Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Epidemic of Political Proportions: Smearing Science by Stomping on Ants

If you're as interested in science and medicine as I am, you've no doubt noticed the latest rash of political attack ads and, indeed, a conservative culture with a decided strain of anti-science smears.

It's not enough that science has to be constantly justified. No, friends, the ultimate litmus test for entry into the ranks of the GOP might be that a conservative politician must utterly pillory science, reason, and erudition in the process, via the political attack ads. (Welcome to the continuing idiocracy of the Unitud Stayts of Dumberica!)

Tea Party Doesn't Know at What Temp H2O Boils, Only Their Blood

As Southern Fried Science's own David "WhySharksMatter" (@WhySharksMatter on Twitter) so ably pointed out in "The Tea Party's Disturbing Views About Science" here:

"The Tea Party movement is anti-science. They believe global warming to be a hoax. They believe that evolution isn’t real. They are against stem cell research. They are against science-based regulation.

In our political system, decisions are made by those who show up. The outcome of the 2010 midterm election will affect United States science policy."

This is the Bit Where the GOP Stomps on Research

Indeed you are correct, Southern Fried Science (SFS)! Showing up at the anti-science soapbox of late is the National Federation of Independent Business, or "the voice of small business."(R) Friend to American Crosshairs--ready, aim, blow all that useless science and medicine out of the water, patriotic Amur-cans!--oh, I mean American Crossroads, a Karl Rove-inspired dinktank.

In a recent New York Times article by Ashley Parker titled "Big Spending By Republican-Friendly Groups," here, she writes:
"On Wednesday, the National Federation of Independent Business also went live with its 'Stop Wasting Our Money' issue-advocacy campaign, attacking nine Democratic incumbents in the House — Jerry McNerney of California, John Salazar of Colorado, Russ Carnahan of Missouri, John Hall and Bill Owens of New York, John Boccieri of Ohio, Christopher Carney of Pennsylvania, John M. Spratt of South Carolina and Ron Kind of Wisconsin."

Now, observe the accompanying "Stop Wasting Our Money" video. (In my case in the Midwest, we were treated to the anti-Russ Carnahan strain.)

Anything insidiously tunnel through your brain and threaten to trigger a meltdown? For me, it was overwhelmingly the slam that $1.9 million was spent to study ants in Africa. Goodness knows, that was so much worse than the "more than $3 million" spent on these 30-second spots that will run for 10 days (New York Times).

Science Slurs, Like Racism, Shall Not Pass; Defending the Ants

Let's have a moment of silence for science, shall we? Actually, let's not. Because this science slur shouldn't be allowed to pass without note (for silence could imply consent), as the scientists at the Southern Fried Science blog, as well as the Bad Astronomy blog by Phil Plait (more on that in a moment), have pointed out.

Let's instead take up the mantle of science, worn by researchers from Mendel to Mendeleev to Marie Curie to Mandelbrot, the latter lately passed. Here goes, such as it is by this medical editor, mom, and science aficionado.

According to Political Correction (an arm of the Media Matters Action Network), a similar attack ad that attempts to squash the ant research ran in September against Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). In it, American Crossroads GPS (the aforementioned drove of Rove lovers) takes aim at the Recovery Act's effect on Coloradans.

"The first example dealing with ants is in reality a $1.9 million grant to the California Academy of Sciences to send researchers to the Southwest Indian Ocean Islands and east Africa to chronicle some of most exotic of the 22,000 ant species worldwide. The stimulus money created 16 jobs in the process. The principal researcher on the project ["The Ant Hunter" Dr. Brian Fisher] said, 'Consider that the collective weight of all the ants in the world is equal to the weight of all the world's humans. It's a big subject with a big impact. That alone makes ants worthy of scientific study.' "

Dr. Fisher, who was a budding botanist, later switched to entomology after unforgettable experiences with insect-laden "rain" in the tropics. His research, including that into so-called Dracula ants, can be explored further here.

As a non-entomologist, I'd have to agree that this science is important, apart from the results, whether in terms of human repercussions or not. But in terms of the outcomes ... What if this information contributed knowledge to gird against (further) species loss, thus safeguarding biodiversity? What if it even had human implications, such as research into disease processes involved with cancer or Alzheimer's or AIDS or, gasp, autism spectrum disorders? What if it spoke to the mountain of evidence in support of anthropogenic climate change and offered an actionable way to help ant species and, in so doing, Homo sapiens sapiens?

Oh, that's right. Republicans don't seem to want to support science (or healthcare, but that's another matter). It doesn't make money or give jobs, so they say. As Phil Plait re-iterates in his exclusive rebuttal/interview with climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann (Mann finally being allowed to address Rep. Joe "I'm so sorry that you lost all those precious profits, friends at British Petroleum" Barton's Gollum-esque comments from the WaPo from last week), "And I’ll remind you, every single one of the Republican Senate hopefuls this election season is against taking any action about climate change."

Yes, that's the same Barton who accepted $1.7 million from the oil and gas industry, making him the highest-paid fossil fuel shill Congress has had in the last 20 years (Reuters, via Bad Astronomy blog).

Lying and Teabaggers and Fruit Flies, Oh My! Or 2010: An Anti-Science Odyssey

Lest you think this anti-science outbreak is "so 2010" in a Republican party besieged by a sea of teabaggers, perhaps you might remember the story of the Carter-era solar panels on the White House, circa 1979, or his 1977 tax credits for installing said panels on American homes, or his support thrown behind energy research--all "the real meat of Carter’s energy initiatives" (The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media).

Never mind Carter's sweater-clad "Sun Day." Vilified then and dismantled by Reagan, Jimmy Carter's solar panels and his policies are now lauded as forward-thinking.

How about the parable of the "lowly" fruit fly?

What? You don't remember that?

Okay. After you've looked at the videos at the SFS site, about Christine O'Donnell's denialism of evolution and global warming, recall that in October 2008 a then-unknown vice presidential hopeful from Alaska had these insults to level at science in a talk about, of all things, people with "special needs":
"You've heard about some of these pet projects they really don't make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." (quote discussed and Palin video footage of the quote are provided at A Blog Around the Clock)

It turned out that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was criticizing research into Bactrocera, a crop pest par excellence seen at right, bottom--and not research workhorse Drosophila on the right, top--the latter of which has implications in human neurological health (Knight Science Journalism Tracker). The former has repercussions in agriculture. Please, how much more American, salt-of-the-earth, and middle class can you get than farmers?!

Palin's son, Trig, as everyone knows by now, is just such a special needs individual with Down syndrome. He might someday benefit from the results of just this kind of research. Pot, meet kettle.

But never mind that.

Best to throw out the baby fly with the sugar water, yes?

Fight the Treasonous Anti-Reason Epidemic Sickening the Nation

If you are the least bit reason-inclined, please remember the science--and scathing attacks on it from the right in the form of political attack ads--when you go to the polls in a few weeks.

Not only does science provide jobs, but it saves lives and has at least some of the power needed to help us understand and eventually save, I am hopeful, this pale blue dot and its plethora of species.

Please vote to end this burgeoning idiocracy (or idiotocracy, if you prefer).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Musician Peter Gabriel to Appear Free on DIRECTV August 21

Blog Post © 1 Woman Wordsmith, Leigh Ramsey, August 2010

I have long been (note: please pronounce it "bean" in true Brit style!) penning my own "Book of Love"-style paean to musician Peter Gabriel. Talk about "Love Town"!

So, anyway, when I read a tweet this morning that this--let's be balanced--poetical song-writing genius will be premiering in a Guitar Center "Session" on DIRECTV Channel 101 and in 3D on Channel n|3D on Saturday, Aug. 21, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, it was as if I had met the supernatural anesthetist himself. And, lemme tell you, he KILLED!

Peter Gabriel: First Rebel-Frontman of Progressive Rock Band Genesis

Gabriel, for those of you who don't or won't remember the 1970s and 1980s, was the outside-of-the-"Musical Box"-thinking frontman of 1970s progressive pioneers, British band Genesis. With his mates from Charterhouse School in Surrey, England, he formed Genesis (almost called "Gabriel's Angels," among other monikers), whose most memorable early line-up featured skinsman extraordinaire Phil Collins behind the kit; J.S. Bach with a Moog, Tony Banks; Mike Rutherford keeping the pace on the bass; and the Les Paul-inspired guitar god Steve Hackett.

Earlier this year, Genesis were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with The Stooges and frontman Iggy Pop, ABBA, and others--though this Gen-fan will note it was a distinct disappointment that neither did Gabriel appear with his mates to "ride the scree" nor did the one-man-short band play at the induction ceremony, likely owing to Collins' notoriously wonky back.

Gabriel himself is perhaps best remembered, if not for outlandish costumes such as a hemorrhoid or a gigantic flower-faced man or his reverse Mohawk hairstyle during his Genesis days through 1975, then for 1980s mega-hits "Sledgehammer," "Big Time," and "Shock the Monkey," or perhaps the haunting anti-apartheid anthem, "Biko" or wedding favorite "In Your Eyes."

Gabriel Not Just "Big Time" Soloist; He's Father, Humanitarian, & Businessman

What you might not know is that he also formed a record company, Real World Records, to suffuse the musical spheres with world music and its interesting polyrhythms, implicit social conscience, and danceable tunes from Afro-Celt Sound System to Daby Touré to Dengue Fever and Syriana (to name but a few). Oh, and he inaugurated several admirable projects, from the dance-and-music melange WOMAD to Witness, the latter of which aims to get video cameras into the hands of ordinary people worldwide to document human-rights abuses.

So, besides fatherhood, Gabriel has been a very "Big Blue Ball" busy man of late. Will you be tuning in to watch him on "Sessions"? I'll be there with my bells on when "Supper's Ready." After all, would you expect any less from a woman who deliriously wailed "Winston Churchill dressed in drag/He used to be a British flag" during the birth of her first child?

In the end, I'd like to leave you with the lovely-beyond-words (and I'm not even religious!) "Here Comes the Flood," a clip from the "Sessions," erm, session. Although longtime musical sounding board Tony Levin is not there with his amazing bass-kicking rig, Gabriel still has it with simple voice and piano. "Waves of steel held metal at the sky" ... "stranded starfish have no place to hide/still waiting for the swollen Easter tide"?

In my eyes, PG = Pure Genius.

Peter Gabriel appearing as the Moonlight Knight with Genesis (from the album "Selling England By the Pound," circa 1973. Photograph courtesy of a royalty-free Wikimedia Commons image via Creative Commons.

The Author's Children Graciously Posing with a Portion of the Family's Genesis, Gabriel, and Real World Records memorabilia
The author's daughter likes to dance to Genesis, but here she's looking pensive with part of the family's Genesis/Gabriel collection. The song "Selling England by the Pound" (from the same-titled Genesis album) begins with a "sad" flourish, according to this tot.

The author's son, she hopes, will "grow up" to appreciate both Genesis and Peter Gabriel someday, as well as Real World Records artists such as Afro-Celt Sound System (lying face-down in the left foreground).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Perseid Meteor Shower, Planetary Alignment This Week Promise 2010's Best, NASA Suggests (Skymaps, Photo)

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/
When a new planet swims into his ken;"
--From John Keats, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer"

This article © Leigh Ramsey, August 2010, for 1Woman Wordsmith. All rights reserved.

What can I say? I love mythology, and I love the stars. Ad astra per aspera!

Both interests have hitched their wagons to me since girlhood.

This week, I am sincerely hoping a heroic Perseus will brandish sword & shield in the sky to provide a magical, mystical skywatching experience, minus that whole bit about decapitating Medusa.

So far, earlier last evening (Aug. 11, approx. 9 p.m.), I could not see any streaking stars from the grand Perseids meteor shower promised to be at its height this week.

However, I did get a good gander at an extra-bright and beautiful triune of planets just reverberating, no doubt, toward a perfect alignment.

According to NASA's Science News, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and the crescent Moon are poised to "pop out of the western twilight in tight conjunction" on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010.

That's today, skywatching friends and fiends alike!

Planetary Alignment is Only a Part of the Sky-Show for Early Morn, Aug. 13
Not only am I hoping to have some none-too-sophisticated video and photographs--bear with me, as my equipment is a point-and-click digital camera and a simple HD videocamera--to add in the next couple days, but, like you, I am following multiple media about the aurorae created by the solar tsunami of the last couple weeks and other astronomical happenings.

I hope to be bringing you further details from the media that I read, as well as my own observational reports and art and, for that matter, I fully welcome your observations and pointers to your own art of the impending Perseids shower.

I must admit, I am atingle. No, not with Spidey sense, but with a busy buzziness about the, I hope, Brobdingnagian conjunctive planetary and sky-based bang just crackling down the wires toward Earth for its denouement on Aug. 12 and 13, 2010.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is similarly enthusiastic. In its handy guide, "How to See the Best Meteor Showers of the Year: Tools, Tips and 'Save the Dates'," which you can view in its excellent entirety here, they effuse: "The Perseid meteor shower is one of the most consistent performers and considered by many as 2010's best shower. The meteors they produce are among the brightest of all meteor showers."

The Perseids, as their name implies, originate in the constellation Perseus and, as such, are the hoped-for bang to the evening of Aug. 12 and the early morning (dawn hours) of Aug. 13.

The planetary alignment is viewable with the naked eye; to that end, NASA's Science News again provides the accompanying skymap.
One need only look to the western sky and note the three planets hugged together within an approximate 10-degree (diameter) circle until about 10 p.m. Let's call these planets The Graces, in keeping with the mythology theme! (But kindly note that the Graces do not correspond to Venus, Saturn, & Mars in Greco-Roman myth.)

Comet Swift-Tuttle Touted as Perseids Enter Sky Scene
The Perseids, fascinatingly, are remnants, or ice-and-dust crumbs if you will, of the comet 109P Swift-Tuttle and most debris bits are "over 1,000 years old" (NASA). Think of it this way: The Earth swashbuckles through the pesky debris trail left behind by Swift-Tuttle. So, in this sense, the sword is brandished, except it's in the form of our planet. Skywatching Columnist Joe Rao aptly summarizes thusly: "The Perseid meteor shower 'shooting stars' are the remnants of Comet Swift-Tuttle, which last visited the inner solar system in 1992. Every August, like clockwork, our planet Earth cuts through the 'river of rubble" left behind along the orbit of the comet."

Cosmic Log's Alan Boyle, yet another science writer who should be in your RSS feed or, at the very least, your Facebook Friend, also illustrates it well--"meteor showers occur when our planet plows through a trail of space grit left behind by a comet. Those bits of grit zip through the upper atmosphere at speeds of more than 125,000 miles per hour, lighting up a trail of ionized air." Do make sure to see MSNBC's interactive graphic accompanying Mr. Boyle's article to whet your appetite for a plateful of Perseids.

No Risk from Perseids Shower Aug. 12 & 13, 2010
Never fear, skywatchers, for there is no risk from these seeming shooting stars in a planetwide pinball-like atmosphere. Bill Cooke, director of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and who is quoted in Mr. Boyle's article, more than a week ago snapped a bright fireball from his laboratory that demonstrates the burning up of this comet "grit." And what of that "gritty" experience of raging against the dying of the light? This shooting star burned up some 56 miles above Earth, far from harming us, as the sparkleshooter "self-destructed" with brightness many times the brightest planet (Cosmic Log).

"If you want comfort, this is the shower to see": NASA
I cannot promote enough Cosmic Log's helpful tips for meteor-viewing, including Cooke's, erm, recipe for meteor-viewing success and comfort all folded into one scrumptious experience. And even if you can't view the meteor shower because of time constraints, foul weather or clouds, or being too close to the city, you needn't fear.

That's because you and your ears and eyes can feast on live video feeds or recorded audio of the meteor show. Now, aren't you sorry you're a Neo-Luddite?

Live feeds can be found many places, but I'm going with Cosmic "logger" Alan Boyle's recommendations to watch the cameras of NASA's own Cooke, whose equipment should be cooking up--sorry; I couldn't resist--images aplenty here. Mr. Boyle also generously points readers to some haunting audio of meteor crumbs passing in the night, sounding every bit like sonar blips.

But seriously, dear readers, people around the globe are chiming in with their amazing astrophotographic treasures, such as Tamas Ladanyi of Taliandorogd, Hungary, who shared a photo that I'm reproducing here on a small scale thanks to Space Weather's gallery. You can visit Space Weather, which is an excellent site that I've found as a sometime-skywatcher who is just now learning the physics and astronomy-laden lexicon, here.

Mr. Ladanyi reports to Space Weather that he took the shot, for those photography or travel buffs among you, "over the ruins of St. Andrew church. I used three frames in order to align this panorama image ... [of] Jupiter, M31 and Milky Way. Canon 500D, Sigma 2,8/10 objective at ISO 3200, 45 sec."

Into this arena, I hope to make my own humble Perseid-vid entry. As for our camera, I am much less hopeful. Readers, care to share your galleries; you can point us to them in the comments section. And much obliged in advance, astronomy amigos!

How Do I Positively Punctuate My Viewing Pleasure with Perseids Aplenty?
Several experienced sources offer handy tips in this regard. I will summarize them briefly so you can be off--no binoculars, telescopes, or other sensitive equipment should be needed, unless you count bug spray or a towel or chair--to see the wizardry the cosmos has to offer.

NASA's Science News:
1. The year 2010 offers good views of the "Perseids because the Moon won't be up during the midnight-to-dawn hours of greatest activity."
2. "As Perseus rises and the night deepens, meteor rates will increase. For sheer numbers, the best time to look is during the darkest hours before dawn on Friday morning, Aug. 13th, when most observers will see dozens of Perseids per hour.
3. This NASA Skymap is "Looking northeast around midnight on August 12th-13th. The red dot is the Perseid radiant. Although Perseid meteors can appear in any part of the sky, all of their tails will point back to the radiant." Thank goodness for NASA!
4. For best results, take a trip to the countryside, far from the madding crowd of city lights. "The darkness of the countryside multiplies the visible meteor rate 3- to 10-fold. A good dark sky will even improve the planetary alignment, allowing faint Mars and Saturn to make their full contribution to the display."

Cosmic Log's advice:
1. Nota bene that "Higher elevations are usually better than lower elevations. ..."
2. "For help in site selection, you can check out the Clear Sky Chart website, which provides weather conditions for skywatching ... and links to popular viewing locations" [including star parties!] from state to state.
3. Bring a towel, blanket, or chaise lounge; cold [nonalcoholic] drink; bug spray--and a friend!
4. If you're easily bored, you can bring tunes.
5. Be patient and persistent for prime planetary and Perseids perspectives!
6. Who-who said night owls don't have it good? The later you stay up, the more you reap the spoils of viewing! You might begin to see some streaking Perseids at approximately 9:30 p.m. where you are, "and those 'Earth-grazers' tend to leave the longest, most impressive trails. But the show doesn't get good until after midnight, and the peak usually comes just before morning twilight begins."
7. "To get a better sense of what to expect at which time, use NASA's Fluxtimator," not to be confused with the "flux capacitor" of the Back to the Future movie franchise. You can use a pull-down menu to enter the correct coordinates for meteor shower, date, your location and viewing conditions (such as city or countryside), and then "the Java-based calculator charts what the estimated meteor flux will be at different times." Thanks again, Cosmic Log and Mr. Boyle!
8. View other tips and tricks of the seasoned scientists and skywatchers at Cosmic Log.

To See, Perchance to Dream
As we all pause and persist to view the Perseids' splendorous fusion of sky and stars, let us also remember science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein's cogent rejoinder: "The Earth is too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in."*

*Disclaimer: I also blog at on matters of science, medicine/health, frugality, ecology, Shakespeare, books, politics, and parenting (among others).