Remarkable new telescope technologies

The past few decades have seen some clever new ideas in telescope design, such as adaptive optics for ground-based telescopes that allow mirrors to be physically distorted in real time to correct for atmospheric turbulence and achieve sharpness that would otherwise require putting the telescope in space.

But there are more radical changes coming, from improved ways to block the light of a star so as to see orbiting planets to telescopes that use diffraction rather than reflection or refraction to form images and even fairly conventional telescopes of immense size that use a laser-shaped cloud of tiny grains rather than a solid mirror or lens. This video from the PBS Spacetime channel on YouTube explains. It runs about 11 minutes, not counting a little added material at the end responding to comments on previous videos.


Link: https://youtu.be/BIASPc89Sgk

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Fun-loving Germans entertain passing trains

Some minds might be boggled by the notion of fun-loving Germans, but check out the video below.

Passengers traveling the 30-kilometer (20-mile) rail segment between the eastern German towns of Jena and Naumburg saw strange things happening outside their widows. A farmer hit a gusher of water, a runner seemed to keep up with the train for a while, and bushes suddenly grew legs and started running.

This was just a project for fun involving about 500 Germans (in what used to be East Germany, we should note) who live in the area, plus some imports including at least one American student.


Link: https://youtu.be/kr6hlMubGJU

Sadly there aren't too many places we could do something like this in the U.S. We just don't have enough passenger train service. Planes generally fly too high, and if we tried to do it by a highway we'd end up causing wrecks.

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What if we don't do anything about climate change?

David Wallace-Wells has an article in July 10 issue of New York magazine summarizing the best current knowledge about the consequences of doing nothing to address human-caused global warming. The magazine's website has an updated and corrected copy of the published article and also an annotated version with more extensive references.

Wallace-Wells takes pains to say

What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency.

But it's still worth understanding why we need to do more than we're doing. Contrary to the claims of some, unfortunately including some highly placed members of the current U.S. administration, there really is an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is real. That's obvious to anyone who gets science news from the scientific press and not Facebook or Fox News.

Wallace-Wells may overstate his case in a few places and get a few things wrong. I found what I think are examples of both, but I haven't had time to check them out in detail, and in any case, even granting possible errors, reading what he says is sobering. Climate forecasts are uncertain, even leaving aside uncertainty about what steps human beings will take (or be able to take) to address the rapid increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases. But uncertainty cuts both ways. Things might end up being not as bad, but they also might be worse.

(My thanks to my friend Jerry Lapidus for drawing my attention to the article.)

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Well, that kinda is what they look like, part 4

When Stephen Colbert shows a photo of someone in the news, he routinely gives an alternative description based on how they look in the picture, as in "Deputy Attorney General and man staring at you from the produce section Rod Rosenstein." Here's a collection of them running just over two minutes:


Link: https://youtu.be/RNnavnA5z9E

You can find the previous collection at this link.

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Jimmy Kimmel's not a healthcare expert; he just knows more than most GOP senators

Over the past few nights Jimmy Kimmel has had a lot of intelligent, well-informed, and sometimes funny things to say about the Cassidy-Graham healthcare bill, and the bill's defenders have struck back with name-calling and falsehoods. Senator "John Kennedy" (R-Bizarro World) dishonestly suggested that Kimmel and Bernie Sanders were the main opponents of the bill, leaving out the almost-universal opposition of healthcare organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, in fact pretty much any outfit that includes "American" and something related to healthcare in its name.

One major problem with the bill -- one of many -- is that the bill does not protect people with pre-existing conditions (like Jimmy Kimmel's son, born with a heart defect). Anyone who tells you it does is either misinformed or lying. Nothing in the bill stops companies from pricing such polices so high that no one could afford them. Some of the bill's defenders claim state laws would prevent that, but experience says otherwise. Until Obamacare came along, many people with pre-existing conditions couldn't buy coverage, and only a few states helped them.

Even Fox News had the guts to ask Vice President Pence about it, and he simply changed the subject (and as a bonus falsely ascribed a Henry David Thoreau quote to Thomas Jefferson).

Here's Kimmel's latest:


Link: https://youtu.be/KUH0KQ1qMiw

For more intelligent commentary from Kimmel and others, see this post from yesterday.

Also, see this article by Ian Crouch from The New Yorker (posted yesterday on their website) about Jimmy Kimmel's reluctant entry into politics, prompted by his newborn son's nearly fatal heart defect, which at the time prompted him to say tearfully that no family should have to decide whether they could afford to save their child's life. That led Senator Cassidy to promise he would support healthcare legislation that passes what Cassidy called "the Jimmy Kimmel test," including on Jimmy Kimmel's show. It was Cassidy's breaking of that promise that prompted Kimmel to speak up.

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We may be just a few years away from detecting alien life

In 1990 the Galileo spacecraft successfully detected evidence of life on Earth. That wasn't too big a surprise, but it did make the point that in some cases strong signs of life on a planet can be detected from space by remotely analyzing atmospheric chemistry via spectroscopy.

Spectroscopy means looking at the spectrum of light that's emitted, reflected, or passing through a substance (including a gas) for bright and dark lines that are characteristic of elements and compounds in that substance. In this case we're talking about dark absorption lines, wavelengths of light that are absorbed by the atoms or ions in question. If a planet's atmosphere has a lot of methane together with oxygen, or a lot of nitrous oxide together with ultraviolet light, something must be replenishing the CH4 or N2O that would otherwise not last very long, and based on our knowledge of chemistry, that something is probably some sort of life.

Other than Earth, there are no planets in our solar system with spectroscopic evidence of life, and we can't quite yet analyze the spectra of light from small, thin-atmosphere, Earthlike planets around other stars, so Earth is so far the only planet where life has been detected that way, and we already knew Earth has life.

But next year NASA hopes the launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be large and sensitive enough to potentially detect signs of life. Such life won't necessarily be complex, let alone intelligent (not that we're ones to talk), but if it's discovered, it will of course be a major event. And it might be found in just a few years.


Link: https://youtu.be/OfOuBx6XW3Q

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Jimmy Kimmel, Dr Aaron Carroll, and Lewis Black on the GOP's latest plan to screw up health insurance

You may recall that after Jimmy Kimmel's newborn son nearly died in April, he talked tearfully about the experience when he was finally able to return to his show, and he added that nobody else's child should die just because the parents weren't rich enough to afford the necessary medical care. Soon after, Senator Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) promised that any healthcare law he supported would have to pass what he called "the Jimmy Kimmel test."

So when Cassidy sponsored the new bill that would take away a lot of needed coverage, Kimmel quite justly called him on it a couple of nights ago. Asked about that on CNN, Cassidy accused Kimmel of not understanding the subject. Last night Kimmel demonstrated that he understands far better than Cassidy and his allies do how seriously bad the new bill really is, and why almost every major healthcare organization opposes it:


Link: https://youtu.be/wB5Hek7Z2b8

Below, pediatrician and medical school professor Dr Aaron Carroll more briefly and dispassionately summarizes what the Cassidy-Graham bill currently before the Senate would do:


Link: https://youtu.be/Cm2yXlibqdA

Finally, on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, perpetually enraged comedian Lewis Black offers his own take:


Link: https://youtu.be/RN_MfrEenp4

My only objection to Black's segment is that he's nowhere near pissed off enough in response to the blatant lies told by politicians and other weasels in the clips shown in his segment. Just to list a few:

  • Speaker of the House Paul Ryan complains that under the Affordable Care Act, young, healthy people help pay for insurance that covers older, sicker people. First, adults in the 20s pay substantially lower premiums than adults in their early 60s. In fact, the ACA allows insurance companies to charge them a third as much. Ryan's reputation as a wonk my be exaggerated, but sure he knows this, so he must realize he's lying. Second, almost all younger, healthier people eventually turn into older people, and I'll bet Ryan knows that as well. Finally, as for his complaint that healthy people in general end up paying to help sick people, the whole point of all insurance is to share risk that way.
  • Another spokesweasel pretends that Obamacare is somehow opposed to capitalism. But its basic blueprint was proposed in the 1990s by the conservative Heritage Foundation and pushed in Massachusetts by Republican Governor (and later Republican presidential nominee) Mitt Romney. And most of the Affordable Care Act is based on competition among corporations that sell health insurance.
  • Someone who thinks it's Opposite Day says that before Obamacare there as no crisis and now there is. In fact, before the ACA went into effect individuals with pre-existing conditions paid astronomical rates or couldn't get coverage at all, which was a serious crisis. Now health insurance companies can't turn people away for being sick. Insurance companies used to set annual and lifetime limits on coverage, leaving sick people to fend for themselves after a certain point. Now they can't. Insurance companies used to routinely "rescind" (cancel) policies for people who got expensively sick. Now they can do it only in cases of actual fraud. Bankruptcies caused by medical bills were far higher than now.
  • So where's the crisis now? It's true that Obamacare hasn't fixed everything, and while the vast majority of people purchasing policies on the exchanges are shielded from premium increases, some are paying more, and deductibles are rising. But that was true before the ACA passed as well. As a businessman I bought my own insurance, and my premiums kept going up and up and I switched to higher deductibles as a way of holding down the increases.
  • What about having to buy insurance you don't need? First, you can't predict whether you might get sick. (My youngest brother stayed very healthy until he got cancer.) OK, it's true that you can be pretty sure you won't need a few kinds of coverage. Men can't get pregnant so it might seem silly that policies theoretically include coverage for male pregnancy, but it also doesn't cost insurance companies a dime to provide that coverage. If anything it saves them the cost of tracking two different types of policy. And nobody that I recall ever complained about the fact that even pre-Obamacare, women's insurance policies m made no special exceptions for prostate or testicular cancer.
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Well, that kinda is what they look like, part 3

When Stephen Colbert shows a photo of someone in the news, he routinely gives an alternative description based on how they look in the picture, as in "Commerce Secretary and Jeff Dunham puppet gone rogue Wilbur Ross." Here's a collection of them running just over three minutes:


Link: https://youtu.be/STxnzd3Rp-A

You can find the previous collection at this link.

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Obama's anger translator is back

A regular bit on Comedy Central's Key & Peele show (which ran 2012-2015) featured Jordan Peele as the unfailingly level-headed President Obama and Keegan-Michael Key as Luther, whose job was to translate Obama's calm remarks into something reflecting the anger, outrage, and frustration one might have expected Obama to feel internally. This became so popular that Key appeared with the real President Obama during a White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2015.

Some of us have been missing Luther, so it's good news that he's apparently back. In mid-July Key appeared on an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to talk about his latest role as Horatio in a production of Hamlet. (Key studied as a Shakespearean actor before getting into comedy.) But Colbert invited Key to revive the character of Luther, and he did, quite gloriously.


Link: https://youtu.be/4D3oBaWYIwQ

As a bonus, here's Luther at the 2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner:


Link: https://youtu.be/HkAK9QRe4ds

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