Mission to 67P in Crisis

Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P)I’ve really wanted to discuss Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P) and the amazing Rosetta mission to it, but I’ve found the coverage of it to be really bad. So I’ve been reading everything I could and I think I’m in a position now to discuss it. And the first thing on my mind about the comet is its shape. Just look at the image on the left. When I first heard scientists describing it as a rubber ducky, I thought they must have become a bit stir crazy. But it does in fact look a whole lot like a rubber ducky — although one covered in iron flakes from a Wooly Willy.

But there is nothing particularly strange about this. Large asteroids can be relatively spherical. But the only one that is truly spherical is Ceres, which has a radius of about half Pluto. Comets are far smaller. The largest known is Comet Hale–Bopp, with a diameter of perhaps 50 km — roughly one-twentieth the size of Ceres. And most comets are much smaller than this — generally less than 10 km. So they have nowhere near enough gravity to affect their own shape. In the case of 67P, the small lobe is a bit more than 2.3 km across the and large lob is 2.6 km across.

What’s more, the basic shape of 67P is typical of comments. Comet Halley, for example, looks quite a lot like a peanut shell with two bumps on either side and and a thin shaft in between. Comet Hartley 2 looks much the same. And Comet Borrelly looks like a bowling pin. All of this is more or less what we see with 67P. I figure the reason for this is because of the sublimation of comets when they get close to the sun. The parts of the comet that vaporize most easily end up looking like bars that connect the less volatile areas — at least until the comet breaks in half.

The news from Rosetta is frustrating. As far as I can tell, we don’t know anything more about 67P than we did before. That’s mostly because Rosetta has been orbiting the comet since early August and it has been sending back data since September. The data are interesting. For example, both hydrogen and oxygen were found in its coma (tail). And no surface ice was found and the albedo (surface reflectivity) is very low. But these last two bits of information were known years ago (pdf).

The most exciting aspect of the Rosetta mission is the search for organic compounds — including nucleic and amino acids. I’ve always found the idea that earth was seeded with these building blocks of life to be far fetched. But a lot more amazing things are in fact true. If we discovered amino acids on 67P, it would blow my mind. And it really would change the way we look at the development of life in the universe. The coming decades would be very exciting indeed.

Sadly, we can only test for organic compounds by collecting samples. And it is not clear at this point whether Philae (the little lander that could) is going to be able to do this without launching itself off the comet. And the current situation can only be considered a crisis. The lander appears to be at the bottom of a cliff, so that it is only getting an hour and a half of sunlight for each 12 hour rotation of the comet. What’s more, only two of its three feet are on the surface of the comet. It is possible the issues can be worked out, but the scientists only have until Saturday to work it out, after which the battery on Philae will be dead.

I understand that for most people, the adventure story is enough: we landed on a comet! And there is no question that this is cool and the landing is a great engineering feat. But if it ends here with a couple of images and a little spectroscopy, this will be heartbreaking. But the scientists are collecting all the data they can while they can. As time runs out, they may go ahead and start digging, given they will have little to lose at that point. Here’s hoping they can work some kind of a miracle.

American’s Irrational Death Penalty Thinking

Reasons for Death Penalty Support

This is from a Vox article, This Chart Shows America’s Old Testament Thinking on the Death Penalty. It shows the change in the reasons that people give for support of the death penalty over the last 25 years. The “eye for an eye” reason was and still is the biggest reason for it. But it is going down. In fact, all of the reasons are going down. But there is one reason that didn’t even register 25 years ago, but which now is the reason 15% of Americans give for support of the death penalty: it saves tax-payers’ money.

That one is funny, because as anyone who even casually follows the issue knows: it costs a lot more to kill someone than it does to just lock them in a cage for the rest of their lives. Sadly, my experience when telling this to capital punishment fans is that they then start grousing about the fact that we don’t just just shoot them right there on sentencing. This position is untenable, so such conversations always leads to either (1) the fan turning back to “eye for an eye” logic; or (2) the fan claiming that wrongful executions are just an unfortunate aspect of their efficient killing system.

But think about the “saves tax-payers’ money” argument. It is a psychopathic argument: other people’s lives are not worth spending any money. These are the same people who think it is just fine with the huge oil companies getting billions of dollars in tax breaks. But paying a small fraction of that to make it slightly less likely that an innocent person is executed is just too much. This is not just the thinking of a psychopath; this is the thinking of a stupid psychopath.

The graph is also interesting in that “they will repeat crime” and “set an example” have gone down to almost zero support. So apparently, people have given up on these notions. This is good because they simply are invalid: people don’t escape from prison and the death penalty doesn’t discourage people from murder because murder is almost never a rational crime. And maybe these are the people who moved into the anti-death penalty camp, because overall support is down from 1991:

Overall Death Penalty Support - Gallup

Regardless, what it all shows is that support for the death penalty is not rational. Most people are for it out of a sense of revenge (understandable but hardly good policy) or they believe it will do things it doesn’t do. But I think that people like myself who hate the death penalty should be careful. Many think that support for it is decreasing. But that’s not really true. As you can see in the graph, support peaked during the Reagan and Clinton years, but all that has happened since then is that the hateful fever has lifted. Now we are back to where it always is: with roughly 60% of Americans thinking it is a great idea despite the dozens of death row inmates who have been exonerated.

I disagree with Jonathan Gruber: Americans are not especially stupid. But they score very high on “evil.”

The Religious-Irreligious Friendship

Stevie SmithI. AN AGNOSTIC
(of his religious friend)

He often gazes on the air
And sees quite plain what is not there
Peopling the wholesome void with horrid shapes
Which he manoeuvres in religious japes.
And yet he is more gracious than I,
He has such a gracious personality.

(of his agnostic friend)

He says that religious thought and all our nerviness
Is because of the great shock it was for all of us
Long, long ago when animal turned human being
Which is more than enough to account for everything…
And yet he is more gracious than I,
He has such a gracious personality.

— Stevie Smith
In Me Again

Conservative Bigotry and the Scholiast in Chief

Bigot Letter

Tom Sullivan over at Hullabaloo brought my attention to this charming letter to their neighbor at the Unitarian Universalist church in Mountain Home, Arkansas. It came with a window shot out following the publication of a letter to the editor saying that they welcomed everyone regardless of “race, religion, or sexual orientation.” It is bizarre that this would cause such a violent response because this is the very definition of the Unitarian Universalists. This is why other Christians tend not to like them. Go to a universalist church and you are bound to meet some Buddhists. My take on universalism is that it means everyone is saved, everyone has God’s grace, everyone is going to heaven. It’s kind of like the Oprah Winfrey of religions.

But the response doesn’t seem much concerned about the welcoming of all the LGBT community. The problem seems to be that the darkies are welcome. I mean, that letter is filled with charm like “Chi-Congo.” But the best part is surly, “the nigger commie, Muslim, scholiast destroying the USA.” If it hadn’t come along with a bullet, I would assume parody. First, there is the fact that the description of the president is longer than my own parodies of an ignorant conservative. Usually, I just go with, “Muslim Kenyan socialist.” But then there is “scholiast.” What’s with that?! I had to look it up. It means: a commentator on ancient or classical literature. But commenter islandbrewer at Patheos put it brilliantly, “I think I have an old muslin scholiast that my grandmother made. It’s very pretty.” Anyway, it is just a clever way to throw in “pointy headed intellectual.” But it is clever.

The whole thing could have been reduced to a bumper sticker, “I’m a bigot, and I vote!” And this has been something we have known for a long time. Although they try very hard to hide it, the only reason conservatism in its current form is competitive is fear and hatred of “those” people. And the conservative elite know this. They are smart people. They know that voters don’t rush to the polls to vote for the party’s economic policies, which the voters largely disagree with anyway. It is more along the lines of this old joke:

A guy finds a lantern and rubs the dust off of it. A genii pops out and says, “I grant you one wish, but with the understanding that whatever I give you, I give your neighbor twice as much.” The guy says, “Okay: I want you to beat me half to death.”

I’m not saying that Republicans are primarily dependent on bigots. But I think at least 10% of their coalition is only there because of their bigotry. And without that 10%, the party would be at best a regional power. Bigotry is doubtless more important to the Republican coalition than are tax cuts. And that’s sad.

I would have thought that by now we would be past such blatant racist and homophobic appeals as in the letter above. I still think that the most important form of racism in America is white privilege as I discussed yesterday. But especially since Obama (and in reaction to him), we’ve seen a huge increase in this kind of base racism. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is good to have it “out in the open.” Because what we’ve seen is regression. And if we have people willing to apply the n-word to the president, it means the less obvious forms of racism are also ascendant.

But I do appreciate the letter. I think I will start referring to President Obama as the Scholiast in Chief. It isn’t a bad moniker — and I do mean it with great respect.

Edwin Booth

Edwin BoothOn this day in 1833, the great actor Edwin Booth was born. He is sadly most remembered as the brother of John Wilkes Booth — the assassin of President Lincoln. But that was an issue on which the two greatly disagreed. In fact, Edwin was very much a unionist. So as the Civil War continued on, tensions increased. I recall reading some time ago that John wasn’t even allowed in Edwin’s house by the time of the assassination.

The radicalization of John is not hard to understand. It happens today. People don’t commit acts of terrorism on a lark. They normally are at the end of a long process, during which the radical moves further and further away from his traditional friends and family and toward an insular group. It must have been sad for Edwin and the rest of the family to watch.

Interestingly, Edwin Booth saved Lincoln’s oldest son Robert shortly before John assassinated the president. A large crowd on a train platform pushed Robert off into the well between it and the departing train. He might have been crushed, but Edwin grabbed him by the collar. Robert discussed the event years later; he seemed to remember it primarily because Edwin was a star. It would be as if George Clooney pulled you out of the way of a speeding car. But even better: George Clooney pulled you out of the way of a speeding car and then his sister Ada killed your father. Such an event might stand out in your mind.

Edwin Booth was extremely important in the history of American theater. He was one of the leaders of the change toward a more naturalistic performance of Shakespeare. In addition to acting technique, that meant a change in the canon. While his father Junius was known for his lead in Richard III, Edwin’s signature play was Hamlet — a part he repeated into his late fifties.

Booth died young, like most of his family. But despite his death in 1893, we have a recording of him. It is less than 50 seconds long, and much of it is unintelligible. It is a speech by Othello when he is describing how he and Desdemona fell in love. I’ll present the lines first and then the recording:

My story being done
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.

I don’t know about you, but it sounds to me quite a bit like Boris Karloff. That’s probably just because people tend to perform Shakespeare with a British accent. It is also true that Booth did a lot of touring throughout the English speaking world. And Karloff wasn’t that much later than Booth, and so was probably influenced by the same acting trends that Booth was setting.

Happy birthday Edwin Booth!