Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

Beck told he can’t pray at Kennedy Center

Freedom of speech alert: Before they backed down, Glen Beck was told by attorneys at the Kennedy Center that he was forbidden to pray during an event he was hosting there. To quote Beck:

GLENN BECK: They have told people on the steps of the Supreme Court that they cannot pray there. They have told students on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial they can’t sing the National Anthem there. And last week I was told by the Kennedy Center that we could not pray there. We were told by the Kennedy Center in no uncertain terms that we could hold our event there, sure we had a contract. But they weren’t told that we were going to have an opening prayer. The program is has the word divine in it, our divine destiny. We couldn’t pray at the Kennedy Center. So my attorneys came to me and said, Glenn, are you willing to compromise on it? And I said, I sure am. You tell them that not only will I do an opening prayer, I’ll do a closing prayer, and the entire program may be a prayer. In fact, take this down. It is a night of prayer. You’ll see if you are lucky enough to get a ticket to the Kennedy Center, and they are not for sale. You will see in the program how I described it. I described it that way. So they could print that in their program at the Kennedy Center which they insisted on having after they told us we couldn’t pray. I said, let me dictate this one. Friday night I was supposed to have a meeting today at 1:00 with their attorneys and I had already talked to my attorneys. Zero compromise. We asked them, where is that in your I didn’t see that in your rules and regulations. “It’s not written down.” No prayer at a federally funded building.

Friday night I think they got a hold of Common Sense. They alerted me Friday night that they will allow prayer to happen on the stage of the Kennedy Center. I told them, thank you so much for your graciousness. I appreciate the scrap from the table. America, our religion and our faith is under attack and whether people care to realize it or not, it is.

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Ray Bradbury tells it like it is

In this Los Angeles Times profile just before his 90th birthday on August 22, Ray Bradbury tells it like it is. Some key quotes:

We should never have left [the Moon]. We should go to the moon and prepare a base to fire a rocket off to Mars and then go to Mars and colonize Mars. Then when we do that, we will live forever.

I think our country is in need of a revolution. There is too much government today. We’ve got to remember the government should be by the people, of the people and for the people.

We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many Internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.

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Why SpaceX is winning the race

An unidentified administrator of the University of Michigan space engineering program has some interesting thoughts on why SpaceX has been so successful. Key quote:

I recently performed an analysis of the very best students in my space engineering programs over the past decade, based on their scholarly, leadership and entrepreneurial performance at Michigan. To my amazement, I found that of my top 10 students, five work at SpaceX. No other company or lab has attracted more than two of these top students.

I also noticed that SpaceX recruited only two of them directly from the university. The others were drawn to the company after some years of experience elsewhere—joining SpaceX despite lower salaries and longer work hours. Why do they leave successful jobs in big companies to join a risky space startup? A former student told me, “This is a place where I am the limiting factor, not my work environment.” At SpaceX, he considers himself to be in an entrepreneurial environment in which great young people collaborate to do amazing things. He never felt like this in his previous job with an aerospace company.

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A great space station, a terrible spaceship

The difficulties NASA experienced in the past two weeks due to the failure of a pump module in the space station’s cooling system has illustrated many things about the future of the International Space Station. I’ve already noted how it has shown us what we will lose when the space shuttle is retired in 2011, with nothing to replace it.

The pump module failure also illustrates a more fundamental issue, one that speaks directly to the station’s raison d’etre, and how neither NASA nor the American government gave this issue much thought when they designed and built ISS.

To put it simply, the space station is nothing more than a prototype interplanetary spaceship. As I explained in detail in Leaving Earth, » Read more

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Old Media, Old News

The New York Times today published an op-ed outlining the serious dangers we face should the Sun unleash a solar flare or coronal mass ejection of sufficient power to knock out our electrical grids. After describing the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, the author then says

We are similarly unready for another potential natural disaster: solar storms, bursts of gas on the sun’s surface that release tremendous energy pulses.

Now this might be interesting, had it been published in 1988. At that time, the electrical grids used in the U.S. and Canada were very much unprepared for a sudden solar storm. Moreover, the Sun at that time was ramping up towards a particularly active solar maximum. The result: On March 13, 1989, the power grid that supplied electricity to Quebec and 200 utility companies in the U.S. came crashing down, overloaded by a power surge caused by a burst of energy sent hurtling towards the Earth, by the Sun.

However, to report this threat today as if it was news is somewhat laughable. Since the 1990 solar maximum, the world’s electrical systems have been very much aware of the problem and have instituted numerous safeguards should the Sun burp at them again. It was for this reason that there were few problems during the next solar maximum in 2001, even though it was almost as powerful as the maximum in 1990.

The real news story concerning the Sun is how inactive it has been, for reasons scientists do not understand. Not only was the recently concluded solar minimum the longest and deepest in almost a hundred years, the subsequent solar activity leading to the next solar maximum has been far weaker than every prediction. At the moment, the Sun appears headed for the weakest solar maximum in two hundred years. And when that last happened, the Earth experienced a period of significantly cold weather, also for reasons that scientist do not yet understand.

It is this story that journalists should be covering.

the solar cycle

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More questions raised about Mann’s hockey stick graph

A new research paper, written by statistical scientists and to be published next month in the Annals of Applied Statistics, has found that Michael Mann’s hockey stick graph, showing a steep increase in global temperature in the last two hundred years, is statistically invalid. Key quote:

Research on multi-proxy temperature reconstructions of the earth’s temperature is now entering its second decade. While the literature is large, there has been very little collaboration with university level, professional statisticians (Wegman et al., 2006; Wegman, 2006). Our paper is an effort to apply some modern statistical methods to these problems. While our results agree with the climate scientists findings in some respects, our methods of estimating model uncertainty and accuracy are in sharp disagreement.

[We] conclude unequivocally that the evidence for a ”long-handled” hockey stick (where the shaft of the hockey stick extends to the year 1000 AD) is lacking in the data. The fundamental problem is that there is a limited amount of proxy data which dates back to 1000 AD; what is available is weakly predictive of global annual temperature. Our backcasting methods, which track quite closely the methods applied most recently in Mann (2008) to the same data, are unable to catch the sharp run up in temperatures recorded in the 1990s, even in-sample. [emphasis mine]

In other words, the temperature data going back to 1000 AD is poor, and cannot be reliably used to prove a sudden increase in global temperature in the last two hundred years. More importantly, according to this paper, Michael Mann tried to use statistics to prove his point, without consulting any statisticians.

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Sloppy journalism from the BBC

Though solar scientists have discovered that certain recent solar behavior might help explain the long and deep solar minimum that just ended, this BBC article immediately tries to give that result credit for explaining everything. To quote:

Solar physicists may have discovered why the Sun recently experienced a prolonged period of weak activity.

NOT! The result only observed a change in solar behavior beneath the surface, whereby the meridional flow slowed down as well as lengthened significantly into the high latitudes, and that this change occurred at the same time as the weak solar minimum. The paper made no attempt to explain why this happened, nor did it provide a theoretical explanation for how these changes resulted in a weak solar minimum.

Finally, and far more important, scientists still have no good theory for explaining the solar cycle in the first place. “We think it’s the solar dynamo [that causes the solar cycle],” noted Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center when I interviewed him for my Sky & Telescope article, What’s Wrong with Our Sun? (August 2009). “But we don’t undertand how the dynamo works, as yet.”

The BBC should be more careful in how it reports a story like this.

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Astronomers announce their recommendations for the next decade

After two years of discussion among hundreds of astronomers, the committee for the 2010 Decadal Surveyn for Astronomy and Astrophysics announced its recommendations today. The two main recommendations were

The report also called for the federal government to become a partner in one of the two giant ground-based optical telescopes now in the planning stages. In addition, the report recommended that the government increase its participation in the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a space telescope designed to detect gravity waves, as well as commit monies to begin the design work for a new high resolution X-ray space telescope. Other recommendations including asking NASA to increase its support for medium-sized space telescopes.

The report did not recommend any replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope.

This report follows earlier decadal surveys, for the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, all of which had enormous influence on what federal agencies and astronomers built over the following decade. For example, these decadal surveys recommended the construction of the VLA, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and a host of other telescopes, all of which were built.

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A possible cause of extended solar minimum proposed

Scientists think they have discovered at least one cause of the recent long and deep solar minimum: a change in how plasma near the surface of the Sun flows from the equator to the pole, sinks, and then flows back to the equator. In the last minimum, this meridional current flowed much slower, while also flowing much closer to the pole before finally sinking.

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Is it a planet or not?

An object, initially announced in 1998 to be the first planet ever photographed, then rejected as a planet when data suggested it was too hot, is now being resurrected as a possible planet. Key quote by Adam Burrows of Princeton University:

[If true] this would punctuate one of the strangest episodes in the history of the emerging field of exoplanet research. If false, it would be one more warning that numerous pitfalls await the intrepid astronomer in search of planetary gold beyond the solar system.

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Reporter arrested for discussing politics

Freedom of speech alert. In this post, I noted that though it seemed as if the arrest of four protesters on the University of Texas campus during a visit by President Obama seemed a violation of their rights, there wasn’t enough information in the reports to know for sure. We now have more information. Read this report also. And watch this video of the arrest of one protester, while wearing a press badge, and tell me if this isn’t an abuse of power.

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