May 28 : a Dark Day for Science and for Christianity as the “Creation Museum” Opens

Today’s the day that Answers In Genesis’ museum of ignorance, their “looks like, acts like, smells like, and pretends to be, but decidedly is not a science museum,” the Creation Museum opens.

I’m horrified about this on many levels. As a scientist, I’m horrified about it just like every other scientist who is writing about this. We’ve got a slickly presented museum that looks like a science museum presenting carefully crafted lies (there is no other word for it) designed to comfort people in their scientific ignorance, designed to deeply instill scientific ignorance in children of a certain faith. Given that that certain faith is also the most popular faith of my country (the USA), this is bad news for the future of this country. Promoting and increasing scientific ignorance is a bad thing.

But there’s another aspect about this that bothers me. It bothers me, seriously, as a Christian.

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My first sculptie


Second Life (SL) is a 3d virtual world (some would call it an online game, but it’s not really that; for one thing, it kind of sucks as a game, and for another thing, it’s much more than that). You can do modeling and building entirely online. People have created buildings, vehicles, sculptures, animals, hairdos, and any number of other things using SL’s relatively easy to learn modeling tools.

Builds in SL are made out of “prims,” short for primitives. There are a relatively small number of primitives; a block (cube), a sphere, a cylindar, a torus, a ring, that sort of thing. You can then torture them — stretch them, shear them, twist them, etc. You can scale them, texture them, and put them together to make all kinds of stuff. This week, SL introduced something I”m very happy to see: “sculpted prims,” or “scupties,” a way that you can make a generic 32×32 mesh into a single prim. This allows geeks like me to use something like Blender to make a model and export it into something that tells SL how to shape its prim. To the right, I’m standing proudly regarding my first scuptlie. This is supposed to be a star filling its Roche lobe. I’ll use this as I redo the model I’ve made of a nova and/or type Ia supernova progenitor, which I’d clumsily built out of prims in the past. This thing was easy: make a sphere in Blender, use the proportional edit tool, and pull out a lump on one side.

(The cat was not built by me, and has been around for quite some time. It is built entirely from traditional prims, no sculpties involved. It walks around my island and meows at me every so often.)

Ken Ham, Biblical authority, Truth, and the Square Root of 256

I’m pretty sure that nowhere in the Bible does it say that the square root of 256 is 16. I happen to know that, yes, 16 squared is 256. Therefore, if I were to tell you and attempt to convince you that the square root of 256 is 22, I would be lying, in that I would be telling you something that isn’t true.

But, the “mind” (I hesitate to use that word) behind the new Creation Museum, Ken Ham puts to shame even ultraliberal postmodernists who assert that the results of science are merely a social construction. He says:

Many of the media reps chuckled when I said that the people responsible for this banner did not believe in the Bible as the absolute authority and didn’t believe in the God of the Bible and therefore had no basis for deciding right or wrong, and thus logically could not accuse us of a lie!

In other words, his basis for determining the truth of a statement is the Bible. Never mind integrals and differentiation (math that, um, works), the Bible’s not real big on a table of square roots. As such, Ken Ham cannot assess the truth or falsehood of the statement “the square root of 256 is 16.”

What a sad intellectual life.

Even sadder that he feels so superior about it, and that he thinks that so many people seem to recognize his narrow view of reality as superior.

It also makes me feel amazingly inadequate to realize that this dork was able to raise $27 million.

Friday Galaxy Blogging : VV114

VV114 is a very interesting galaxy. It’s a major merger of at least two big galaxies. If I might go out on a limb, it may even be an advanced merger (on the left) currently strongly interacting with another galaxy (on the right).

The left galaxy is extremely dusty. Sunsets are red because particles in the atmosphere preferentially scatter away the bluer light. Redder light penetrates the dust better. Just before the Sun sets, we’re looking at it through as much atmosphere as we ever see it, so it has to go through the most number of particles in the atmosphere. similarly, very dusty galaxies are red in color. In VV114, this is most striking when you compare the optical light to the infrared light. The left galaxy is nearly invisible in blue light, but is the brighter galaxy in the infrared.

The IR images was taken back in the 1990s, and were part of my first published paper in grad school. The optical image was taken a year or two ago with the CTIO 1.0m telescope. Both images are “false color” — I’ve enhanced the colors to bring out the contrast, and of course no IR image can be “true” color, as it would just look all black to our eyes! However, longer wavelengths have redder colors, so qualitatively the colors are what you would expect.



Advice for junior faculty at a research university

Chad just posted a bit of pre-tenure advice, including the very important advice to take all advice with a grain of salt. I would say that also applies to the rest of his advice, because I’m about to post contradictory advice. You should also take my advice with a grain of salt. Be aware that it comes from somebody who has been beaten into being very cynical about the system. On the other hand, you can learn from my mistakes.

My advice here is specifically for faculty at a research University, most specifically Vanderbilt. It’s primarily for physics and astronomy (indeed, primarily the latter), but will apply to a lesser extent to anybody in the physical sciences. I would hope that the two new hires in astronomy at Vanderbilt will at least read and think about this, even if they decide thereafter that I’m full of it.

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Intelligent Design : a trap for Christians

Intelligent Design is cleverly designed.

Much of what I say here will apply to almost any other religious tradition in the modern world. I refer specifically to Christianity for three reasons. First, it’s the most dominant religion in the USA, which is where I am. Second, I’m a Christian myself. Third, a form of Christianity is the religious tradition followed by those who designed Intelligent Design. However, whenever I refer to Christians or Christianity, I am aware that it could easily apply to many other religions.

Consider the situation many people find themselves in. They are raised Christian. They go to Sunday School, and learn the Bible stories. By and large, those stories are thoughtlessly taught as history, rather than as (often) larger-than-life stories about historical figures that have been passed down orally, and then written, as part of the tradition of our faith. Many people don’t think very deeply, and assume that if they are to “believe” the Bible, they must believe it all literally. Many other people are told that to be a good Christian, they must believe that. Fortunately, that’s not as big a fraction of people as you might think given how good the young-earth creationists are at spreading their message.

However, one thing that gets drilled into you is that God created humans in God’s image, and that God created the Universe.

Now thrust yourself into the modern world. Believing the Bible to be literally true is either ignorant (i.e. you just haven’t learned much about what we know) or willfully delusional (you choose to deny much of what humanity knows). Many, probably most, of us can’t go on accepting the fairy stories of a literal reading of Genesis given how much modern science has learned, given that there’s absolutely no question that the Earth is billions of years old, given that there is absolutely no question that for most of the history of the Earth, animals other than humans (and most of the other species alive today) walked the Earth, and given that we understand beyond any shadow of a doubt that modern species developed from earlier species.

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Why there is no point in applying to the NSF

Excerpts from the individual and panel reviews on my latest proposal:

The proposed work is very well motivated, well organized, with clear plans and goals.

There is also:

Guaranteed access to the CTIO 1.5 m, and an established track record with WIYN 3.5 m observations, add to the strength of the proposal. Preliminary work from both telescopes are presented, indicating that the proposed aims for the project are achievable.

And, indeed, in another one:

This is a well written proposal (though I found unnecessary details in places such as section 4).

I should note that the stuff I put in section 4 was in response to comments of a previous TAC about a certain element of the feasibility…. What one panel sees as missing, the next sees as too much information when its added.

Despite all that, in another review I have:

In general the proposal is not well written and important information about the expected results and feasibility are not given.

and, in a panel summary, contradicting something above:

The resources available to the project do not appear to
be sufficient for the proposed research.

It’s really not clear to me what to do with all of this. It’s all over the map. Was it well written? Or not? Are there clear goals? Or not? Are the resources I have a strength of the proposal? Or are they insufficient? No way to know. I mean, I do know, but there’s no way to know how I can convey that information to a putative future panel.

There were some criticisms offered that I would agree, yes, there should be more information about that in there— although these were not things mentioned in previous years. It’s such a moving target that it’s frustrating. But when you get such mixed messages in one year— what is one supposed to think? Clearly it wasn’t good enough, but these kinds of messages make me think that it’s not possible to make this project into something good enough. The only thing that would be good enough would be if I were to happen to, effectively, win the lottery— figure out what is going to be the most exciting science du jour, and write it up well and thoughtfully.

It’s too frustrating for words.

Addendum: It’s also worth mentioning that the public-outreach portion of the proposal was unanimously viewed as a strength this year and two years ago. Last year, however, the reviews objected that it wasn’t related enough to the science in the proposal. Again, what’s a strength one year may be insufficient the next….

The world’s nerdiest mug

It’s all the rage to post pictures of your mug. (A mug mug, as it were.) I have lots of mugs, but I figured that this is the one that best fits the theme. This is one painted by… me. My wife and I, several months ago, went to one of those “paint your own” pottery places, and this was what I produced.


On the left, you see the cartoon model of an AGN (active galactic nucleus). There’s the black hole and accretion disk at the center, from which are launched relativistic jets. Around the black hole is a dusty, obscuring torus. The same cartoon made by me on a computer can be seen on this page. On the right is a barred spiral galaxy, inspired by NGC 1365. Smaller and just off the edge to the right is something that’s supposed to look like the Antennae, and I’ve given not-NGC 1365 an irregular companion. (The real NGC 1365 has no such companion.)

Of course, it being me, I also put something on the bottom of the mug: