Friday, 21 November 2008

Visiting and finding planets

It has been a good month for one of the great scientific endeavours: the study of the other worlds in our solar system.

Last week in Sydney there was a presentation by Alan Stern, the chief investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which we've never yet visited, and beyond. After the encounter with Pluto (shown here with its oversized moon Charon, plus baby moons Nix and Hydra), NH will visit a few additional, probably small, objects in the Kuiper Belt, the part of the solar system you didn't learn about in school. Think of the asteroid belt, but put it out beyond Neptune, and put it on steroids: crawling with dwarf planets and dirty snowballs of all sizes.

New Horizons, launched in 2006, flew by Jupiter in early 2007 for a gravity assist and is now a ways beyond the orbit of Saturn. It will make its closest approach to distant Pluto on Bastille Day, 2015.

Meanwhile ARGO is all the talk as a proposal for the fourth “New Frontiers” mission. (NH is the first spacecraft launched within the New Frontiers scheme: the concept is medium-class, investigator-driven projects awarded on tender, like a grant). Flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, then a close encounter with Neptune and its huge retrograde moon Triton, which will then sling it on outwards to a big Kuiper Belt object of the investigators' choice. Triton itself is believed to be a dwarf planet from the KB captured by Neptune, so this mission would effectively visit two such worlds in succession. This is the most exciting uncharted-territory mission I know that's in prospect.

The astronomers have also been busy, with the first visual observation of planets orbiting other stars.

In cyberspace, the new blog is threatening to feed my infatuation with planetary science missions beyond all reason ...

... and closer to home, NASA has released a digitally remastered version of the splendid 1966 photograph of a full-crescent Earth, with a swathe of the Moon's surface in the foreground.

[The image of the Pluto-Charon system is from the Hubble Space Telescope and is discussed here]

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Yes we can; yes we did; yes we will

The blogosphere generally must be insufferable right now, but I can't help myself. 2:30pm summer time in Sydney; 10:30pm on the US eastern seaboard, and my (like-minded) workmates and I have been glued to the NYT website while pretending to work every few minutes. We can relax. Obama has won Ohio and held Pennsylvania; he pulled ahead in Virginia about an hour ago, and almost all the remaining votes are from Fairfax county which he has in a lock; Florida has been blue all day; and the networks are calling New Mexico for the Democrat. There is no plausible scenario where McCain can reach the White House with those losses. So it's over.

My excuse for being excited now is to watch the tally in North Carolina, which is on a knife-edge: I'm not well-enough acquainted with the layout to judge the remaining votes with confidence, although a lot of them do seem to be from populous, strongly Democratic centres. But just the thought of it is pleasing: North Carolina.

Come three months from now, we will have to be reminding ourselves: Obama is a politician; human nature didn't just change; our structural problems didn't just disappear. But for moment, I'm going to enjoy what has changed.

Giving credit where credit is due

One way or another the 43rd presidency will end today (and then really end again, on 20th January), with no true successor: a very different man will become, as they still say, the leader of the free world. Criticism of the president is a dime a dozen, and having a go at him became cheap a long time ago, so on this occasion it's appropriate to listen to six writers say what they will miss about President George W. Bush.

Because there are good things to say about him. GWB is by all accounts devoid of racial prejudice in his own dealings, and he showed a consistent will to generously resolve the problem of illegal (for which read: poor Hispanic) immigration to the United States, a token of real leadership and sensible priorities, and something that caused him no end of trouble with his own party. It is not much to your credit if you take a stand that causes you trouble with your enemies: if it causes you trouble with your friends, this is more to the point. (Shades here of PM John Howard and controls on assault weapons, a similarly principled stand for which I hope I have always given him full credit, my general disapproval of the man notwithstanding.) The Bush White House also showed a real commitment to opposing sex-trafficking --- what an earlier generation called “white slavery” --- an issue on which, until the last few years, so-called social progressives have been unacccountably silent.

On a related tack, there was a huge stink a while back when Representative John Lewis issued a warning to John McCain, invoking the name of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace: everyone thought this was excessive because, well, McCain is pretty clearly no racist. However, there's a sense in which this was the whole point. There was an excellent NYT article the other week by Russ Rymer on “The George Wallace We Forgot”, explaining the relevance of the governor's tragic history, and why Lewis was speaking on good authority:
He [Wallace] might have carried a tolerant message into the Alabama governor’s mansion in 1958, but he lost the race after spurning the support of the Ku Klux Klan (which then backed his primary opponent, John Patterson) and being endorsed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Sadly for Wallace’s state, his region, his nation and himself, he did not respond as John Lewis did after his defeat by Carmichael. Mr. Lewis, whenever confronted with calls to divisiveness, chose to redouble his commitment to reason and tolerance. After his loss to Mr. Patterson, Wallace is said to have turned to an aide and declared, “I was out-niggered ... and I’ll never be out-niggered again.”

After Wallace finally won the governorship in 1962, his administration was never as race-hostile as his campaign appeals implied; black leaders found his office door open, and often his mind, too. But he would eternally pay the price for the methods he used to gain that office.
Albeit that politics is the art of the possible, there are some movements and tendencies with which no accomodation can be reached, and the writer paints an awful portrait of a reasonable man forced to retreat in dismay, and disarray, by a storm of race-hatred which he did not truly share, but which he had helped to unleash by his pandering. And now, his name is a byword. It's a sad fate, and something you might wish to be warned about: this, Rymer claims, is what Lewis was trying to do.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Apart from the election

In spare moments this last month, when not following the presidential election, I have been reading Byron Smith on studying ethics

and the New York Times:
On tainted milk ... 150 years ago
On Warren E. Buffett and the market crisis ... 101 years ago
On the seen versus the unseen, in health (read to the end ...)
On French Muslims in Catholic schools
On the Popularity of Steampunk (following a link)
On a long-serving Republican retiring from the House
On developing a healthier food economy
On letting the bedbugs bite, and on blood, more generally;

its columnist David Brooks, on “The Class War Before Palin”;

and the magazine, discussing When Judges Make Foreign Policy, including the following wonderful snippet:
The Bush administration, through its characteristic combination of boldness, historical ambition and operational incompetence, has given sovereignty a bad name, much as it has for unilateralism. But the constitutional principle here is actually one that most liberals also fully embrace: namely, the principle of democracy.

International law, as even its staunchest defenders must acknowledge, often fails to accord with democratic principle...
I have also been enjoying (thanks AJB for the link) John Cleese, on genes