research news

My lab’s recent microgravity flights gave us some good data to demonstrate that we’re not totally crazy with this flux-pinned spacecraft idea. In fact, it actually works. We were able to get mockup CubeSat-sized spacecraft to pin together without touching, and use magnetic fields to form a non-contacting hinge.

An article just appeared in the Cornell Chronicle about our stuff.

We’ll be applying to fly a refined experiment on the Vomit Comet next summer, as well, through the NASA FAST program. (Check out the link to our video on the FAST front page!)

good stuff, lost in the noise

Here’s what I hate most about the partisan bickering that’s been going on lately: the reactionary GOP has been so busy opposing anything and everything that the President of the United States says that events like this have been submerged in all the rapid-news-cycle media hoopla.

Mr. Obama gave a short speech on the value and necessity of science and technology, and on his proposed efforts to boost science and math education in American schools. (He also acknowledged dignitaries such as NASA adminsitrator Charlie Bolden, Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Shuttle astronaut Sally Ride, and a 14-year-old who is the youngest person to discover a supernova.) Now, these things ought to be the kind of things that every American can agree with. Okay, every sensible American; I guess I just wrote about some of our citizenry who think that science is valueless. Still, the positive response to an event like this ought to be overwhelming. If only the constant coverage of so-called “tea parties” didn’t override it.

Anyway, this is the kind of event that makes me really love our President.

got off easy

A judge has sentenced Dale and Leilani Neumann, Christian fundamentalists who were convicted of negligence in the death of their diabetic daughter when they prayed for her healing rather than contact any medical professional. They get six months in jail, to be served one month out of every year for the next six years. I think they got off easy. They are guilty in my mind of criminal insanity and hubris, and at the very least, their two remaining children should now be wards of the state.

One purported definition of “insanity” is to repeat the same action or set of actions, over and over again, seeing the same result each time but somehow expecting a different one. When their daughter felt faint, the Neumanns prayed. When she could no longer walk, the Neumanns prayed. When she could not eat, the Neumanns prayed. When she could no longer even speak, the Neumanns prayed. And when her breathing came in ragged, shallow gasps, the Neumanns prayed. Only after her breath and pulse stilled did they think to contact EMS; by then, of course, it was far too late. These parents have demonstrated that their convictions are more important to them than the safety and health of their children. They have also demonstrated an inability to form a workable understanding of the world from observable phenomena. Insanity that endangers lives: these people should be put away for psychiatric evaluation.

I’m reminded of that pseudo-joke – or, more appropriately, the modern parable – of a man with devout beliefs who hears on the evening news one day that his city is in the path of a terrible hurricane. “I’m not worried about that,” he says to himself, “because I know that God will save me.” The hurricane hits, and as trees and power lines crash the ground around his house, a policeman comes to his door. Yelling over the wind and rain, the officer offers the man a ride out of town. “No, thank you,” says the man, “I trust in God to save me.” Hours later, the city floods and the man flees to the roof of his house as the water level rapidly rises. He sees a family paddling down the whitewater of their street, and they backpaddle for a moment to draw closer to the man. “Come quickly!” they cry, “we have room for one more! We can save you!” But the man refuses again, telling them that he knows God will save him from this predicament. The water continues to rise, and the man eventually drowns in the ruins of his home. His soul finally comes in contact with the God he always believed in, but, his faith shaken by the hurricane, the man cannot help but shout, “God, I believed in you all my life! How could you leave me on that house to die?” God retorts, “What are you talking about? I sent a TV newsman, a police officer, and your neighbors, all to help you!”

This brings me to my second point: for the Neumanns to refuse to contact medical professionals is arrogance, pure and simple. They were, in essence, refusing to admit that their fellow human beings could help their daughter. Not only were they refusing their fellow men and women, but the were refusing their daughter – putting their own beliefs, even in the face of dwindling supporting evidence, as more important than her life. If there is a God who created people in the image of God, then people and their capabilities are at least representatives of divine power. Even if you take issue with that statement, then you must admit that people do have the capability to treat type 1 diabetes, which caused the Neumanns’ daughter’s death. So, unlike in the parable I reproduced above, there was no uncertainty to the outcome in her case – without insulin, she would die; in the hands of medical professionals, diabetes would be easily identified and treated. She would still be alive. Her parents refused a course of action that would have kept their daughter alive in favor of a course of action that they could plainly see was allowing her condition to deteriorate. This level of pride, to “stay the course” when a quick, easy, and known solution exists but would require some ideological capitulation, is staggering.

I have type 1 diabetes myself. I know that my treatment regimen revolves around human ingenuity and technical proficiency. God did not create the insulin pump that keeps me alive. God did not hand down to humans the techniques for cajoling pig pancreatic cells to produce human insulin. And God certainly hasn’t waved a mighty hand to miraculously cure me. No, for those first two items and hopefully for the third, human intelligence is responsible. Human training. Human learning. Human teaching. Human experimentation. Human courage. If a God is in any way responsible, it is solely in allowing human brains to evolve such that we could produce the advances in science, medicine, and technology that would lead to insulin production, glucose monitoring techniques, subcutaneous insulin infusion pumps, and the education of those who must treat themselves. For me to rely on wishful thinking to hope my diabetes away would be negligence. If someone else was responsible for treating me, for them to rely on wishful thinking to hope my diabetes away would be criminal negligence.

More amazing astrophotos!

If you don’t already check the Astronomy Picture of the Day each day, you should. Today was a special treat, linking to the Gigagalaxy Zoom project. That web site uses as its dataset three images at tens-of-thousands-by-tens-of-thousands resolution, and you can zoom in on features of each image through a nice Flash interface that includes descriptions of the cosmic bodies you see. The three images are composites of thousands of exposures, and represent three levels of telescopic magnification towards the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

My favorite zoomed-in segment is the Pipe Nebula in the middle-level image:

Center of the Milky Way
Center of the Milky Way

You can see the zoomed segment with its description by clicking here and then clicking on the short, wide rectangle that highlights a dark squiggly nebula in the center of the image. Just look at the number of stars behind the dark nebula! This is the kind of image that makes me feel that I’m very tiny, that the beauty I see in the natural world on Earth is an insignificant fraction of the wonders in the Universe. And it makes me want to get out there and see things!

Best of all, you can download ~26 MB high-res versions of the three base images from the Gigagalaxy download page.