The graph of awesomeness

I don’t mean it’s a graph that is awesome, I mean that it measures awesomeness. Every new technology probably goes through this.


I: This idea is so cool! Let’s invent it and make the world better!

II: Oh crap, there are problems we didn’t anticipate. They didn’t show up until lots of people started using this thing.

III: But there are ways around the problems! People are discovering ways to fix them, and there are fewer problems being encountered as this goes on.

IV: Aah, smooth sailing. It’s not as perfect as the original idea, and there’s still room for improvement, but reality rarely meets the ideal anyways.

Read the rest of this entry »

Warm slippery facts about cold hard Pluto

A teacher wrote a letter to one of my favourite magazines this month, expressing a wish that the International Astronomical Union would make up its mind on Pluto once and for all, because it’s hard to teach kids about the solar system when this stuff keeps changing. Is it a planet or not? Do we tell them there are nine planets, or eight (or even twelve or thirteen, given that a couple of main belt asteroids were called planets when they were first discovered)? The cold hard facts are lukewarm and slippery right now. Read the rest of this entry »

The Antikythera Mechanism

While I try to formulate something to say about it, have a look at this thing.

The corroded remains of the Antikythera Mechanism were discovered in the early 20th century in an ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera. It’s an orrery — a device to simulate and predict the motions of the heavens — that dates back to about 150 BC. This video shows a modern working replica that shows how the device could have been used to predict the positions of the Sun and Moon (and eclipses, which happen when the Moon and Sun are oriented in particular ways with respect to each other), and of the five planets known to the ancient Greeks.

How do you know?

When I’m out stargazing I often have someone ask me ‘What’s that bright thing I’ve been seeing after sunset every evening?’ This month the answer to that question is either ‘Venus’ or ‘Jupiter’, and then they come back with ‘How do you know?’

I usually come up with some inane answer like ‘I looked it up’, but I’m really fumbling for more details. Here are all the answers I would give them if I had more time. Read the rest of this entry »

6 December 1989

Nineteen years ago today, a gunman killed fourteen women, most of them engineering students, at Montréal’s École Polytechnique. He had separated the men from the women in a classroom and opened fire on the women, and killed more women outside the classroom before killing himself. His suicide note was a hate-filled rant against women and feminists.

We have a day of remembrance so that we don’t forget to continue speaking out against hatred and violence, and to remind us that even though we’re better off than the pioneering female scientists of a hundred years ago or more, things still aren’t perfect.

I remember being surprised that that kind of misogyny still existed in my part of the world. I was a twelve-year-old girl thinking about someday being a scientist, and until then I had taken it for granted that I would be able to go to school in whatever field I chose and nobody would object.

Debunking the intellectual elite

(EDIT 2 July 2009: Man, this is one of the most ponderous pieces of omg!seriousness I have ever written. I’m leaving it up because people have already replied to it. But yikes, my writing embarrasses me sometimes.)

In the dictionary, the word elite is impartial. It means those who are at the top of anything for any reason — the fastest racehorses, the highest-ranking military officers, the most popular kids in school. The word does not imply that elite status is objective or subjective, deserved or undeserved, earned or bestowed, important or meaningless.

Elitism — the practice of treating people at the top differently than others — is therefore sometimes justifiable. Do you promote your hardest-working grease monkey to the position of head mechanic? Sure, because it’s good to have a responsible and knowledgeable person in a position of power, rather than someone who is inexperienced and apathetic about the job. Do the President’s kids deserve a Secret Service escort when they go shopping? It’s necessary if it’s thought that they are more likely than other kids to be targets of crime.

In popular usage, the word elitism is usually only trotted out when we want to talk about unfair or undeserved treatment. People can be rewarded in one context for being perceived as elite in a different and irrelevant context. A military officer from a royal family might be given more comfortable quarters than other officers of the same rank who come from less noble bloodlines. A teacher or professor might be more likely to call on well-dressed students than on shabby-looking students.

People paying attention to American politics and news media will have heard a lot of the term ‘intellectual elite’ in the last little while, because certain political parties have thrown it around as an insult against their opponents. The thought process that they’re taking advantage of, in order to influence the voting public, goes something like this:

  1. Elitism is undeserved special treatment.
  2. The elite are the people who benefit from elitism.
  3. Therefore being elite is a bad thing.
  4. Therefore anything that makes people elite must be a bad thing to be.

Are you following the dangerous leaps of illogic? Here’s the counterargument:

  1. Elitism is not always undeserved; that’s just the most common usage of the word, but not a full definition.
  2. Therefore, not everyone who benefits from elitism is unfairly getting something they don’t deserve.
  3. Therefore, a person who is elite is not made good or bad solely because of that elite status.
  4. The things that people can be that make them elite also do not have inherent moral value; it isn’t universally bad or wrong to be strong, rich, of noble blood, popular — or intellectual.

If you’re still with me, I’d like you to consider two things. First, being intellectual does not make someone a snob. It just means they do a lot of thinking, or like to engage in activities that require thought.  Second, given that dictionary definition of the word, anyone can be an intellectual. You don’t have to have money or nobility or powerful friends or even an education in order to enjoy using your brain to observe and analyse the world around you.

I got into university under my own steam; I got out of university without graduating because I didn’t have unlimited money or indestructible mental health. My lack of a complete formal education hasn’t stopped me from being an intellectual, because a university degree is not a license without which I am not allowed to enjoy thinking.

I am going to use this blog to geek out about all kinds of stuff, mostly astronomy, and to expound upon the virtue of critical thinking and the sheer fun of learning about stuff. If you like the sound of that, feel free to join in and play.

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