Category Archives: Science

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I owe you all an apology. I didn’t realize until today there was no easily available subscription form on the blog. I’ve long wondered why the number of subscribers was so incredibly low. Now I know.

Frankly, I don’t have as many readers as I’d like to have. That’s understandable. After all, most people disagree with most of the things I say. But there are plenty of you that I would expect considerably more than four subscribers!

I’ve fixed the problem now, and I apologize for letting it go for so long. At the top of the sidebar on every page is now a sign-up form for a FREE subscription to this blog.

Just enter your email address and press the button, and I’ll send you a notice with a few paragraphs every time I make a post.

You’ll never miss a post again.


PHILOSOPHY is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.
METAPHYSICS is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.
THEOLOGY is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there, and shouting, “ I found it!”
SCIENCE is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that may or may not be there . . . using a flashlight.
From the Internet

And that’s no joke. Sorry.

Happy Birthday, Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins

On this date in 1941, evolutionary biologist and freethought champion Richard Dawkins was born in Nairobi. His father had moved to Kenya from England during the Second World War to join the Allied Forces and the family returned to England in 1949.

Dawkins graduated from Oxford in 1962, earned his doctorate, became assistant professor of zoology at the University of California at Berkeley 1967-1969 and a fellow of New College in 1970.

The Selfish Gene, his first book, published in 1976, became an international bestseller. It and the award-winning Blind Watchmaker were translated into all major languages.

His other books include The Extended Phenotype (1982), River Out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) and A Devil’s Chaplain (2003). His 2006 iconoclastic book, The God Delusion, which he wrote with the public hope of turning believing readers into atheists, became a bestseller in both the UK and the U.S.

Dawkins has held the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science since 1995, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997. He is married to actress and artist Lalla Ward, who has illustrated several of his books and other works.

Dawkins has advanced the concept of cultural inheritance or “memes,” also described as “viruses of the mind,” a category into which he places religious belief. He has also advanced the “replicator concept” of evolution.

A passionate atheist, Dawkins has coined the memorable term “faith-heads” to describe certain religionists. Since his remarks in The Guardian (Feb, 6, 1999): “I’m like a pit bull terrier being released into the ring, as a spectator sport, to attack religious people . . .,” Dawkins is now affectionately known as “Darwin’s pit bull.”

Dawkins, a vice president of the British Humanist Association, was named Humanist of the Year in 1999. He is the 1997 winner of the International Cosmos Prize, and received an Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2001. His column for The Observer (“Children Must Choose Their own Beliefs,” Dec. 30, 2001) pointed out: “We deliberately set up, and massively subsidise, segregated faith schools (Note: In the UK, where he lives). As if it were not enough that we fasten belief-labels on babies at birth, those badges of mental apartheid are now reinforced and refreshed. In their separate schools, children are separately taught mutually incompatible beliefs.”

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he eloquently warned in a Guardian column, “Religion’s Misguided Missiles” (Sept. 15, 2001): “To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.”

Photo by David Shinbone under CC 3.0

“My respect for the Abrahamic religions went up in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th. The last vestige of respect for the taboo disappeared as I watched the ‘Day of Prayer’ in Washington Cathedral, where people of mutually incompatible faiths united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place: religion. It is time for people of intellect, as opposed to people of faith, to stand up and say ‘Enough!’ Let our tribute to the dead be a new resolve: to respect people for what they individually think, rather than respect groups for what they were collectively brought up to believe.

—-“Time to Stand Up,” written for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Sept. 2001. See Dawkins’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

– See more at:

Be wary of this man.

blame I think this may be the guy I wrote about yesterday. Remember? The one who said, “God is watching over us” while eleven people died? Be wary of this man.

I just found this guy’s picture on Facebook and thought I ought to post it here, because you probably know him. If not, you almost certainly know somebody like him.

He’s conservative; he probably votes Republican, though he’ll tell you he’s politically independent; and he thinks the United States is a Christian nation, even though our Constitution never mentions Christ. He loves sinners–well, except maybe faggots and godless, atheistic secular humanists–and wants to save them from themselves and the world from them. He honors the presidency of the United States, but despises our President; and he loves our country so much he wants to tear up the Constitution and establish a theocracy. By force, if necessary.

He’ll tell you climate change is “the biggest fraud ever perpetrated against the American people,” even as we complete the hottest year in the history of climate studies. He’ll lie to your face and claim it’s not true that 13 of the 14 hottest years on record have been since the turn of this century and the other one was 1998. He’ll laugh about the possibility that sea level could rise enough to notice, even while small island nations prepare to be swallowed up by the waves.

He’ll say that “if you tell your kids they came from animals, they’ll act like animals.” Then he’ll claim we were all made out of dirt.

This man is a Fundamentalist. What makes him dangerous is not just that he’s so wrong about so many things, but that he’s absolutely certain he is right about them. Ask him what could potentially shake his faith in his beliefs and he’ll probably answer truthfully, “Absolutely nothing.” He is so certain, in fact, that he wants you to live your life according to the dictates of his conscience.

Saudi Arabia is ruled by men just as certain of their wrong ideas. Iran is ruled by men just as certain of their wrong ideas. North Korea is ruled by a man just as certain of his wrong ideas. America needs leaders who get their ideas and ideals from science and reason and compassion, and who understand they might be wrong about anything they believe and willing to learn better.

Be wary of this man. Be very wary of this man



Here Come the Geminids

Geminids - Asteroidal debris rains down on Earth during the Geminid meteor shower 2014.


Photographer Neil Zeller made this spectacular composite last year, northeast of Calgary, in Canada, capturing the Milky Way, several Geminids, and a beautiful green aurora on the horizon. All the meteors come from the same direction, because they’re part of the Gemini system. There could have been an occasional meteor not of this system and coming from a different direction, but not in this picture.

They come from the direction of the Gemini constellation (hence their name), and radiate away from that point in all directions. It’s a perspective effect, like driving through a tunnel and seeing the lights all come from the same spot ahead of you and streak past you on the sides.

The annual Geminid meteor shower lasts several days, but is only visible at night (barring something unusual and spectacular, of course.) Tonight, Sunday, December 13, and early tomorrow morning, the shower will be at its most intense.

A meteor shower happens when Earth moves through a trail of debris left behind by a comet, usually. The Geminids are the only known exception, being debris in the orbit of an asteroid. Asteroid 3200 Phaethon, to be specific.

In Phaethon’s long elliptical orbit around the sun (shown below), it almost falls into the sun from way out near Jupiter’s orbit. It scrapes past the sun far below the orbit of Mercury and gets so close to the sun that bits of it vaporize and blow pieces of rock off. Each little shard moves as fast as 40 kilometers/sec (or 86,000 mph). This is fast enough that, as a few of them scream through our atmosphere, they heat up instantly and glow. We see them as blazing streaks of light and call them “shooting stars.”

Orbit of the dead comet:asteroid 3200 Phaethon

This year will be exceptionally good, because the Moon will be new and won’t wash out the night sky. This will make fainter meteors easier to see.

Watching a meteor shower is pretty easy. Basically, all you have to do is go outside, look up, and be patient. Shooting stars are largely random, so you might not see any for a while. Then you’ll see several in a row. The important thing is to be patient. Any time after about 10 p.m. local time should be fine, but you’ll see the most after midnight. That’s when the Earth will be facing into the oncoming meteor stream.

Some general notes for viewing Geminids

  • It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to get adapted to the dark; longer for an older person. So you may see few meteors right away. Or even none.
  • Make sure street lights are blocked and your house lights are off.
  • White light from a flashlight, street light, car, or window of a house will wipe out your night vision all over again for another 20 minutes. Be prepared with a flashlight with red cellophane covering the lens in case you need light. This will preserve your night vision. Or using a red flashlight app on your smartphone ought to work.
  • Avoid nearby buildings or trees that will block your view of the sky.
  • Make sure you’ll be warm and comfortable.
  • No telescope or binoculars needed. Just use your eyes.

About 1:00 a.m., Jupiter will rise in the east and provide an additional treat.

Slate’s “Bad Astronomer,” Phil Plait, says this:

Asteroids orbit the Sun for billions of years, and you’re seeing tiny parts of them—most no bigger than a grain of sand—as they slam into our atmosphere a hundred kilometers (60 miles) above you at speeds of up to 40 kilometers per second (86,000 mph). How cool is that?

He adds that the most important things to remember are your joy and wonder.

Joy and Wonder

These may be the best things to bring, and the easiest. Meteor showers are simply wonderful. It’s a cosmic show, and IT’S FREE, and it’s very, very cool.

I agree.


Remembering Pearl Harbor

Remembering Pearl Harbor

Sneak Attack on Pearl Harbor: A Day of Infamy

It was seventy-four years ago today, December 7, 1941, at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time. 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes in two waves, launched from six aircraft carriers, attacked without warning. attacked the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor, damaging eight battleships and sinking four of them, and  killing 2,403 Americans and wounding 1,178.

They also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, one minelayer, and 188 American aircraft.

pearl harbor newspaper

Because the attack was a surprise and the Americans were completely unprepared, the Japanese Empire only lost 29 aircraft and five midget submarines; and 64 of them were killed. One Japanese sailor,Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured.

All American battleships but the Arizona were later raised, and six were returned to service and went on to fight in the war.

The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941 was the immediate cause of the United States’ entry into World War II.


V774104: The Solar System’s new most distant object

Artist’s concept of trans-Neptunian object V774104 beyond the Kuiper Belt, with the dim sun in the distance

Scott Sheppard (Carnegie Institution for Science), Chad Trujillo (Gemini Observatory), and David Tholen (University of Hawai’i) discovered a new object in the distant reaches of the Solar System last month and designated it Object V774104. V774104 lies 103 au away in the direction of west-central Pisces — that’s 9.6 billion miles or 15.4 billion km. This would put it almost three times as far away as Pluto, and even well beyond the Kuiper Belt. Sheppard announced the discovery at last week’s meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.

Prowling the outer Kuiper Belt for large, distant members of our solar system has turned up a zoo of remarkable finds in recent years. There’s Eris, for example which triggered a divisive debate about Pluto’s planetary status; Sedna, whose orbit carries it out to more than 900 astronomical units (1 a.u. is the mean Earth-Sun separation); and 2007 OR10, both very distant (87 a.u.) and one of the reddest objects in the solar system.

Sky and Telescope
November 21, 2015

During an observing campaign for new trans-Neptunian objects utilising the 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope on Mauna Key and the Dark Energy Camera mounted on NOAO’s 4-meter Víctor M. Blanco Telescope in Chile, the researchers noticed last month a previously unseen bright speck of light moving slowly relative to the background stars.

November 12th, 2015

V774104 announced on November 10

Sheppard announced V774104 on November 10 at a meeting held in National Harbor, Maryland. Yeah, V774104’s a weird name. There are far too many objects in space for all of them to be given real names, so the vast majority just get these strange combinations of letters and numbers to identify them with. I compiled the following information on a few of the major objects with real names:

Solar System DataThe planets and the Major Asteroid Belt objects all have relatively circular orbits, especially those nearest the sun. The orbits of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are a little more elliptical than the inner five; and those of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, even more so.

The planets all orbit near a plane radiating out from the Sun’s equator, but those farthest out tend to be a little more inclined. Pluto and Eris have inclinations of 17 degrees and 44 degrees respectively, and the large asteroid Pallas is inclined at 34 degrees. At Oort Cloud distances, many of the inclinations approach 90 degree, and the plane becomes a hollow sphere.

Planets in the Solar System revolve in their orbits in a prograde manner, i.e., in the same direction as the Sun’s rotation on its axis. With the exceptions of Venus and Uranus, they also rotate progradely on their axes; but these two have retrograde rotations.

Most satellites of planets also revolve around them in the prograde sense. (In the case of the satellites of Uranus, this means they revolve in the same sense as Uranus’s rotation, which is retrograde relative to the Sun.) The exceptions are generally small and distant from their planets, except for Neptune’s satellite Triton, which is large and close. It is believed that these retrograde satellites, including Triton, were formed in other locations and later captured by their planets.

The Oort Cloud is a theoretical hollow sphere containing trillions of icy objects too far away for us to see them yet. The reason we know about the Oort Cloud is by studying the comets that occasionally fall toward the Sun from it. The distance and location from which a body has fallen toward the sun can be estimated by its velocity.

About as far away as the Pioneer probes have gone in 43 years

At 103 AU, or 9.6 billion miles, V774104 is about as far away as the twin Pioneer probes, which have been traveling since 1972 and 1973. It’s beyond the main Kuiper Belt, but not far enough away to be considered part of the Oort Cloud. It is believed to be the most distant object ever seen in orbit around the sun yet, though we’ll undoubtedly find many more as our instruments and techniques keep on improving. (One AU is the average distance between earth and the Sun, or approximately 93 million miles.)

V774104 discovery images

Anyway, Shepherd’s team found the new worldlet while exploring a section of space way out beyond Pluto to see if anything was moving there. They do this by taking pictures of exactly the same space several hours apart and comparing them. The animated gif on the right shows two such pictures. While background stars far beyond our solar system appear stationary, the newly discovered V774104 clearly jumps from one spot to another near the center of the picture. The frame is 0.7 arcminute wide.

This is not because of V774104’s own movement through the outer reaches of the solar system. At that distance from the sun, it orbits too slowly. Instead, it is earth’s movement in its own orbit that seems to make it jump. This is called parallax.

To get a simple idea of how parallax works, hold your thumb at arm’s length. First close your right eye and look at your thumb with your left eye. Next, close your left eye and look at your thumb with your right eye. Notice how your thumb seems to jump from one side to the other as you change eyes? This represents the pictures taken from two points in earth’s orbit a few hours apart. Anything in the pictures will show some parallax, but only objects in the solar system will be close enough to notice it. (Some of the closest stars show enough parallax to detect, but only if the pictures are taken six months apart from opposite sides of the planet’s orbit.)

Parallax is how asteroids, comets, and dwarf planets are nearly always discovered. It was also used originally to estimate the distance between the sun and a few of the nearest stars, before better techniques were invented.

From the amount of parallax, Sheppard’s team calculated that V774104 is about 103 astronomical units (AU) away from the sun. Then based on its brightness, they estimated its diameter to be between 300 and 600 miles (500 and 1000 km), or less than half that of Pluto. Although it’s too soon to say for sure, it appears to have an orbit maybe two or three times larger than Pluto’s. (The orbit can be determined accurately only after at least a year of observation.)

While it is clearly one of the most distant planetary bodies ever observed in the solar system, it will require more observation be sure it holds that record during its entire orbit.

The three most distant dwarf planets known all have eccentric orbits, and none of them could have formed in their current locations, Sheppard says. They may have been perturbed into these orbits, either by an encounter with another star in the solar system’s early years, or by a still undiscovered Mars- or Earth-sized planet lurking in the outer solar system. “We can’t explain these objects’ orbits from what we know about the solar system,” he said.

The discovery reflects a number of extreme solar system surveys that are using telescopes with both big mirrors and large fields of view—necessary to find faint solar system objects that could be almost anywhere in the sky. Unlike many searches for distant objects, which peer into the solar system’s plane, Sheppard is training Subaru on swaths of the sky an average of 15° away from the ecliptic, the better to find other weird objects.

“We want to find a bunch of these objects like VP113 we found last year,” Sheppard said. “There’s several different theories about how these distant objects could have got out there on these eccentric orbits. And all these different theories predict different orbital distribution and orbital population. So if we can find 10 or so of these objects, then we can start determining which theories of the formation of these objects are correct.”

Kuiper belt - Oort cloud-en.svg

The diagram above, from Wikipedia, shows the relative locations of several parts of the Solar System. The new object is too new to appear here, but it would be off the edges anyway. The outer edges of the Oort Cloud (if shown) would extend hundreds of feet out beyond the edges of the picture in all directions.


Chiton: The Animal with Hundreds of Teeny, Tiny Eyes in It’s Armor

Lined Chiton, Tonicella lineata
Lined Chiton, Tonicella lineata

The brightly colored sea creature above is a Tonicella lineata chiton, commonly known as a “lined chiton.” The picture was taken at about 50 feet depth on the west side of Whidbey Island, Washington. (Wikipedia)

The lined chiton is one of about 940 known extant species and 430 fossil species of the class Polyplacophora. This particular species grows to about two inches (5 cm) in length and has hundreds of tiny eyes, each less than a tenth of a millimeter across, embedded in the shell on its back. Each eye contains a lens, a light-sensitive retina, and a layer of pigment, just as your eyes and mine do. But they are much smaller, and they are scattered around the shell in all directions. No other armor in nature is known to be like this.

Closeup of chiton shell, showing black eyes
Closeup of chiton shell, showing black eyes

To imagine how very small these eyes are, first imagine the length of an inch. It’s very roughly the size of your second finger bone, just behind the tip. It takes 25 millimeters to make an inch, and each of this animal’s eyes is only a tenth of a millimeter wide. So you could fit 250 of them or so in a very thin line along your finger between the joints. I’d say those are tiny eyes! You could fit maybe a couple of hundred of them on the head of a straight pin, but they wouldn’t dance like angels are said to do.

The lenses are made from a mineral called aragonite, a crystalline form of calcium carbonate or limestone, which dissolves easily in acid. It is, in fact, the same mineral that pearls and abalone shells are made of. These animals literally peer at the world through lenses made of rock that erode as the animals age and have to be continuously replaced like shark’s teeth.

Armadillidium vulgare pill bug
Crustacean wood louse

Chitons are mollusks, related to snails, clams, and octopuses; but their oval bodies are covered by hard shells, each consisting of eight overlapping plates that give some of them the general appearance of wood lice.

Wood lice, also known as ball bugs, pill bugs, or roly-polies, are interesting in their own right, since they are the only group of crustaceans — think shrimp, crabs, lobsters, and barnacles — to have left the water and colonized the continents. It’s fascinating to me that this group of molluscs look so much like that group of crustaceans that we usually think of as filthy “bugs.”

But I digress. In fact, I’m often prone to digression. You may have noticed. Things are just so incredibly, wonderfully, marvelously fascinating it’s hard to stay focused on just one thing!

And people think science is dull? And boooring?!? Don’t ever believe it!

Two individuals of Acanthopleura granulata chitons on a rock at high tide level in Guadeloupe
Two less colorful mollusc chitons

Anyway, chitons live in salt water pretty much worldwide, but mostly in the tropics. The valves, or plates, of different species are variously colored, patterned, smooth, or sculptured; so some have been given colorful names like “sea cradles” and “coat-of-mail shells.”

Most chiton species live on hard surfaces, on or under rocks, or in rock crevices, in intertidal or subtidal zones. Some species actually live quite high in the intertidal zone and are exposed to air and light for long periods. Only a few species live in the deep ocean. Some of  the larger species can grow up to 13 inches (33 cm) long.

Daniel Speiser, then a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, dissected the lenses from the eyes of a West Indian fuzzy chiton, and dunked them into an acid bath to clean them. But they didn’t get clean. They just disappeared. That’s when he discovered they were mineral instead of organic, and had simply dissolved in his acid.

The underside of the gumboot chiton, Cryptochiton stelleri, showing the foot in the center, surrounded by the gills and mantle- The mouth is visible to the left in this image.
Underside of gumboot chiton

He later teamed up with Ling Li and Matthew Connors, two graduate students from MIT, who tested the individual eyes to see if they could actually form images. They can, but not very clear ones. Because each eye is too small to have very many photosensitive cells, they form blurry, heavily pixellated images; but each eye is capable of detecting the shape of an 8 inch (20 cm) fish from a few yards away. This should be good enough to help with predator avoidance. (Though just how the slow-moving animals can use the information to avoid predation is still in question.)

Chitons have a dorsal shell — i.e., a shell on their back — which is composed of eight separate plates. These plates overlap a little at the front and back edges, but articulate well. Because of this, although the plates provide good protection for impacts from above, they still permit the chiton to flex upward to move over uneven surfaces. They also allow the animal to curl up into a ball, like the “ball bug” mentioned above.

Many species are edible and are enjoyed by various peoples around the world. (However, don’t try eating the ball bugs some of them look like.)