Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pinko Polar Bears

On May 22, columnist George Will recast the U.S. government's reluctant decision to protect polar bears as part of a supposed war against all things good, true and American by the "green left," which he then equates with the "red left." He makes a big deal over some worries about global cooling that appeared three decades ago. You can read his rather slimy diatribe here. The institute's response follows:

Dear George,

I think you confuse the assiduous work of the scientific community
with a leftist agenda to establish complete government control.

If you would read the data and reports of the scientists instead of
relying upon your ideological perspective you might find that the
international community has come up with a broad consensus and a few
articles from 33 years ago do not prove them wrong.

When large insurance (and reinsurance) companies, most of the Fortune 500, every
other industrial nation, financial institutions, and stockholders such as
the Rockefeller family agree that climate change/global warming is a
threat that needs to be attacked immediately, one has to wonder why
all of these entities with their own scientific teams have decided
one way, and you with a seemingly impermeable ideological bent have
decided the other.

Perhaps, George, the experts--including the 1700 leading scientists who just published yet another urgent warning on climate change--are right and you are wrong.

Lou Miller, PhD

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

To catch a failing star

For the first time in history, astronomers have caught a supernova—a star blowing itself to bits at the end of its life—at the instant of detonation.

The unprecedented new observations flowing from this discovery are giving astronomers a deeper understanding of just what happens when a star explodes.

Credit: NASA/Swift Science Team/Stefan Immler.

On January 9, Alicia Soderberg, an astronomer at Princeton University, was using NASA’s SWIFT satellite to study x-rays from an earlier supernova in the galaxy NGC 2770, 90 million light years from Earth, in the constellation Lynx.

What she had the amazing luck to witness instead was a brilliant burst of x-rays so intense that they overwhelmed the satellite’s detector.

“I truly won the astronomy lottery,” Soderberg says. “A star exploded right before my eyes,”

She instantly realized that the blast was the long-sought signature of the birth of a supernova. Within minutes she alerted astronomers around the world, allowing them to observe the first hours and days of a supernova for the first time.

Until now, scientists could only study supernovas when visible light from dust and gas around the star reached Earth. But since that light arrives days or weeks after the actual explosion, the scientists were left in the dark concerning supernovas’ first days.

Astrophysicists have a working theoretical understanding of how a star dies and creates a supernova. When a massive star runs out of its nuclear fuel, its core collapses under the pull of gravity. The infalling material can reach a speed of a quarter of the speed of light, and a temperature of 100 billion degrees. When the core has collapsed as much as it can, into what’s known as a neutron star, it rebounds, creating an incredibly powerful shock wave. When that shock wave hits the dying star’s surface, it generates an intense blast of ultraviolet light or x-rays.

It was those long-predicted x-rays that Soderberg detected, for the first time.

Now scientists can start to check their theories against real data.

Supernova 2008 D, as Soderberg's discovery is now known, is already the most studied supernova in history. Her incredibly good luck has become astronomy’s great gain. It will let astronomers and astrophysicists fill in the gaps in their understanding of the sudden death of massive stars and the fiery birth of neutron stars and black holes.

Robert Adler

Friday, May 16, 2008

Obama or Clinton, prepare for the worst

We'd like to be hopeful about the 2008 elections, but the right-wing spin machine remains extremely powerful. Between the spin-masters in the White House and the Pentagon and their sycophantic echo chambers in the media, the current exponents of the big lie have had their way with the American people for at least the last eight years.

If they can take a total slacker and make him president--twice--
and if they can take a genuine war hero and swiftboat him,
then they can turn any truth into a lie
and any lie into the truth.

No matter who wins the nomination, it's going to be brutal campaign.

the institute
May 16, 2008

Thursday, May 08, 2008

America, 14,000 BP

The Monte Verde archaeological site, in Chile near the tip of South America, continues to provoke new questions about when and how people first came to the Americas.

In a paper in this week’s Science, Tom Dillehay, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and his colleagues report that previously un-analysed soil samples from Monte Verde yielded nine kinds of algae that the prehistoric people who lived there used for food and medicine. The team radiocarbon dated these organic remains to 14,000 to 14,200 calendar years ago.

Excavating the Monte Verde site

These dates add weight to Monte Verde’s standing as the site of the oldest proven human presence in the New World. The now clearly established fact that people were living deep in South America more than 1000 years before the oldest Clovis site should, as Dillehay points out, place a tombstone on the grave of the hoary Clovis-First theory. The Clovis big-game hunters were clearly not the first people to occupy the Americas, although they did scatter their characteristic fluted spearpoints across much of North America as early as 13,000 years ago.

What’s new and more interesting is how sophisticated the residents of Monte Verde appear to have been. In their Science paper and an accompanying teleconference, Dillehay and his Chilean colleague, Mario Pino, noted that much of the algae they found came from beaches that were then some 60 miles from the inland settlement. In their press conference, they added that the Monte Verde site has also yielded medicinal plants that came from the Patagonian plains far across the Andes from Monte Verde.

Just in the area of food and medicine, says Dillehay, they found " . . . more than 72 plant species that have economic uses, not only from the coast and estuary, but also a wide range of food and medicinal plants that come from the [upstream] forests, the foothills of the Andes . . . and two plants that are medicinal that come from the other side of the Andes, from present-day Argentina.”

The implication is that the 20 or 30 people who sheltered, cooked, treated their sick, and left their footprints at Monte Verde more than 14,000 years ago, were not just an isolated band. According to Dillehay, they had an intimate knowledge of the vital resources in their own area, and may well have been exchanging goods with other established groups from as far away as the Patagonian plains across the Andes.

“That would imply,” says Dillehay, “that there were certain resource zones throughout the Americas where people settled in and perhaps built up a substantial population” 14,000 years ago or more.

If he's right, that’s an eye-opener for the Americas, which until very recently were assumed to have been devoid of humans, much less substantial populations trading with each other, until much more recently.

Robert Adler
May 8, 2008