Thursday, November 25, 2004


A reader told me about a joke out of Playboy:
Why are the Ten Commandments banned in public buildings? Because signs saying THOU SHALT NOT STEAL, THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, and THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS create a hostile work environment in buildings full of lawyers, judges, and politicians.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Star Party Last Night

The Boise Astronomical Society (like many similar organizations around the United States), puts on educational efforts called "star parties," sometimes associated with schools, sometimes anywhere that we can find a decent place to set up our scopes. These are opportunities to get the general public to look through telescopes, and see the wonders of the night sky. I have done a few of these over the years, and it is always a good opportunity to get people to think about astronomy, and appreciate the beauty of the night sky. I have never done a star party in such frigid weather. It was 28 degrees when I packed up at 10:00 PM.

The event was at the Idaho Botanical Gardens, and we had a nice turnout--about seven telescopes set up, several big sets of binoculars on tripods (including some 30x100mm monsters), and perhaps 75 or more visitors who braved the weather. I took my Photon Instruments 5" refractor with the Aries Chromacor corrector--and it mightily impressed quite a few people. The guy set up next to me had a Televue Genesis, an older apochromatic refractor which is the predecessor to Televue 101. He agreed that the Photon/Chromacor combo was just about color-free--and I could hear a little envy at how little it cost, compared to a Genesis. (The Genesis still has some advantages with respect to weight, length, and astrophotography potential.)

One surprise to me is how many members of the general public are startled by what they can see through a small telescope. The gasp reaction from looking at the Moon at 286x power was quite predictable. I guess most people expect that you need an observatory scale of telescope to get this level of image; perhaps most people are used to looking through the crummy little refractors that places like Wal-Mart and Sears have traditionally sold.

One couple showed up with a Meade 4.5" reflector that they had bought several years ago. They have made little use of it, largely because they didn't have anyone to help them along, and have now joined the BAS. Everyone gathered around to help the newbies. My impression of this Meade telescope was that it isn't a leap up from the crummy little refractors that Wal-Mart sells. The mirror might be just fine, but it uses the Japanese eyepiece standard of 0.965", and the eyepieces that came with it were all Huygens--which is a fine eyepiece design--for the nineteenth century. Huygens eyepieces combine poor eye relief with narrow field of view, as you might expect, since the design is named for the seventeenth century astronomer who came up with it. Oddly enough, the focuser looked like it could be pretty easily converted to accept 1.25" or perhaps even 2" diameter eyepieces, if you had the right parts.

The equatorial mount was also an example of overly aggressive cost-reduction engineering. At first it appeared that the mount had so much slop in it that there was no way to make it work correctly, until I discovered that putting the counterweight shaft and weight on the mount corrected the problem. It's a weird design--but doubtless very cheap.

I get frustrated when companies with good to very good reputations for their serious telescopes, like Meade, sell stuff like this. Telescopes like this are only marginally more than toys, and probably turn 90% of budding amateur astronomers off the hobby.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Over at IMAO (whose motto is "Unfair. Unbalanced. Unmedicated.") there are some real gems. This single line just drops me into hopeless laughter:
The opposition party doesn't have enough gravitas to be circus clowns.
Then there is a riotously funny demolition of a Walter Schneider who wrote an email to IMAO attacking him for his ignorance--but the letter is full of spelling and grammar errors:
> I assume your joking, nothing here improves your standing or your party's

> standing? (that's a rectorial question)
There's nothing quite as funny as a leftist getting snotty about his intellectual superiority, while demonstrating that he can't spell, he can't punctuate, and he can't figure out how to construct a rhetorical question. (Your, you're, yore, they're all the same to the generation that grew up on television. Or perhaps Mr. Schneider doesn't know the difference between homophones and homophobes, and decided that he better not learn about homophones for fear of being a homophobe.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Liberal Humor

At least, I am going to assume that it is humor:
“I am a Democrat—it’s no secret. I am a museum-quality Democrat,” [National Public Radio (NPR) superstar Garrison Keillor] said. “Last night I spent my time crouched in a fetal position, rolling around and moaning in the dark.”

Not one to shy away from speaking his mind, Keillor proposed a solution to what he deemed a fundamental problem with U.S. elections. “I’m trying to organize support for a constitutional amendment to deny voting rights to born-again Christians,” Keillor smirked. “I feel if your citizenship is in Heaven—like a born again Christian’s is—you should give up your citizenship. Sorry, but this is my new cause. If born again Christians are allowed to vote in this country, then why not Canadians?”
Professor Volokh points to how "humorous" it would be if you substituted "Jew" "Catholic" or "Muslim" for "born-again Christian." It is just amazing how religious bigotry is acceptable from a leftist, when it would never be acceptable from anyone else.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Color Me Green With Envy

Combining two telescopes to make binoculars has become all the rage among amateur telescope makers the last few years. The most outrageous example I have seen involved two 25" reflectors. This ad, however, may take the cake for most money spent, and best taste in equipment:
The 130 f/6 is renowned as the best all around 5" scope made. Unparelleled for performance, quality and workmanship, the Astro-physics 130 f/6 has been the standard that all other brands strive to match. The f/6 is the perfect combination of fast focal length for photography and wide field views and yet still perform to unmatched high power visual observation. As most of you know, these are now out of production. I have two scopes from the same run, with the same batch of glass, same coatings, only ten serial numbers apart and are virtually identical. ... I was considering making these a phenomenal pair of binoculars, but have decided my viewing conditions just don't warrant equipment like this.
And you can have the pair for $10,800!

Sunday, November 7, 2004

Intelligent Design

I am impressed how many of my readers worked all the way through my recent very long blog entry in order to politely and intelligently dispute my remarks about intelligent design theory. (Of course, since these are my readers, they are polite and intelligent.) Let me make a couple of points about this:

1. I have read some of the criticisms of Behe's intelligent design argument concerning organelles, and I have found them unpersuasive (although they are at least headed down a road that could become persuasive, with enough evidence).

2. As I pointed out some months back:
I have had a very interesting exchange with a reader about this subject. If the advocates of the intelligent design argument are correct (that certain basic components of life do not appear to be the result of random processes, but show "intelligent design"), is this science? My answer is a qualified no.


Evolution, whether right or wrong, is a predictive tool. It lets us make some informed guesses about what will happen--although it seems unlikely that any major changes that it can predict will happen within the lifetime of our civilization. Intelligent design, even if it turned out to be true, is not a predictive tool. If living organisms are actually indicative of intelligent design, we can't predict what that intelligence is going to do, can we? In that sense, intelligent design isn't really science in the same sense that chemistry is.

However: intelligent design arguments, to the extent that they raise serious questions about the blind and random process claims of evolution, are a legitimate restraining force on the dogmatism that characterizes biology teaching in primary and secondary education (and to some extent, even at the college level). If there are biological structures that do not seem to fit the blind and random development model of evolution, this is important, and worth discussing.
Intelligent design theory advocates have something of an unfair advantage; all they have to do is demonstrate that one aspect of life suggests a designer. We would still teach evolution in biology classes as a way to make predictions (because the vast majority of biological change would still be unintelligent), but it would impose some humility on how we teach biology.

One of my readers tells me:
Well, I am from the era when they were "certain". The newer speculation(s)about the mechanism (punctuated equilibrium for instance) had not been proposed yet. I went to school in the Houston Independent School District in the '60's and our proximity to NASA made our classes very thorough in all math and science subjects.

Today, on the other hand, the subject is completely avoided because of the controversy surrounding it. My own children reported they got no instruction about this at all. Of course, we live in rural East Texas now.
It's a troubling problem, because the reaction to Revealed Truth evolution has been either Young Earth Creationism, or nothing at all. My wife taught at a fundamentalist Christian middle school in California--where, if the textbook had been the entire basis for teaching biology, she wouldn't have bothered. It was full of insulting and often inaccurate portrayals of Darwinian evolution. What she and I did to handle this was to get students started on a discussion of the purpose of science. Our goal was for the students to understand evolutionary theory (because they were certainly going to need to understand it when they went to college), and also to understand that a theory may be a useful predictive model, without necessarily being 100% correct.

As a chemistry professor of mine at USC suddenly and inexplicably pointed out during a lecture about electron clouds: "We really have no idea what's going on at the subatomic level. There could be angels dancing on the heads of pins, for all we know. But it's a model that works for predicting what's going to happen, and that's all that science really is: a method of predicting things." Unfortunately, there are people out there for whom science is Truth with a capital T--and they are as troubled by teaching evolution as a predictive model, as Young Earth Creationists are by the prospect that our planet is more than 10,000 years old.
Be Careful The Analogies You Draw

Professor Lindgren points out that the liberals who are imagining that they are getting ready to refight the Scopes trial of 1925--in the words of David Brooks:
It's ridiculous to say, as some liberals have this week, that we are perpetually refighting the Scopes trial, with the metro forces of enlightenment and reason arrayed against the retro forces of dogma and reaction.
have it wrong. Lindgren quotes from the textbook that Scopes was teaching from--and some of it is so offensive that no liberal would even allow it in a classroom today, much less allow a teacher to use it as a textbook:
The Races of Man. — At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; The American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.


Improvement of Man. — If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part. These are personal hygiene, selection of healthy mates, and the betterment of the environment.
Now, Lindgren makes the observation that
Here 1920s science was right about the basics of evolution, but was wrong about social Darwinism and white genetic supremacy and was immoral to advocate eugenics.
I am always amazed at the strange and often racist role that evolutionary theory has played in Western civilization. From my book Black Demographic Data, 1790-1860: A Sourcebook p. 36:
Reginald Horsman’s Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism describes how Enlightenment notions of the essential equality of mankind declined between 1800 and 1850. Where the Enlightenment had seen national differences as historical accidents of relatively minor importance, Romanticism glorified nationalism and localism; Enlightenment rationalism gave way to Romantic glorification of emotion. [Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 158.] These changes in European belief merged with the American need for an ideology to justify slavery, the removal of the Indians, and the Mexican War. The emerging “science” of phrenology (i.e., determining personality and intellectual capacity by measuring the shape of the skull) also encouraged this belief in racial difference.

Devout Christians, as well as many proponents of white racial superiority, perceived this theory of white superiority as being at odds with the predominant Creationist viewpoint. For the most part, Creationists denied the possibility of separate races because the Old Testament book of Genesis had no description of separate Creation, and not enough time had elapsed since Adam and Eve for the development of differing races. Proponents of white racial superiority either dodged the Creationist issue or actively used the “facts” of racial difference to attack Creationist perspectives. [Horsman, passim. William Stanton, The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America 1815-59 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), provides an even more detailed study of this subject—and with a wit that is sorely lacking in most scholarly works.]
Creationists often attack Darwinian evolution for promoting Social Darwinism, and its activist offspring, eugenics and the Holocaust. If evolution is true, it does not matter if it gives birth to ugly and evil theories. But it is a bit amusing to consider the same crowd that argues that truth is a social construct reflecting the dominant class's race, economic interest, and ethnicity defending evolutionary thought, with the really dark results that it has sometimes produced.

The experience of my wife and I going through California primary and secondary schools was that teachers often taught evolution in a dogmatic manner, as a Revealed Truth. Even today, there are some serious questions from serious scientists, such as Biochemistry Professor Michael Behe, that simply do not get taken seriously in how evolution is taught. Confronting some of these questions would not only get away from this Revealed Truth approach to teaching biology, it would also bring a little humility into this subject--a recognition that there remain some significant and important questions about the mechanisms of evolution.