Thursday, August 08, 2013

Megalodon shark documentary

Megalodon was the biggest prehistoric shark ever to roam the seas, and it was a terrifying beast. With a maximum length of 14-18 meters, it's jaw was so huge that it could likely swallow a person whole. What a great subject for "shark week" on the Discovery Channel, right? Sure, it's a way to learn about extinct life, oceanography, paleontology, and to appreciate geologic time. Megalodon fossils have been found in strata dating from 28 million years ago to 1.5 million years ago, which is relatively recent in geologic terms. But the Discovery Channel decided to air a fake documentary, centered around supposedly found footage that chronicled a megalodon attach. Ug.

Boo to the Discovery Channel for taking what should be week of learning (albeit sensationalized) and polluting it with false science. Parallels could be drawn to Orson Wells famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, which duped unsuspecting listeners into thinking that martians were attacking Earth. I think the channel would have been better served if they had followed the fake program with a real one about this fascinating creature. At least that would have tempered the flow of misinformation.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Presentation tips from the master

Science journalist and professional blogger Emily Lakdawalla over at the Planetary Society has posted one of the greatest "how-to" guides on the mechanics of giving a good talk I have ever seen. If you want to give better talks, it is a must-read.

There are two many choice snippets to succinctly reproduce, but this is one of my favorites:

"Don't go over your time. DON'T GO OVER YOUR TIME. Speaking so long that there is no time for questions informs your audience that you do not care what they think of your work or whether they understood your presentation. Speaking so long that you run in to the next speaker's time informs your audience that you think you are more important than the next speaker and more important than anything else the audience had been planning to do at that time. Both are insulting and disrespectful. You look like a jerk if you go over your time."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Age of the Earth

In an interview with GQ magazine, current republican senator and future presidential hopeful Marco Rubio was asked the question, "How old do you think the Earth is?" His answer is below.
Marco Rubio: I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries.
First, I dislike the framing of that question. The question wasn't, "How old is the Earth?", but "How old do you think it is?" Question phrasing aside, as an Earth scientist, I am dismayed the answer that was given wasn't "about four and a half billion years old." I am dismayed because it is matter of scientific fact, not opinion. Scientists may disagree about the forth or fifth significant figure in the answer, but the basic fact is pretty well established: the Earth is about 4.5 billion year old.

Granted, I appreciate Senator Rubio's admission that the subject of the question is outside his area of expertise. And it is also true that the answer may have little to do with the day-to-day concerns of life or our economy. But I think it is a mistake to conflate biblical literalism with the scientific realism, and to present both as equal ends of a spectrum that non-specialists are unqualified to adjudicate. Science should not be a Republican thing or a Democratic thing. It is the same for both - it is equally applicable to all. Facts are facts, period.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ambitious vs. sharp elbows

In my home state of Massachusetts, we have a hard-fought race for US Senate between incumbent Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren. I have great respect for Warren's laser-like focus on the middle class, an issue with often gets lost in the noise of political campaigning. This past Sunday's (19 Aug 2012) Boston Globe had an interesting piece on her personal history. According to the article, Warren was well-respected by colleagues and "was a student favorite."

One jarring line in the article stood out for me. Her colleagues are described as "...viewing her as smart and capable but also as a climber with sharp elbows." This is a great example of the double-edged sword that women face. As a man, having sharp elbows or more likely, "being ambitious," holds a positive connotation. It's a dog-eat-dog world, and you want someone (i.e., a guy) who is a fighter. For a women, however, being perceived as ambitious or assertive has negative connotations. With a change in gender, the same attributes evoke a different set of adjectives: sharp elbowed, pushy, aggressive.

I don't know Elizabeth Warren personally, so I have no choice but to rely on second-hand accounts of her accomplishments, personality, temperament, and the like. But for the record, I would like my representatives, be they women or men, to be assertive. Generally collegial, yes; informed, certainly. Willing to throw an occasional elbow, absolutely.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Worst captcha ever.

Boston University has instituted an email system in which I repeatedly have to enter a captcha in order to send email (to prove I am not a robot). Apparently, I now need to work in the Archaeology or perhaps Jewish Studies departments in order to send email. Captcha, ya got me, I'm a robot! 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

To the Moon, says Newt!

Much hay has been of late of former speaker Newt Gingrich's recent pronouncement that the US ought to get back into the space game in a big way, specifically to put a colony on the Moon within a decade. Some in the media find it easy to dismiss such grandiose ideas as crass pandering to the space industry in Florida, an industry which is facing serious retrenchment following the retirement of the shuttle program. But unlike Lawrence Krauss, a journalist at Slate and author of the above-cited article, I find such plans difficult to dismiss out of hand. The most damming observation is that other politicians have made space proposals in the past and yet failed to fund them. Such was the case with the Vision for Space Exploration articulated by George Bush Jr., which although grand in scope, ultimately lacked Congressional backing necessary to see it fully executed.

A better question is why not set ambitious national goals? Why not establish a clear destination for NASA and the private sector in space? There will always be a tug-of-war between the manned and unmanned portions of our space program, but a realistic view is that both are necessary components of the US continued commitment to exploration and advancement. I must admit I would be willing to support almost any candidate who adopts and remains committed to sensible space policy. I can respect people who vote for their self-interest, even when that cuts against the party for which they normally vote. Indeed, our country would look a lot different if more people voted with their economic self-interest rather than with hot-button issues of limited practical importance.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Space station for sale

Technically, it's an Earth station, not a space station since it is not, in fact, in space. But semantics aside, the Jamesburg Earth Station in central California is for sale and can be yours for the low price of $3 million. For that hefty price tag, you get a 10 story tall, 30 m diameter radio dish and associated building that was constructed to withstand a 5 megaton atomic blast (though presumably not a direct hit). They don't make 'em like they used to.

Dish photo from

According to wikipedia, this facility was used to downlink data from the Apolllo Moon landings. Interestingly, the initial private owners in 2002 were a group of ham radio operators who refurbished the little-used facility and used it to bounce radio signals off the Moon. I don't recall seeing any scientific output regarding this radio experiment - most work done along these lines is done using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, who main dish is an order of magnitude (305 m!) larger.