Return to Blogging in the Twilight Zone

I have not been active on this site for a while in part due to time spent on getting the “Walkabout the Galaxy” podcast up and running. After what I regard as an unprecedented calamity and display of meanness, ignorance and stupidity yesterday, I’m looking for a way to identify those of us who value women, minorities, immigrants, refugees, the rule of law, science, reason and common human decency from the others. I think a simple blue wristband might be best.

Professor Stress

CNBC.com posted a list of 10 least stressful jobs for 2013, and topping the list is “University Professor” with this laughable analysis:

And the winner of Least Stressful Job of 2013 is … university professor!

(Cue the commencement music.)

Professor is a newcomer to the list this year, and it shot straight to the top.

“If you look at the criteria for stressful jobs, things like working under deadlines, physical demands of the job, environmental conditions hazards, is your life at risk, are you responsible for the life of someone else, they rank like ‘zero’ on pretty much all of them!” Lee said.

Plus, they’re in total control. They teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach. They tell the students what to do and reign over the classroom. They are the managers of their own stress level.

The most stressful thing about being a professor?

“Interacting with other professors!” Lee said.

The Lee being quoted is Tony Lee of CareerCast.com. The most absurd statement above is about the lack of deadlines. My life as a professor is spent swimming in a sea of deadlines. I have also yet to meet a professor who teaches “as many classes as they want,” and they certainly don’t get to teach “what they want to teach.” Some professors, myself included, actually do like to teach, so that is a plus. But professors are told what they must teach. I may be in the minority of professors in the next category, but I am far from alone: we have significant environmental hazards in our laboratories and we are in fact responsible for the lives of those who work there. Serious accidents are a real threat. I am also responsible for securing funding for people in my research group so that they may stay gainfully employed and, in the case of graduate students, complete their studies. Now, I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for any other. But the one thing I don’t like about it is how stressful it is. For a more extensive rebuttal of the argument, see this blog post.

The Faith of an Atheist

Here’s the thing. I’ve wanted to write a book, but the internet provides a great mechanism for writing shorter pieces. That is how this blog was originally born. Since my career cup has been running over, I’ve had less time to post reviews, science articles, and other observations here. But when I had more time I did write an autobiographical essay, and with the advent of e-readers I’ve finally updated it and packaged it, and now here it is for Kindle at Amazon.

Dancing Matt and Me

I organized a scientific workshop in Paris in June 2008 on Saturn’s rings. It was one year after I had moved to the University of Central Florida, and I had seven business trips scheduled that summer as I worked to establish myself in my new position as an Assistant Professor of Physics. The meeting was kind of a big deal for me.

I had a non-stop flight from Orlando to Frankfurt where I had a couple of hours to make my connection to Paris. My practice, at the time, was to take an Ambien sleeping pill on Eastbound trans-Atlantic flights. Ambien is rapidly metabolized, so they would usually get me 3-4 hours of sleep on the flight without leaving me hungover when the plane landed. On this particular flight, however, I woke up after only an hour or two violently sick to my stomach. There’s nothing quite like the realization that you have to be bowing down at the porcelain throne 38,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean heading away from home. On my second trip to the airplane lavatory I awoke to find myself on the floor of the plane with a pair of concerned flight attendants leaning over me and hypothesizing that I was drunk. My quick rush into the lavatory to puke may not have helped my case that I was sick but sober. After an ambulance ride from the plane to the airport infirmary, the most painful IV insertion I’ve ever had, and a later connecting flight to Paris, I made it to my meeting sporting only a few odd facial cuts from my fall and a perhaps somewhat worse-than-normal case of jetlag.

In my hotel room in Paris, 24 hours after passing out in an Airbus.

It was a rough trip, but the next day the meeting was off and running. That night the local organizers had arranged for a group dinner at a nice restaurant. There, my colleague Mark Showalter told me that I should watch a video on the internet. Not wanting to spoil anything about the experience, he just told me to search for “where the hell is matt” and watch.

Back in my tiny, dark hotel room that night I watched Matt Harding and Melissa Nixon’s wonderful 2008 Dancing video. (All his videos are available on his website.) Like many others, I found myself deeply and inexplicably moved. I am grateful to Mark for not telling me anything about the videos. They should be seen without preconception. If you have somehow not seen any of Matt’s videos, I recommend watching the 2006, 2008, and 2012 videos in that order on his website. His blog (also at that site) and his book about the making of the first two videos, are a great read.

I have downloaded and watched the 2008 and 2012 videos many times, and I know I will watch them many more. The songs for both are excellent. The music is both soulful and exuberant. I am, somehow, ridiculously, reassured about the human race each time I watch them. They make me want to hug someone. My attempts to share the love with others have had less than stellar outcomes. People I’ve shown the videos to, despite my prior admonitions to keep quiet and just enjoy the 5 minutes, nevertheless usually seem only superficially involved. They laugh at some of the funnier clips and comment on some of the more exotic locations, but only rarely do they seem to be affected by the totality of the video. I conclude that my presence is the problem. Not that it’s me in particular. I think any intermediary or third party may be enough to keep inhibitions high enough to prevent the childlike emotional reaction I have to these videos. So if you have not seen them, or even if you have, watch them alone, when you have a few minutes to spare. Individually, each video is a miniature masterpiece. The three together form an internet viral trilogy that not only spans the world, but somehow, in under 15 minutes, tells a more compelling story about human growth and relationships than most of what we see in theaters.

An Alternative to New York City’s Large Soda Ban

A less draconian solution to the large soda ban proposed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be a requirement that establishments at least make it possible to buy a small soda for less money. At Regal Cinemas a small soda is 32 ounces of sugary goo, nearly three times the size of a standard canned soda. And it costs nearly $5. A better way to encourage people to drink less high calorie soft drinks is to require vendors to at least offer for sale a “small” that at least is not gigantic. If the movie theater sold a 12-ounce soda for, oh, $2, then I believe a lot of people would opt for the more reasonable serving size. But if I’ve got that 32-ounce bucket of sugar water sitting in my armrest, I’m going to drink past the point of what I really need or want. And since the wholesale cost of 12 ounces of soda is about a quarter, the theater is still making a killing.

Star Trek and the Start of the Semester

Nearly a month since my last post due to two things: I haven’t seen a movie in a theater in that time, and it has been an insanely busy time at work. I am teaching a new course and have had a number of review writing and other deadlines. On the research front, work continues on the Microgravity Experiment on Dust Environments in Astrophysics, a somewhat awkward name that allows us to use the more convenient acronym MEDEA. I’ve created a Facebook group: The Colwell Research Group. This will have images, data, video, and other updates on my own research. Please look us up and “like” us if you’d like to follow along with our research activities.

On the Cassini front, we are now in the Cassini Solstice Mission: the second and final extension of the mission. However, this extension exceeds both the prime and first extension in total length, with a finale around lunch time (1:00 p.m. Eastern) on Friday September 15, 2017 as Cassini dives into Saturn’s atmosphere. For the next year and a half, though, Cassini is in Saturn’s equatorial plane meaning there won’t be much in the way of observations of the rings for a while.

Star Trek: I used to be an avid player and tournament director of the Star Trek Customizable Card Game. For a variety of reasons, including embezzlement at the company that made the game, it eventually stopped production. Recently I learned that a group including some of the game’s designers is keeping it alive and that there is a small but vibrant group of players here in Orlando. It is a great hobby and is now once again sopping up spare minutes of my time (and giving my head a much-needed diversion from work in the process).

My Erdös-Bacon Number

My Erdös-Bacon number is 6. This is the sum of my Erdös number (4), which measures the number of degrees of separation I have, through authorship of academic papers, from prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös, and my Bacon number (2), which measures the number of degrees of separation I have, through movie roles, from American actor Kevin Bacon. My Bacon number is low courtesy of my role in the movie Deep Impact which features a large cast of many veteran actors. My connection to Bacon (or at least the first one I found) is via Maximilian Schell, who was in Telling Lies in America with Kevin Bacon. So Schell has a Bacon number of 1, and since I was in Deep Impact with Schell, I have a Bacon number of 2.

Figuring out my Erdös number required a bit more sleuthing, but was greatly aided by this website, provided by the American Mathematical Society, which will provide the Erdös number of any author in the database of math papers. The difficulty is that I am not in their database. So I made some guesses as to co-authors of mine who might be in their database. The first good hit was Frank Spahn, a dynamicist friend and colleague at the University of Potsdam who has an Erdös number of 5, giving me E=6 and and E-B number of 8. When I thought about other possible connections, though, I hit on Jeff Scargle, a mathematically inclined planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. While I have not authored a paper with Jeff Scargle, I have with his Ames colleague, Jeff Cuzzi. Scargle is in the database with an Erdös number of 2, giving Cuzzi an Erdös number of 3, and me E=4.

Why does anyone care about these numbers? Well, most don’t. The idea of degrees of separation has been around for some time, and a game was created around the idea of finding the number of acting degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. These calculations of degrees of separation are a way to quantify the “small world phenomenon” that posits that the human population is a network of connections where the number of links between any two individuals is small. The world of mathematical journals is sufficiently different, that even having an Erdös number and a Bacon number is fairly unusual. And since the whole connection concept is essentially a mathematical model, it seems fitting to have a small world number based on a mathematician. Paul Erdös wrote well over 1000 scholarly articles, so mathematicians used him as a root for degrees of separation in that particular world. My E-B number of 6 puts me one behind Brian Greene (5) and one better than Stephen Hawking and tied with Richard Feynman.

Avatar v. The Hurt Locker

I would not be surprised to see the experiment of an expanded list of Best Picture Oscar nominees come to a quick end. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a body of about 6000 industry professionals that awards the famous statuettes, doubled the number of Best Picture nominees to 10 this year while leaving all other categories unchanged. The motivation, ironically, was to include blockbuster movies that are frequently pushed aside by those pesky unknown independent and low-budget movies the Academy voters tend to favor. Of course, the Academy was not really worried about blockbuster movies not getting enough attention. Their concern was declining ratings for the annual awards broadcast. Viewers are understandably less excited about awards going to movies they have never heard of, let alone seen. By nominating 10 movies for Best Picture the Academy reasoned that popular movies that would otherwise be snubbed by the hoity-toity Oscars would be included in the celebration and draw more people to watch the awards show. This seems to have worked: this year’s show was the most-watched Oscar-cast since 2005.

The extended list of nominees did include three popular movies that would otherwise have been overlooked: Up, The Blind Side, and District 9. Avatar, the all-time blockbuster, was nominated, but it would have been a lock to be nominated even in the original 5-picture format. And Up, an animated movie, was nominated for best animated picture, so its inclusion in the Best Picture nominee list did not really expand things. Of the remaining 6 Best Picture nominees, Inglourious Basterds cracked the $100 million mark, and Up in the Air had a respectable $83 million.

But Avatar is the elephant in the room. Visually groundbreaking and tremendous fun to watch, Avatar was the movie of 2009. While The Hurt Locker is a great movie, Avatar is a landmark movie and one that, like The Wizard of Oz, will be talked about for years, likely decades to come. By not giving Avatar the Best Picture Oscar, the Academy risks making itself seem even more elitist and disconnected from moviegoers. While we’ll never know, I believe that had their been only 5 nominees, as in years past, Avatar would have won. The reason is that to accommodate the expanded list of nominees, the Academy changed the voting procedure for Best Picture. Rather than voters simply selecting the one movie they would like to win, for Best Picture they ranked movies from 1 to 10. If less than 50% of the voters ranked any one movie at the top, the lowest ranking movie is eliminated, and the 2nd ranked movie on all the ballots that had the eliminated movie ranked first would then get tallied in a second round of voting. The process of eliminating from the bottom up continues until one movie is the top selection of more than 50% of the ballots.

The reason this might have tilted things away from Avatar is that even if a plurality of voters chose Avatar to win Best Picture (the only requirement necessary in years past), if a significant fraction of the other voters placed Avatar far down the list while The Hurt Locker ranked at number 2 or near the top of almost everyone’s list, The Hurt Locker would eventually come out on top. I think voters that did not want Avatar to win, really didn’t want it to win and so could effectively cast an anti-Avatar vote by ranking it low on their list. Meanwhile, nobody who saw The Hurt Locker would be actively against it winning. It’s a great, tense movie, and certainly in no way is it undeserving of winning Best Picture. Avatar, on the other hand, while in some ways a cliche, is, it’s fair to say, a film for the ages. The Academy is certainly not against giving Best Picture awards to big blockbusters. See Titanic (deserving), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (not so much). My guess: Avatar had a plurality of first-place votes on the first round of ballot-counting as well as a significant number of low-ranking votes from the stereotypical grumpy Academy member who was resentful of its success, irritated by its corny message, or determined to reward the excellent lesser known movies on the ballot. Avatar, after all, already has its billions, the thinking might have gone. Meanwhile, The Hurt Locker probably ranked in the top three on almost every ballot. So this year’s Best Picture winner might have been more of a consensus winner, while in years past a movie could theoretically have won with merely 20% plus 1 vote.

The Great Faith Debate

Tonight, “new atheist” Christopher Hitchens and “new apologist” Dinesh D’Souza engaged in a debate on religion at the UCF arena. According to the moderator, it was the largest crowd for such a debate to date. (I would guess about 4000-5000 people were there.) On points, D’Souza out-debated Hitchens who appeared sweaty, frequently spoke so low and rapidly to be incomprehensible, and did not take advantage of many easy rebuttals of D’Souza’s arguments. D’Souza spoke clearly and with more conviction. While his arguments were mostly tired and not convincing of anything in particular, they enthralled the majority of the audience.

The questions the debaters were supposed to address were: “What about God?”, “What about Christianity and other religions?”, and “What about science and reason?” The best point D’Souza made, in my opinion, was that Christianity is qualitatively different than other religions because it involves the descent of God to the level of man in the form of Jesus, where other religions involve the aspiration of humans to ascend to the level of God. Hitchens ignored this, probably because it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not Christianity makes any sense, and also does nothing to refute Hitchens’ argument that Christianity, like other religions, imposes odious rules on behavior (for example, we cannot choose who we love, but must love Jesus (and our neighbor) or face damnation). Another of Hitchens’ arguments on the evils of Christianity is that, like other religions, it is invoked as an excuse for a long litany of horrible deeds. I think my principle difference with Hitchens is that I think for the most part, people do evil because they are evil, not because they are religious. Frequently religion is a handy tool for evil-doers, but it is not a prerequisite.

D’Souza’s most dramatic proclamations were repeated claims that the universe, like the play Hamlet, has a plot and a design and therefore must have an author. Hitchens, in my view, failed to call him on this, going on a tangent about how one determines the identity of the author rather than refuting the ridiculous claim that the universe has a plot and a design. D’Souza also repeatedly stated that the universe is “fine-tuned” for the existence of humans, implying that there is not only a creator, but that the creator cares about our existence. Hitchens also let these easily rebutted claims go unchallenged. The fine-tuning D’Souza refers to is that if the fundamental constants of the universe are changed by small amounts, things like stars would not be possible. Any universe that ever existed or exists with those different constants therefore could not have any beings in it remarking that there must not be a creator because if there were it would not have made a universe with such lame fundamental constants. We only can exist in a universe like the one we do exist in. Astronomers have now detected hundreds of planets in our corner of the galaxy, beyond the handful in our only solar system. Of these, only one apparently is “fine-tuned” to allow life to exist. D’Souza would apparently conclude God must exist to create such a fine-tuned planet. But we can’t exist on any of the other planets. Out of hundreds (known so far), all planets but one are not fine-tuned for life. If a designer fine-tuned the universe for homo sapiens, it was a remarkably inefficient job: our little planet is a vanishingly small fraction of a universe that is, for the most part, completely inhospitable and also beyond our reach. Our primitive understanding of cosmology does not preclude (and in fact supports) an analogous situation for the universe: many may exist, and we inhabit one in which it is possible for life to exist.

But the most remarkable unchallenged argument of D’Souza was his supposed rebuttal of the “God of the gaps” argument (one not raised by Hitchens). To paraphrase D’Souza, atheists and scientists have unscientifically dismissed various discrepancies in the predictions of scientific theories, expecting them to be resolved by minor improvements in the theories. Two specific examples he gave were the failure of the Ptolemaic model of the motion of planets to accurately predict their positions, and the failure of Newtonian dynamics to explain the precession of Mercury’s orbit. In both cases, he stated with great import, a revolutionary change in the relevant scientific theories was needed to explain the discrepancies, not a small incremental change. So – the scientific method successfully explained theses discrepancies. New theories were developed that worked better than the previous ones. That’s how science is supposed to work. How exactly is a physics-based, scientific explanation for the universe and the triumph of the evidence-based scientific method supposed to be refuting a rational model of the world and supporting a faith-based one?

An Imagined Conversation with a Moon Conspiracist

With the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 I have heard more than I care about the delusional segment of the public that insists we did not go to the Moon. Only for my peace of mind, I have imagined a conversation with a Moon landing conspiracist where I ask him if he believes people have been to Antarctica. (My satisfaction in this imaginary conversation depends on him saying “yes,” but the beauty of me imagining this conversation is that I do, in fact, get to decide what the other person says.) So he says “Yes, of course!” to which I reply, “Why?”. Well, you can imagine the responses to this as well as I can, because presumably you also believe people have been to Antarctica, and unless you have personally been there yourself (and I know some of you have), all your reasons for believing people have been to Antarctica are the same as the reasons for believing people have been to the Moon: we have seen pictures of people there; we have talked to people who have been there; we have seen things that were brought back from there; we have seen the machines that take people there. Qualitatively, (unless, again, you have been there yourself), there is no difference in the evidence for people going to the Moon and the evidence for people going to Antarctica. My imaginary debater can then only fall back on the idea that going to the Moon is implausibly hard, to which I wonder if he believes that I can store thousands of books, pictures, songs, and movies on a device the size of a matchbook and why he thinks that is easier that sending a rocket to the Moon. In my imagination, my foe is crushed on the withering force of my logic. In reality, of course, there is just no arguing with some people.