Monday, December 31, 2007

Champagne Science

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.  
-from Inventory by Dorothy Parker 
Happy New Year! First, to those of you who don't drink, sorry, this post is not for you.  Well, actually, you can pretend we are talking about seltzer, which has similar properties.

I love the taste of dry champagne, its bubbly texture, and the way it makes me smile.  I'm afraid I'm a bit spoiled when it comes to champagne -- I just don't like the cheap stuff. 
"Champagne" is sparkling wine made in a particular way in the Champagne region of France, which accounts for only about 3% of the French vineyard area.  No sparkling wine from outside that region can legally be called "champagne", even if it is made in exactly the same way.  Demand has increased enough of late that the French are considering expanding the official region, which would magically transmute some  "sparkling wine" into "champagne".  Who says there is no alchemy?  Seriously, a designation should depend upon the quality of a product, not where it was produced.  But perhaps the quality is better.  A wine expert I know writes:
"The chard and pinot noir grapes surely do taste differently when grown in Champagne, because of temperature and soil, and the acidity developed there makes champagne taste like champagne. So, while I think it reasonable that the territory be expanded to next door, where perhaps the hundreds of years old techniques, quality of soil, and climate are similar, it can in no way be expanded to Italy or Germany. The sparkling wine from those or any other countries might be great,but they just wouldn't be champagne."
Everything below applies equally to all sparkling wine, regardless of its geographic origin.

Let us take a brief break from appreciating the tingling taste of the effervescent bubbles, and ask what science has to say about champagne.    I want to mention two aspects: the established physics of the bubbles, and the recent results on bubble trains.  It is the latter which sets the "confidence level" for this post at likely instead of established (see bottom note and original reference to these notes). 
Sparkling wine sparkles because of dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) in the wine, which is mostly water.  It is not uncommon for some gas to be dissolved in water (oxygen, O2,  dissolved in water is what fish breathe), but there is far more CO2 in champagne than would be found naturally.   The pressure of the sealed bottle keeps bubbles from forming in the same way that someone stepping on a balloon would keep you from blowing it up.   When you remove the cork, it's like the person stepping off the balloon -- bubbles can form with abandon.  Unlike many solids which dissolve in water, like sugar or salt, the amount of CO2 you can dissolve goes down as the water temperature rises, which is why it is good to keep champagne chilled.

There has been some recent work in understanding how the bubbles form and why they form patterns of bubbles in trains.  When you uncork sparkling wine, it becomes a supersaturated solution -- there is more CO2 in the wine than can be held there at that temperature and pressure.  But it can't all come out at once, unless you are silly enough to shake the bottle, because bubbles need something to nucleate (begin) on.  When you shake the bottle, you form all sorts of bubbles which can quickly grow bigger and suck out all the CO2.  So how do bubbles form if you are gentle with your champagne?  Well, recent research (e.g., this and this) says that little pieces of dust or lint on the glass allows one bubble after another to nucleate, forming different patterns of bubble trains depending on the pressure, temperature and how flat the champagne is.
Enough!  Don't let the bubbly get too flat before you make your toast!   Happy New Year!

[picture from artlebedev]
[confidence level: likely, my qualifications: informed]


Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ron Paul Rejects The Theory of Evolution


US  Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul says, "It's a theory, the theory of evolution, and I don't accept it".  Sigh.  I am going to delve into this subject a lot more later.  Let me make two quick points.

First, the word theory is used differently in different contexts.  When you think of "theory", you may think of the phrase, "it's just a theory", which makes a "theory" sound like a flippant thing.  But when a scientist says, "The theory of X",  or "So-and-so's theory of X",  they mean, "the theoretical framework which convincingly explains X and has withstood many attempts at falsification".  An example is "Newton's theory of gravity", which has been well tested in the regime to which it applies (for strong fields, one needs general relativity).  Darwin's Theory of Evolution is at least as well tested.
Second, to say, "I don't accept the theory of evolution" is equivalent to saying, "I don't accept the fundamental basis of our understanding of biology".   It would mean, for example, invoking divine intervention to explain how drug-resistant bacteria arise.

If you reject the fundamental basis for biology and therefore most of modern medicine, I think you are unfit to be a world leader.  So, I hope at least some of Ron Paul's many net supporters condemn his stance on the The Theory of Evolution.

[If you are picky about grammar, see my note about punctuation and quotation marks here.]
[I got this video here.]

[confidence level: established, my qualifications: informed]


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

In the last few years, the title of this post has become contro- versial in the US.  Perhaps out of a fear of not offending anyone, there has, for a number of years, been a trend toward removing the word "Christmas" from "Merry", "Tree", and most sacred of all, "Sale" ;).  I understand and agree with the impulse of not wanting to offend people, but I also recognize in a religiously and politically diverse world, one has to try to be tolerant in receiving words as well as saying them.

On the other hand, I don't think you should say "Merry Christmas" to someone you know it will offend.  What for, to prove a point?  Is that in the spirit of the season?  [also discussed: divinity of Jesus.]

In fact, I almost always either say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays" unless I think the person would prefer I say "Merry Christmas" or refer to another specific holiday, e.g. "Happy Hanukkah".  The point is, intent matters and so does context.

For example, the title of this post is not a greeting to a specific person, nor any statement about the relative worth of one holiday over another.  It is not a statement suggesting that you, dear reader, must be merry about Christmas.  It is expressing my feelings about the season.  Nor is it an expression of any religious beliefs (in my case at least).  It is just my expression of joy at this time that I have always loved.

I love Christmas because it is a rare time for my family to come together.  It is a time to sing carols and eat, drink, and be merry.  It is a time to celebrate life.   (I should say that I have found the Winter Solstice also to be a good day for these, which is fitting since the date of Christmas likely traces its origins to the Solstice-timed holidays of Saturnalia or to Sol Invictus.) 
Christmas is not a religious holiday for me personally, because I don't believe that Jesus was divine.  But I have come to think that Jesus was an amazing person.  He was one of the first to preach nonviolence, and love thy neighbor.   There have been others.  For example, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  are worthy of our reverence too.  

It's too bad that much of Christianity bears so little resemblance to what Jesus seems to have been striving for.  In fact, given that Jesus never wrote a word, it is amazing that any of his message managed to survive all the people who have been involved in constructing and making use of a religion about him (like the Roman Emperor Constantine, whose Council of Nicaea decided many things including whether Jesus was a deity or not).

Anyway, think of the message, love thy neighbor.  And of course, eat, drink, and be merryHappy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Solstice, and Merry Christmas!


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Solstice!

The solstice occurs now, on 22 December 2007 at 1:08 AM EST (06:08 UT).  It is the moment that the Sun is farthest from the celestial equator.   It is when the Earth's axis is aligned with the line between the Earth and Sun such that the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away, and the Southern Hemisphere towards the Sun. 

This makes today the shortest day of the year and the start of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, and  the longest day of the year and the start of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Above is the oldest solar observatory in the Americas, in Chankillo, Peru.  It has been there since the 4th century BC, but it was just discovered this year.  The point where the Sun rises moves up and down the 300m length of the hill, from solstice to solstice.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Originalism, Commas, and the Second Amendment

There is a concept in US Constitutional Law called originalism, which says that one should read the US Constitution literally, down to the last comma, to divine and adhere to what the Constitution's authors meant.  This line of thought says that the Constitution is a dead document, incapable of evolving with the times, except by the brute force of a Constitutional Amendment.  I find this concept similar to the one that says one should base morality on a literal reading of a religious text, such as the Bible.  Things have changed a lot in the last few thousand years, so even if you believe the Bible was a perfect source of morality back then, I hope, gentle reader, you agree that some things in it are out of date.

So it was some interest that I read this rather pedantic sounding Opinion piece in the New York Times called Clause and Effect, by Adam Freedman.  His point is that people who have been trying to interpret the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, the one usually called the right to bear arms, may have it all wrong because 
"In the 18th century, punctuation marks were as common as medicinal leeches and just about as scientific...Often, the whole business of punctuation was left to the discretion of scriveners, who liked to show their chops by inserting as many varied marks as possible."

The Amendment is usually written
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.
This is very confusing, especially because of the commas.  Does the first part of the sentence modify "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed"?  He argues yes, and what they probably meant was  
“Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
He might be right, he might be wrong.  But what we need to do is be guided by the basic principles of the Constitution and apply them to today's world.  Today there are weapons no individual should have, weapons whose possession diminish the security of the state and its citizens.  It seems pretty clear to me that limiting use of such arms is consistent with the spirit of the Second Amendment.  We can debate where to draw that line another time, but let us at least agree that there is a line, and that the right to bear arms is not absolute, independent of what the commas in the statute mean.
And more broadly, let us always use common sense and context when basing a decision on any moral or legal source.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

"One small step for man..."

The explorer was getting low on food.  He was in a desolate landscape of sand and rocks.  His lame leg tore a ragged trench as he doggedly dragged it through the sand.  How long could he last?  Would he find the treasure, or would he expire first?  Then he came upon it without warning.   Ironically, it had been uncovered by his lame foot.  There glistening in the sunlight was a streak of "white gold", evidence for an ancient hot spring on Mars.
The explorer is 4'11" tall, weighs 384 lbs, and rides on six wheels.  

It is the Mars Rover Spirit.  It gets its "food" from the sun.  As the Martian sand builds up on its solar panels, less sunlight get through, and it "starves".  At one point recently, a lucky gust of wind cleared its panels, but now they are dusty again and  Mission Managers are unsure whether Spirit will make it through the cold dim Martian winter.  One of Spirit's six wheels stopped turning in 2006, so they have had to drive it backwards through the sand since then.  The "lame leg" digs a trench wherever it goes.  It just happened to uncover a patch of white silica, the stuff of window glass.
The NASA Press Release states
"It could have come from either a hot-spring environment or an environment called a fumarole, in which acidic steam rises through cracks. On Earth, both of these types of settings teem with microbial life."
This was originally announced in May of 2007, but the conclusion has been bolstered by the finding that a rock called "Innocent Bystander" has an interior rich in silica and is probably thus a siliceous sinter.
While I am fascinated with these hints that ancient Mars may have been more hospitable to life, that's not what I wanted to stress in this post.  I anthropomorphized Spirit to make a point.  We respond viscerally to humans meeting challenges.  (Actually, the public was quite interested in the Mars rovers when they landed, which surprised me.  But that interest has faded.)  If there were a human whose survival on Mars was in doubt, it would be the top story on every news outlet (and rightly so).  If a human had dug up the silica, we'd be hearing all about her personal history and idiosyncrasies. 
Humans are also much more adept than a robot in a setting, like Mars, where autonomous actions are required.  A human could probably do the work the rovers have performed in a few days.
BUT, human space travel is very expensive.  It would cost many, many more times the rover program to get a human to and from Mars (perhaps as much as a few months of the Iraq war).  When the human part of the space program is expanded, other programs suffer, and there is often less science done.
Further, robotic vehicles are becoming more and more sophisticated.   They may be all we need to accomplish our scientific goals.

So, until we are willing to commit the resources for both an intensive robotic science program and an expensive human space flight program, I think we should concentrate on sending robots, not humans. 

[confidence level: likely,  my qualifications: informed]


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Science Debate 2008

Seemingly out of nowhere, a grassroots movement has erupted over the last few days calling for a debate between US presidential candidates on science-related issues.  Scientists, science writers, politicians, and bloggers have joined forces to form

which has the credo listed in the sidebar:
    Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we, the undersigned, call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Medicine and Health, and Science and Technology Policy.
What a great idea!  Ordinarily, it might be difficult to convince the public that science should be debated by politicians.  It could have been argued that scientific issues are too arcane, something for advisors or technocrats to address, not folksy leaders.
But today so many issues are tied to science that one can argue effectively that it is crucial for our leaders have good science sense.
  • It's crucial for security issues, because so many security concerns are tied to our dependency on foreign oil.  Our leaders need to know what the pros and cons of each energy alternative are.  
  • It's crucial for environmental issues, especially global warming.  Leaders need to understand the magnitude of the threat, the wide spectrum of potential consequences, and the set of things we can do to mitigate the problems.
  • It's crucial for economic issues, because science and technology are such an important part of the US and the world economy.  We need to be prepared for the future (see for example the report Rising above the gathering storm).
Also, it is important that we know where our leaders stand on issues of science and morality, religion, and priorities.
  • Would they allow stem cell research with frozen embryos? [It is not clear that this is a moot point yet.]
  • Do they believe in evolution?  Can they articulate what evolution is?  Should religious ideas be taught in science classes?
  • Which is more important, putting humans in space (which includes building things to allow them to survive, like space stations), or putting scientific instruments in space (e.g., space telescopes and robotic landers)?
A debate among presidential candidates, if it did nothing else, would get the candidates to think about these important issues.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Thought Experiment: Orbiting Cannonballs

A baby puts everything in its mouth because its mouth is one of its most effective sensory organs.   For adults, "seeing is believing", because we (or at least those of us who are sighted) get most of our information via our eyes.  But what do we do when we want to observe something beyond our experience—something not accessible to the five external senses?  We imagine, of course.  But when that imagination is tempered by logic and care, it really becomes an eye on an internal world.

Physicists call it the Thought Experiment. Actually, since it was popularized by Albert Einstein, whose native tongue was German, it is usually referred to by its German name Gedankenexperiment, which literally translated is ..."thought experiment".
  [Aside: I love the song "Die Gedanken Sind Frei", which I learned of from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.]

This diagram is due to one the most influential scientists in history, Sir Isaac Newton.  (More about him and my little intersection with him later.)  It is a diagram designed to explain how objects can be put into orbit.  It was drawn more than 250 years before Sputnik, and nearly 100 years before the first balloon flight.  It is still, in my opinion, the clearest way of explaining how satellites orbit.

A cannon sits atop a mountain, which by the looks of it is around 500 miles tall, which is about 100 times the height of Mt. Everest.  It shoots cannonballs that fall back to the Earth in the usual parabolic path.  Each successive cannonball is shot faster so that it goes farther than the last.  Eventually, when a cannonball's trajectory curves more slowly than the orb of Earth, it falls forever without running into the Earth.  In other words, it goes into orbit around the Earth.
The only way Newton could "see" this was in his mind.  This thought experiment allowed Newton to extrapolate from the world of his everyday sense to things on the scale of the Earth or even the solar system.  With this simple diagram, he showed how things orbit.  The moon orbits the Earth because it falls, due to gravity, in a gentle curve around and around the Earth.

But it is important to look at a diagram like this with care.  It is not enough to glance with your inner eye.  You have to look carefully.  Confession: When I looked at the diagram, I assumed that by fine tuning the speed of the cannonball, you could get it to hit anywhere around the Earth, say where the A or the B are.  But they are not potential landing sites.  I should have thought about it more.  Then I came across this Java applet which lets  you simulate the trajectory for any speed you wish.  I soon realized that once the cannonball is fast enough to make it past the South pole, G, it would make it all the way around.  You can't get it to hit near A or B (neglecting friction).   Try it.   Find the largest speed for which the cannonball still hits the Earth.  Then see what happens 1 mile/hr more than that.  Like many other physical situations, there is a symmetry that can tell you what is going on.  If the cannonball can make to the South Pole, then it traces a path on the other side of the Earth that is a mirror image of the path it took getting there, and hits the cannon from behind.  The whole path is an ellipse with the closest point at the South Pole.
[confidence level: established, my qualifications: trained]


Sunday, December 9, 2007


Welcome to Science Sense!

This blog is about 
  • making sense of the world
  • pointing out nonsense
  • using an internal sense we all have 
  • having sense to know when to shut off being analytical
  • enjoying and appreciating life and the other five senses

The internal sense is not something supernatural like ESP, but an ability to examine the world within our minds, using imagination and logic.  It is an eye on an inner world of ideas.  It is the sense that Einstein  used to see the world with his "thought experiments".    In the next post you'll see that "thought experiments" started way before Einstein.
[A note on punctuation.  I know that in American English, the convention is to put the period inside the quotes.  I've always found that illogical because quotes are like parentheses, and a period is an outer delimiter of the sentence.  The quote is inside the sentence, not the other way around.  Why would you put part of the sentence after the thing that marked its end?  So in this blog I will not put the period inside quotes.]
I'll have more to say about each aspect of the word "sense".    Here are some of the things I hope to cover in the blog:

  • science news, especially of physics 
  • science politics and ethics
  • my ideas
  • explanations, like what "relativity" means 
  • how to develop that internal sense, an inner logical eye 
  • pseudoscience (i.e., nonsense)
  • opinions about the news of the US and the world
  • opinions about important causes and ways to help
  • opinions about electoral politics

Philosophy & Religion:
  • what does it all mean?
  • how does a scientist make sense of the world and find happiness?
  • issues of religion and science
  • issues of religion and politics (yikes!)
  • issues of morality and ethics (outside of science)

  • music
  • books
  • movies

I will try to indicate my qualifications for the subject at hand  (trained, informed, none), and the confidence level of the ideas (established, likely, speculative).  This way, you'll know what to take with a grain of salt.

I hardly know where to start!   But I do know when it is time to end.  See you next post.