16 September 2013

Where is south?

You, too, can be a space alien!  All you'll need are a stick, some sun, string, and a way of making marks.  At the end of this, you'll be able to perform feats that have caused many over the decades to say that the ancient Egyptians and others 'must' have been visited by space aliens.

What you'll do is construct a very accurate definition for north+south.  From there, you can build your own pyramid aligned accurately to north/south.  Technologies involved are all 6000+ years old.

So, first step is to get a long, straight stick.  You can verify that it's straight by checking against the string in your which way is up apparatus.  (Notice that it, too, only uses 6000+ year old technology.)

Next, put the stick in to an area of flat ground.  It's best if you plant it straight up and down.  You can use your terribly advanced up-down apparatus for guidance on which way is up.

Now for the hard part.  Tie the string around the stick and your marker.  Pull the string taut and mark a circle around your stick.  Retie the string to marker and shorten or lengthen the distance from stick, to make another circle.  Repeat a few times so that you have a variety of circle sizes.

Back to easy.  A little patience is required.  Each time the sun's shadow from your stick hits one of the circles, mark the location.  If you're in a cloudy place, you really want a bunch of circles.  What we're looking for is the shadow to hit the same circle twice -- once earlier in the day and once later.

Next to last: after you have a nice pair of marks on one of your circles, find the mid-point between the pair.

Finally: Draw a straight line from your stick to this mid-point mark.  This line is the north-south line for your location.

There are some elaborations you can do here, for accuracy and for large scale construction.  But you're now done with the basics.  And can construct your own objects aligned accurately to north-south, just like the 'space aliens'.  Well, more seriously, just like our ancestors from several thousand years ago.

09 September 2013

Which way is up?

Simple questions sometimes have subtle answers.  Of course, some answers are also pretty simple.  Which way is up starts out simple and then gets pretty subtle. (Note on scientist-speak: subtle = complicated and/or difficult).  This winds up being related to What is a day? as we get a little more complex.  But, while we can, let's go with simple.  Up is the opposite of down.  Slightly less simple, down is the direction a ball falls.

Even less simple: hang a weight on a string.  Hold it still.  This is difficult, so maybe hang it from a nail or off a board.  There's probably still a little swinging back and forth.  So either wait (it'll come to a halt eventually, but who says scientists are always patient?!) or get a large (larger than your weight) cup or bucket of water and bring that up underneath the weight.  Make sure the weight is made of something that doesn't float if you use this approach!  Once the weight comes to a halt, the string gives you a line which points up and down.  The weight is the 'down' side of the line.

By the way -- not only do you not have to be good at math to be good at science, you also don't have to be good at drawing. For me, this is pretty good artwork. Some people are great at drawing, same as some are great at math. Some of us, well, you see my caliber of artwork.

 Now for getting subtle ... which also explains why the earth isn't exactly a sphere.

06 September 2013

Conservative and religious responses to climate change

Yes, there are such responses!
Kathryn Hayhoe and Tom Ackerman are both evangelical Christians.  Read their article for why the comedian is wrong to say that they don't exist.  I also happen to know both (not well, but email with Kathryn and Tom in person for a couple years when we were both at Penn State).

Boehlert, I think, said it best for the political side (forget about party) about a decade ago.  As I remember the quote, what he wanted from scientists was "Tell us what's happening, what's liable to happen, and what, if anything, we can do about it."  Actually deciding what to do, that's the job of politicians, such as himself.  As a scientist, I'm comfortable with that.  (Well, give or take my concerns about the political process; but we all have to live with that.)

There are quite a few more religious people and conservative politicians, and fans of free market economics, who also are willing to discuss what -- if anything -- to do in response to climate change.  See also my 2008 post Keep your vehicles how you choose for a couple of my thoughts.

Actually getting to the point of having that discussion publicly is ... different, somehow.  But a question I was asked recently points to a direction.  Q: "Have you talked to any of your neighbors about this?"  A: "Doh"  How to go from meeting a neighbor walking her dog to chatting about climate change ... I'm not sure how to do it non-awkwardly.  Then again, graceful has seldom been a hallmark of mine.  Maybe readers have an idea or two they'll share?

An encounter a while back gives me some hope that on the face to face level there might well be some hope.  I ran in to a former weather forecaster and modeller I've known for many years.  He commented about liking my blog (I didn't know he even knew it existed) even though we (probably) disagree politically.  We probably do disagree about what to do, as far as I've heard of his politics.  But, we could have the discussion about whats and hows and whethers.

My main line here is the science rather than politics of course, but ignoring politics entirely doesn't seem much more sensible than politics ignoring science.

05 September 2013

Do scientists have special obligations to society?

The subject line comes from Janet Stemwedel, who asks the question.  There are two spots to answer, one if you are a scientist, and one if you're not.  'scientist' is defined in the articles.
If you're a scientist

Nonscientists' comments

I think it's a worthwhile and interesting question, and encourage you all to go answer.  Feel free to leave a copy of your answer here.  Or do some free-range commenting on the question here if there's a reason not to post it over on Janet's blogs.

Something which hasn't been brought up (yet) at Janet's blogs is this:
It is illegal to practice law without a license, to pretend to be a medical doctor, or in many states to claim to be an engineer if you don't have appropriate certification.  There's no such licensing or certification process for 'scientist'. 

Does that mean scientists have more, or fewer, or different, obligations to society than doctors, lawyers, or engineers?