appreciating PBS

I don’t give enough love to PBS. The PBS stations I get on my cable system are part of my channel surfing rotation, but I haven’t sat down and watched that many complete programs.

That changed recently. I have watched two outstanding series.

PBS logoThe science program Nova Wonders was designed for younger people, but as I approach eligibility for Medicare I was fascinated, Hosted by three scientists, all of them people of color and two of them women, the show looked at biology, genetics, astronomy, communication, and other topics. All fascinating stuff.

Then there is Civilizations (note the plural). Each episode has a different take on art, starting with prehistoric art and moving up to the present day. This is not your classic Western Civilization course. The West gets plenty of attention, but so does China, Japan, India, and the Islamic World. The episode on the renaissance used the plural on its title and covered not only Italy but the Islamic renaissance as well.

There’s lots of good stuff on PBS. It deserves more of my attention.


Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs

DarkMatterandDinosaursDark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe
Lisa Randall
Ecco Books, sold by HarperCollins Publishers
October 27, 2015, 437 pages
Kindle edition $14.99,  Amazon hardcover $20.61

I love Lisa Randall’s work. I very much enjoyed Knocking on Heaven’s Door, which told the story of the Large Hadron Collider. Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs was an equally engaging tale.

Randall discusses a lot of different, yet related, topics in this book. She tells us about dark matter, dark energy, the objects orbiting in the distant (and still theoretical, not yet directly observed) Oort cloud, impacts on earth by meteors and comets, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. There is a lot of material here and I won’t attempt to summarize it. I’ll simply say that she ties together dark matter and the dinosaurs by suggesting that there is a measurable periodicity to celestial objects hitting earth, that this periodicity may be influenced by a dark matter disk, and the extinction of the dinosaurs was likely caused by an object or objects hitting earth governed by that periodicity.

Randall draws heavily on her own research as well as that of others. She does a great job in discussing the rigors of the scientific method and her intent to maintain that discipline. I am impressed by her ability to be both an academic research scientist and a popularizer of science. And oh, she even shares a photo of herself in a non-speaking cameo role on the Big Bang Theory.

Good stuff here.


origins of the elements

I was never very good at chemistry. In addition, chemistry class my junior year in high school was not a lot of fun. The teacher was heading towards the end of his career, and, in my view at the time, experiencing a case of burnout. He used all of his sick days (or so it seemed) and as he was the head of A-V at the school, he was able to and often did show us films that had nothing to do with chemistry.

Nevertheless, I have always found the periodic table of the elements to be fascinating. I was pleased to see, courtesy of the good folks at Astronomy Picture of the Day, this non-traditional version of the periodic table which shows the origins of each element.

Interesting stuff.

periodictable


thoughts on cosmology

I try hard to keep this straight in my mind: what is the difference between dark matter and dark energy?

If I have paid proper attention to public radio’s Science Friday, I think I have a handle on this. Dark matter accounts for the missing matter of the universe, based on astronomers’ calculations. Dark energy accounts for the expansion of the universe.

In her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs (review coming when I’ve finished it) author Lisa Randall points out that dark energy is uniform throughout the universe, but dark matter is lumpy, existing in different consistencies in different places.

There was a time when cosmologists thought that the expanding universe would snap back and create in essence a new Big Bang. Very consistent with Hindu cosmology.

More recent thinking, as I understand it, says that there is not enough energy to do that. Rather, the universe will keep expanding until it cools off into nothingness. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Depressing, except for the fact that we won’t be around to see which theory is correct.

And in any case, we have more pressing matters to address here and now. While the drought is perhaps abating in the northern part of California, it is still an unpleasant reality here in the Southland.

Then there’s that presidential election of 2016.

Waiting, Linda Ellerbee, for you to say, “And so it goes.”


it’s rarely either/or

dinosaurThe scientific community has long accepted the theory that an asteroid that hit the earth was the cause for the demise of the dinosaurs. But a more recent competing theory has emerged. Perhaps it was volcanic activity. Once that debate arises you have to look at the possibility that maybe it’s both. And maybe the asteroid triggered the volcanic activity.

It’s rarely either/or.

A fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times discusses all this:
The Death of the Dinosaurs

Good reading. Enjoy!


big history

I thought I was pretty familiar with the offerings available from The Great Courses, so I was surprised when an article in the New York Times Magazine made me aware of a course with which I was not acquainted: Big History. (If you click the link don’t freak out at the price. It will be on sale again at about 70% off the list price sooner or later. They cycle through all their courses with such pricing.)

BigHistoryThe occasion of the NYT Magazine article was to discuss how Bill Gates had watched the course, met the instructor, David Christian, and proceeded to work with him to develop a high school curriculum based on the college-level course Christian had been teaching. I was intrigued enough to buy the audio version of the Great Courses program, which, probably not coincidentally, happened to be on sale at the time. The premise of the course is that most history courses cover only the period from the beginning of writing, or slightly before, to the present day, and that omits the greater part of the history of the universe. Big History teams with science to provide a much more expansive story of the universe.

Christian divides the history of the universe into eight “Thresholds:”

  1. Origins of Big Bang Cosmology
  2. The First Stars and Galaxies
  3. Making Chemical Elements
  4. The Earth and the Solar System
  5. Life
  6. What Makes Humans Different?
  7. Agriculture
  8. The Modern Revolution

This means that our species Homo sapiens does not show up until lecture 21 of the 48 lecture course. But that is appropriate in the context of the material being covered.

The course has not been revised since it was initially published in 2008. For the most part it holds up well, but some of the material is dated. For example, Christian categorically states that humans never interbred with Neanderthals, something we now know from genetic evidence absolutely did happen (and that humans are probably stronger and healthier for it). Six years is an eternity in modern science.

Christian has some different views and perspectives that you probably have not heard before. Whether you listen to this course on your iPod while out walking (as I did) or whether you sit down in front of your TV or computer to watch the DVD version, Big History is time well spent. (Or will be once the course goes on sale again.)


they were flying for us

The good folks over at EarthSky reminded me that last Tuesday, 28 January was the anniversary of the shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

I was in my office at the San Jose Metro newspaper when the publisher’s wife, who worked at the paper a day or two a week, said, “The shuttle exploded.” I replied, “What do you mean the shuttle exploded?”

I turned on KCBS news radio and learned exactly what that meant. I listened to the coverage on NPR on the way home to Redwood City on the train. It was only after I got home that I saw the frightening video.

Saturday 1 February was the anniversary of the day in 2003 that the shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry. Interestingly, that day in 2003 was a Saturday as well. Terry and I slept late as we normally do on Saturday and had a leisurely breakfast. Chances are that we listened to West Coast Live via the Web. After breakfast Terry got on the computer and while surfing the Web said to me “The shuttle broke apart.”

I replied, “What do you mean the shuttle broke apart?”

We remember, respect, and appreciate those brave souls who died fulfilling their passion. They were truly flying for us.