What’s the matter?

We all learned that matter is anything that has mass and takes up space. Our teachers told us there are three states or phases of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Some of us with cool high school teachers or college teaching assistants learned about another state: plasma. Then there were those of us who wanted a degree in physics who learned there were many more. Extremely low temperatures yield superfluids, supersolids, Fermionic condensates, and Bose-Einstein condensates. Particle accelerators give us quark-gluon plasmas. Stars hold degenerate matter, neutronium, and strange matter. And then there are a few states of matter associated with the instant after the Big Bang.

I found this article about a newly discovered form of matter.

MIT physicists create new form of matter. CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — MIT scientists have brought a supercool end to a heated race among physicists: They have become the first to create a new type of matter, a gas of atoms that shows high-temperature superfluidity.

It’s always mind-boggling, the things that happen at the extremes of temperature, size, time, speed, or distance. If one day we are able to harness these phenomena, our civilization will undergo a paradigm shift. Our lives will be forever changed in a qualitative way, rather than the incremental way that normal technological advancements tend to do.

For now, though, we can only watch these things from the window of the hovel we’re confined to. Taunting us, prodding us, these extreme behaviors educate us that our day to day experience on Earth is only a tiny subset of the complexity of the universe.

Discovery

Albert Einstein. “The process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder. “

An interesting quote.  Sure, discovery removes the shroud of the magical unknown and gives us the tools to understand and tame these processes. For me, though, reading about discoveries inspires me to wonder even more.  Wondering is exciting.  It’s what humans were made to do.  The dance of discovery between the mind and nature casts light on things that had been dark.  But with new illumination, comes new shadows.

Here are some recent discoveries that have given me a “wonder-rush.”

Scientists Scan Data From Saturn’s Moon (AP). AP – Saturn’s largest moon contains all the ingredients for life, but senior scientists studying data from a European probe ruled out the possibility Titan’s abundant methane stems from living organisms.

Those who follow this weblog know I’ve been eagerly anticipating this one. I can’t stop looking at the pictures and imagining what it’s like there. Yes, I’m quite clear on the fact that it’s deadly to life as we know it, but I’ve been imagining things like that ever since I read a book in grade school, Mission to Mercury (at least I think that was the title, I can’t find it on Amazon to make sure). With lakebed coastlines, flowing liquid methane rivers, soft “soil”, rains, winds, storms…yes, I know we have much less toxic versions of those things here. Why am I entranced by a sunset over the lake when I’ve seen hundreds of them before?   Continue reading Discovery

Keeping an open mind

The courts are hearing another complaint brought by parents.

Judge to Rule on Georgia Evolution Disclaimers (Reuters). Reuters – A public school board in Georgia violated the U.S. Constitution when it placed stickers that challenge the theory of evolution on biology textbooks two years ago, a lawyer for a group of parents said on Friday. [Yahoo! News: Science]

If you’re curious about what the stickers that “promote religious dogma” say, this is the text of the stickers: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

Evolution is the epitome of a scientific theory.  Why would anyone be up in arms about that?  Has evolution become the “new religion?”

On a completely unrelated note, don’t forget to watch the Leonids next week. This year should be a good one for this annual meteor shower!

The Leonid Meteor Shower 2004: Modest Peak Expected Nov. 16-19 (SPACE.com). SPACE.com – Next week brings us the return of the famous Leonid Meteor Shower, a meteor display that over the past several years has brought great anticipation and excitement to sky watchers around the world. [Yahoo! News: Science]

Moral development of politicians

gwbush“So, who do you like in the presidential election this year?” A coworker cornered me with that zinger last week. My friends and my family know what I think of the election this year, but a pointed question from someone who has only a common employer and professional courtesy in common with you is an invitation into a minefield.

Since I was asked at the school where I teach, I wanted to answer in terms of education. Everyone is familiar with President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” a very detailed plan. Looking over at Senator Kerry’s plan on education, you see a mishmash of sound bites: Make sure schools get the funding they need…how much do they need? Doesn’t say. Make sure good teachers are in classrooms…don’t local schools have a better idea about who is effective in the classroom? No specifics. Keep schools open until 6:00 PM…after all, the more time kids spend away from their parents and in government-run education, the better, right?

I’m not a one-issue voter by any means, though. I wanted to answer the question across the board. I thought about what makes a good leader. What distinguishes good presidents from ineffective ones are the decisions they make. A good president must have a rock solid decision-making process. The more advanced, the better.

Lawrence Kohlberg studied the moral development of humans. Moral development is the framework that we use to make decisions of right and wrong. If we apply Kohlberg’s work to the two presidential candidates, we may find some interesting patterns.   Continue reading Moral development of politicians

Good decisions require good information

Can anyone make good decisions without good information? On the verge of writing a piece in favor of a particular candidate for president, I realize that information quoted is only as good as its source. Never has this been more clear to me in the wake of Rathergate.

I recently had an online chat with an old friend as we debated the value of television news programs. I’ve been so frustrated with all of them that I advocated going the extra mile and shunning all secondary sources. “Look at the record” was my mantra in the discussion.

What frustrates me most isn’t media bias, although that’s right up there. It’s media laziness. Nearly every story on television and radio news goes like this:

Senator Smith blasted Representative Jones today on the issue of abortion (insert sound bite here), while Representative Jones spoke to crowds about Senator Smith’s record on the environment (another sound bite).

No checking of the record. No verifying the veracity of what was said. Just repeating what was said. Here’s a real example that has been getting a lot of superficial play on the “news” lately. John Kerry has been hitting George W. Bush on the issue of health care using the flu vaccination shortage, taunting, “Sounds just like [Bush’s] health care plan: Hope and pray you do not get sick.”   Continue reading Good decisions require good information

Followups & updates

Things are still very busy here. With first quarter winding down, I’m pleased by what I’ve been able to accomplish with my students this year. Time away from school has been divided between my software project, a couple of computer hobbies, and a narrow social life. As the holidays approach, I expect the latter to ramp up.

I’m also trying to work on exactly what I need to get my dad’s notebook computer to wirelessly connect to his dialup Internet service. He needs to not be tethered to a cord, and broadband is not available where he lives. All I’ve come across on the web have been vague references to certain wireless routers with COM ports to hook up with certain external modems. All theory, no concrete brands and models. If you know something about this, please drop me a line.

Cassini continues to make fascinating observations of Saturn. Here’s one of many such stories.

Saturn’s Perfect Storms (Astrobiology Magazine) – Saturn is the windiest planet in the solar system, which is one mystery of the ringed giant. Imagine not what qualifies as a terrestrial hurricane with category five status assigned beyond one hundred miles-per-hour. On Saturn the superstorms can produce a thousand mph wind.

I wrote my Rathergate entry immediately after Dan Rather “apologized” for running his political attack piece. Since then, CBS seems to want to proceed as if nothing happened. I’ve chosen a couple of slightly different viewpoints that have appeared since my first story.

All eyes are on Rather’s future (Variety). Variety – NEW YORK — The morning after Dan Rather admitted the biggest mistake of his career, he agreed to go on Larry King’s primetime show and talk about the worst crisis ever to strike a network news anchor.   Continue reading Followups & updates

Rathergate

So far, I’ve shied away from controversial political issues on this blog, but I have to warn you, I am feeling very harshly toward this story.

CBS News Concludes It Was Misled on National Guard Memos, Network Officials Say (New York Times) – After days of expressing confidence about the documents used in a “60 Minutes” report that raised new questions about President Bush’s National Guard service, CBS News officials have grave doubts about the authenticity of the material, network officials said last night.

CBS backs off Guard story (USATODAY.com). USATODAY.com – CBS News acknowledged Monday that it received disputed documents critical of President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard from a former Texas Guard officer who now says he lied about where he got them and has doubts about their authenticity. [Yahoo! News – Reader Ratings]

I think the forged Killian documents are a much bigger deal than most people realize at this point. This scandal will have far-reaching consequences in the world of journalism regarding investigative reporting, bias, and the expectations we have for the news media.   Continue reading Rathergate