Archive: March, 2012
First, a limerick from the newsletter of our local skeptics group – the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT):
Cold Fusion by Peter Scheil:
Cold fusion's the new holy grail: Cheap energy, always on sale, From an atom's odd quirk — But to get it to work, For the moment, seems destined to fail.
Sorry for the hiatus in posting this week. I’ve been busy trying to find a way to keep the planet-of-the-apes collaboration from splitting up. As it now stands, Tony Auth and I are going to be working for rival news organizations starting April 2. He’s been invited to release his abundant creativity on WHYY’s website Newsworks, and I have no doubt the result will be spectacular.
For the last few days I’ve written dozens of memos and proposals, suggesting every possible configuration of staff writing and freelancing that would keep the illustrated column together.
For those not from Philadelphia, Tony is a multi-talented Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist. Creating the illustrations for this column was something he wanted to do because he has a longstanding interest in science, especially cosmology and physics.
Here's my column for Monday, March 12. It will also run in print on the cover of the Health and Science section:
It was the time of P.T. Barnum, when people would line up to see a whitewashed elephant or a carefully faked petrified giant. But in 1868, a display in Philadelphia proved that reality could be far stranger than fiction. That year, the Academy of Natural Sciences showed the world its first glimpse of a real dinosaur skeleton - a 15-foot tall Godzilla pulled from a pit in Haddonfield, N.J.
The creature threatened to obliterate the traditional picture of the universe. Along with Darwin’s theory and a revolution in geology, dinosaur fossils were opening the human imagination to lost worlds on our own planet, separated by vast epochs of time.
In Wednesday’s paper, I wrote a this piece questioning why we think sluts are bad, and why we think they’re particularly bad if they’re women but not if they’re men. The reaction was prolific, vehement and sociologically interesting. In addition to the 68 comments on Philly.com I got an earful over the phone and quite a collection of bile in my inbox.
The reaction revealed two kinds of people out there and they don’t neatly divide up along liberal/conservative lines. Instead, there are people who intuitively grasp and enjoy “why” questions, and ones who don’t. This difference could inform discussions of science illiteracy.
Many readers chided me for not mentioning that Bill Maher used the dreaded c-word to describe Sarah Palin. This newly popular meme is irrelevant since the story was about sluts and why the term is an insult when applied to females. The c-word is a slang for female genitalia. There probably is a piece to be done examining why in the English-speaking world women are insulted by a crude slang for female genitalia, and men are insulted by crude slang terms for male or female genitalia or anal sphincters. But that’s a completely different story.
If you're like me and you enjoy looking at the sky, you may have noticed two bright planets shining together in the evenings. The planets are Jupiter and Venus, and they will continue to move closer, putting on a good show for much of March, according to this piece from Sky and Telescope. The conjuction may not bring me good luck, but even in light-polluted Center City Philadelphia it should make a beautiful sight. The crescent moon will appear with the two bright planets on March 25.
"By March 9th these dazzling evening "stars" are less than 5° apart, about the width of three fingers at arm's length. Then, from March 12th to 14th, the gap between them closes to just 3° as they pass one another in the evening sky. The pairing of these bright lights will be dramatic, though not especially rare.
Venus is the brighter one, for three reasons. First, it's close to the Sun, as planets go, basking in sunlight twice as bright as we receive on Earth and about 50 times more intense than the sunlight that reaches distant Jupiter. Second, it's almost seven times closer to Earth. And, its cloudy atmosphere is slightly whiter than Jupiter's, reflecting a little more of the sunlight that strikes it. These advantages combine to make Venus appear seven times brighter than Jupiter just now.
In tomorrow's paper the Inhealth column will run a condensed version of this feature about Rush Limbaugh, sluts and the double standard.
When Rush Limbaugh called law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” last week, it caused an uproar and raised a scientific question — why is it so hard to imagine using the same word to insult a man?
The epithet “slut” can be devastating to a woman's reputation in our society, but a man's reputation might even be enhanced by having many sexual partners. He might be called “a player” instead.
If Rush Limbaugh had aimed his “slut” comments at a man who happened to be advocating the coverage of birth control, it wouldn’t have been seen as much of an insult. The guy might even have taken it as a compliment. When people accuse a woman of being a slut, the charge can damage her reputation and cause her genuine harm. This may not be simply an artifact of our culture, since surveys show that sexual double standards occur among many disparate groups of people.
I'm sensitive to this issue because a subset of the readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer used to call me a slut and worse on a daily basis. That was back when I wrote the column, "Carnal Knowledge."
Higgs the cat was a first-order slut back in his day, and he'd like to offer his insights into comparative animal sexuality:
Here's my evolution column for the week. It ran Monday March 5 in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Election seasons can serve as a reminder of just how deeply mysterious the human mind remains. Particularly puzzling is the fact that people are heavily influenced by political advertising on television.
Our rational sides tell us that these ads are unlikely to serve as unbiased sources of information. And yet, in states where the bulk of negative ads focused on Mitt Romney’s rivals, Romney won. In states where Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich ran the most negative ads, they surged.