Pluto: Still a planet, always a planet.

Poor Pluto. I wrote a detailed essay about my feelings back in 2014, before New Horizons had gotten close enough to reveal the stunning images of Pluto and Charon that it painstakingly sent back at 38 kbps.

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Pluto and Charon. ©2015 NASA

Yeah yeah, I get it. Science moves on. Clyde Tombaugh discovered the Kuiper Belt; Pluto is just another trans-Neptunian object that happened to get captured, and not even the biggest. There are doubtless many more large ones yet to be discovered.

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But Pluto was a part of the public’s consciousness as a planet for 76 years – from 1930 when Dr. Tombaugh discovered it, until it was reclassified by the IAU, a move that was opposed by many scientists and astronomers.

I even wrote to Mike Brown, who has referred to himself as “the man who killed Pluto,” and expressed my feelings that for historical reasons, Pluto should have been “grandfathered in” as a planet; he was kind enough to reply, and explained that while he understands why I and others feel emotionally attached to Pluto, the IAU took an opportunity to make planetary classification meaningful instead of arbitrary, which is scientifically more important than nostalgia.

But I’m still sad. And I’m not the only one. Dr. Maggie Lieu, a research fellow at the ESA (European Space Agency) recently posted on Twitter,

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The cleaners took Pluto down, but he was quickly replaced:

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And the current status is this: (If you can’t read the text, it says

  • Don’t worry, Pluto! We dwarf planets will be your friends.
  • Yes, those stuck-up full planets are the 1% living in their “cleared neighbourhoods” and oppressing the rest of us with their unequal distribution of mass.

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I accept the science, but the IAU’s designation is, after all, just academic nomenclature – and whatever the scientists of today or the future choose to call Pluto, for me it will be the 9th planet in our solar system, Sol IX, forever.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

PS: One of my all-time favorite Woot! shirts, “Gardening at Night.”

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Climate change: The time for talk is over

The Internet is a huge thing. I try to stay abreast of world and current events, but without a positronic brain, I sometimes miss things.

Today came to my attention an article that was posted at reddit three years ago, and a stunning commentary by an ecological scientist. You know, the real thing – with degrees and experience and stuff, not just 45 minutes of reading something on Fox News.

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It needs to be shared.

The article at Business Insider carries the lede, “Two of the world’s most prestigious science academies say there’s clear evidence that humans are causing the climate to change.”

What’s more impressive was the comment left by user /u/tired_of_nonsense, which I replicate here with the writer’s express permission. If you care about this island Earth we live on, it’s worth the read, in full.

Throwaway for a real scientist here. I’d make my name, research area, and organization openly available, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t like getting death threats.

I’m a perpetual lurker, but I’m tired of looking through the nonsense that gets posted by a subset of the community on these types of posts. It’s extremely predictable.

  • Ten years ago, you were telling us that the climate wasn’t changing.
  • Five years ago, you were telling us that climate change wasn’t anthropogenic in origin.
  • Now, you’re telling us that anthropogenic climate change might be real, but it’s certainly not a bad thing.
  • I’m pretty sure that five years from now you’ll be admitting it’s a bad thing, but saying that you have no obligation to mitigate the effects.

You know why you’re changing your story so often? It’s because you guys are armchair quarterbacks scientists. You took some science classes in high school twenty years ago and you’re pretty sure it must be mostly the same now. I mean, chemical reactions follow static laws and stuff, or something, right? Okay, you’re rusty, but you read a few dozen blog posts each year. Maybe a book or two if you’re feeling motivated. Certainly, you listen to the radio and that’s plenty good enough.

I’m sorry, but it’s needs to be said: you’re full of it.

I’m at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu, sponsored by ASLO, TOS, and AGU. I was just at a tutorial session on the IPCC AR5 report a few days ago. The most recent IPCC report was prepared by ~300 scientists with the help of ~50 editors. These people reviewed over 9000 climate change articles to prepare their report, and their report received over 50,000 comments to improve it’s quality and accuracy. I know you’ll jump all over me for guesstimating these numbers, but I’m not going to waste more of my time looking it up. You can find the exact numbers if you really want them, and I know you argue just to be contrary.

Let’s be honest here. These climate change scientists do climate science for a living. Surprise! Articles. Presentations. Workshops. Conferences. Staying late for science. Working on the weekends for science. All of those crappy holidays like Presidents’ Day? The ones you look forward to for that day off of work? Those aren’t holidays. Those are the days when the undergrads stay home and the scientists can work without distractions.

Now take a second before you drop your knowledge bomb on this page and remind me again… What’s your day job? When was the last time you read through an entire scholarly article on climate change? How many climate change journals can you name? How many conferences have you attended? Have you ever had coffee or a beer with a group of colleagues who study climate change? Are you sick of these inane questions yet?

I’m a scientist that studies how ecological systems respond to climate change. I would never presume to tell a climate scientist that their models are crap. I just don’t have the depth of knowledge to critically assess their work and point out their flaws. And that’s fair, because they don’t have the depth of knowledge in my area to point out my flaws. Yet, here we are, with deniers and apologists with orders of magnitude less scientific expertise, attempting to argue about climate change.

I mean, there’s so much nonsense here just from the ecology side of things:

User /u/nixonrichard [+1] writes:

Using the word “degradation” implies a value judgement on the condition of an environment. Is there any scientific proof that the existence of a mountaintop is superior to the absence of a mountain top? Your comment and sentiment smacks of naturalistic preference which is a value judgement on your part, and not any fundamental scientific principle.

You know, like /u/nixonrichard thinks that’s a profound thought or something. But it’s nonsense, because there are scientists who do exactly that. Search “mountain ecosystem services” on Google Scholar and that won’t even be the tip of the iceberg. Search “ecosystem services” if you want more of the iceberg. It’s like /u/nixonrichard doesn’t know that people study mountain ecosystems… or how to value ecosystems… or how to balance environmental and economic concerns… Yet, here /u/nixonrichard is, arguing about climate change.

Another example. Look at /u/el__duderino with this pearl of wisdom:

Climate change isn’t inherently degradation. It is change. Change hurts some species, helps others, and over time creates new species.

Again, someone who knows just enough about the climate debate to say something vaguely intelligent-sounding, but not enough to actually say something useful. One could search for review papers on the effects of climate change on ecological systems via Google Scholar, but it would be hard work actually reading one.

TL;DR’s:

  1. rapid environmental change hurts most species and that’s why biodiversity is crashing
  2. rapid environmental change helps some species, but I didn’t know you liked toxic algal blooms that much
  3. evolution can occur on rapid timescales, but it’ll take millions of years for meaningful speciation to replace what we’re losing in a matter of decades.

But you know, I really pity people like /u/nixonrichard and /u/el__duderino . It must be hard taking your car to 100 mechanics before you get to one that tells you your brakes are working just fine. It must be hard going to 100 doctors before you find the one that tells you your cholesterol level is healthy. No, I’m just kidding. People like /u/nixonrichard and /u/el__duderino treat scientific disciplines as one of the few occupations where an advanced degree, decades of training, mathematical and statistical expertise, and terabytes of data are equivalent with a passing familiarity with right-wing or industry talking points.

I’d like to leave you with two final thoughts.

First, I know that many in this community are going to think, “okay, you might be right, but why do you need to be such an ******** about it?” This isn’t about intellectual elitism. This isn’t about silencing dissent. This is about being fed up. The human race is on a long road trip and the deniers and apologists are the backseat drivers. They don’t like how the road trip is going but, rather than help navigating, they’re stuck kicking the driver’s seat and complaining about how long things are taking. I’d kick them out of the car, but we’re all locked in together. The best I can do is give them a whack on the side of the head.

Second, I hope that anyone with a sincere interest in learning about climate change continues to ask questions. Asking critical questions is an important part of the learning process and the scientific endeavor and should always be encouraged. Just remember that “do mountaintops provide essential ecosystem services?” is a question and “mountaintop ecosystem services are not a fundamental scientific principle” is a ridiculous and uninformed statement. Questions are good, especially when they’re critical. Statements of fact without citations or expertise is intellectual masturbation – just without the intellect.

Toodles. I’m going to bed now so that I can listen to, look at, and talk about science for another 12 hours tomorrow. Have fun at the office.

Edit: I checked back in to see whether the nonsense comments had been downvoted and was surprised to see my post up here. Feel free to use or adapt this if you want. Thanks for the editing suggestions as well. I just wanted to follow up to a few general comments and I’m sorry that I don’t have the time to discuss this in more detail.

“What can I do if I’m not a scientist?”

  • You can make changes in your lifestyle – no matter how small – if you want to feel morally absolved, as long as you recognize that large societal changes are necessary to combat the problem in meaningful ways.
  • You can work, volunteer, or donate to organizations that are fighting the good fight while you and I are busy at our day jobs.
  • You can remind your friends and family that they’re doctors, librarians, or bartenders in the friendliest of ways.
  • You can foster curiosity in your children, nieces, and nephews – encourage them to study STEM disciplines, even if it’s just for the sake of scientific literacy.

The one major addition I would add to the standard responses is that scientists need political and economic support. We have a general consensus on the trajectory of the planet, but we’re still working out the details in several areas. We’re trying to downscale models to regions. We’re trying to build management and mitigation plans. We’re trying to study how to balance environmental and economic services. Personally, part of what I do is look at how global, regional, and local coral reef patterns of biodiversity and environmental conditions may lead to coral reefs persisting in the future. Help us by voting for, donating to, and volunteering for politicians that can provide the cover to pursue this topic in greater detail. We don’t have all of the answers yet and we freely admit that, but we need your help to do so.

Importantly, don’t feel like you can’t be a part of the solution because you don’t understand the science. I’ve forgotten everything I’ve learned about economics in undergrad, but that doesn’t stop me from 1) voting for politicians that support policies that appear to have statistical backing aligning with my personal values, 2) making microloans that help sustainable development in developing countries, or 3) voting with my wallet by being careful about the food, clothing, and household goods I purchase. I don’t begrudge the fact that I’m not doing significant economics research, or working at the World Bank, or for the US Federal Reserve. We’ve all chosen our career paths and have the opportunity to contribute to society professionally and personally in unique ways. With respect to climate change – I only work on the ecological aspect of climate change, which means I rely on atmospheric and ocean scientists for models and engineers and social scientists for solutions. We need everyone!

Just try your best to ensure that your corner of the world is in better shape for the next generation when you’re done borrowing it.

t-minus 30 minutes to science

Accepting the reality of human-caused climate change and taking what steps we can to mitigate or at the very least slow it down is an important part of building a world that works for everyone… and every thing.
I’ve posted this before, but it merits inclusion here again, with thanks to Humon.
Gaia
If we don’t do what we need to do now, we’ll be gone – and the Earth won’t miss us.
The Old Wolf has spoken.

Scientific American, Don’t Do This

Recently saw this article on SA’s website about the Dragonfly Galaxy, a mysterious, diffuse star cluster that appears to be made predominantly of dark matter.

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The problem is that the picture on the article is not the Dragonfly galaxy, but rather the Sombrero galaxy. Yes, the caption says this – but clearly Sombrero cuts a much more impressive figure than Dragonfly (seen below.)

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There’s nowhere on SA’s website to give feedback, so I’m obliged to post it here, in the hopes that someone who cares might just possibly see it.

This is called “clickbait,” and even if it’s a very small example, it should be above the standards of this publication. So please, editors and webmasters – have a bit more integrity than this.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

A visit to the new planetarium, and so much more.

Earlier I posted some memories of the old Hayden Planetarium in New York City. As a child it was one of my favorite places to go.

1956, Planetarium 1

Finding myself in New York City once again, I decided to take the opportunity to visit the American Museum of Natural History along with its new Science Center. With one small exception, I was not disappointed.

I started out with a wonderful presentation narrated by the Planetarium director, the illustrious Neil deGrasse Tyson, called “Dark Universe.” It was visually stunning and extremely enlightening. I mentioned to my Facebook group that if Carl Sagan were still alive, and had he been able to see this presentation, it probably would have brought tears to his eyes – such was the respect paid to the wonder of the universe in this beautiful show.

Next on the docket was a visit to a very brief presentation about the Big Bang, narrated by Liam Neeson. Only 4 minutes long, it was light on science but a good introduction to the subject for the many people who come to visit the planetarium.

Leaving the Big Bang theater, one exits the dome and proceeds down a spiral ramp with many exhibits along the way relating to the formation of the universe from the Big Bang to the present day.

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Other exhibits artfully and powerfully illustrate the scale of the universe from the subatomic to the farthest reaches of our observation. On the bottom floor one finds some familiar things: the Willamette meteorite which was salvaged from the old planetarium,

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and many scales embedded in the floor showing your weight at various locations in the universe, such as the moon, a red giant star, the Sun, and a neutron star.

One never stops learning. I was surprised to see that my weight on the “surface” of a red giant star was almost negligible. Had I stopped to think about it, I would have realized that these expanded giants are so large that their photosphere is far, far, from their center of mass, meaning that the effect of gravity is almost nil.

I was crestfallen to find out that the Copernicus room with its amazing clockwork orrery which I so dearly loved as a child no longer exists; the entire building that housed the old planetarium was torn down to make way for the new Science Center, and apparently the mechanisms had stopped functioning as early as 1980. Modern day knowledge and technology has far surpassed the needfulness of the old mechanical device… but it was cool. The planets actually moved in real time, and the glowing orange Sun at the center was captivating. At least I have the memories.

Orrery

Leaving the planetarium, I wandered around the Natural History Museum and reacquainted myself with many of its amazing exhibits. Like the movie in Paris, this is not a building that one can experience in a single day so I had to be selective. I was not, however, disappointed.

The old dioramas in the African mammal room and elsewhere have been lovingly preserved and maintained; they look exactly the way I remember them and are still stunning to consider. These are true works of art.

My first girlfriend, to whom my mother introduced me when I was about four or five, was still there, along with many other wonderful fossils. In the hall of dinosaurs, I learned something new again: the old conventional wisdom that a Stegosaurus had a brain in its ass to control its back end the same way a hook and ladder truck has a second driver is simply not the case. Live and learn: farewell, Brontosaurus. Farewell, butt brain. (But Pluto is still a planet, dammit.)

The museum is now home to one of the largest dinosaur fossils that can be seen by the general public. It’s so long that they had to have its head stick out of one of the exhibit rooms.

“The new, much larger occupant grazes the gallery’s approximately 19-foot-high ceilings, and, at 122-foot, is just a bit too long for its new home. Instead, its neck and head extend out towards the elevator banks, welcoming visitors to the “dinosaur” floor.”20160204_123143

 

 

 

 

The so-called “titanosaur” is so new that it has not yet been officially named, but it certainly makes for quite the sight.

There were so many other things to see. If I were to ever live in New York City again, which given real estate prices is far beyond the realm of possibility, I would certainly become a member and support the museum with regular visits.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

 

The case against lead

Lead-Poisoning

“Mad as a hatter,” went the expression. Alice’s tea party featured “The Mad Hatter,” whose felting work involved prolonged exposure to mercury vapors, resulting in tremors, pathological shyness and irritability.

We still hear a lot about asbestos – it remains on the radar of most Americans, simply because there’s still a lot of it out there in old buildings, and many times a large abatement project will pop up on the news.

We hear less about lead and lead poisoning, however, since lead-based paint was banned in the US in 1978; before that, many children developed signs of lead poisoning, particularly inner-city kids who would ingest paint flakes that had lead added. Lead was completely eliminated from automotive fuels by 1996.

But it appears that lead is still a serious threat; effects of past exposure may include an increase in crime rates, and current exposure through shooting ranges threatens to continue the negative consequences.

Gathered here are a number of articles which should be read and considered, particularly by anyone who works around ammunition; sportspeople, shooters, law-enforcement officers, reloaders, and the like. It is up to the individual to make their own assessments, but from where I sit, it would not be unreasonable to lay at least partial blame for the seeming descent of our society into madness and uncivility on the pervasiveness of lead in our environment.

Read and judge.

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Clair Cameron Patterson. From the Wikipedia article:

Patterson had first encountered lead contamination in the late 1940s as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. His work on this led to a total re-evaluation of the growth in industrial lead concentrations in the atmosphere and the human body, and his subsequent campaigning was seminal in the banning of tetraethyllead ingasoline, and lead solder in food cans.

Patterson met significant opposition for his views, particularly from people such as Robert A. Kehoe, the principal advocate for the use of tetraethyllead as an anti-knock agent in gasoline. In contrast to the “Precautionary Principle” which assumes that there is potential risk to a substance unless proven otherwise, Kehoe claimed that “in the absence of clear evidence of risk there is no risk of significance.” This later came to be called the Kehoe Paradigm, and is essentially the same cognitive dissonance used by tobacco executives in their fight to convince the world that their product was not harmful.

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Robert A. Kehoe

At The Nation, an article entitled “The Secret History of Lead.”

At The Atlantic, a treatise on how the lead industry convinced the public and the media that parents were to blame rather than the toxic substance that they were profiting from:

The lead industry even claimed that the problem was not with the paint but with the “uneducable Negro and Puerto Rican” parents who “failed” to stop children from placing their fingers and toys in their mouths.

Recently, a four-part investigative series at the Seattle Times: “Lead poisoning is a major threat at America’s shooting ranges, perpetuated by owners who’ve repeatedly violated laws even after workers have fallen painfully ill.”

And lastly, an essay at Mother Jones linking gasoline lead to a rise in violent crime. This article does its best to be balanced and rational rather than sensationalistic, and deserves to be considered.

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One pound of lead. The CDC has set the standard elevated blood lead level for adults to be 10 µg/dl of the whole blood. This means that one pound of lead is sufficient to elevate lead levels of 8,247,134 adults. This stuff is rutting toxic.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, and a lot more research would need to be done over time to gain further insight into these ideas. But one thing is clear – people who work at or around shooting ranges need to be extra, extra careful and consider possible ramifications of their exposure to lead.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Gender Bias in the Workplace – an evolving Metastudy

I’m sharing this because it needs to be shared. (The link to the relevant article is at the end.)

  • It’s intriguing and well-considered, and does its best to bring all variables under one umbrella
  • It makes nothing cast-in concrete, but rather presents a wide range of data, reaches certain conclusions, and keeps the door wide open for future modifications based on future data.
  • It shows that feminists today are both brilliantly right and stubbornly wrong, and suggests an alternative course of action for crossing the finish line.
  • It leaves out one glaring variable, although this is probably an oversight because it’s assumed to be obvious: This data is relevant only for America, and other countries’ mileage may vary – although similar meta-studies could be done by interested parties.
  • And, it’s by Scott Adams, the author of “Dilbert” – someone who is not a social scientist, but a man who seems keenly interested, at his core, in a world of fairness that works for everyone.

Here, from my own perspective, is the TL;DR for the entire post (but I highly recommend reading and considering the whole thing):

Feminism currently sends this message to young girls: The world is full of gender bias and male privilege. If you are born a woman, you are a second-class citizen. Adult women are failing to achieve equal pay with men.

Compare that to a message that is just as consistent with the available data but to me sounds more positive: Despite thousands of years of gender bias, women are succeeding in every field that interests them. The gender pay gap has shrunk to the point where we can not identify gender bias as a cause. You are all winners. And all paths are open.

Feminists, I think it is time to take a bow. You won. And the world is a far better place for your efforts. I think I can speak for all men who have mothers, sisters, female friends, female spouses, and female lovers when I say, “Thank you.”

But I also say maybe it is time to stop fighting the last war and adjust your strategy to reflect the reality in 2015.

Adams’ presentation is lay in nature but very unbiased in spirit. His conclusions and the presentation of the data used (summarized at the end of his article, by category) are out there for anyone to review and consider. He has attempted to consider all possible variables, and admits that there are many he hasn’t even touched. And everything he says strikes me as being supremely rational.

There will be feminists out there who snort derisively and dismiss this study because they are convinced that all men are worthless, evil piles of camel ejecta who must be punished, punished, punished! for centuries of patriarchal oppression. These do no good for themselves or for a push toward human equality, and can be safely dismissed.

There will be scientists out there who snort derisively and dismiss this study because it was done by someone unqualified – such is the bane of the ivory tower. Let them do their own studies and come up with something better. That’s how science – even social science – is supposed to work. But I tell you this – I’ve never seen a more honest attempt to be comprehensive and complete and fair.

☛ Now, go and read. ☚

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Never eat chemicals! Uh, wait…

If you listen to the Food Babe Thermonuclear Idiot, that’s what you might come away believing.

But I exhort you to pay no attention to this unqualified attention harlot. Instead, feast your eyes on these chemical breakdowns of “natural” and “organic” foods.

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I have to stretch to pronounce some of the chemical compounds found in these wonderful foods, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad for you. Chemicals are everywhere, they are what everything organic around us is made of.

Yes, we obviously want to avoid things that are known toxins and carcinogens; having a shaker full of hexavalent chromium on your table is probably not the best idea, but you get the picture.

Educate yourselves. Make sure your children educate themselves. Science is doing its collective best to provide accurate information to allow people to build a better world. Please pay no attention to those on the lunatic fringe who base their proclamations on innuendo and fear-mongering for the sake of attention, eyeballs, clicks, and ad revenue.

The Old Wolf has spoken.