Sunday, April 29, 2007

Step It Up

The cool thing about living in DC is it's damn convenient to protest the government. On April 14th, we participated in one of the nationwide National Day of Climate Action events. Our participation mostly consisted of being arranged into words and then photographed by a series of journalists. The message "80% by 2050" refers to the necessary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades. Congress is weighing several bills that would implement serious cuts in carbon emissions - although it's not clear if any of them will ever make it into law.

Laura Jean and I are on the lower right of the final "0" in "2050" -- click the image to see the full-res photo and you can sorta kinda make us out.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Information is Power

There are 1,243 currently listed Superfund sites in the United States and 61 proposed sites that haven't been listed yet. These sites represent the worst toxic waste disasters in the United States, and have thus been singled out for special attention. Since 1980, only 319 sites have been cleaned up sufficiently to be deleted from the Superfund list. The map below contains all 1,623 sites. New Jersey has the most with 115 current and 3 proposed sites.

The Center for Public Integrity has a great site where you can search the map above to easily find the sites in your neighborhood. For what its worth, the EPA website has two similar maps here and here that I found harder to use, but did cough up some more detailed information. For example, here are the four Superfund sites in my hometown of Fresno, CA.

According to the EPA, at least 114 Superfund sites pose immediate health risks to nearby residents -- makes me wonder how many of those people even know that they have a toxic waste site in their neighborhood?

The CPI report alleges that the rate of cleanup of superfund sites has slowed significantly under the Bush administration. Critics ascribe this slowdown to budget cuts and a "lack of political will" at the Bush EPA; in their defense, Bush officials claim this is because the remaining sites are the tough ones, and that the "low-hanging fruit" have already been cleaned-up. CPI also provides a run-down on the 100 worst offenders - including the federal government and infamous polluters like General Electric.

Anyway, good reading. Via the Pump Handle.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sign of the Coming Apocalypse #2702

Ice sheet melting in Greenland has created a new island (dubbed Warming Island by its discoverer) out of what was previously thought to be a peninsula. Via Gristmill, and also check out a map and pretty picture of the island courtesy of the NY Times.

The 'Framing Science' Kerfluffle

Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney have set off quite a to-do in the science blogosphere with articles in Science (full text here, scroll down and link is on the left sidebar) and the Washington Post. They call on scientists to adopt new methods for communicating their results to the wider public -- namely strategic 'framing' of scientific issues. They are both interesting articles and worth the read - as are (some of) the billion tons of electrons that have been spilt in response.

A few thoughts:
  • I confess when I saw Nisbet speak several months ago, my initial reaction was fairly negative. A first glance 'framing' sounds uncomfortably like 'spin.' Science is supposed to lay claim to a less-biased view of reality -- it slowly and methodically uncovers truths about our world and pushes them up to the surface. Should we really throw all that credibility and objectivity away just for the sake of convincing a few more people that evolution or global warming are really real? Does it make sense for scientists to descend to the level of the PR hack?
  • Lately, I've mostly come around to their way of thinking. Like it or not, framing is something that scientists do constantly. We've all fielded The Question from intelligent non-experts: "So what do you study anyway?" It would be nice to be able to explain to them in the fullest of detail the intricacies of your thesis (and some people try!), but in the real world you only have about 5 minutes (and probably less). You would like them to walk away feeling like they learned something, so you simplify, and you try to find a way of making it meaningful and interesting to them. That's framing - it's not evil. Since we already do it, we might as well learn to do it well.
  • Framing isn't a substitute for old-fashioned science education, but improving education will only yield results 20-30 years down the line. N&M's central point is that to impact public opinion about global warming (or evolution or stem cells or whatnot) over the next election cycle a communications game-plan is called for. This is essentially a political strategy (and hence the controversy), but I think the general point still holds. Framing happens whether we like it or not -- frame or be framed.
  • Somewhat amusingly, N&M have prompted some visceral negative blog reactions from the vocal atheist web-community -- notably biologist PZ Myers (here and here). I suspect much of this has to do less with the abstract idea of framing rather than with some of the specific frames they propose. In particular, their criticism of Richard Dawkins doesn't seem to have won them any converts. However the notion that attempting to frame evolution to make it more palatable to the largely religious American public is an unforgivable appeasement of religion strikes me as fairly narrow and silly. But that's fodder for another post.
  • Lastly: Can I just say that I find the entire field of communications research vaguely troubling? Are we all so uninformed and easily swayed by what we hear and read and see? Sadly it seems to be true, and the proof is that advertising works and works well. Our brains are apparently totally defenseless to suggestion and innuendo and, well, framing. Kinda terrifying, if you think about it.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Dragging Delayed

So my first experience with physics research was with the Gravity Probe B project, where I worked part-time for my first few years in college. GPB is a satellite mission, 40 years in the making, designed to measure frame-dragging -- a fairly subtle prediction of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. GPB also amounted to a full-employment program for physics undergrads - at any rate, they allowed me to play around with physics experiments without a lot of pressure to churn out hard results. It was pretty cool introduction to physics research, but ultimately not the sort of project I was really interested in, so I eventually moved on to other stuff.

After going to grad school I realized that many astrophysicists actually held a rather dim view of GPB for a lot of different reasons. Dan Holz has an excellent post that explains the science behind the project, and some of the discontent.

Anyway, after 40 years of planning they finally launched the sucker in 2004 and were planning to unveil their Big Result this past weekend when suddenly ... they decided they needed more time to finish the exam. I guess what's a few more months of waiting after 40 years.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Mexico City

Here are a handful of my pictures from my late-November trip to Mexico City -- posted for your pleasure a mere 4 months late. The rest of the pics can be found here (snapfish login required).

The trip was a ton of fun and Mexico City is an amazing, endless city -- both beautiful and real at the same time. (Above are skeletons from the Frida Kahlo "Blue House" museum.)

Flying into Mexico City we could see Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl, the legendary twin volcanoes overlooking the Valley of Mexico...

... however, most of the city was covered in a thick layer of brown haze. The metropolitan area has nearly 20 million people (3rd largest in the world behind Seoul and Tokyo) and a terrible air pollution problem.

My old college roommate, Julie who has been living in Mexico for six years now, met me at the airport and we had lunch overlooking the Zocalo, the central square of the city. Here, within yards of each other, you can find the city's Aztec past at the Templo Mayor, the legacy of Spanish colonialism in the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Palace, the hub of modern Mexico's government. In other words, tourist central.

Julie, overseeing the hubbub below.

A peaceful courtyard at the National Palace.

Julie riding the subway with a really awesome clown.

Here's the Metropolitan Cathedral, looming over some Communist flags (yep that's Marx in Stalin in the photos) and peacock feathers used by a group of traditional dancers.

The Zocalo is also home to all manner of political protests, and Mexican politics have been pretty interesting lately. Protest encampments lined the streets to draw attention to a variety of issues: from the bitterly disputed 2006 presidential election to the current uprising in Oaxaca to the continuing relevance of the Zapatista movement in Mexican politics.

Thousands of street vendors selling anything you could want.

Bustling street life, outdoor markets selling to tourists and locals alike.

The reason for the trip is that Starflight, the 3-d astronomy museum exhibit I helped pull together, was being shown at the Laboratorio Arte Alameda, and we were all invited down to help with the installation and attend the opening.

Here we have Starflight in action. The highlight of the trip for me was speaking (in my halting Spanish and their halting English) with the folks who came to opening. People generally thought it was pretty cool and we had some fun conversations -- there's nothing quite like describing abstract astronomical concepts in a second language to a group of artists.

One great thing about Mexico are the literally hundreds of gorgeous Diego Rivera murals dotting the city. Above is El Arsenal, prominently featuring Frida Kahlo as a worker...

... while this is Man, Controller of the Universe, mostly famous because the original was supposed to have been painted at the Rockefeller Center in New York, but was destroyed by John Rockefeller because of its explicit pro-Communist message (which was the subject of the movie, Cradle Will Rock).

By far the coolest things I saw in Mexico were the pyramids at the pre-Aztec city of Teotihuacan. Keith and I grabbed an early morning bus out to the site (about an hour outside of D.F.) and we mostly had the pyramids to ourselves for several hours. This is Keith descending the Pyramid of the Sun.

The smaller, but more ornate, Pyramid of the Moon.

Me on top of the Pyramid of the Moon.

A beautiful (if smoggy) sunset from my hotel room.

Behold! A winged cow!

Sadly, I only had a few hours to zoom through the fabulous National Museum of Anthropology, when I bet you really need a few months to do it justice.

These guys are Totonac indians performing the voladores rite, which is a really cool, if trippy, native tradition where they hang upside down and rotate around while playing music. The rumor I heard was that the Spaniards brutally stamped out many aspects of Aztec culture, but they let this one survive because they incorrectly thought it wasn't religious.

And lastly, I have to say D.F. has a subway system that is both one of the most extensive I've ever seen (outside NYC) and completely overwhelmed by the number of people who use it daily.

Can't wait to go back...

Monday, April 02, 2007

Burning Bright

I just had to pass on these three videos. Dark, very dark (as they say) - but also strangely beautiful. The second is my favorite.

Papillon D'Amour (Butterfly of Love)



(via Neil Gaiman.)