning my way to the next step and will, no doubt, more fully appreciate the better views of the larger scope when the time comes because of my starting point.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Virgo Galaxy Cluster!

Messier 88
Got up at 3am and had a long trip through the Virgo Galaxy Cluster! It was a chilly 25 degrees F but I was layered up and ready to go.  I added 6 more Messier objects to my viewed list and 7 more to my Herschel 400 list before the sun started to brighten the horizon at which time I popped over for a visit with Saturn.

The Virgo Galaxy Cluster is about 54 million light years away and contains a minimum of 1,300 galaxies, possibly as many as 2,000. Viewing it with a telescope is fantastic... I just hopped from galaxy to galaxy. Normally I'm lost in the stars, this morning I was lost in galaxies! If there had been more time before the sunrise I could have easily stayed in this little area of the sky for many more hours. The number of galaxies is overwhelming.
Markarian's Chain

My favorites of the night were Messier 88 in Coma Berenices as well as the various galaxies that make up Markarian's Chain. What a sight! Messier 88 actually shows a bit of structure though it is faint in my 8" telescope (and obviously nothing like the detailed image above).

I expect that my next 3-4 morning sessions will be spent in this cluster of galaxies. The moon will be setting later these next couple days so I'll have less time each day between moon set and sunrise. I hope to squeeze in another morning session tonight!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Astronomy Outreach at Antonia Middle School

A couple weeks back my niece emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in attending a star gazing event with her at her school. Of course I was interested I replied. I checked in with the event organizer, a member of the St. Louis Astronomical Society, about bringing my telescope and assisting at the event and was told that they would be happy to have another telescope on hand.

This was my first time to attend a public star party and I'm happy to report it went over very well. I'd estimate attendance at 25-35 folks with 6 or so scopes and fairly clear skies. We had a bit of light cloud cover but it didn't last long. The area is subject to a bit of light pollution as well as a good bit of moon light but viewing brighter objects was no problem. I stayed on the Owl/E.T. cluster most of the night and am happy to report that everyone that viewed the cluster got a kick out of seeing the E. T. figure in the eyepiece! Other scopes were showing off Jupiter, the moon, and the Andromeda Galaxy.

All in all it was a successful event. I was thrilled to have a chance to meet several members of the SLAS. Of course I was quick to invite them all out to view from our dark skies in Madison County and am sure they'll take me up on the offer. I also received some excellent advice from one of the experienced members of the SLAS, John, on a few technical aspects of my scope. One of the great benefits of events like these are the opportunities for learning from more experienced members and I look forward to learning  a great deal more from John and others.  I'm also happy to report that I shared our efforts to build science literacy in Madison County via our Geek Parade and in discussing it with their members received at least one offer of a guest lecture/presentation to our group!

Stay tuned, more to come!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Viewing Jupiter and Saturn!

There is little doubt that when viewing planets in our solar system the two most likely to elicit a gasp of surprise from a first time planetary viewer are Jupiter and Saturn.

In recent weeks Jupiter has been rising at a time early enough to be high in the horizon by 9pm. If you view too early, 6pm or so at the time of this writing the planet is too low and will likely result in poor seeing conditions which means that air turbulence will cause a bit of blurriness and shimmering. If however you view later in the evening there is less turbulence and it is higher in the sky so what turbulence there is will be less. This is especially noticeable at the high magnification used for viewing planetary details. With my 8" diameter scope I use a 5mm eye piece which results in a magnification of 240x (this is figured by dividing the focal length of the scope by the eyepiece, in my case 1200mm/5mm=240x). This lens pushes the limits of my scope and unless seeing conditions are excellent my views are poor.

This past week I've had several occasions to view Jupiter and it has been a fantastic view each time thanks to excellent conditions. At high magnification I can view several distinct cloud bands as well as the Great Red Spot as well as several moons, usually four depending on the time.

Saturn is a bit more tricky at this time due to its position in relation to our planet's daily revolution. At the moment Saturn rises just before the sun in the morning and sets just before the sun sets which means that to view it you have to look to the south east just before sunrise and it will be visible to the naked eye below Venus which is by far the brightest object in the sky at that time. At 5:50am Saturn will look like a small star midway between the horizon and Venus. Through my 8" scope with the a less powerful eyepiece such as an 18mm the rings are visible but the planet appears fairly small. With the 5mm eyepiece and good seeing conditions the rings are easily visible and the overall image is stunning even in the bright morning light. In fact, I was still able to easily view the planet after it was no longer visible with the naked eye. Of course with a bright sky the color and details are not as clear.

Of course this changes with each day because Saturn rises earlier in relation to the Sun and within just a couple weeks will provide a much better view with a much darker sky. At the end of November Saturn will be easily viewable at 5:15am when the sky is significantly darker. Around November 26 and 27th Saturn will be passing behind Venus which should provide an interesting view! By mid December the planet will be well above the horizon by 5:15am and the sun lower which will provide an incredible view.

The Herschel 400

I've viewed 100 of 400 Herschel objects! For those that may not know, Herschel was an astronomer who cataloged several thousand objects in the universe. A fun way of learning the night sky is to work through a variety of such lists of objects. This is my second list to work on, the first being the 110 Messier objects. So, I've viewed 100 in about 9 days of viewing, I'm thinking I should have most of it done within the next month. What is great about these objects is that many of them are very faint (due to their distance from us, tens of millions of light years) and can be very challenging to find even if you are looking right at them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pondering the Future

Specifically my personal future and also thinking a bit about this blog. I've obviously not been very consistent with updates. Honestly, I put some of the blame for that on Facebook. I'm sure I am not the only one who spends too much time there. While it is great for sharing I thing the downside is that much of that sharing is just reposting. I am also leery of so much content being under one roof so to speak.

So, still here. With the crazy heat and drought of this past summer my garden suffered as did the many trees and bushes I put in over the past four years. That said, almost all of my perennials survived even if they didn't thrive. Luckily the veggie garden was, by chance, smaller. The climate future looks increasingly scary for those of us that want to eat food, wink wink.

As for my project here, it will continue for the time being though I struggle to remain enthusiastic with the annual veggies. Something about three months of intense drought and heat seems to make my garden time outside a bit less enjoyable. Our well is shallow which means I either need to haul water from the lake or invest several thousand into a new well. Climate change is ugly.

So, I'm thinking that it is time to add in a new element of activity which reflects a new interest (actually a childhood/life interest that has been sitting in a corner of my mind): astronomy! Well, science in general, but astronomy especially. While I have no intention of abandoning the permaculture work I think having another primary activity is a good thing and in the winter when growing is out I'll have something very interesting to explore, namely, our universe.

Which brings me back to one my thoughts on the blog. I've not been consistent in writing about my permaculture/homestead efforts but do think I might be more consistent in reporting on my astronomical explorations as it is the sort of interest that lends itself to data collection and reporting. Should I do that here as a supplement to my other interests or do I start an astronomy based blog? Actually, I think I just sorted it out as I write. I'll keep it here but will not just add in my astronomical observations but will also add in other science related material.

Actually, and don't laugh, but I have this vision of humanity (or myself?) that connects to a few episodes/films from Star Trek that have always stuck with me. In particular, those which seem to showcase small, egalitarian villages in which science seems to not only co-exist with daily life, but informs a deeper and greater understanding of the relationship between humans and nature and the larger universe. Contrast this to our modern manifestation which seems to have largely become a tool for corporate profit with little regard to ethics. A great example would be GMOs and modern industrial agriculture as it might compare to a decentralized permaculture-based system informed by local and thoughtful observation.

One outlook, the modern corporate/capitalist/industrial, uses science primarily as a tool for the accumulation of wealth. The other uses science as a method for deepening our understanding of the natural world around us not just for technological development, but for the sake of understanding. In this second outlook the ethics of use would be an important part of the overall process and would include all sorts of new questions and concerns in any sort of possible application of scientific knowledge. In fact, one might say that the second view represents a kind of democratization of applied science.

Wow. I didn't expect to take this post in this direction but it is interesting and it is something I've thought about off and on over the years so, yeah, I'll be back to this at some point. Another area that I'd like to explore is science literacy and critical thought. There has been a long trend in the U.S. which seems to be gaining a bit of steam when, in fact, it should be losing steam and that is the movement against science. Such a movement can only happen when there is a lack of communication of knowledge. When people are ignorant of established scientific knowledge and the basic method which serves as its foundation there is room for manipulation.

So, you can expect that I'll be spending some time discussing not just science but specifically science literacy. I'm not a trained scientist but I think I know enough to discuss some issues as a citizen. Specifically I'm likely to dig into the entwined relationship of politics, religion and global capitalism have been used to undermine science literacy to further their capacity as control agents: social, political, economic, ecological... everything from the genetics of corn to humans, from crowd control to the "entertainment" that comes out of the glowing screens in living rooms. Science and technology can be used in many ways for many different and often opposing agendas. I think that will be some interesting exploration.

There is also some real life stuff I'm hoping to make happen that reflects all of this, specifically a few ideas for how I might further science literacy here in rural Missouri where it is greatly needed. I'll share that as well.