Daily Archives: December 18, 2012

Planet Saturn As It Is Not Usually Seen

From NASA:

On Oct. 17, 2012, during its 174th orbit around the gas giant, Cassini was deliberately positioned within Saturn’s shadow, a perfect location from which to look in the direction of the sun and take a backlit view of the rings and the dark side of the planet. Looking back towards the sun is a geometry referred to by planetary scientists as “high solar phase;” near the center of your target’s shadow is the highest phase possible. This is a very scientifically advantageous and coveted viewing position, as it can reveal details about both the rings and atmosphere that cannot be seen in lower solar phase.

The last time Cassini had such an unusual perspective on Saturn and its rings, at sufficient distance and with sufficient time to make a full system mosaic, occurred in September 2006, when it captured a mosaic, processed to look like natural color, entitled “In Saturn’s Shadow” (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=PIA08329). In that mosaic, planet Earth put in a special appearance, making “In Saturn’s Shadow” one of the most popular Cassini images to date.

The mosaic being released today by the mission and the imaging team, in celebration of the 2012 holiday season, does not contain Earth; along with the sun, our planet is hidden behind Saturn. However, it was taken when Cassini was closer to Saturn and therefore shows more detail in the rings than the one taken in 2006.

The new processed mosaic, composed of 60 images taken in the violet, visible and near infrared part of the spectrum, can be found at http://www.nasa.gov/cassini , http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://ciclops.org .

“Of all the many glorious images we have received from Saturn, none are more strikingly unusual than those taken from Saturn’s shadow,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini’s imaging team lead based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.


Don't be pessimistic about changing gun laws

A handful of us in the science-skepticism-secularism blogosphere have been saying roughly the same things for a few years now about gun ownership, regulation, and safety. (Here’s 67 posts of mine on this topic. Oh, and here’s another 60 on a different blog.) While we were busy with this issue as well as other pet projects, the rest of the bloggers and writers were busy with their own important and interesting projects. But when the “Dark Knight” shooting in Colorado happened, I noticed a lot of other bloggers who had not touched on the gun issue before at all to my knowledge chimed in and started saying things. In may cases they went through the same process as those of us who had long ago begun to address gun ownership. The same sorts of pro and anti gun comments made by a roughly similar group of people wafted back and forth, arguments started general and get more specific, eventually certain roadblocks one may or may not have seen coming were encountered, and finally, everyone potentially ended up with a roughly similar knowledge base and similar understanding of the social, cultural, and political forces involved in the online version of this discussion. (Or at least, that would be the case for those who stuck with it long enough.)

But only a few of my bloggy colleagues did that, and it didn’t change anyone over to a gun-issue blogger. They went, as is appropriate, back to their usual issue.

Then Sandy Hook happened. Sandy Hook is starting to look like one of those events that changes things: a tipping point, if you will. And those bloggers and writers and more are back in the game, more prepared and more intent. A wonderful example of this relates to my friend and admireee Maggie Koerth-Baker. Maggie, who often blogs about energy issues and wrote one of the most important books ever for the general public on that topic, underwent a very important revelation that everybody who writes about gun ownership from a scientific, logical, or skeptical perspective eventually runs into: The knowledge we have to make informed policy decisions is less than adequate in large part because the gun lobby has intentionally and successfully damaged efforts to carry out the appropriate research, with the full complicity of elected members of congress. Here’s Maggie’s post: Gun lobby has opposed research on effects of gun ownership/gun laws.

I can’t tell you how happy I am that Maggie and others like her are delving into this very important social, political, and health-related issue. The more voices like her’s the better. And me saying that is NOT a Minnesota Passive Aggressive way of saying “Jeesh, it’s about time other people started paying attention to this issue that I’ve been pointing to and talking about for years… what does it take, a massacre?” … well maybe a little. But mostly, seriously, not. I am sincerely glad.

Another friend and top writer, Tom Levenson indicated the other day that he thought it was completely unrealistic to think about the 2nd amendment being changed or removed. But you know what? Six months ago it would have been hard to imagine a widespread and (potentially) sustained conversation about this topic across all known media produced or consumed in the United States. It would have been impossible to imagine a Republican Governor not signing a pro-gun law because he wants to think about its implications a bit further, or a famous conservative talking head suddenly expressing non-NRA approved opinions, or the President of the United States saying that it is time to have a conversation about doing everything differently.

So, Tom, you are probably right. But maybe, just maybe not 100% right.

Let’s be optimistic that this conversation will go forward, expand, and result in change.

Kids Science Books

I’ve got kids ranging from zero to 12 years of age to find gifts for this season. I’ve got most of them covered, and science books have figured in this effort in a bigger way than usual this year. I’m impressed with the number of climate change choices that have become available. Know a Republican with offspring? Ha. You know what to do…

But first some other sciencey books that are highly recommended or Continue reading Kids Science Books

Donate to help Sandy Hook Elementary School survivors

During this time of great tragedy, American Atheists along with the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics (SOMA, a SSA affiliate and University of Kansas Student Organization) and We Are Atheism, have decided to come together to raise funds for the children and their families affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The families that have been hurt did not plan for their child’s funeral, no parent does. None of us would have ever thought to have money saved for the great expense of a funeral for any of our children. The money you donate will go directly to the Sandy Hook Elementary families for funeral expenses and counseling for the survivors of the shooting and their families. Now it is your turn to show that there are more of those who love and care for their fellow community members than those who would kill mercilessly.

Click through to help

Smoking is (good) for the birds

Back in the 1980s, it became popular for biologists to consider plant secondary compounds in understanding inter-species relationships and other ecological matters. I was doing my thesis research at the time, and it even affected what I was doing, as the wild world was being reconceptualized in terms of tannins and alkaloids, seed edators and dispersers, and so on. I remember taking an advanced seminar in plant-animal interaction, in preparation for my own study of human-plant interactions. The first thing I learned was that most animal-plant interaction did not involve mammals, or even birds. Insects ruled. We spent most of the rest of the semester dealing with grasshoppers. At one point, for some reason, we had a debate. It was the heady, politically charged days of Roe v. Wade, and so we debated the issue of choice. The question was, did female plants choose which pollen would fertilize their ova, or were they merely raped by the patriarchal male plants? Luckily, I was chosen to be on the pro-choice side. We wore the appropriate buttons and hats and carried signs to the debate. Also, it turns out that we were scientifically correct; female plants exert considerable choice in whom they mate with, it turns out.

Read the rest here…