Bad Astronomy Blog

No, You Can't Claim Arctic Ice is "Recovering"

Mon, 09/01/2014 - 04:30

Sigh. Here we go again.

The Daily Mail and Mail Online are to scientific accuracy what a sledgehammer is to an egg. Especially when it comes to global warming.

David Rose is oftentimes the wielder of that sledgehammer. He’s written error-laden climate articles in the past, like saying that global warming has stopped (no, it hasn’t), that the world is cooling (no, it really really isn’t), and the IPCC had to hold a crisis meeting because Rose’s articles have caused such a fuss (that meeting never happened, which Rose had been told several times, but still made the claim). Other examples abound.

This time, In Sunday’s Mail Online he writes that Arctic sea ice, which hit a major record low in 2012, “has expanded for the second year in succession.”

This claim is a humdinger, and typical denial double-speak. It’s technically true, but also really wrong. It’s like examining someone who has a 106° fever and saying it’s really made their skin glow. But what do you expect from an article that has this breathless headline:

Myth of arctic meltdown: Stunning satellite images show summer ice cap is thicker and covers 1.7million square kilometres MORE than 2 years ago...despite Al Gore's prediction it would be ICE-FREE by now

“Myth of arctic meltdown” is enough to tell you just how slanted and wrong the conclusions of this article will be… and the inclusion of Al Gore’s name brings it home. Mentioning Gore is at best a distraction, red meat to the deniers. Gore isn’t a climate scientist, and as we well know actual climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that the world is warming. One of the outcomes of this is the decline of Arctic sea ice.

Briefly: Arctic sea ice reaches a minimum in late September every year. The overall trend for the amount of ice at that time is decreasing; in other words, there is less ice all the time. Some years there is more than others, some less. But the trend is down, down, down.

In 2012, a mix of unusual causes created conditions where the minimum reached a record low, far below normal. The next year, in 2013, the ice didn’t reach quite so low a minimum extent, and this year looks very much the same as 2013. But saying the ice is “recovering” is, to put it delicately, what comes out the south end of a north-facing bull. You can’t compare two years to a record low the year before that was due to unusual circumstances; you have to look at the average over time.

Of course, if you do, your claims that global warming isn’t real melt away.

I’m happy to provide that information. Here’s the Arctic ice extent graphed by the National Snow and Ice Data Center:

The black line is the average for 1981 – 2010. The gray region shows the ±2 standard deviation temperatures for that average; statistically speaking it’s an expected range of temperatures (it’s actually more subtle than that, but that’s enough to understand what’s going on here). The dashed line shows the 2012 ice extent, and is clearly very low, well outside the expected range. The brown line is 2013, and the light green line is this year, 2014, up to late August. Notice 2014 follows the year before pretty closely.

Note also they are well below average, near the bottom of the expected range. If you look at any recent year’s ice it’s below average; you have to go back to 2001 to find an ice extent near the average.

So the claim that the ice is “recovering” is made based on the wrong comparison. Comparing the past two years to the overall trend and they fit in pretty well with overall decline.

Also, that “recovery” claim cannot be made with only two data points. Two years is not a trend. There have been many times ice has gone up over a year or two in the Arctic, only to drop once again over the long run.

Here’s the graph showing this:

That’s also from NSIDC, and shows the ice extent for August of every year from 1979 to 2013. Yes, in 2013 it goes up, but note 1) There are several times it jumps up for a year or so, but b) the overall trend is down. Looking at two data points in a row and ignoring everything else is incredibly misleading at best. David Appell at Quark Soup shows this very clearly as well.

There’s plenty more to debunk about Rose’s article, but this shows that his central premise is dead wrong. You absolutely cannot say Arctic ice is recovering, and in fact everything we know — like rising temperatures, and how the Arctic is more sensitive to warming than the rest of the world on average, and the obvious long-term trend — is that we are still losing Arctic sea ice at an alarming rate.

And don’t believe the tired malarkey you might hear about Antarctic sea ice increasing; that has nothing to do with any of this, and is hugely offset by the tremendous land ice loss every year anyway.

What makes this even more aggravating is that there’s nothing new here. This claim of Arctic ice recovering was made last year, and it was just as wrong then as it is now. It’s shameful. Global warming is real, it’s a huge problem, and it’s our own damn fault. There’s still time to fix this, though that breathing room is getting slimmer all the time… and it’s not helping when media give air to deniers.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Time-Lapse: The ESO Observatories

Sun, 08/31/2014 - 05:00

The northern part of Chile is a forbidding and remote desert. Called the Atacama, it is one of the driest places on Earth, and also reaches high elevations; in some places the desert floor is 4000 meters above sea level… and that’s not counting the numerous mountains and volcanoes that stretch even higher.

All of this is why the Atacama is home to some of the finest astronomical telescopes observatories on the planet. The clear air lets through a lot of light, visible light as well as other flavors invisible to the eye, and the landscape is dotted with bizarrely-shaped observatory buildings and arrays of dishes pointing skyward.

The European Southern Observatory commissioned some of the best astrophotographers in the world to travel to Atacama and capture the ethereal and literally unearthly beauty of the desert… and one of the results is this wonderful time-lapse video called “The ESO Observatories: Atacama Transitions and Landscapes under the Southern Sky” taken by friend-of-the-BA-blog Christoph Malin. Watch.

There’s a lot to see, but I think my favorite is at 6:45, when a bright fireball lights up the sky (that’s the still at the top of this article); you can actually see different colors in the meteor streak, most likely due to different elements burning off it as it plunged into our atmosphere from space.

Right after that, you can watch as the multiple dishes of the ALMA array dance in synchronized perfection, moving in unison to capture faint millimeter waves trickling down from distant cosmic sources.

Also, starting at about 09:50, the buildings housing the magnificent four-part Very Large Telescope come into view; each an 8.2 meter behemoth. At first it’s quite normal appearing, but then the powerful laser erupts from one building, a science-fictional beam that is used to aid the telescope in removing distortion from the ocean of air above our heads. As you can imagine, they have to be careful and coordinate with the local air traffic authorities; such a device wouldn’t be a good mix with an airplane flying into the beam.

Finally, I want to point out a phenomenon that is both subtle and astonishing: At 10:20, with the Milky Way’s companion galaxies the Magellanic Clouds hanging on the left, and a mountaintop silhouetted in the center, you can see faint, colorful bands of light moving in from the right side of the frame. This is almost certainly airglow, caused by atoms and molecules nearly a hundred kilometers above the ground giving up the energy they absorbed from the Sun during the day. This commonly is red and green, as seen in the video.

The ripples in them are amazing. There is wind in the air, even so high off the ground. If it blows steadily across the air below it, ripples can form in the boundary layer (they can also be caused by atmospheric disturbances like thunderstorms, too). These are called gravity waves (the Earth’s gravity fights with buoyancy, and the result is the oscillation of the air, moving it up and down like a cork in water). It’s similar to the phenomenon of ship wave clouds, which happen much closer to the ground.

As usual, there’s far more going on over our heads than we appreciate. Sometimes, it’s when we train our cameras to the sky — and allow them to play with time and space and brightness and color — that we can truly see the exquisite machinery of the heavens.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Two Days Previously

Sat, 08/30/2014 - 08:57

Heh. What was the view like two days before the video I posted this morning?



That's the Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus resupply ship (the Janice Voss) at the end of the space station's Canadarm 2, then leaving in a hurry in this time-lapse video taken on Aug 15, 2014. The resupply ship brought well over a ton of supplies to the astronauts, and had been reloaded with trash. It was unberthed by the remotely-controlled arm (operated by Alex Gerst on the ISS), then commanded to head off. Two days later, it burned up re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

Watching this video I noticed a peculiar thing: It appears to go up, away from the Earth, instead of down toward it. I suspect this is at least partly due to the pictures being taken with a wide-angle lens, which distorts the image; for example, the Earth isn't nearly that curved when seen from ISS. However, the ship didn't burn up until two days later, so it's likely it wasn't sent immediately into a de-orbiting path, so it may have just moved ahead of ISS for a while before dropping down. Things like this can be difficult to track down, so I'll see what I can do to get more info. 

In the meantime, the video is mesmerizing, isn't it?

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Swan Dive

Sat, 08/30/2014 - 04:30

A couple of weeks ago I posted a dramatic picture (above) of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus resupply ship, the Janice Voss, burning up on re-entry after a successful mission to the International Space Station.

Yesterday, astronaut Reid Wiseman posted an incredible Vine video of the event. Watch this!

Wow. I mean seriously, wow. That’s video of a spaceship burning up as seen from above by astronauts on a space station orbiting the Earth.

People keep complaining that we don’t have flying cars. Those people are silly. The future: We are in you.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

The Closest Known Exoplanet? Maybe…

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 04:30

In 1992, the first planets outside the solar system were discovered, orbiting the dead cinder of a supernova. Three years later, 51 Peg was found, the first exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star. Now, after a decade of searching, we have a roster of nearly 2000 such planets, alien worlds circling alien stars.

They come in many varieties, with some being huge, Jupiter-like behemoths, and others far closer in size to our own hospitable planet. We’ve found them around distant stars hundreds of light years away, and some much closer.

And that brings us to a newly-found planet just announced: Gliese 15Ab. It has a mass of about five times Earth’s, which is interesting in and of itself; that makes it a super-Earth, if you will, a planet bigger than us but perhaps not quite massive enough to gravitationally attract a thick atmosphere. We don’t know much about what it’s like, but it’s probably not a gas giant.

But that’s not the interesting bit. The interesting bit is that its host star, Gl 15A, is a mere 11.7 light years from Earth. It’s one of the 20 closest stellar systems known, making GL 15Ab quite possibly the closest known exoplanet!

Gliese 15 is a binary star, two cool, dim red dwarfs orbiting each other. Red dwarfs are the most common type of star in the galaxy, but they’re so intrinsically faint that not a single one is visible to the naked eye; you need a telescope to see them. The closest star to the Sun we know of, Proxima Centauri, is only 4.2 light years away and even then too faint to see without using at least good binoculars.

Gliese 15 A and B (as the two stars are called, or just Gl 15A and B for short) orbit each other at a distance of about 22 billion kilometers, which is five times the distance Neptune orbits the Sun, so they’re pretty far apart. The planet discovered has a very tight orbit around the brighter of the two stars, Gl 15A, circling it a mere 11 million kilometers out. That’s close. Even though the star itself is a dim bulb, the planet is so near to it that it’s heated to at least the boiling point of water, and possibly hotter.

Gl 15Ab was found using what’s called the Doppler shift (or reflex velocity) method. Because the planet has significant mass, as it orbits its parent star in a big circle, the star itself makes a smaller circle every orbit, too. They actually each orbit their mutual center of mass, called the barycenter, like two kids facing each other, holding hands, and swinging each other around. If this sounds familiar, I just wrote about this recently because Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, do the same thing, and this was seen by the approaching New Horizons space probe.

We don’t actually see the star and planet move, but as the star approaches us in its orbit its light gets slightly blue-shifted, and as it moves away the light red shifts. The change is incredibly small, but the team of astronomers used the huge Keck 10-meter telescope with an extremely high-resolution detector. Their observing campaign has gone on for 11 years, enough to detect the planet pretty well. To be clear, they didn’t see the planet directly; they only saw its effect on the star. But this method has proven out many times, and is quite reliable.

The amount the planet can tug on its star depends on its mass, which is how they found the planet to have 5.35 ±0.75 times the mass of Earth, and by measuring the period of the oscillation determined its year to be just 11.44 Earth days long. That’s how they know it orbits the star so closely; that’s a short year!

We’re still new at all this, the finding of alien worlds. But we’re pretty good at it. We know of enough to start looking at them statistically, as a group, able to make some solid extrapolations. Given what we’ve seen so far, we think there are billions of planets in our galaxy alone. Billions! It’s like a Star Trek fever dream come true.

Given those odds, it’s not terribly surprising to find a planet so close to home. I’ll note that this planet isn’t technically confirmed; that is, also found by another team of astronomers or also seen using other methods (like undergoing transits). Still, this observation looks pretty solid, and if so this makes it one of if not the closest known exoplanets. A handful of other planet candidates have been found that are closer, but none is confirmed. There are fewer than 30 known stars and brown dwarfs (substellar objects that are similar to stars but smaller) closer than Gliese 15; many are in multiple systems, binaries or trinaries, so it’s entirely possible we’ll find and confirm a closer planet still.

But even with all that, this goes to show that the sky is likely filled with planets, and many of them are pretty close to us in a cosmic sense. It also shows just how hard it is to find them! 11 years of searching with one of the largest telescopes on Earth, and it was still a difficult task. But we’re getting better at this. If there are more, closer planets out there, we’ll find ‘em.

Tip o’ the warp nacelle to Dan Vergano.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Double Rainbow... With Lightning!

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 04:30

One of the things I love about living in Boulder is that in the summer we tend to get afternoon storms. It’s sunny a lot here, which heats the land and evaporates water, forming clouds, and they can get a tremendous amount of energy in them. We get good downpours, and then when the storm is done, it’s done.

Because the wind blows predominantly west to east, and the storms are in the afternoon when the Sun is setting, when the clouds clear from the west the Sun shines through. If it’s still raining here we can get extremely bright rainbows.

That weather pattern was common for the first couple of years I lived here, but in recent years it’s slacked off. But it’s coming back: Yesterday was a textbook case of this, and the rainbow was amazing.

See for yourself!

Yeah, double rainbow all the way. The glow around my head’s shadow I was describing is called heiligenschein. The other optical effects — the secondary arc, the supernumerary arcs, the bright region in the center and the dark band — I’ve described recently in a post about red rainbows.

The lightning was amazing. It was so fast I didn't get a good look at it — I was paying attention to the phone screen to make sure the rainbow was visible in it — and for a moment I thought it might have been sunlight reflecting off raindrops. Then a few seconds later the thunder slammed down. It was far louder than it sounds on the video. It took about eight seconds to reach me, so the lightning was less than three km away. Quite the show.

I will never get tired of seeing things like this. Rainbows are almost cliché, but they’re one of the most magnificent optical displays nature can provide. The science behind them is really intriguing, and to me, it amplifies their beauty manyfold.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

The Slate Plus Doctor Who Inaugural Podcast

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 10:10

[Note: Extremely mild spoilers below. I figure I might as well warn you.]

As an unapologetic and enthusiastic Doctor Who fanboy, I’m really happy that the new series has started up. We’re in Season 8 now, with Peter Capaldi now (metaphorically) filling the Doctor’s fez. The first episode just aired, and I thought it was pretty good. I even tweeted it:

So it’s official.

The Hive Overmind at Slate asked if I’d like to do a podcast with various Slate-sters discussing the new episodes of Doctor Who as they air. I said yes—duh—and the first one is now online. I spent about an hour talking Whovianicity with Slate’s Outward editor and culture critic June Thomas. We talk Clara, Capaldi, robots, Silurians, and why I thought the regeneration was handled pretty well. We also had some fun with a certain locking of lips shown in the episode as well.

Fair warning: The podcast is part of Slate Plus, which is a premium subscription service. It’s five bucks a month, and provides all kinds of fun added content; I’ve written about it before. There’s a lot of great stuff there on top of the usual great stuff at Slate, so I heartily recommend signing up.

If you need another reason, we’ll have a new Doctor Who podcast every week during the season. So join in and be a part of the fun!

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

An Island Grows in the Ocean

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 07:30

Back in March I posted a Landsat 8 image of a volcano called Nishinoshima, located in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo. Up until late 2013 it was just a dinky island barely poking above the water’s surface. But then a second vent started erupting nearby, rapidly grew in size, and actually engulfed the original volcano.

It’s still growing. This new view from Landsat on Aug. 21, 2014, shows it puffing away:

It’s interesting comparing it to how it looked a few months ago; it’s clearly changed its shape. It’s not growing as rapidly as it once was, apparently, but it’s still getting bigger.

That whole area is loaded with volcanic islands forming seriously long chains across the ocean:

The pin marks the location of Nishinoshima. Of course, that map is scaled way out, covering thousands of kilometers. The original Landsat image gives you a better sense of how lonely the island is out there:

Pretty. And fascinating. It shows that our planet is active, constantly changing, constantly renewing itself. If it didn’t, we’d probably look a lot more like Mars. That’s a pretty amazing planet too, but given its lack of a thick atmosphere, no water, and chilly room temperature, I’ll take Earth every time. I like my environment habitable, even if it means some locally isolated places really aren’t.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

No, There Still Is No Connection Between Vaccines and Autism

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 04:30

There's a conspiracy theory going around that the CDC covered up a link between autism and vaccines. From what I can tell, this conspiracy theory is on the same level as the one that NASA faked the Moon landings. And you know how I feel about that.

Perhaps you’ve heard about this CDC theory; it’s burning up on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. The gist of it is that a “whistleblower” at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revealed some hanky-panky done by researchers there to cover up a link between vaccines and autism found in a certain group of babies, and a new analysis supposedly shows this connection.  

It’d be a compelling story, if it were true. However, it appears very strongly to be false. Since I am not an expert in the specifics, I direct you to two posts: "Did a high ranking whistleblower really reveal that the CDC covered up proof that vaccines cause autism in African-American boys?" by Dr. David Gorski at Science Based Medicine, and “Andrew Wakefield Tortures History” at Harpocrates Speaks. These, together with links therein, show to my satisfaction why this conspiracy claim is more heat than light. As the first post by Gorski shows, the "new analysis" fails for multiple reasons, including using small numbers for statistics (a big no-no), applying statistics incorrectly, and not even employing an actual statistician for the analysis. There are other very serious problems as well, all of which are laid bare in those posts.

I'll note that the conspiracy theory is endorsed by Andrew Wakefield—called a fraud by the BMJ, guilty of scientific misconduct, and father of the modern anti-vaccine movement. That right there is enough for me to be extremely suspicious of it. Coupled with the evidence outlined above? Done.

To be clear: Although it’s been tested over and again, no causal connection has ever been found between vaccines and autism … and it’s not just the CDC and other U.S. facilities that have worked on this; it's been an international effort.

Stuff like this used to make me really angry, but now it makes me sad. Diseases like measles, pertussis, chicken pox, and polio are dangerous, and they’re making a comeback, in no small part due to misinformation spread by anti-vaxxers

I know that many of the people making these claims are honest; they're speaking from their heart out of concern for their children. As a parent and a human being, I’m concerned about this as well. And that’s precisely why I write about the realities of vaccines: They are extremely effective, and their risk is incredibly small compared with their benefits. Conspiracy theories like this new one have the potential to do a lot of damage. Ironically, by avoiding vaccinations, the people it’s likely to hurt are the very ones their parents are trying to protect.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Noctilucent Time-Lapse

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 06:30

Man, that’s a weird title.

But it’s accurate enough. I’ve written about noctilucent (literally, “night shining”) clouds a few times recently. These weird, high-altitude clouds appear to be more common in recent days, and it’s not clear why (global warming is one culprit). But they are visible just after sunset and before sunrise, lit by the Sun that to us on the ground is below the horizon. They take on a shimmering, silvery cast, and are quite stunning.

Astrophotographer Göran Strand caught some in late July, and took some fascinating all-sky time-lapse video of them that shows their motion:

Neat! You can see lower-altitude (aka “normal”) clouds moving in from the east, contrasting with the much higher noctilucent ones.

These are still on my to-do list of must-see clouds, together with roll clouds and a big scary mesocyclone forming over the Midwestern plains. And an aurora, come to think of it. And a total solar eclipse, sure. And finding my own meteorite.

I’m not picky; any order of these will do. As bucket lists go, this seems doable. I have my feet on the ground ... but my head in the clouds.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

“Everybody, Remember Where We Parked”: Choosing a Landing Site on a Comet

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 05:00

The Rosetta spacecraft successfully rendezvoused with the comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August, and has been tagging along with the weirdly-shaped double-lobed dirty iceball ever since. It’s been taking extraordinary pictures and making lots of other measurements, sending them back to the Earth over 400 million kilometers away.

Scientists are poring over the data; not just to study the comet for science, but also to prepare for the next big step in the mission: Setting the lander Philae down on the surface.

Choosing a landing spot is difficult. There needs to be something interesting going on there, since the lander is loaded with scientific instruments that will poke and probe its immediate environment (including drilling down into the surface and analyzing what it finds). But the lander needs to be kept safe, too. That means the terrain (cometain?) needs to be relatively smooth; boulder fields may prove to be somewhat hazardous. But the comet spins once every 12 hours, and lighting conditions can change radically also, affecting the long-term science planning. I expect the surface itself will need to be thought through carefully; the lander will anchor itself using harpoons shot into the ground, so a light fluffy material may not provide the traction needed.

After looking over the images sent back, an initial ten landing potential landing sites have been narrowed down to five. The regions are indicated in the picture at the top of this post (note that the letters are not a ranking; the original ten were just lettered A – J). The OSIRIS camera was used to get better close-ups of the regions for examination. Here’s spot A:

This one is on the bigger of the two lobes, and has the advantage of being a good place to observe the smaller lobe, too. This looks like a place where loose material has flowed down, given how smooth it appears. However, there could still be small depressions of other hazards here, so the examination continues.

Here’s landing spot B:

I’m guessing they won’t go with this one; the presence of so many large boulders means landing could be difficult. But the area above the boulder field does look pretty smooth.

These are images taken at one given time, and more are being taken to investigate the areas under different lighting conditions as the comet rotates. That will highlight things like bumps, pits, and so on, as the shadows change.

The decision will have to be made soon; Philae is scheduled to deploy in November. Rosetta is already dropping down toward the comet; the initial 100-km standoff distance has been lowered to 60 km, and it’ll get closer yet before sending Philae on its way. I’m getting pretty excited by all this! The images and data we’re getting now are already quite amazing, but they’ll get far better as the probe nears the surface.

And then, finally, as Philae heads for the comet, we’ll see what one of these things looks like up close and very personal.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

What the Treatment of Two American Prisoners Tells Us About the ISIS-al-Qaida Grudge Match

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 08:11

In July 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaida’s second-in-command, penned a letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then leader of the network’s Iraqi affiliate. The letter, intercepted and later released by U.S. intelligence officials, contains some instructions and admonitions for the terrorist protégé. Specifically, Zawahiri addresses al-Qaida in Iraq’s well-publicized practice of beheading prisoners. Zarqawi’s personal participation in these videotaped executions had earned him the moniker, “sheikh of the slaughterers,” but the older terrorist leader felt the globally distributed gore would undermine al-Qaida’s popular support:

Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable—also—are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

Zawahiri goes on to say that al-Qaida is in a “media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma”—the international Islamic community—and recommends killing captives by bullet if necessary.

Zarqawi would be dead a year later, but this week we got some evidence that the fundamental disagreement over tactics expressed in the letter still persists. Just days after ISIS—the successor organization to Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq—released a video showing the beheading of one captured American journalist and threatened to kill another, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s “official” affiliate in Syria, released American writer Peter Theo Curtis, who had been held in Syria for nearly two years.

The details of the deal have not been made public. According to the New York Times, Curtis' family were told by Qatari mediators that no ransom was paid, though it seems likely the group received some concession for his release. Al-Qaida and its affiliates have turned the ransoming of Western hostages into quite a tidy business, taking in more than $125 million in revenue since 2008, mostly from European governments who are more willing than the U.S. or Britain to pay ransoms. Intercepted documents from al-Qaida leaders show how central this revenue has become to the network’s operations.

Nusra’s more pragmatic approach, a few days after an ISIS video that seemed deliberately evocative of Zarqawi-era beheadings, shows that the old disagreement over tactics still persists, and has only gotten more public since the al-Qaida and ISIS formally severed ties earlier this year.

This goes beyond just beheadings. Zawahiri’s letter also advised AQI against its emphasis on attacks against Iraq’s Shiite community, arguing that it was counterproductive to the larger goal of global jihad. As we’re reminded daily, Zarqawi’s successors see their priorities differently.

Obviously, none of this implies that Zawahiri is in any way “moderate,” even compared to ISIS, but there is a basic disagreement on priorities and tactics that’s important to keep in mind at a time when ISIS is challenging al-Qaida Central’s global leadership.

Zawahiri has been conspicuously quiet since ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi provocatively declared himself “caliph” of a new Islamic State in July. His last statement on the conflict was in May when he advised ISIS to stop fighting against other Jihadist groups in Syria and return to the Jihad in Iraq. In July, al-Qaida released an old video of Osama Bin Laden discussing the establishment of a caliphate in what seemed like an implied critique of Baghdadi’s claim to the throne from Zawahiri–Bin Laden’s chosen successor.

With a few exceptions, major al-Qaida affiliates don’t seem to be in a rush to recognize Baghdadi’s caliphate. Experts are divided as to whether this means al-Qaida central is still the most important player in the global jihadist movement or if Zawahiri is simply fading into irrelevance as various regional offshoots vie for supremacy.

The last time around, Zawahiri’s warnings to Zarqawi were ultimately vindicated. A year later, the Iraqi leader was dead and the Iraqi public—Sunnis included—turned against his group and its brutal tactics, helping U.S. and Iraqi forces to push it underground. But quite a bit has changed since 2005 and this dispute is far from settled.   

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Ferguson Officer Who Arrested Reporter in McDonald’s Is Being Sued for “Hog-Tying” a 12-Year-Old

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 07:31

One of the Ferguson police officers who arrested a reporter for failing to leave a McDonald's earlier this month is being sued for allegedly choking and "hog-tying" a 12-year-old boy, the Huffington Post says. (The HuffPo writer who was arrested, Ryan J. Reilly, is co-bylined on the report.) The incident occurred when the officer, Justin Cosma, worked for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

According to a lawsuit filed in 2012 in Missouri federal court, Justin Cosma and another officer, Richard Carter, approached a 12-year-old boy who was checking the mailbox at the end of his driveway in June 2010...The pair asked the boy if he'd been playing on a nearby highway, and he replied no, according to the lawsuit. Then, the officers "became confrontational" and intimidated the child, the lawsuit claims. "Unprovoked and without cause, the deputies grabbed [the boy], choked him around the neck and threw him to the ground," it says. The boy was shirtless at the time, and allegedly "suffered bruising, choke marks, scrapes and cuts across his body."

Cosma and Carter, the suit alleges, then accused the 12-year-old of resisting arrest and assaulting a law enforcement officer, charges that were not pursued by the county prosecutor.

Another Ferguson officer, Eddie Boyd III, left the St. Louis city police department after credible accusations that he had pistol-whipped a 12-year-old girl and a boy who was a high-school freshman, HuffPo reported last week.

Read more Slate coverage of Ferguson.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Study: People Don't Want More Apps

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 07:04

Google and Apple's mobile platforms each boast about 1.2 million apps right now, and the race to develop hit apps never stops. But using data from the digital analytics firm comScore, Quartz points out a surprising trend: Most smartphone owners in the United States download zero apps per month.

Actually, maybe it's not so surprising. How often do you download a new app? For most of the non-tech journalists I know, zero in a typical month sounds about right. And the comScore data shows that 65.5 percent of smartphone users in the United States are doing—or not doing—the same thing.

In total, the people who download more than none represent about a third of smartphone users. (8.4 percent download one app per month; 2.4 percent download eight or more apps per month.) Clearly people use apps all the time, because comScore reports that users spend 42 percent of the total time they're on their smartphones in their single most-used app. So perhaps people are downloading the set of apps they want and then pretty much sticking with them long term, or they don't want to dig through the junk to find quality apps they might like.

The latest thing in apps should be fewer apps.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Watch Beyoncé’s Flawless Performance at the VMAs

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 05:19

Though MTV’s Video Music Awards are ostensibly intended to honor the year’s biggest names in music with a handful of “moonmen” statues, it’s generally the GIFs and memes generated from the night that are most talked about. And at this year’s show there was no bigger viral spectacle than Beyoncé, who closed out the VMAs with a flawless, 16-minute medley of songs from her 2013 self-titled album with her husband, Jay Z, and daughter, Blue Ivy, in the crowd.

The two then joined a tearful Beyoncé on stage to present the “greatest living entertainer,” as Jay Z called her, with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. (During the presentation, Blue Ivy audibly congratulated her mother in the most adorable way possible, saying, “Good job, mommy.”) You can watch the entire performance above, and a particularly touching moment from the acceptance speech below.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Are Humans Any Good at Pheromones?

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 05:07

Excerpted from Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships by Jennifer L. Verdolin. Out now from Prometheus Books.

As if your face, your eyes, your symmetry, your hair, your waist, your teeth, and sometimes even your feet weren’t enough, there’s even more going on than meets the eye, and this other consideration may just be the ultimate deciding factor in initial mate attraction—it’s how you smell. When discussing mating systems with my students, I always tell them, “It wasn’t that you saw each other across the room; you smelled each other!” There is one man I know who I could probably smell a mile away. And I mean that in a good way. For me, his natural scent is so thoroughly intoxicating that I can barely think when I am around him. Worse still, I am like a basset hound when it comes to sensing his presence in my environment, and I am convinced it is because I smell him before I see him!

The idea that one can become inebriated by the natural smell of another is not as strange as it may sound. Both males and females of many species succumb to the scent of desire. Just look at the delightful, pudgy, brown lemming male: He has a keen sense of smell when it comes to the ladies. It’s a rough life for lemmings. They are pretty much on the bottom of the food chain, and they only live for about a year and a half. Not one for dillydallying, this little rodent packs a lot into that short life span.

Despite living in the arctic, lemmings are active all year round. With the clock ticking down, there is no time to hibernate for these guys. Females can have several litters a year, raising anywhere from four to nine babies at a time. Females have the uncanny ability to sniff out better mates, and their noses lead them right to the dominant male. Have you ever walked into a room and said, “Boy, you can just smell the testosterone in the air?” Apparently this is what female brown lemmings are discussing as well.

Male lemmings not only have a knack for smelling females that are ready to mate but also for smelling those that haven’t already mated with another male.

When females mate with multiple males, it is harder for males to be sure of their paternity.

Male lemmings try to get around this by detecting whether a female has already mated. This, of course, implies that males leave a chemical calling card that other males can detect. From beetles to bees and lizards, females do give off a different scent if they have already mated or if they are ready to mate.

What does all this chemical calling card stuff have to do with us? Lo and behold, we are just as sensitive to the scent of the opposite sex as the humble lemming. Humans can discriminate odors in just a single whiff, which at a minimum takes approximately 400 milliseconds. Like male beetles, bees, lizards, lemmings, and a whole suite of other species, men can discern the scent of a woman ready to become pregnant.

They find the smell of sweat from women who are close to ovulation more pleasing and even sexier.

And not just their body odor, men also prefer the voice, the complexion, and basically everything about a woman near ovulation. The thing is, men know women are ovulating because they can smell it, but they don’t know that they know!

One of my friends swears by this phenomenon. She claims that she gets a lot more attention from men right before she begins ovulation. Whether it is holding the door open for her, buying her a cup of coffee or a drink, or being asked out, like bees to honey the men flock to her, only to disappear again once she passes that magical time. Women, the same holds true for us. When we are ovulating we strongly prefer the scent of a male, but not just any male, a more symmetrical male.

Beyond the simple fact of whether one prefers certain scents, there is increasing evidence that how an individual smells, the person’s pheromone signature, if you will, may be linked to that person’s genetic health—specifically, his or her immune or disease-fighting genes. These are known as major- histocompatibility-complex, or MHC, genes. By distinguishing at a cellular level between self and other, they are involved in identifying and fighting off invading pathogens.

Mothers, fathers, and close relatives like grandparents and aunts and uncles have been shown to be able to identify the odor of a related infant compared with an unrelated one. In the case of fathers and other relatives, they can do this even if they have had no prior exposure to the baby! When we look to animals, we find similar results. Individuals seem to be able to tell the difference between relatives and nonrelatives based on smell alone. And it is largely thought that this is due to the scent one gives off based on the particular set of MHC genes you have.

While this is fascinating—and potentially a topic for another book—what does this have to do with finding and choosing a mate? Studies with lab mice reveal that, all other things being equal, individuals will choose a mouse mate that is most dissimilar in the MHC genes.

This phenomenon extends far beyond the lab. One of the cutest species I have had the pleasure of studying is the gray mouse lemur. This nocturnal primate, native to Madagascar, is small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, reminding me of a miniature Topo Gigio, an Italian television puppet character popular when I was growing up.

Looking at gray mouse lemurs in the wild reveals that their mate choices are also MHC-dependent.

The benefits of this are twofold. First, they avoid mating with relatives, and second, by combining different genes from two parents, offspring have the maximum diversity in their disease-fighting genes. This second benefit may help offspring survive better when fighting off infections and disease.

I mentioned that mothers and other close relatives can distinguish the smell of a related versus nonrelated infant, but does this extend to detecting the best genetic match based on MHC composition? Yes, indeed. Just like paper wasps, the house mouse, seabirds, primates, and countless other animals, human females have a stronger sexual interest in the odor of males who differ from them on the MHC-gene level. Even more interesting is that in already-paired couples, women were less sexually responsive to and had fewer orgasms with partners who had similar MHC compositions.

Perhaps this is why some men are constantly obsessed with whether or not a woman has an orgasm? As if that weren’t bad enough, closely MHC-matched couples also engaged in a higher number of extrapair copulations. Translation: more cheating.

Similarity of MHC composition may also explain why some couples have difficulty getting pregnant, and it may even explain the frequency of spontaneous abortions.

With nature guiding the way and with such severe consequences, how do we ever end up mismatched?

One argument for how we end up mismatched is that we don’t have the capacity to detect MHC composition using our olfactory ability, especially since we lack the Jacobson’s organ, which is found in the nasal cavity of many animals. This organ is first in line when it comes to olfactory sense and processing. Next time you see your cat smell something and hold its mouth open with upper lips curled and teeth exposed in what is called the flehmen response, you can bet something tweaked its Jacobson’s organ.

Although you may never have heard of it, scientists have been hotly debating whether you have a Jacobson’s organ, or vomeronasal organ. This mysterious and contentious organ is the secondary sensory organ of the accessory olfactory system with specialized neurons that process chemical cues, separate from those associated with primary olfactory processing center. Interestingly, fish lack this accessory organ, suggesting that perhaps, life on land may have been the impetus for the evolution of the Jacobson’s organ. Where, if you have one, would you find this special structure? Depending on the species, it can be located at the base of the septum or in the roof of the mouth.

So who has it and who doesn’t? As usual, except for fish, there is no simple answer to this. Since we are primates, let’s just investigate what’s going on with this group. For the families that include bush babies and lemurs, also known as the strepsirrhine primates, we find a fully functional, anatomically complete vomeronasal organ. In the catarrhine primates, like macaques, it is generally absent, or reduced, with some indeterminate function.

When we start looking at the group that includes tarsiers, monkeys, apes, and us, things get a little messier. Perhaps ironically, this group, the haplorhine primates, literally translates in Greek to mean “simple-nosed” primates. Some species have it, some species don’t, some have it but it doesn’t work, and more importantly, throughout the order, its size is greatly reduced. For instance, both night monkeys and spider monkeys have a Jacobson’s organ, but it is not functional in the spider monkey.

When it comes to humans, it is clear that developing embryos have a Jacobsen’s organ which then seems to disappear. In adults a depression, or pit, consistent with the Jacobson’s organ is present at least on one side of the nasal cavity about 2 centimeters up into the nostrils, but it looks more like a remnant structure. So is this pit, or pits if you are one of a few that have it bilaterally, a functional Jacobson’s organ, or is it just a leftover of our evolutionary past?

There are a few things to consider. First, the epithelium tissue lining these depressions in humans is not well-developed. Second, there is a lack of sensory neurons that even if the tissue were functional could connect it to the brain, sending along whatever chemical information was being perceived. Third, and perhaps more importantly, almost all of the genes involved in protein expression of a functional vomeronasal organ are pseudogenes in humans dating back as far as 23 million years ago— around the time we went our separate ways from Old World monkeys. What are pseudogenes? They are dysfunctional copies or relatives of functional genes. Put simply, they don’t work.

But why all the fuss? What does this little organ actually do? Some have suggested that its purpose is solely for the detection of pheromones, or hormones involved in a variety of social functions, from recognizing individuals to mate selection. The implication then being that we, and other species that lack a functional Jacobson’s organ, cannot detect, process, or even respond to pheromones. That is quite a leap. Indeed, we have other genes, separate from those linked to this touchy organ that are involved in detecting pheromones. Not surprisingly, they are linked to the main olfactory system. MRI studies have shown that molecules involved in discriminating between “self” and “other” odors, called peptide ligands, activate not just the vomeronasal organ in animals but also parts of the brain. Though humans lack the organ in our noses, we certainly have brains, and these same molecules, when we smell them, light up the same area in our brains, too. This then means that regardless of which camp you fall into, the “we do” or the “we don’t,” the scales are tipped in favor of our ability to detect and respond to pheromones. So sniff away because even if we don’t have a functional Jacobson’s organ, we have noses with lots of neural connections to our marvelous brains with which to process information in the very functional main olfactory system we do have.

However, this brings us back to the question then—why do we end up mismatched?

It might have something to do with birth control pills. The irony, or perhaps tragedy, of hormonal birth control is that it interferes with how a woman’s nose knows. When women take birth control pills, some studies suggest that this natural ability to discriminate between similarity and differences in MHC composition may be disrupted. The research isn’t entirely clear, but this could cause women to be more sexually attracted to the odor of males with MHC genes more similar to themselves. Not the best match.

I was discussing this with my friend Stacey, who exclaimed, “That must be why I couldn’t stand the smell of my ex-husband!” She went on to explain that when she met her first husband she had been taking birth control pills. Several years into their marriage, after she discontinued the pill, not only was she unable to get pregnant, but she no longer cared for the smell of her husband.

My advice: sniff a potential mate. I personally like the neck. Good for smelling babies and good for smelling men. If you are not on birth control and he (the man, not the baby) passes the sniff test, then that is just one more step toward finding a potentially good mate.

Excerpted from Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships by Jennifer L. Verdolin Out now from Prometheus Books. 

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Photos of 1920s Philadelphians, Hanging Out on Their Stoops

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 05:00

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

Photographer John Frank Keith wandered Philadelphia in the 1920s, capturing scenes of people in front of their houses. The photographs tightly frame groups of people—drinking, playing, babysitting, hanging out—against backdrops of South Philadelphia brick and concrete. The Library Company of Philadelphia offers a great set of Keith images on its Flickr page, as well as a digital exhibition of his work.

The Library Company writes that Keith was a friendly loner who never married. He had a day job as a bookkeeper and hobbies including “stamp collecting, keeping the beat with marching music on a phonograph, making and setting off fireworks, and reading the World Book Encyclopedia.”

He used a simple camera to make his images, curator Merry A. Foresta writes, a choice that “dictated a consistent distance from his subjects.” As a result, there is a sameness to the images, which focuses the viewer’s eye on changing details of dress, facial expression, and attitude.

While other photographers of his day—Walker Evans, Lewis Hine—photographed everyday people as a way of commenting on society’s ills, Keith, who left very few records, appears to have thought of his project as simply a way to meet people, be a part of the neighborhood, and earn some small amount of money from subjects who paid for copies of his images.

Thanks to reader (and photographer) Christopher Boas for the suggestion. 

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

SpaceX and ESA Suffer Launch Problems

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 04:45

It hasn’t been the best week for uncrewed space launches.

On Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, SpaceX was testing a new configuration of their F9R vertical launch and landing rocket — essentially a Falcon 9 first stage booster adapted to land on its tail after launching a payload into space — when something went wrong. It was already a few hundred meters in the air when the software onboard detected the malfunction and aborted the mission by exploding the rocket. This is done to prevent the possibility that an out-of-control rocket might fly off and injure someone.

To be clear: This was an uncrewed rocket, no one was hurt, and it was a test flight to try out some new tech. Footage of the launch and explosion is easy to find online; here’s one from BBC Brasil:

I’ll note that most of the video I found was copied from other sources, and original footage is difficult to find. Hopefully SpaceX will release better video soon. They did issue a statement:

Earlier today, in McGregor, Texas, SpaceX conducted a test flight of a three engine version of the F9R vehicle (successor to Grasshopper). During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission. Throughout the test and subsequent flight termination, the vehicle remained in the designated flight area. There were no injuries or near injuries. An FAA representative was present at all times. With research and development projects, detecting vehicle anomalies during the testing is the purpose of the program. Today’s test was particularly complex pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test. As is our practice, the company will be reviewing the flight record details to learn more about the performance of the vehicle prior to our next test.

They haven’t yet said what exactly went wrong. SpaceX will provide another update when the flight data has been fully analyzed. I have to wonder how certain members of Congress will react when the news is released…

Anyway, I think Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, said it best:

SpaceX was scheduled to launch AsiaSat 6 into orbit on a Falcon 9 today, but after the test problem this new launch has been pushed back to Wednesday, Aug. 27. The hardware involved is very different, but they want to make sure there’s no risk to the AsiaSat 6 mission.

In other news, a European Space Agency launch didn’t go according to plan either. The mission was to put the first two Galileo global positioning satellites into orbit, but the rocket put them into the wrong orbit. It’s not clear that the satellites’ on-board propellant is sufficient to get them into the correct orbit, either, which means they would be “deemed useless”.

Galileo is the European version of the American GPS satellites, with 30 satellites set to eventually comprise the entire fleet. This failure to get them into orbit is a serious issue; the same rocket system is planned to launch four more pairs, but that will have to be put on hold until the problem is resolved. A dozen more satellites are planned to be launched by a different rocket sometime later.

So, this has been a rough week for space travel, but these things happen. No one was hurt, which is good, and hopefully the problems will be analyzed, understood, and quickly fixed.

This is, after all, rocket science.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

How Big of a Problem Is Space Contamination?

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 03:24

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Robert Walker, writer of articles on Mars and space:

For me, the No. 1 issue that is rarely discussed is contamination of the solar system by Earth microbes and of Earth by samples returned from space. It is not so much that the issues are not discussed at all. There are many papers and workshop reports about them. The problem is that they are rarely discussed by the public and are ignored in news reports. So there is hardly any public awareness of these issues.

The planetary protection officer Cassie Conley goes to schools to talk about these issues to spread awareness, and other things are done to try to help spread awareness. All the reports say this, often asking the question: What can we do by way of outreach to get more public discussion of these issues?

I think journalists can help by covering these issues and not just report human missions to the solar system as if they had no planetary protection issues. I also think many people don't know that Mars, for instance, is listed as a planet that needs to be protected from Earth microbes in the planetary protection guidelines. It is one of the top three targets that need to be protected, including Europa and Enceladus. That's the direction of "forward contamination."

Then, in the other direction, the Earth itself needs to be protected. You may remember the way that the astronauts and lunar samples from the moon were quarantined on return to Earth. Those measures were soon dropped, as we realized that the moon almost certainly has no present-day life at all. But the precautions we took were so inadequate that if there had been life on the moon able to infect our oceans, Earth would have been infected right away, as soon as the astronauts splashed down from Apollo 11. They simply opened the hatches  and took the astronauts to the waiting ship in an open boat at sea. Although the astronauts had decontamination suits on, no effort was taken to stop the air and dust in the cabin from spreading out over the sea. You can see it here. Hopefully we can do better than that with Mars.

It may seem like science fiction, but so did mobile phones a few years ago. We are seriously considering returning samples from another planet  to Earth, and there is a possibility that these samples could contain alien life. Not alien as in Alien the movie. But alien as in they may have novel biochemistry not related to Earth life at all or branched off before our earliest known ancestor or has been separated from Earth for millions or billions of years. They may have evolved new traits.

The U.S. and Europe both have made detailed studies to find out whether and how we can receive any Mars samples safely, and both came to the conclusion that we need to build a specially designed receiving facility. Nobody has ever built a facility like this before. It goes way beyond anything required of any normal biohazard laboratories, and estimates for its cost—including the design—run into hundreds of millions of dollars. If we plan to receive samples some time in the early 2020s, we should have already started work on its detailed design or should start on it very soon, because it needs to be operational for some years so the staff get used to procedures before samples are returned. It seems a clumsy, costly way to ensure protection of the Earth from a tiny half-kilogram box of samples from Mars. But that is what the studies recommended. The U.S. went so far as to commission design studies for the facility, such as this one for an enclosed facility fully automated with telerobotics to make sure that there is no connection at all between the outside world and the interior.

Their studies concluded that it would need to be a new type of building, as it has to both protect the samples from Earth life and the Earth life from the samples. What's more, the samples have to be contained at a sub-microscopic level—there may be hazardous particles that are about an order of magnitude too small to be seen with our best optical microscopes, which must not be released into the Earth environment. They recommended that it is designed around a probability of release of a 10 nm particle of less than 1 in a million. The smallest particles we can see with an optical microscope are 200 nm with "diffraction limited" observation.

I think we are doing this back to front, and we need to find out what is there before we return to Earth—study it in situ with instruments we now have that they didn't have for Apollo. Then depending what we find, we will only return it with extreme caution. If it is larger DNA-based life, which we have already sequenced and know a lot about before we return it, then we may not need to take so many precautions. And if we don't find life or are pretty sure there is no life there at all, that's a different situation. Our modern instruments can detect a single amino acid and the most subtle signatures of life. So, with present-day technology, it's totally feasible to do it this way around. Indeed, that is the plan for ExoMars.

But in any case, the public has to be involved. Scientists are proposing taking a risk here, and their plans are not 100 percent reliable. It's a tiny probability of escape—and even less likely that whatever escapes is harmful. But how reliable is that probability assessment first? What about design errors? Most of our spacecraft designs have flaws in them at one point or another, so what if there is a flaw in this design also? What about human error? Impatient researchers taking the sample out at an early stage because they are so keen to do the science or accidents taking it to the facility? The official reports do not take this into account; they mention these issues but don't try to assess them, as it is not their "design brief." Should we take a 1 in 1 million or a 1 in 1 billion or even a 1 in 1 trillion chance with something that in worst case could impact billions of human lives?  

Carl Woese, who first classified the Archaea said in an interview:

When the entire biosphere hangs in the balance, it is adventuristic to the extreme to bring Martian life here. Sure, there is a chance it would do no harm; but that is not the point. Unless you can rule out the chance that it might do harm, you should not embark on such a course.

Carl Sagan thought that we should not take such a risk. He said that he'd want to be really sure that the plans would work and contain the sample before considering returning a sample to Earth. Sagan wrote in his book Cosmic Connection:

Precisely because Mars is an environment of great potential biological interest, it is possible that on Mars there are pathogens, organisms which, if transported to the terrestrial environment, might do enormous biological damage — a Martian plague, the twist in the plot of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, but in reverse. This is an extremely grave point. On the one hand, we can argue that Martian organisms cannot cause any serious problems to terrestrial organisms, because there has been no biological contact for 4.5 billion years between Martian and terrestrial organisms. On the other hand, we can argue equally well that terrestrial organisms have evolved no defenses against potential Martian pathogens, precisely because there has been no such contact for 4.5 billion years. The chance of such an infection may be very small, but the hazards, if it occurs, are certainly very high. … The likelihood that such pathogens exist is probably small, but we cannot take even a small risk with a billion lives.

This is a decision we can't leave to scientists. They are keen to make new scientific discoveries, and to them, if they can show that there is a far less than a 1 in 1 million chance of something happening to humanity as a result, then it is well worth the almost infinitesimal risk to make the biggest scientific discovery of the last century, or so they think.

But the general public might not agree here. They might feel, like Carl Sagan, that: "The likelihood that such pathogens exist is probably small, but we cannot take even a small risk with a billion lives." And there are many different views on all this. There are biologists who say that we don't need to return a sample at all at this stage, which then at least puts off the question until we find out more. Whatever we finally decide, this has to be decided in full and open public debate.

The official reports stress the need for public debate:

Considering the global nature of the issue, consequences resulting from an unintended release could be borne by a larger set of countries than those involved in the programme. It is recommended that mechanisms dedicated to ethical and social issues of the risks and benefits raised by an MSR are set up at the international level and are open to representatives of all countries.

The theologian Richard Randolph put this especially strongly in his study:

... the problem of risk — even extremely low risk — is exacerbated because the consequences of back contamination could be quite severe Without being overly dramatic, the consequences might well include the extinction of species and the destruction of whole ecosystems. Humans could also be threatened with death or a significant decrease in life prospects. In this situation, what is an ethically acceptable level of risk, even if it is quite low? This is not a technical question for scientists and engineers. Rather, it is a moral question concerning risk. Currently, the vast majority of the people exposed to this risk do not have a voice or a vote in the decision to accept it. Most of the literature, on back contamination is framed as a discourse among experts in planetary protection. Yet, as I've already argued, space exploration is inescapably a social endeavor done on behalf of the human race. Astronauts and all the supporting engineers and scientists work as representatives of the human race ... In this situation, to treat  persons with dignity and justice means that everyone must have an opportunity to voice their opinion concerning whether humans should accept the risk ...

Nobody is trying to hide anything here, I'm sure. It just doesn't "grab the news" and is the less interesting kind of aspect of space exploration. I'm not sure what we can do. It is not the sort of thing that hits the news. But I think it doesn't help that none of the news stories even mention this need for a full debate about whether they should do this at all and whether it is worth doing.

The same is also true for the forward contamination issues. This should be mentioned in all the news stories about human colonization of Mars. It needs to be explained that nobody has yet worked out a method for human exploration of Mars that is consistent with the needs for planetary protection. That should be common knowledge for everyone who knows about the subject. But instead, almost nobody realizes this. I don't blame the journalists particularly—they are fed press releases and they don't mention it. And NASA doesn't talk about it—almost nobody does. Just a few such as the planetary protection officers, on the few occasions they are interviewed and hit the news. If anyone talks about sending astronauts to Mars, he or she should be asked, What are your plans for protecting Mars from contamination by Earth microbes? so we can get a chance to look at the plans as soon as possible.

If there's talk about returning a sample to Earth, then we should be asking: How do you intend to protect the Earth? What is your target probability for contaminating the Earth, and how confident are you that it can be achieved? What is the worst-case scenario, and do you have any estimated probabilities for that? It is our decision, not a decision forscientists. In the final analysis, they are exploring space for us—and answer back to us.

More questions on Quora:

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Dave Chappelle Returns to Hartford for a Surprise Stand-Up Show

Sun, 08/24/2014 - 17:25

Exactly one year ago, Dave Chappelle quit stand-up. Or that’s what it seemed like: during his Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival Tour, Chappelle did a set at Hartford, Conn., that went downhill very quickly. After sparring with the audience—a rowdy crowd that Chappelle would later call “a room full of white people” and “young, white alcoholics”—the comedian abandoned his act and was eventually heckled off stage. On Saturday night, Chappelle made a surprise return to Hartford: after a Louis C.K. set, Chappelle walked on stage to massive cheers and delivered a short but raucous act that seemed to wash away any bad blood between the comedian and the city.

Chappelle seemed surprised at the audience’s warm reception, and starts the set by noting that “I did not think I would ever come back to Hartford.” After apologizing for his “immature” reaction to last year's fiasco, he launches into some typically hilarious bits on fighting a lesbian and having sex with an older woman. Enjoy.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines