Friday, November 14, 2008

Eye Candy


This week NASA and the European Space Agency discovered, for the first time, three planets orbiting a star other than the Sun using direct light observation. While none of the three planets are considered candidates for extraterrestrial life or human colonization, it's still an exciting breakthrough and an advancement toward mapping and understanding the Universe outside our own Solar System.

Formalhaut is a star visible only in the southern hemisphere. It is 25 light years from Earth (relatively close), and is many times brighter than our Sun. Viewing the planets in its orbit is only possible with an instrument called a coronograph, which blocks out most of a star's light allowing scientists to see the relatively dimly lit bodies in its neighborhood.

You can see Formalhaut without a telescope if you live in the southern hemisphere. It's located in the constellation Piscis Austrinus. It has been called "the lonely star of autumn" because it is the only first magnitude star in its section of space. The Persians considered it one of four "royal stars", and it has been mentioned in the fiction of notable authors H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick.

Scientists believe Formalhaut is only 200-300 million years old, quite young for a star. It's burning through its hydrogen fuel at an alarming rate, and will consume it all and burn out after only one billion years, only 10% of the lifespan of our own Sun.
The image above is of the entire Formalhaut System, which appears to be streaked because its section of space is filled with clouds of gas and dust.

Usually scientists identify planets as they pass in front of their host star, causing its light to flicker by eclipsing them slightly. This is done using radio telescopes, collecting a type of light the human eye can't see. In the case of Formalhaut, however, we can see the planets directly using visible light.

Most interesting is the not very originally named planet Formalhaut-B. It is at least three times the size of Jupiter, and orbits its host star from 17 billion kilometers away, ten times Saturn's distance from the Sun. It also appears to have a dark system of rings.

NASA and ESA scientists have watched Formalhaut-B for months, verifying that it really is a planet moving in an orbit, and not just a random piece of space rock that happens to be near the star while we're observing it. They are now attempting to find the presence of water vapor in the planet's atmosphere. Since the Formalhaut system is quite young compared to our own Solar System, it can teach us about the conditions under which stars and planets are formed.

This exciting work is possible because of the Hubble Space Telescope, launched into Earth's orbit in April, 1990. You can see images and even video of Formalhaut, its planets, and other parts of outer space for free at the Hubble Space Telescope website.

For my previous posts on outer space, click here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Eye Candy

More on Proposition 8

Jesus answered and said to them, "You are mistaken, not knowing the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection men neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven."
-Mark 22:29-30

"Matrimony is outside church business. It is a governmental concern, hence up to the magistracy."
-Martin Luther, "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church"

I've decided to address claims that Proposition 8 supports religious freedom in America, since it actually does the exact opposite. Writing a particular group's religious ideas into secular law directly violates the Bill of Rights; and in the case of marriage laws, it also violates the teachings of Jesus himself as seen above.
Proposition 8's own language says that gay marriage shall be banned in the state of California. A ban, by definition, takes away freedom rather than expanding it. For in fact, many religious groups encourage and perform gay marriages as part of their custom.

One man and one woman is, in fact, not really the "traditional" definition of marriage at all. The word "marriage" has been applied to same-sex couples since the time of the Roman Empire.

The image to the right is from the Monastery of Saint Catherine, and depicts Christ presiding over the marriage of two men who were early Christian Saints. Indeed, same-sex marriages were common in the early church until they were banned by the emperor Constantine in 324. For almost 300 years of Christian history, the period closest to the life of Christ himself, gay couples were included in the traditional Christian definition of marriage.

For many years, the Society of Friends (Quakers) has performed same-sex marriages. Quakers have often appeared at the forefront of social change. Just as Quakers abolished slavery within their communities long before the Emancipation Proclamation, so have many Quaker meetings recognized committed gay relationships as marriages in advance of our nation's courts.

Likewise, the Metropolitan Community, All Saints, and Episcopal churches all advocate gay marriages as acceptable to God and perform them as part of their religious custom. How does Proposition 8 defend the religious freedom of these groups, as its supporters claim?

As I mentioned in the last post, Mormon and Roman Catholic groups contributed a combined $35.8 million in political lobbying to support Proposition 8. This money was not taxed, due to claims that the groups were using the money for "charity".

A partisan political campaign is not a charity. If the money in the collection plate is used to finance lobbying activity, then an organization is not really a "church" by the legal definition at all: it's a Political Action Committee with a steeple on the roof (they're not the only ones concerned about protecting the traditional definitions of things).

These groups lied to the IRS and the American people, claiming millions in tax-exemptions for charity while not actually performing any charitable work. They should have to pay taxes on this money, along with all relevant interest and penalties, so that this public money can be given to legitimate churches who are doing good work in the community for real.

No election is fair when one side has to pay taxes while the other doesn't. Simply putting the label "church" on a building doesn't make it a charity if political campaigning is going on inside.

You can help! US citizens can file a complaint with the IRS by clicking here. The form is simple, and can be filled out in just a couple minutes. 
This isn't about gay marriage, it's about tax fraud and falsely claiming that money was used for charity, which is downright despicable. Let's make sure that the next $35.8 million in tax-free money is used to do something that really helps people, not to buy more political TV ads.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Eye Candy

Proposition 8

This week four US states passed ballot measures restricting the rights of gay Americans. Arkansas has banned gay couples from adopting children, even if he or she is the biological child of one of the gay partners. Arizonans, Floridians, and Californians all voted overwhelmingly to ban gay marriages in their respective states.

Various religious groups spent a combined $35.8 million on a publicity campaign in California, urging voters to amend the state Constitution to deprive gays of the right to marry. Christians, Jews, and Muslims of all races and backgrounds united to suppress equal rights for gays and lesbians, asserting that it is their religious freedom to do so.

Many opponents of Proposition 8 have suggested that these groups should now be stripped of their tax-exempt status. IRS regulation 501(c)(3) clearly states that tax-exempt charities may not intervene in political campaigns or conduct substantial lobbying activities. The use of church funds to influence political elections would therefore appear to violate this law. To file a complaint with the IRS, insisting that churches pay taxes on this $35.8 million, click here.
After all, churches are given tax-exempt status to do charitable work, not support partisan political campaigns. If its money will be used for this purpose, then the church should be taxed fairly like everyone else.

Supporters of Proposition 8 allege that banning marriage equality does not discriminate against gays, in spite of the fact that this law obviously targets them and restricts only their rights. Straight marriage laws will not be affected by Proposition 8. asserts that children will be confused by same-sex couples, and that individuals who believe that gays are sinners should be allowed to pass those beliefs on to their children without interference.

Christians showed overwhelming support for Proposition 8. It is worth mentioning that none of the following issues warranted ballot initiatives during the election, or millions in financial support:

-The Environment
-Childhood Disease
-World Poverty

Instead of these causes, Christians have chosen to rally around an issue that involves nothing more than what gets what word. 
In the long night of superstition the Christians have wandered away from the simplicity of the Gospel. The worship of prejudice has inseparably blended with the Cross; and the power of the mind, curiosity, and inclusion are numbed by the habits of obedience and belief. The church has ceased to spread Christ's own love, and has fully dedicated itself to sowing the seeds of hatred and exclusion.

Jesus said, "The path to destruction is wide, and there are many who go in by it." Modern Christians reply, "This is obviously the narrow path. There are 800 million of us on it, and we all agree on this. Only our beliefs are correct, and anyone who disagrees with us must be subverted."

You are mortal; you await death, resurrection, and judgement. Today you live and tomorrow you are dust; one fever will quench all your pride. What will you say, when you come before God, of your unrighteous bigotry? How will you defend perverting His teachings into a secular political movement of bias, denying basic equality and common decency to those who never did you a bit of harm?

Stop persecuting our people and demolishing our families. Welcome peace, love concord, that you yourselves may live peaceful and untroubled lives, and that Americans may see an end to their divisions and may cease destroying their fellow Americans.

Sorry for the rant. I don't normally talk politics at Hansisgreat, and don't intend to do so again in the forseeable future. This stuff has just been on my mind. It's not very Christian, and it's not very nice. They really hurt my feelings.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Eye Candy

The Boneheads

Perhaps one of the most unusual groups of dinosaurs was the pachycephalosaurs, "thick-headed reptiles", which had a hard bone domes on the tops of their heads. They appeared during the Cretaceous Period, the last age of the dinosaurs. Most were under 5 meters long, relatively small, and weighed less than 1000 pounds. 
With fewer than ten species discovered, the bonehead group is among the smallest of the main dinosaur groups. Most notable for the dome on the top of its head that was up to 10 inches thick; the function of this dome is uncertain, and has been the subject of considerable debate among experts since the first remains of these animals were found in the 1940.

Head-bashing for defense is the main explanation for the greatly thickened roof of the skull. The neck bones were also sturdy and the neck itself was short, to withstand stress. The spine and rear limbs were also reinforced, to help absorb the shock of impact and transmit the force down into the ground.

There are flaws with this idea. In some species of Pachycephalosaurs, the skull roof was curved or domed. This means that, when two heads clashed, unless the skulls were exactly in line they would slip past each other and jerk the animals neck sideways. 
Perhaps the boneheads did not butt head to head, but rammed opponents on the soft tissues on the sides of their bodies. Another theory suggests that these animals used their heads to bash predators, as a bull or rhino lowers its head to charge at an enemy.

One major problem with the head-butting theory is that none of the skulls found to date show the kind of damage that would have been sustained in such of engagement. Also, all pachycephalosaur skulls are not equally thick: on some, the bony dome is only a few centimeters thick, far too weak for ramming assaults.

Most of what we know about this family is based on the range of skulls that have been found. There are very few complete skeletons. The whole skull is about as large as a medium-sized suitcase, with a tiny brain at the center. There is a series of rounded, bony projections under the dome. The teeth are small, and come in several different varieties. Their compressed, curvy shape and serrated edges make it clear that this animal ate only plant material.

Something that is especially strange about these creatures is that, although the skull is very solid, the rest of the body has no armor. Protecting only the head would have been of little use against the jaws of Tyrannosaurus Rex or other large, predatory dinosaurs.

Some scientists suggest that the function of the bony dome was to present a large, formidable display to rivals, as moose do in contests for mates. Others propose that its purpose had nothing to do with fighting at all, but that it was used to identify individual members of the species. Still others believe that this dome may have been a pointy horn when the animal was young, which wore down over time.

Although fossilized skulls are very common; with few skeletons it has been very difficult for paleontologists to reconstruct the lifestyle of this mysterious and misunderstood branch of the dinosaur family.

There are a lot of great coffee table books about dinosaurs, which make a great gift. Some of my favorites, which I rely on when I write these posts, are National Geographic Dinosaurs, by Paul Barrett; The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, by Dougal Dixon; and Dinosaurus, by Steve Parker.

For my previous posts on dinosaurs, click here.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Eye Candy