While I’m Away

I’m out of town on family business, so I haven’t had much of a chance to post anything lately. Here’s a few things that have interested me in the last week. I’m not gonna elaborate much, but here they are:

  • Obama Team Continues Effort to Isolate Fox News – Of course Obama isn’t saying anything that isn’t known by pretty much everyone anyway. However, I’m not sure if this is the way to handle it. First pass impression is that this will backfire. However, what are the alternatives? Simply ignore it? Maybe. I don’t know. I’ll give it some thought and get back to you.
  • Intelligent Alien Intervention Institute – A very good spoof on ID and their quest to work their way into the US schools.
  • Futurity – I heard about this site from an NPR story. I’m not sure exactly what to make of it yet. So far it seems great. However, since the stories are direct from the sources, rather than being vetted by a professional Science journalist (a dying breed), they may not be as accurate as one would like. I’m keeping an eye on this one, and I may be making posts about stories found here soon.
  • New view reveals how DNA fits into cell – I want to make a post about fractals soon, and I think this might be a good jumping off point.

That’s all I really have time for at the moment. I’ll try and get back to this as soon as I am able.

Forgive My Ignorance

I don’t know a whole lot about the Nobel Prize and how it’s awarded. I do know a little bit from the bits and pieces that I’ve picked up in the many years of reading popular science books which often discuss Nobel Prize Laureates and sometimes discuss the award itself. For instance, I know that the Nobel Prize for the sciences are generally given many many years after the initial discovery is made. This is so the actual impact of the discovery can be gauged before the award is given. There may be a discovery this year that seems truly groundbreaking and exciting, and ten years from now it may turn out that it was a flash in the pan discovery that really didn’t go anywhere. The delay is meant to weed out those kinds of discoveries and leave only those that have a real impact on the scientific world.

Since I learned this about the Nobel Prize I’ve wondered why they don’t do the same thing with the Peace Prize. Award the prize only after several decades have passed so that it’s limited to those who have had an actual real impact on the world. The fact that President Obama won it this year shows pretty clearly that this is not how it’s done. I think even the staunchest Obama supporter understands that he hasn’t done much to earn that prize yet (whether they admit that aloud or not is another question altogether).

Two possibilities really jump out at me on exactly what has happened here (not this year specifically, but to the Peace Prize in general). First, it’s possible that the original award was not meant to reward those who have made a difference, but to try and make a difference itself. In other words, it was always meant as a political gesture. The second possibility is that the award process was corrupted by those who recognized it’s potential political use. This process would be a little slower, but only because it would start later, after the prize had time to gain some real credibility. In either case it would quickly lead to the exact situation that we see today: Peace Prize as an empty, meaningless political gesture.

In conclusion, let it be understood that I am speaking from a position of ignorance here. I don’t know much about the Peace Prize, and I’ve done almost nothing to remedy that. Perhaps someone could convince me that it’s worth digger deeper into. Otherwise I’ll just continue doing sciency stuff and making fun of religion and homeopaths.

Deeper in the Mojave Desert

As Mein Zy so kindly pointed out, the actual case before the SCOTUS is whether the end run around the Constitution attempted by Congress is valid or not. I knew that as a basic idea, but I hadn’t really explored it in depth. Allow me to do so here. Just so we can be a little bit more clear about what we’re talking about here is a basic time-line of events (shamelessly stolen from Stanislaus Skeptics…blame them if it’s wrong*):

  • 1934: A cross was erected as a WWI memorial by the Barstow VFW Post 385 with a sign that reportedly said, “The Cross. Erected in memory of the dead of all wars”. At the time the land was managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
  • 1934-1984: The memorial (probably several different crosses during this time) was cared for by John Bembry (a veteran) until his death. The original cross and sign were eventually torn down. The cross was occasionally replaced and repaired. The cross has been the site of Easter sunrise services nearly every year since it was erected and is the site of the Mojave Cross Christian Church.
  • 1984-1994: At the request of Mr. Bembry, Henry Sandoz (who is not a veteran) agreed to take over care of the memorial; it is not clear if the memorial was in continuous existence during this time.
  • 1994: The site of the cross became part of the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve administered by the National Park Service (NPS); maintenance of the site became the task of the NPS.
  • 1998: The current cross was built by Mr. Sandoz and bolted and cemented to the rock; there was no communication with, or permission from, the NPS to erect the cross.
  • 1999: The NPS denied a request to erect a Buddhist stupa (a hemispherical shrine or monument) near the site. Frank Buono (former deputy superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve and self-professed Catholic) brought the cross and the denial of the Buddhist shrine to the attention of the ACLU. The ACLU contacted the NPS and asked them to remove the cross since it violated the establishment clause of the constitution. The NPS asked Mr. Sandoz to remove the cross; he refused and threatened to put it back if NPS removed it.
  • Oct 2000: The NPS sent a letter to the ACLU announcing that it would remove the cross within the next few months.
  • Dec 2000: Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands, CA) added a rider to a House appropriations bill specifying that Federal funds could not be used to move (or remove) the cross.
  • March 2001: The ACLU filed a lawsuit (Buono v. Norton) on behalf of Frank Buono seeking removal of the cross.
  • July 2002: US District Court (Central District of California) found that the presence of the cross on federal land was in violation of the First Amendment since the “presence of the cross on federal land conveys a message of endorsement of religion” and ordered the cross removed. For the District and Circuit Courts, there was no question of unconstitutional conduct, in part, because the NPS restricted the site to religious symbols of only one religion
  • 2003: Rep. Jerry Lewis inserted an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act to designate the “five-foot tall white cross first erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States in 1934 as well as a limited amount of adjoining Preserve property” as a “national memorial commemorating United States participation in World War I and honoring the American veterans of that war”, allocate $10,000 for a plaque, and to exchange 1-acre of the Mojave National Preserve around the cross with a 5-acre private parcel located elsewhere in the preserve. The land exchange would effectively remove the cross from federal land. [Note that the “five-foot tall white cross” that was erected in 1934 no longer existed]
  • June 2004: The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 2002 District court decision and declared the cross was in violation of the establishment clause and that “…carving out a tiny parcel of property in the midst of this vast Preserve-like a donut hole with the cross atop of it-will do nothing to minimize the impermissible government endorsement [of a particular religion].”
  • April 2005: US District Court (Central District of California) found that the land exchange was a “scam” and “an attempt by the government to evade the permanent injunction enjoining the display of the Latin cross” on federal land.
  • February 2009: The US Supreme Court said it would decide on the case (Salazar v. Buono) and will begin hearing arguments in October. Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar will defend the Interior Department’s right to maintain the cross. The ACLU will represent Buono (as they have done previously). Currently the cross is covered by a plywood box.

Of course, we are now waiting on the Supreme Court decision about the land exchange. What a lot of people don’t understand is that it’s not been about the cross being on federal lands for a long time now. That case was won by Buono 8 years ago, and it was a pretty clear win. If the land transfer is found to be constitutional, the property will be considered private and thus will not be on federal lands. In that case the cross can stay because it’s on private property. If on the other hand the land transfer is found to be un-constitutional, then the property will still be considered federally owned, and the cross will have to be torn down since it sits on public property. In either case, the original question of whether a cross can be placed on public property has been decided, and the answer is a clear “NO!”

So why does the land transfer matter? After all the cross is no longer on government lands so it shouldn’t be an issue anymore, right? The problem is that the government is still showing preference for one religion over all others. The government is clearly acting to allow a christian display while rejecting any similar deal for any other religion. The actions necessary to make the display constitutional are unconstitutional for exactly the same reason that the display itself was unconstitutional. In the end the choices are exactly the same: either the government must allow a similar deal for every religion, or it must reject all such deals.

I had kind of hoped to have a more in depth analysis, but I honestly think that it really is just that simple. I can’t think of any additional information that’s really needed.

* Of course I’m kidding. If it’s wrong and I posted it, it’s still my fault for not checking on it’s accuracy myself. Be warned that I did not in fact check it for accuracy. Feel free to insult me mercilessly for that.

Intelligent Design Is or Is Not Creationism

There is yet another debate about Intelligent Design Creationism over at Panda’s Thumb and I figured I’d put in my two cents (yeah I said I’d stay away…so sue me). The debate apparently happened over at some blog that I’d never heard of called Thinking Christian. In the comments for the original post I think Nick seems to make a lot of good points, but he’s missing the main focus of the debate, which is really easy to do depending on how you’re introduced to the debate. As with many of these kinds of debates it really comes down to definitions. It is apparent to me that people on either side of the debate are using different definitions of the word “creationism”.

One restricts the term to the narrowest possible definition: what is commonly referred to as Young Earth Creationism. This definition states that a theory can only be considered creationist if it relies entirely on the book of Genesis for it’s premises and conclusions. Without that key ingredient a theory must be considered something other than creationism. It’s clear that this is the definition that TC is using. According to the TC post: “Creationism begins in Genesis and argues for certain conclusions based on a certain understanding of the Scriptures.” By this definition ID is certainly not creationism because belief in a literal interpretation of Genesis is not required to believe that ID is accurate.

The other broadens the definition to include any hypothesis/theory that requires some independent act of creation to occur, whether that be the creation of the entire universe in 6 days by The Almighty, the creation of each individual species over time, or the creation of each individual beneficial mutation in our DNA. There are many theories that fall under this definition (Young Earth Creationism, Progressive or Old Earth Creationism, Day-Age Creationism, etc…). The common thread is that they each state that creation occurred, but they each differ on exactly when and where. By this definition ID is certainly creationism because it requires multiple independent acts of creation to account for the existence of “certain features of the universe and of living things” (from the Disco Tute’s FAQ).

The real argument in the end is over which definition is the more accurate one. In my personal opinion the less restrictive definition is the more accurate one since it encompasses all acts of creation, not just the literal 6 days of Genesis. That is, after all, why it’s called “creation”-ism and not “biblical-literal”-ism. On the other hand, I can understand why ID proponents try so hard to enforce the more restrictive definition. The term “creationism” has immediate and well deserved negative overtones. TC admits as much in the original post: “It is known for its persistence in seeking scientific data that fits that interpretation of Genesis, and for finding creative but irregular interpretations to help in that search. As such it has gained an unsavory scientific reputation.” It is imperative for ID to distance itself as much as possible from the term, and using the most restrictive definition possible ensures that ID is left far outside of the creationist sphere. For that reason I doubt that ID proponents will ever admit to any other definition, whether they believe it to be the better descriptor or not.

Giant Invisible Ring!

There is apparently a giant ring around Saturn that we never knew about (at least I didn’t)!

Giant Ring Around Saturn

The Spitzer Space Telescope took photos of this ring, which starts around 3.7 million miles from the planet and extends to about 7.4 miles from the planet. Apparently it’s incredibly diffuse and so doesn’t reflect enough light to be seen from earth. Instead the Spitzer telescope looked into the infrared to see it. The above is just an artists rendition that I swiped from Fox News. It sure does look pretty, though.

For more information, you can always check out Wikipedia. It’s not the best place for some kinds of information, but for this I think it’s pretty good.

Deep In The Mojave Desert

Deep in the Mojave Desert is a war memorial, erected 75 years ago. Above it stands a large homemade cross placed there and cared for by the locals. For 62 of those years there was nary a problem with it. Then in 1996, two years after the land become government owned, a group of Buddhists asked for permission to put a shrine next to the cross to represent the fallen Buddhists in the military. They were turned down. And thus began a decade long legal battle which is now being decided by the Supreme Court.

The reason this became an issue at all is because of the wish to erect a shrine to Buddha near the Christian cross. The exact wording of the constitution as it pertains to this case is as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. By disallowing the shrine, the government was prohibiting the free exercise of one religion (Buddhism) in a place where such free exercise is obviously allowed (Christianity).

Another way to look at it: “The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a national religion by the Congress or the preference of one religion over another, non-religion over religion, or religion over non-religion.” (from Wikipedia) By allowing the Christian cross to be displayed while preventing a Buddhist shrine from being displayed, the government was demonstrating a clear preference for Christianity over Buddhism.

There are two alternatives given this situation. One: allow the Buddhist symbol, as well as a symbol for any other religious group that wishes to be represented. Two: don’t allow any religious symbols to be placed at all. There is a third option, but as I demonstrated above it is explicitly prohibited by the constitution. That is to allow the Christian cross to remain but not allow any other religious symbols to be added.

Option one (allowing all religious symbols) is perfectly valid as far as I’m concerned, but I suspect that things would get crowded (and expensive) once we’ve added a Jewish Star of David, a Buddhist shrine, an Islamic Crescent and Star, a Taoist Yin Yang, a Wiccan Pentagram, a Bahá’í Ringstone, an Pastafarian fish, an Ásatrú Horn of Odin, etc… to the monument. In reality if even the tiniest fraction of the non-christian population wanted representation it would cause serious logistical problems that the government would be REQUIRED to resolve if it was to remain true to the constitution.

Option two on the other hand requires only the removal of a single symbol and the difficulties are over. This is why this is the option being pursued. It’s not an attack on Christianity. It is not an attempt to rid the U.S. of religion. It’s not an atheist plot to take over the world. It’s only the simplest solution to a problem created by an obvious constitutional violation.

For you christians out there, perhaps this is a better way to think about it. What if it were a Buddhist shrine up there instead of a cross? Of course there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not offended just because there’s a buddhist shrine up there. You’re not a Buddhist, but you realize others are, so it’s no big deal. However, you would like to get a cross put up there because you’re a veteran too and that would more closely represent your own religion. But when you ask to do so, the government says “Nope, only Buddhist shrines are allowed on government property.” Would you fight for the right to put up a cross, even if you knew in the end it would only result in the shrine being taken down instead?

It’s Like Genesis, but Interesting!

For those of us who find it difficult to maintain the level of interest necessary to complete a single book of the bible, let alone The Book, R. Crumbs latest work may come in real handy. He recently released “The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb“. I got my copy as soon as I possibly could (mostly because I love the work of R. Crumb in general), and I’m actually enjoying reading the bible for once as a result. Of course, it’s only the first book, but it’s more than I’ve otherwise been able to stomach until now.

R. Crumb is considered somewhat depraved by many people, and apparently some fans are kind of disappointed that he simply illustrated it without any extra commentary or attempt at comedy. I’m of the opinion that the book itself is plenty depraved and didn’t need any extra commentary. As for comedy, I think simply knowing that some people actually take it literally is hilarious enough (read it and think “Someone thinks this is literally true” without laughing…it’s virtually impossible).

Ig Nobel Prizes 2009

The Ig Nobel prizes for 2009 have been awarded! My favorites this year are:

PEACE PRIZE

Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.

Sounds somewhat silly at first, but when you really stop to think about it it’s not as easy a question to answer as you might initially think. Not having actually read the paper itself, here are my first thoughts. An empty bottle is probably more likely to break and cause lacerations, which may be numerous, but probably not terribly deep. A full bottle is more likely to cause blunt trauma if it doesn’t break, which may or may not be better than lots of small cuts. But then perhaps if it does break the alcohol will act as an antiseptic? Maybe I’ll actually read the paper and see what their conclusions are.

PHYSICS PRIZE

Katherine K. Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, USA, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University, USA, and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, USA, for analytically determining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

My smart ass answer: because God some intelligent dude didn’t want them to. Seriously, though, this highlights one aspect of a common problem in the design of the human body. Of course we evolved from quadrupedal ancestors, and natural selection has not yet fully compensated for the transition to bipedalism. As such we suffer from many ailments that could be ameliorated by a slightly more efficient bipedal design. This study in particular seems to be looking at some of the changes wrought by NS that have helped us cope up to now.

PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE

Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, Illinois, USA, for inventing a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of gas masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander.

Hmm…breathe in a poisonous, potentially deadly gas, or breathe through an apparatus that has been steeped in booby sweat. Maybe some guys like that idea, but for me it would be a tough choice. But then, it would kind of necessitate the removal of said brassiere, so maybe it’d be worth it either way. (forgive my misogyny, but mmmmmm…boobies)

Of course, these are only my 3 favorites, and there are many others that are definitely worth looking at. By all means visit their site found here (or here at Wikipedia for a slightly easier read) and check out the winners for this year as well as the past winners. There have been some truly great winners in times past, and I don’t doubt that will continue well into the future.