Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Pandora Found!

Okay, it's not eactly Pandora (Avatar, not Borderlands), but this is still awesome.  Yesterday astronomers at the European Southern Observatory announced they had found a planet slightly larger than Earth.  While that's cool by itself, the nerd in me squealed in delight because the planet is orbiting Alpha Centari B, which is a member of the star system closest to our own. 

An artist's impression of Alpha Centauri Bb from the ESO press release

Sure, the planet is only four million miles from its star, making it far too hot for life...but it's only 4.3 light years away from us!  That's tantalizingly close.  If a planet like that can exist in our backyard, who knows what else might be out there.  At this rate, it's only a matter of time until we start locating potential habital worlds.  Sure, our current technology can't get there in any reasonable length of time, but with a little investment, and the motivation that likely exploration targets could generate, you never know.  I'll admit, I yearn to live long enough to see the first close-up images of a planet outside our solar system with life, intelligent or not (most likely not).

Between Kepler's findings, the Curiosity rover's landing on Mars, and now this, it's been an exciting couple of years for astronomy.  I can't wait to see what we find next!

You can find the press release here and some great analysis from Phil Plait here.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The non-religious continue to grow, but that doesn't mean they're letting go of God

The big news in the atheist sphere is the new Pew Research Center report showing that Americans who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or non-religious continues to grow.  Over the last five years, the combined number has grown nearly 5% with the largest gains among those who are simply unaffiliated.

While I'm happy to see the numbers of agnostics and atheists growing, I'm not going to get too excited over the growth of "nothing in particular".  I can only speculate, but to me it seems this could be a natural reaction to the excessive moralizing of the Conservative Protestant and Catholic churches, especially over the last decade.  From what I've seen, most people don't seek religion to hear doom and gloom or to receive constant lectures on how to live their lives.  Okay, maybe some want that, but the vast majority seek religion to find community, acceptance, or seemingly reasonable answers to life's difficulties.  Whether or not organized religion is the best place to find those things is another argument, but it does provide them nonetheless.

Now, the past couple decades have seen Conservative Christianity seize control of a major US political party, and the Catholic Church has come down strongly in support of several of the same interests as the Religious Right.  An incredible amount of time and effort has been invested trying to halt society's natural evolution and return it to the "Eden" of the 1950s.  Nevertheless, time marches on and people's opinions change.

Obviously, I'm on the outside looking in, but it seems to me that if I were the member of an organization whose ostensible purpose was to explore the deeper meaning of life, I would be extremely disappointed to find that organization become so invested in petty political mud-slinging.  It must cheapen the experience when the leaders of these organizations continue to insist that gay marriage will destroy marriage, despite all evidence to the contrary.  It must also take an incredible degree of mental compartmentalization to be the member of an organization whose founder clearly supported redistribution of wealth and then hear the leaders of your organization argue for the exact opposite and encourage you to vote for Republicans.

What I'm trying to say is, don't celebrate too much.  Just because people are disillusioned with Christianity doesn't necessarily mean they're seeking what the non-theists are selling.  Sure, atheists and agnostics are growing, but no religion in particular is growing faster, and they aren't necessarily looking for scientific answers.  I'm sure many still believe in a God of some sort, and many are those who eagerly snap up "The Secret" or one of the countless other New Age tomes of nonsense.

Still, it's nice to see atheists and agnostics growing, but I would argue for caution.  A lot of committed atheists out there are just as bad as the most judgmental Christians.  We've all seen them trolling the internet, picking fights and being generally nasty just because someone holds theistic beliefs.  It does the rest of us no favors, helps fuel the "militant atheist" argument, and turns people off in the same manner as Conservative Christianity.  We can continue to grow our numbers, but we can't do it by taking the low road.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Now I see, I've been wrong

I need to go rethink my life after this one:

My wife sent me this to me, and I had to share the laugh.  Too bad it's from a someone being serious and not The Onion...sigh.

Everyone Chill Out

I know I missed a busy week politically, but I just got back from an amazing trip to Paris and Normandy.  Being a history major, it was nice to finally see several of the places I had spent so long reading about.

Anyway, the big political news of the weekend was Romney's debate "victory".  Now that 've seen it, yes, Obama lost on style while Romney enthusiastically and convincingly endorsed policy positions that he had completely opposed the week before.  Since the last debate's audience was a national one, I suppose Romney was smart to suddenly take a centrist position.  In hindsight, the Obama campaign should have expected it, considering Romney always tells his current audience what they want to hear, but the complete about-face was surprising even for Romney.  Instead of tacking to the center, he sprinted to it.

The real question is, will it matter?  Andrew Sullivan is in full despair mode and ready to admit defeat while the rest of the media jumped on the narrative that the debate is a game changer, but I'm skeptical that one poor debate performance can throw an entire election, especially when the electoral college is so strongly in Obama's favor and the number of undecideds are so low.  Besides, George W. Bush was an atrocious debater and he (arguably) won two terms.

Looking at the big picture, the BLS released improved unemployment numbers, which certainly helps Obama.  The usual suspects screamed conspiracy, but things are getting better, if slowly.  The first post-debate polls have been coming out, and depite a huge reversal in Pew's numbers, most show a modest bounce for Romney that has improved his chance of victory to only 25.2 percent in Nate Silver's model.

So to the Obama supporters out there who are in a panic, maybe it's time to take a step back from the horse race and not read any election news for a few days.  Never forget, the media's going to make this one look close until the very end, because that's where the money is.