Monthly Archives: October 2015

Great Pumpkin Asteroid Flyby Halloween Weekend

Halloween Great Pumpkin Asteroid

A large asteroid 1,300 feet in diameter will fly by our planet tomorrow at 1:01 p.m. EDT at about 79,000 m.p.h. Asteroid 2015 TB145, which was just discovered on October 10, has been christened the “Great Pumpkin Asteroid” by NASA. It will pass us at a distance of about 300,000 miles, or about 1.3 times the distance of the moon’s orbit. There will be no danger to earth; but it’s still considered close, as cosmic distances go.

Scientists are gearing up to take advantage of the close encounter to study the asteroid as it zips by. As far as we know, there will not be another one this large and this close for 12 years.

The Great Pumpkin Asteroid won’t be visible to the naked eye, but amateur astronomers with proper telescopes will be able to see it late tonight and before dawn tomorrow morning.

The gravitational force of the asteroid is so small at that distance that it will have no detectable effect on earth or the moon.

The Great Pumpkin Asteroid has a weird orbit.

The video above shows the solar system (not to scale), demonstrating the Great Pumpkin Asteroid’s strange orbit. The asteroid crosses earth’s orbit slightly before the 15 second point.

The asteroid belt forms a donut shaped cloud between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The Great Pumpkin Asteroid has a long narrow orbit that goes out almost as far as Jupiter’s orbit and then falls back to very near the sun about every three years, but it moves at a steep angle to the plane of the solar system. Because of this strange orbit, it’s possible this might be a tailless comet and not a true asteroid. Observations this weekend should tell us for sure.

The Great Pumpkin Asteroid is an NEO.

2015 TB145 was just discovered on Oct. 10. Asteroids and comets that cross earth’s orbit are called “earth crossers” or “near-earth objects” (NEO), and there are believed to be several million of them.

Since only about 13,000 NEOs have been actually detected to date, there are obviously lots of potentially dangerous ones cruising through Earth’s neighborhood unseen. Fortunately, most are relatively small. NASA believes about 95 percent of the biggest ones — those that could threaten human civilization — have been found; and none of them is a danger to us for at least the next few hundred years.

Those smaller than the Great Pumpkin Asteroid can still be dangerous.

However, because of their tremendous speed, even some of the many smaller ones could cause a great deal of death and destruction if they struck our planet. The video below is stitched together from several Russian dash-cams and other cameras. The pictures were taken February 15, 2013, while drivers watched in amazement as a small asteroid exploded high in the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk Oblast with the force of 30 Nagasaki-type atomic bombs.

The “Chelyabinsk meteor,” as it is known, was only estimated to have been 65 feet in diameter — many times smaller than the one now approaching earth orbit. Yet about 1,500 people were injured seriously enough to seek medical treatment, mostly from broken glass that shattered when windows were blown in by the powerful shock wave. Around 7,200 buildings were damaged in six cities by the shock wave; but, fortunately, there were no known fatalities. It could have been far worse if it had exploded nearer the ground.

The Chelyabinsk meteor is the only meteor — or asteroid — ever confirmed to have resulted in a large number of injuries. So far.

Russian Asteroid 2013-02-16That was the largest known natural object to have entered Earth’s atmosphere since the 1908 Tunguska event, which destroyed a wide, remote, forested area of Siberia; and it took us completely by surprise. We had no idea it was coming. A large chunk of it was eventually recovered (above left).

Readers who watched their TVs as 21 separate fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 pounded Jupiter for a week between July 16 and 22, 1994, most of them leaving scars large enough to swallow our planet whole, will understand the danger these unguided missiles present. Fortunately, the very large ones are rare.

One of NASA’s many duties is to locate dangerous NEOs and find ways to deflect them if necessary. The dinosaurs would have appreciated their help.


Genetics and Evolution Classes Online

What Is Evolution? with Mohamed Noor, Earl D. McLean Professor and Chair of the Biology Department of Duke University.

Professor Noor is an avid researcher into complex areas of evolution, hybridization, and genetics. He is known for (among other things) helping develop “a model wherein regions of restricted recombination, as by chromosomal inversions, facilitate the persistence of hybridizing species.” In 2008, he was awarded the Darwin-Wallace Medal from the Linnean Society of London.

He has served as editor for the international journal Evolution and associate editor for several other journals, as well as authoring over 100 publications. He has served as president of the American Genetic Association and Society for the Study of Evolution and as a board member for the Genetics Society of America.

Genetics and Evolution Classes

Noor and his group have also developed laboratory activities for high schools and colleges and a commercial kit for observing natural selection in Drosophila.He  has been active in education and outreach, receiving numerous teaching and mentoring awards from his institution, and more recently teaching online genetics and evolution classes.

This is the first lesson of that course, and it leads directly to the whole series of classes. For people with a desire to understand basic genetics and evolution, watching these videos is an excellent way to learn.


Atheists Have Morals, Too

It’s 49:21 long, but it’s worth every second. This guy is educated (he’s a school teacher) and well informed on the subject he’s talking about (that atheists have morals, too), He has a master’s degree in theology. He’s polite, very articulate, and he doesn’t try to speak for all atheists. He seems to remember (as many don’t) that an atheist is just somebody who doesn’t believe in God — or any other god — and that’s the only thing we have in common. But, in many ways, that’s enough.

Godless In Dixie - atheists have morals, too

Check out his blog at Godless in Dixie.



Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler: Another Hero Dies in Action

Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler

Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, who died Thursday in Iraq, was the the first American in four years to die there in combat. He was 39.

Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler was a hero.

A member of Delta Force, the Army equivalent of Navy SEAL teams, he accompanied a group of Kurdish commandos on a helicopter raid to rescue about 70 hostages from being murdered by Islamic State militants. He and the other Americans who accompanied the mission were not supposed to join in the action, but he couldn’t stand by and watch the mission fail.

A former Delta Force officer who had commanded Sergeant Wheeler in Iraq and had been briefed on the mission said that the Kurdish fighters, known as pesh merga, tried to blast a hole in the compound’s outer wall, but could not. Sergeant Wheeler and another American, part of a team of 10 to 20 Delta Force operators who were present, ran up to the wall, breached it with explosives, and were the first ones through the hole.

“When you blow a hole in a compound wall, all the enemy fire gets directed toward that hole, and that is where he was,” [the former Delta Force officer said.]

He grew up in a “thinly populated, economically struggling patch of eastern Oklahoma” and had a difficult childhood with few options. One was to join the Army, and he took it. “In that area, if you didn’t go to college, you basically had a choice of the oil fields or the military,” said his uncle, Jack Shamblin. “The Army really suited him; he always had such robust energy and he always wanted to help people, and he felt he was doing that.” Obviously, he was right.

His mother had been married twice; both times, to alcoholic, abusive men. As the oldest child in this dysfunctional family, Wheeler had always made sure his younger siblings were clothed and fed. This sense of responsibility carried over into adulthood and served him well, leading to his success as “a highly decorated combat veteran in the elite and secretive Delta Force.”

Too many heroes die in action, as did Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler. This is a terrible tragedy. But he helped save the lives of about 70 ISIS prisoners, by performing the extremely dangerous work he had been trained to do.

We need more heroes like Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, people willing and able to lay down their lives (if necessary) for their fellow humans. But, when possible, we desperately need to find ways to keep them alive. We need all the genuine heroes we can get, and we don’t need them dead.

There was another American scaling that wall with him, but we are not told his name. This other man was equally a hero. Wheeler was not a hero because he died; rather, they were both heroes because they went “above and beyond the call of duty” to save the lives of others.

One lived and one died. They were both heroes in equal measure.


Ahmed Mohamed Moving to Qatar

Ahmed Mohammed

Ahmed Mohamed and his family are moving to Qatar.

Mohamed’s sister, Eyman, reportedly confirmed that the family will only be in the U.S. for a few more days before relocating to Doha. Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed, the teen’s controversial father, added that he looks forward to moving his children to a nation in which they “can study and learn” while “being accepted by that country.”

Yes, Ahmed is the same 14-year-old boy who was arrested recently in Irving, Texas, for bringing a clock to school. His English teacher and principal said it was a “hoax bomb,” even though there was nothing in it that looked like an explosive.

Evidently Qatar appreciates bright students.

Eyman Mohamed asserted that Qatar is “basically like America,” noting that the decision to move was based on a generous offer her brother received from the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. “Our family has been overwhelmed by the many offers of support we have received since the unfortunate incident of Ahmed’s arrest,” a family statement explained.

I have no idea why she thinks Qatar is “basically like America,” but that’s beside the point.

I’ve known several exceptionally intelligent boys and girls in my lifetime who would now be young or middle-age men and women. I hope I had some beneficial influence on several of them, possibly encouraging an interest in science or technology. Or, at least, education. In the long run, it’s usually difficult to be sure. I would have loved to have met Ahmed.

Unfortunately, he will apparently be lost to the United States; and that’s a crying shame. We need to keep our brightest students and encourage them to complete their education here and help make our nation great again. It is insane to drive them somewhere else to help make some other country great instead!


Gun Control in the Democratic Debate

The clip above is from the first Democratic presidential campaign debate last week. Gun control is one of the most divisive issues in the country; people are either for lots of it or against any of it. There seems to be very little in between.

The Constitution of the United States guarantees “the people” the right to bear arms, but it provides no guidance about what kinds of regulation might be permissible or proper.

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

United States (2011-03-24). United States Bill of Rights (Kindle Location 8). . Kindle Edition.

Arms Are for Militias

It’s clear the Second Amendment (above) refers to militias, which no longer exist in the United States in the same form or for the same purposes as they did when the Constitution was written. They have been  replaced by a standing Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, Border Patrol, National Guards, and other military institutions, some of which the framers of the Constitution could never have imagined.

Nevertheless, the writers wrote, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be abridged.” The Supreme Court has ruled this right is still protected, even though the stated need for it no longer applies.

Reasonable Gun Control Is not Forbidden

While “the people” are guaranteed the right to bear arms, this does not necessarily mean we have to let criminals or mentally ill people have guns. As Hilary said, “We are losing 90 people a day to gun violence” in this country. We have every right and responsibility, through our representatives, to try to prevent this.

We have the right to require background checks on people before selling them weapons, as we sometimes — but not always — do. There is a glaring loophole in this policy: background checks are only required if you want to buy a gun from a licensed dealer. You can go to a “gun show” nearly every weekend in any moderately large city and buy guns with no questions asked.

Bernie sounds good on gun control.

Bernie says this loophole must be closed. I agree.

He says felons and mentally ill people should not be allowed to own guns. I agree.

He says that if a dealer sells a gun legally and the buyer uses it to commit a crime, the dealer is not liable. However, if the dealer has intentionally or carelessly sold the gun illegally, then  the dealer is also responsible for the crime committed by the buyer. I agree completely!

One of the ways some dealers sell guns illegally is the so called “straw man” sale. This is when somebody buys a gun for somebody else, who might not pass a background check. It’s always illegal for the buyer to do it, and it’s illegal for the seller if he or she knows it’s happening. That is, a dealer cannot knowingly sell a gun to one person for somebody else.

For a variety of reasons, this is seldom enforced, though it happens a lot. Bernie says it must be enforced, and I agree.

Hilary says Bernie is soft on gun control, but he sounds pretty good to me. His opinions on this issue just make sense. They provide reasonable control without making gun ownership difficult or illegal for responsible citizens.

Bernie is unique in this election cycle. Nobody else is even in the ballpark. They have no clue about the things that matter to most of us.

As one hard-working but very poor young man said recently at a Sanders rally, “I want to see change. And I believe Bernie Sanders is the one to do it.” I agree. Bernie is the ONLY candidate with any grasp of our problems and a plan to fix them.

Can he succeed? I don’t know, but nobody else is even talking much about the real issues facing the country. Issues many of us face every day. Issues like creeping poverty. Like life-long, crushing debt for college graduates. Like crumbling overpasses and bridges on the highways we travel. Like reasonable, practical gun control. Like staying out of war, except as an absolute last resort. Like making enough money to live on if you work full-time at one job. Bernie Sanders is the ONLY candidate in either party to propose any rational solutions to these problems.

I was never a particular fan of Sanders until this campaign, but Bernie Sanders sounds better every time he opens his mouth.


The American people are tired of hearing about your damn emails!

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

In some ways, it was the highlight of the Democratic debate last night.

For eight months Hillary has been answering questions about the private email server she used when she was Secretary of State. It was not illegal, but she has admitted it was a mistake. Still she found herself answering again last night for the umpteen billionth time, and complaining that it was time to go on to something more substantive.

Bernie Sanders, standing next to her, turned her way. “I think the Secretary is right,” he said, “The American people are tired of hearing about your damn emails!”

I agree.

I want to hear how the candidates plan to make America great again. I want to know how they are going to create — or promote the creation of — millions of good, high-paying, secure jobs. How they are going to save and expand Social Security and Medicare and provide universal access to healthcare and education. I want to know what they plan to do to keep America and the world safe.

I’m tired of hearing about the damn emails.

“It looks like a bomb.”

Ahmed's clock

Nearly everybody seems to say “It looks like a bomb.” Of course, I’m talking again — hopefully for the last time — about Ahmed Mohammed’s clock (above) that caused all the commotion recently.

Ahmed didn’t “invent” a clock. That seems clear enough. What was different about this clock that made him think he had invented something is not clear. Nevertheless, he was proud enough of it that he wanted to show it off to his engineering teacher.

Unfortunately, the alarm went off during English class, and the English teacher and Principal went bonkers. You’ll remember, I’m sure, that nobody thought it was a bomb. The boy was arrested and taken away in handcuffs because they thought it was a “hoax bomb.” They said it looks like a bomb!

suitcase bomb

Here’s a real suitcase bomb on the left and another on the right. See the difference?

These bombs have actual explosives, which you can see in both of them. Ahmed’s “hoax bomb” doesn’t have anything to explode. It’s just a tangle of wires and electronic elements.

Hackett Suitcase Bomb

I wonder what an actual hoax bomb clock would look like? Here are a couple I found on Google.

The clock on the left definitely looks like a bomb to me. It was meant to.

clock hoax bomb

The “hoax dynamite” explosive is just wooden dowel pins covered with brown paper and bound with electrical tape, but it looks real to me. This definitely looks like a bomb.

The clock on the right (below) is designed to look like a C4 bomb.

clock hoax bomb

The fake C4 plastic explosive is nothing but gray modeling clay, but it looks like a bomb.

Ahmed Mohammed has a reputation as a tinkerer and likes to think of himself as an “inventor.” His friends pay him actual money for some of his gadgets. So nobody should have been alarmed (no pun intended) when it dinged. This “model student” who had never been in trouble before brought his current project to school to show it off to people he thought would appreciate it.

Who would have thought so many supposedly intelligent, educated, and trained people would have thought it looks like a bomb? Who would have thought such an exceptionally bright and well behaved student would have been (mis)treated like a terrorist by people he trusted? People he thought were on his side?

What Controversy?

No Controversy

The cartoonist notes:

With the heightened political coverage, the ridiculous anti-science popping up in my newsfeed is reaching frustrating levels. Yes, I’m talking about you, Texas.

Do your part in the fight for science literacy and buy a copy of Sounds Sciencey for a friend!

Anyway, keep calm and science on!

Texas is my state. Most of the time, I’m proud  to be a Texan. But I know that Dallas Independent School District and many others are teaching creationism and Intelligent Design in biology classes, I have to hang my head.

No controversy!

There is no controversy among scientists. The controversy is all among politicians and certain religious people. Evolution is real and should be taught in public school biology classes. Creationism and intelligent design are phony and should not be taught. It’s as simple as that?

97% of all scientists accept evolution as the way we and other living things got here, and far more than 99% of scientists working in biological fields. There is no controversy among them!

Women’s rights, too

When I read how our state legislature has restricted women’s reproductive rights in the last couple of years, my head hangs even further. In some ways, we haven’t progressed in the last and 65 years.

Science and women’s rights don’t necessarily go together, but they’re both important. Extremely important! Fellow Texans, we need to build a fire under our governor and our legislature and force them into the 21st-century.

In varying degrees, the same is true of the other states in our country and of our federal government. America can be great again, but not this way.