Cosmic speck: Earth as seen from Saturn

 

Space.com reports: The Cassini spacecraft spotted Earth as a bright speck (and the moon as a smaller speck) between Saturn’s broad rings as the craft prepares for its final dive into the ringed planet’s atmosphere.

Cassini was 870 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) from Earth the night of April 12-13 when it snapped this photo, which shows Earth — and the even tinier moon, a faint dot to its left — framed between the icy rings of Saturn. At the time the photo was taken, the southern Atlantic Ocean was facing the spacecraft’s lens, NASA officials said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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Neil deGrasse Tyson: Science in America

 

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March for science or march for reality?

Lawrence M. Krauss writes: The very essence of science, indeed that which is motivating the March for Science, involves skeptical inquiry and a reliance on empirical evidence and constant testing to weed out false hypotheses and unproductive or harmful technologies as we move toward a better understanding of reality: A willingness, in short, to force beliefs and policies to conform to the evidence of reality, rather than vice versa.

Unlike its perception among much of the public and its presentation in many schools today, science is not simply a body of facts, but rather a process for deriving what the facts are. This process has helped us uncover hidden secrets of the Universe that never would have been dreamed of and producing technologies that have not only been largely responsible for the standard of living enjoyed by the first world today, but have also increased lifespans around the world. With this process the very possibility of “alternative facts” disappears.

By providing such a constant and sharp explicit and observable contrast between policy and empirical reality, the Trump administration can encourage a new public skepticism about political assertions vs. reality, and a demand for evidence before endorsing policies and the politicians who espouse them—the very things that most marchers on April 22nd will be demanding. This skepticism is beginning to manifest itself in data. A Gallup poll result on April 17 indicated that only 45 percent of the public believe President Trump’s promises, a drop of 17 percent since February.

In this regard, it is worth remembering the words of the Nobel Prizewinning physicist, Richard Feynman, who said: For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled. Or, as the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick more colorfully put it: Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it.

The Trump Administration is discovering that obfuscation, denial, and hype may work when selling real estate, but in public arena eventually reality has a way of biting you in the butt. And the public is watching. [Continue reading…]

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David Suzuki: Why we must march for science

David Suzuki writes: Science isn’t everything. But it is crucial to governing, decision-making, protecting human health and the environment and resolving questions and challenges around our existence.

Those determined to advance industrial interests over all else often attack science. We’ve seen it in Canada, with a decade of cuts to research funding and scientific programs, muzzling of government scientists and rejection of evidence regarding issues such as climate change.

We’re seeing worse in the U.S. The new administration is proposing drastic cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and others. Information about climate change and environmental protection is being scrubbed from government websites, and scientists are being muzzled. Meanwhile, the government is increasing spending on military and nuclear weapons programs.

There’s nothing wrong with challenging research, developing competing hypotheses and looking for flaws in studies. That’s how science works. But rejecting, eliminating, covering up or attacking evidence that might call into question government or industry priorities—evidence that might show how those priorities could lead to widespread harm—is unconscionable. It’s galling to me because I traded a scientific career for full-time communication work because good scientific information helps people make the best decisions to take us into the future. [Continue reading…]

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The March for Science is a march against greed and ignorance

The organizers of tomorrow’s March for Science declare: “We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”

I understand the desire to present this in nonpartisan, inclusive terms, and yet the urgent need to defend science comes from the fact that it now faces a concerted attack from the leaders of multiple government agencies including the occupant of the White House.

Moreover, this attack does not represent a counter-scientific body of opinion. On the contrary, what it represents is a body of interests that see in science a threat to their investments.

The strategy being pursued by those who see science as a threat to their wealth is to promote ignorance and erect barricades that are designed to obscure inconvenient truths.

This isn’t a debate in which a lack of appreciation for the value of science can be countered by the promotion of its virtues.

It is not a struggle of ideas through which a new paradigm replaces an outmoded system of belief.

It is a struggle of values standing up against those who prize their possessions more than truth or life itself.

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Small Saturn moon has most of conditions needed to sustain life, NASA says

The Guardian reports: A tiny moon of Saturn has most of the conditions necessary for life, Nasa announced on Thursday, unveiling a discovery from an underground ocean that makes the world a leading candidate for organisms as humans know them.

Scientists stressed that the discovery on a moon named Enceladus is not evidence that life has in fact developed on another world, but they have managed to establish the existence of the water, chemistry and energy sources that are necessary for it.

“We now know that Enceladus has almost all of the ingredients that you need to support life as we know it on Earth,” said Linda Spilker, a project scientist who said the finding essentially confirmed vents on the moon’s seafloor.

Chris Glein, another scientist involved in the project, said the discovery showed that the moon’s ocean contained a potential chemical feast for microbes. “We have made the first calorie count on an alien ocean,” he said.

Beneath its frozen surface, Enceladus has a saltwater ocean, and the hydrogen – produced in a reaction between heated water and rocks – indicates that the moon has active energy sources, possibly akin to the undersea vents that teem with life on planet Earth.

“We don’t know whether there’s life out there yet but right now we’re making a lot of progress,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s associate administrator.

The spacecraft Cassini detected the hydrogen in the fall of 2015, when it flew through a plume of vapor that had been spewed out through cracks in the moon’s icy surface. The flyby discovered water, ice, traces of methane, salts and other carbon compounds, the researchers said.

Their findings were revealed at a Nasa briefing on Thursday and in a paper published in the journal Science.

Cassini also found silicates and hydrogen, meaning there are energy sources beneath the moon’s surface, and the chemicals microbes are known to consume on Earth.

“This finding does not mean that life exists there, but it makes life more plausible and potentially quite abundant if a fraction of the hydrogen is used to drive biology,” said Jeffrey Kargel, a professor at the University of Arizona.

Andrew Coates, a professor of physics at University College London, added: “This distant moon now joins Mars and Europa as the best potential locations for life beyond Earth in our solar system.” [Continue reading…]

 

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Trump leaves science jobs vacant, troubling critics

The New York Times reports: On the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the staff of the White House chief technology officer has been virtually deleted, down from 24 members before the election to, by Friday, only one.

Scores of departures by scientists and Silicon Valley technology experts who advised President Trump’s predecessor have all but wiped out the larger White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Mr. Trump has not yet named his top advisers on technology or science, and so far, has made just one hire: Michael Kratsios, the former chief of staff for Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor and one of the president’s wealthiest supporters, as the deputy chief technology officer.

Neither Mr. Kratsios, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Princeton, nor anyone else still working in the science and technology office regularly participates in Mr. Trump’s daily briefings, as they did for President Barack Obama.

“The impression this leaves is that Trump isn’t interested in science and that scientific matters are a low priority at the White House,” said Vinton G. Cerf, a computer scientist, vice president of Google and one of the chief architects of the internet. The dwindling of the White House science and technology staff for scientific research could have long-term consequences, Mr. Cerf said. [Continue reading…]

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An uprising among scientists

Climate Central reports: The current political climate has spurred a growing cadre of scientists to emerge from their labs, offices and fieldwork sites to contest an administration that’s openly hostile to scientific inquiry — particularly when it comes to climate change — and coined the term “alternative facts.”

“We’ve tried to let our data do the talking for us and that has failed miserably,” Kim Cobb, a coral researcher at Georgia Tech, said.

Scientists staged a thousand-strong rally in Boston during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in late February. Much bigger protests are afoot with the March for Science and its 190 satellite marches planned for April 22. Scientists are also organizing support groups and many have said they are considering running for public office.

The current wave of scientific discontent has the makings of a budding movement. But whether it moves the political dial like the Tea Party or fizzles out like Occupy Wall Street remains to be seen.

Scientists in the streets is not a new thing. They rallied around nuclear disarmament during the Cold War, but they also weren’t the main component of that movement. That makes the current groundswell of scientists leading their own charge a different proposition.

The March for Science is the most visible piece of the new movement, with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, a private planning Facebook group with more than 837,000 members and more than 50,000 volunteers. The march has the potential to go down as one of the largest mass mobilizations by scientists in history. [Continue reading…]

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When Earth became a ‘mote of dust’

Shannon Stirone writes: We glimpsed Earth’s curvature in 1946, via a repurposed German V-2 rocket that flew 65 miles above the surface. Year-by-year, we climbed a little higher, engineering a means to comprehend the magnitude of our home.

In 1968, Apollo 8 lunar module pilot William Anders captured the iconic Earthrise photo. We contemplated the beauty of our home.

But on Valentine’s Day 27 years ago, Voyager 1, from 4 billion miles away, took one final picture before switching off its camera forever. In the image, Earth, Carl Sagan said, was merely “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” So we pondered the insignificance of our home. The image inspired Sagan to write his book “The Pale Blue Dot,” and it continues to cripple human grandiosity. [Continue reading…]

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Thrilling discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby star

 

The Guardian reports: A huddle of seven worlds, all close in size to Earth, and perhaps warm enough for water and the life it can sustain, has been spotted around a small, faint star in the constellation of Aquarius.

The discovery, which has thrilled astronomers, has raised hopes that the hunt for alien life beyond the solar system could start much sooner than previously thought, with the next generation of telescopes that are due to switch on in the next decade.

It is the first time that so many Earth-sized planets have been found in orbit around the same star, an unexpected haul that suggests the Milky Way may be teeming with worlds that, in size and firmness underfoot at least, resemble our own rocky home.

The planets closely circle a dwarf star named Trappist-1, which at 39 light years away makes the system a prime candidate to search for signs of life. Only marginally larger than Jupiter, the star shines with a feeble light about 2,000 times fainter than our sun. [Continue reading…]

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Canadian scientists were followed, threatened and censored. They warn that Trump could do the same

Avi Selk writes: The Environmental Protection Agency’s once-prolific Twitter account has not stirred since Inauguration Day. Neither has its blog, where staff used to write often about the agency’s research, regulations and “Why Science Matters” — as one of the last entries put it.

Both have been dark since President Trump took over the White House, not long after telling a reporter “nobody really knows” whether Earth’s climate is changing. His administration almost immediately moved to restrict scientific departments across the federal government from talking to the media and the public.

White House officials have denied trying to censor public research bodies. Their counterparts in Canada denied the same several years ago — as scientists in that country reported that government minders were following them around, listening in on them and threatening them for speaking out of turn in public.

Now, some who worked in government during former prime minister Stephen Harper’s years in power are warning Americans to expect their own regime of censored science.

“In Harper’s era, it was open warfare with the media,” Max Bothwell, an environmental scientist for the Canadian government, told Smithsonian Magazine. “I suspect something similar is about to happen in the U.S.”

Bothwell, who specializes in the seemingly apolitical study of rock algae, told the outlet about a local radio station’s request to interview him in 2013.

He said he had to ask permission through an array of “media control” bureaucrats that Harper had installed.

He got it, under one condition: “Unbeknownst to the Canadian radio listeners, the media control staffers would be listening in on the phone line, as well,” Smithsonian wrote. Bothwell refused. [Continue reading…]

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Trump has not yet chosen a science advisor

Time reports: President Trump has issued a series of executive actions linked to a range of scientific issues since taking office earlier this month, but he has yet to name a science advisor.

Formally known as the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the science advisor is responsible for consulting with scientists inside and outside of government to ensure the President has the best available information on any policy issue related to science.

OSTP and the science advisor role have not been a priority for the Trump White House with the position still open and no indications that a nomination is coming soon. The transition team only held one meeting with the office before Trump became president, according to John Holdren, Obama’s OSTP director. That meeting—attended by a single transition staffer—lasted one hour and took place a week prior to inauguration, Holdren said.

“He seemed positive and enthusiastic about the mission of OSTP as we explained it,” Holdren said of the meeting with the transition team. “But I have not had any further contact.” The White House did not reply to a request for comment Monday, and the presidential transition team did not reply to a request on the same topic in December.

Several controversial names have appeared as potential science advisors including Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter and Princeton University physicist William Happer. Both are respected in their fields, but deny the science of climate change. [Continue reading…]

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That the world is not solid but made up of tiny particles is a very ancient insight

Carlo Rovelli writes: According to tradition, in the year 450 BCE, a man embarked on a 400-mile sea voyage from Miletus in Anatolia to Abdera in Thrace, fleeing a prosperous Greek city that was suddenly caught up in political turmoil. It was to be a crucial journey for the history of knowledge. The traveller’s name was Leucippus; little is known about his life, but his intellectual spirit proved indelible. He wrote the book The Great Cosmology, in which he advanced new ideas about the transient and permanent aspects of the world. On his arrival in Abdera, Leucippus founded a scientific and philosophical school, to which he soon affiliated a young disciple, Democritus, who cast a long shadow over the thought of all subsequent times.

Together, these two thinkers have built the majestic cathedral of ancient atomism. Leucippus was the teacher. Democritus, the great pupil who wrote dozens of works on every field of knowledge, was deeply venerated in antiquity, which was familiar with these works. ‘The most subtle of the Ancients,’ Seneca called him. ‘Who is there whom we can compare with him for the greatness, not merely of his genius, but also of his spirit?’ asks Cicero.

What Leucippus and Democritus had understood was that the world can be comprehended using reason. They had become convinced that the variety of natural phenomena must be attributable to something simple, and had tried to understand what this something might be. They had conceived of a kind of elementary substance from which everything was made. Anaximenes of Miletus had imagined this substance could compress and rarefy, thus transforming from one to another of the elements from which the world is constituted. It was a first germ of physics, rough and elementary, but in the right direction. An idea was needed, a great idea, a grand vision, to grasp the hidden order of the world. Leucippus and Democritus came up with this idea.

The idea of Democritus’s system is extremely simple: the entire universe is made up of a boundless space in which innumerable atoms run. Space is without limits; it has neither an above nor a below; it is without a centre or a boundary. Atoms have no qualities at all, apart from their shape. They have no weight, no colour, no taste. ‘Sweetness is opinion, bitterness is opinion; heat, cold and colour are opinion: in reality only atoms, and vacuum,’ said Democritus. Atoms are indivisible; they are the elementary grains of reality, which cannot be further subdivided, and everything is made of them. They move freely in space, colliding with one another; they hook on to and push and pull one another. Similar atoms attract one another and join.

This is the weave of the world. This is reality. Everything else is nothing but a by-product – random and accidental – of this movement, and this combining of atoms. The infinite variety of the substances of which the world is made derives solely from this combining of atoms. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration imposes gag order on federal scientists

BuzzFeed reports: The US Department of Agriculture has banned scientists and other employees in its main research division from publicly sharing everything from the summaries of scientific papers to USDA-branded tweets as it starts to adjust to life under the Trump administration, BuzzFeed News has learned.

According to an email sent Monday morning and obtained by BuzzFeed News, the department told staff — including some 2,000 scientists — at the agency’s main in-house research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), to stop communicating with the public about taxpayer-funded work.

“Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents,” Sharon Drumm, chief of staff for ARS, wrote in a department-wide email shared with BuzzFeed News.

“This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” she added. [Continue reading…]

Huffington Post reports: The Environmental Protection Agency has frozen its grant programs, according to sources there.

EPA staff has been instructed to freeze all its grants ― an extensive program that includes funding for research, redevelopment of former industrial sites, air quality monitoring and education, among other things ― and told not to discuss this order with anyone outside the agency, according to a Hill source with knowledge of the situation.

An EPA staffer provided the information to the congressional office anonymously, fearing retaliation. [Continue reading…]

Mashable reports: The communications ban directly contradicts scientific integrity policies at each agency that highlight the importance of communication between the public and agencies that are spending tax dollars to conduct government research.

The opening paragraph of the EPA’s integrity policy says it is designed to “promote scientific and ethical standards,” including “communications with the public.” It goes on to add that the policy “prohibits all EPA employees, including scientists, managers, and other agency leadership, from suppressing, altering, or otherwise impeding the timely release of scientific findings or conclusions.” [Continue reading…]

Scientific American reports: The administration’s latest actions resemble steps taken in Canada by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper while in office from 2006 to 2015; his administration blocked government scientists from speaking with media and explaining their research. Several weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Canadian scientists interviewed by Scientific American warned their U.S. counterparts about the threat of similar restrictions.

“There was a feeling that the government was not interested in expert opinion, and I think it’s the same kind of thing that you are probably going to see with the new [Trump] administration” in the U.S., David Tarasick, a senior research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada (the equivalent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), said last month. Harper’s move drove some Canadian scientists to leave the country to pursue their research. After Harper was voted out Canadian federal scientists last year worked with their union to ensure their contracts would enshrine their ability to speak with the media and the public about their work. [Continue reading…]

Rachel Cleetus at the Union of Concerned Scientists writes: Clean air and clean water are not just “nice to have.”

Pollutants like smog, ozone, and mercury contribute to worsening asthma attacks (especially in young children), heart and lung ailments, and even premature death. What’s more, pollution imposes billions of dollars in costs to the economy in terms of hospital and other health costs, lost work days, lost school days, and other burdens, in addition to pain and suffering.

The EPA was established nearly 50 years ago, under President Nixon, with a mission to protect human health and the environment. Since then, across Republican and Democratic administrations, it has played an important role in responding to environmental disasters, from the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident to the catastrophic 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee.

Equally important, the EPA has worked to implement major environmental laws passed by Congress, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which have helped to significantly to drive down harmful pollution and improve the health of Americans.

We need only look to the air quality in Beijing or New Delhi to understand where our country would be without these fundamental protections. Americans need and depend on the EPA to be our watchdog and guardian. [Continue reading…]

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As Trump takes power, scientists scramble to secure wildlife data

Jimmy Tobias writes: In recent weeks, archivists, academics, and other ardent information activists have frantically sought to preserve and protect federal climate science before Donald Trump takes power in Washington. Leading the way is the University of Pennsylvania’s DataRefuge project, which is conducting a nationwide campaign to save and copy massive government data sets that contain critical information about our changing climate. Leaders of this effort fear that such data could disappear from federal websites when the president-elect’s administration gains control of government agencies.

But climate science isn’t the only potential victim. DataRefuge organizers, along with allies like the Union of Concerned Scientists, are equally worried about other forms of federal environmental research.

“There is no reason to think its efforts would be restricted to climate data alone,” says Gretchen Goldman, the research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

Goldman stresses the vulnerability of wildlife science, particularly research by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that pertains to endangered, threatened, or otherwise imperiled species. [Continue reading…]

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How a bias toward English-language science can result in preventable crises

Ben Panko writes: Thirteen years ago, a deadly strain of avian flu known as H5N1 was tearing through Asia’s bird populations. In January 2004, Chinese scientists reported that pigs too had become infected with the virus—an alarming development, since pigs are susceptible to human viruses and could potentially act as a “mixing vessel” that would allow the virus to jump to humans. “Urgent attention should be paid to the pandemic preparedness of these two subtypes of influenza,” the scientists wrote in their study.

Yet at the time, little attention was paid outside of China—because the study was published only in Chinese, in a small Chinese journal of veterinary medicine.

It wasn’t until August of that year that the World Health Organization and the United Nations learned of the study’s results and rushed to have it translated. Those scientists and policy makers ran headlong into one of science’s biggest unsolved dilemmas: language. A new study in the journal PLOS Biology sheds light on how widespread the gulf can be between English-language science and any-other-language science, and how that gap can lead to situations like the avian flu case, or worse. [Continue reading…]

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Obama vs Trump — academic journals vs Twitter

The Associated Press reports: President Barack Obama cast the adoption of clean energy in the U.S. as “irreversible,” putting pressure Monday on President-elect Donald Trump not to back away from a core strategy to fight climate change.

Obama, penning an opinion article in the journal Science, sought to frame the argument in a way that might appeal to the president-elect: in economic terms. He said the fact that the cost and polluting power of energy have dropped at the same time proves that fighting climate change and spurring economic growth aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Despite the policy uncertainty that we face, I remain convinced that no country is better suited to confront the climate challenge and reap the economic benefits of a low-carbon future than the United States,” Obama wrote.

He peppered his article with subtle references to Trump, noting that the debate about future climate policy was “very much on display during the current presidential transition.”

As he prepares to transfer power to Trump, Obama has turned to an unusual format to make his case to Trump to preserve his policies: academic journals. In the last week, Obama also published articles under his name in the Harvard Law Review about his efforts on criminal justice reform and in the New England Journal of Medicine defending his health care law, which Republicans are poised to repeal.

The articles reflect an effort by Obama to pre-empt the arguments Trump or Republicans are likely to employ as they work to roll back Obama’s key accomplishments in the coming years. Yet it’s unclear whether Trump or the GOP could be swayed by scholarly arguments in relatively obscure publications. [Continue reading…]

At tomorrow’s press conference, Donald Trump is sure to be asked for clarification on questions raised by his recent tweets.

On the other hand, “Did you read any of President Obama’s recent articles in Science, the Harvard Law Review, or the New England Journal of Medicine, Mr Trump?” is an unlikely question.

But on the off-chance something along those lines does come up, Trump is likely to wave it off with something like this: “I’m happy for President Obama to write for academics while I work for the American people.”

It would be understandable if Obama feels like he’s served his time and is now entitled to a quiet life, but I hope he does the opposite — that he doesn’t withdraw to an ivory tower but instead lends his voice (more than his pen) to active and engaged opposition to what promises to be the worst presidency in American history. Writing for academic journals, however, is preaching to the choir.

Scientific challenges against an anti-science president and an anti-science political party are going to get parried by the same expression of mock humility — “I’m not a scientist, but…” — a line that resonates well in a scientifically illiterate nation.

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