The Transit of Mercury Is Tomorrow

A photo of the transit of Mercury in 2016. Mercury is the round dot slightly to the lower left of center. The fuzzy, irregular dots are sunspots. Credit: Elijah Matthews (Wikipedia).

Hmm…what to write about? I finished my series on evolution…I have a couple other things I’m working on, but they aren’t ready yet…what’s in the news? Oh, there’s a transit of Mercury tomorrow. I guess that’s the biggest science news of the week.

Okay, so, it is pretty interesting. You see, Mercury’s orbit is such that it crosses the Sun as seen from Earth about thirteen times every hundred years. That’s once every seven and a half years on average, but there’s a lot of randomness involved.

Actually, no, it’s the exact opposite of random. We can predict Mercury’s orbit centuries in advance. The point is that the time between transits varies a lot because the orbits align in different ways from one year to the next. It turns out the next transit of Mercury is thirteen years from now in 2032. (The last one was just three years ago in 2016.) So see it before it’s gone, I guess. Here in the D.C. area, it will begin at 7:36 AM Eastern Time and end at 1:04 PM. That will vary a little depending on your location, as Earth passes through Mercury’s “shadow,” but that will only be by a couple minutes.

To be honest, I wasn’t that enthused about making a post on this. Personally, I find the story about how astronomers in Spain figured out a new way to measure the expansion of the universe (and they still can’t get the various methods to agree with each other) to be much more interesting. (Maybe next post.) The transit of Mercury isn’t so exciting because while it’s notable, it’s actually rather difficult to observe. Even if you kept your dark eclipse glasses from two years ago, you almost certainly won’t be able to see. I could just barely see the transit of Venus back in 2012 with my “naked” eyes (which were really eclipse-glassed eyes, just without a solar telescope), and Venus looks five times as big as Mercury on the disk of the Sun. The transit of Mercury will be pretty much invisible with the equipment most people have at home.

(Warning: everyone knows don’t look at the Sun, etc., etc., but the important thing to remember is: Don’t look at the Sun through binoculars or a telescope without a dark filter on the front end. Eclipse glasses will not work that way and might melt or do other bad things to your eyes.)

So how can you see the transit of Mercury? Well, the simplest way would be to seek out your local astronomy club. Most such clubs will probably be running some kind of event for it. If they’re not, or if you don’t have an astronomy club in your area…I don’t really know. You can try to make a pinhole projector—and you don’t need a cardboard box to do that. You can just project from one sheet of paper onto another one—but it’s the same problem: I don’t know if you’d be able to see it on an image that small.

Or, maybe the simplest option of all in this day and age: you can watch it online.

Happy observing, and I wish you clear skies.

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The Evolution Debate: Creationist Rhetoric

I’ve pretty much gone through the arguments against evolution I planned to debunk in my various posts. (See the first post in this series here.) To be sure, there’s a lot more material out there, but I’ve addressed the specific things I wanted. If you want to learn more about the science, I recommend the Talk Origins Index, which addresses many more creationist claims in great detail.

However, I have a little more I want to say about the rhetoric used by creationists in these debates because they have a definite tendency to mock, belittle, or dismiss evolutionists and their positions. And yes, the meanness can definitely happen on both sides. I’ve written before about Kent Hovind and Aron Ra insulting each other in their debate last year. But this post particularly focuses on the creationist side. Granted, these aren’t actual arguments against evolution. At most, they’re spurious attacks on the attitude of evolutionists, but the point is, they’re distractions from the substance of the debate and generally tend to make creationists look foolish. So let’s take a look at some of them.

“Evolutionists say…” OR Evolutionism says…”

This first one is kind of a weird case. Many evolutionists complain about it not being a valid term, but I’ve been using it myself because…how else are you going to label the theory’s proponents conveniently? And I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that. Many scientists will try to depersonalize it to something like “evolution says” to try to make it clear that it’s the theory itself saying that—the actual science and not just people. But when you’re talking about how people talk in a debate, like I am, you have to talk about the people.

Thus, I’ve been using “evolutionists” in this series because it’s a succinct way of referencing people who are on the opposite side of the creationism argument, and really, there’s no other word that works. It’s not “scientists” because plenty of laypeople both understand and accept evolution. It’s not “nonbelievers” because lots of Christians believe in evolution. It’s not “naturalists” for the same reason. It’s certainly not “Darwinists” because Darwin isn’t remotely the whole story anymore. “Evolution believers” might be closer, but that’s too clunky. “Evolutionists” is an easy shorthand, but it can mask the fact that evolution is not a belief system. It’s a scientific theory, and yes, that’s a bit of a trite cliche itself, but it references the fact that it is something qualitatively different from faith—that evolution stands on a well-substantiated body of objective evidence whereas true faith neither wants nor needs this. That’s not to say either one is deficient, rather that it doesn’t make sense to compare them in that way.

Anyway, this has turned into a tangent. My point is that I’m actually okay with the creationist term “evolutionism.” It’s just that you have to be careful that it doesn’t distort the audience’s understanding of what evolution is.

“Evidences for Creation”

This is a pure distraction, and many evolutionists just gloss over it, but I find it hard to ignore…Why do creationists keep using “evidences” as a plural of “evidence”?! Yes, it’s sometimes used in technical contexts. Yes, it’s attested in Shakespeare and all that. The fact remains that in modern English, “evidence” is a perfectly good plural of “evidence,” and you almost never see it with the ‘s’ except in Christian apologetics. It’s Christianese, and it’s risking turning off non-Christians before you ever get to the substance of your argument. It may be valid English, but using it is going to make you look unprofessional when there are more widely-used alternatives.

“Were you there?” AND Historical science

Both of these things say that we can’t know for sure what happened in the past because we personally weren’t there to witness it, nor was any other reliable source (except God as the author of the Bible). The problem is, this isn’t an argument. It’s a thought-terminating cliche. It’s something you can say that prevents you from having to address the merits of an argument without actually refuting it. It doesn’t sound convincing; it just sounds flippant.

(Okay, yes, this is basically what God said to Job. See above about the difference between science and faith. There is absolutely a place for the theological debate, but it should not be conflated with the scientific one.)

Now, the “proper” use of a term like “historical science” is to say, “We don’t have proof that X happened because no one was around to see it, so we only really have circumstantial evidence to go on.” This is theoretically fine, but at this point, it should be a debate between two sides about who has the objectively stronger evidence, and you can read several of my earlier posts to see how that goes.

I think there’s a simpler solution, though. This rhetoric is why several of my Questions for Creationists begin with the words, “Regardless of whether it actually happened…” Against creationists, I believe it’s often more defensible to ask whether evolution could happen, because it avoids this cliche, but is still very much up for debate.

Millions of years

This cliche, maybe even more than “Were you there?” is perhaps the most derisive of the creationists’ rhetoric. Kent Hovind especially likes to says “millions of years” in a mocking tone as if it’s too ridiculous to be worth addressing, but I think it embodies a lot of the problems of the creationist attitude. Yes, at its root, it’s down to Biblical literalism straight-up, but I feel like there’s an attitude built up around it by the notion that so much of science is wrong and biased against religion, and Hovind’s mocking tone is part of that.

For the particular cliche of “millions of years,” part of it is that it’s an easy shorthand for everything they see as contradicting the creationist narrative. You don’t have to explain what millions of years means for most people to understand it, where you might need to for other aspects of evolution. It’s a simple matter of one side saying Earth is thousands of years old and the other side saying it’s millions or billions of years old, and only one of them can be right.

However, another part of it is an attitude of “Isn’t thousands of years enough for you? That’s a really long time.” And there is some truth to this. It’s the same sentiment by which we say, “If we’re alone in the universe, it seems like an awful waste of space.” The thing is, we’ve already got millions of light-years. Most creationists accept those huge distances because we can measure them in the present (sort of), and, you know—distance light travels in a year, anyone? Millions of years is kind of obvious if you accept that.

However, the biggest issue for me is when Hovind seems to criticize evolutionists for using “millions of years” as a buzzword to sound impressive or convincing or just plain smarter. Personally, I feel like this is an insult to scientists on a deeper level—an emotional level rather than just an intellectual one. The reason is that in my experience, we say “millions of years” in awestruck tones not as a rhetorical point, but because we want other people to share in our wonder at the vastness of the universe. The fact is, thousands of years isn’t enough for us! But this isn’t a bug; it’s a feature, when we can imagine so much greater

I could go on more about this, but I don’t want to get too heavy-handed about it. Instead, I will skip to the final word in this series—another question, of sorts—for which I will defer to the late, great Carl Sagan in Pale Blue Dot, who makes this point far better than I could:

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

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The Evolution Debate: Thermodynamics

Yes, this really is relevant. Credit: JJ Harrison (Wikipedia).

I’m moving away from the main thrust of the creation-evolution debate in biology and geology to a topic that is still mentioned a lot, but is much more physics oriented: thermodynamics.

One of the best ways that creationists could disprove evolution is not some new piece of scientific evidence, but rather if they found some contradiction that made it impossible even in principle. And in fact, many of them think they have found one:

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics disproves evolution.”

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Posted in Debunking, Science

The Evolution Debate: The Flood and the Geologic Record

In the creation-evolution debate, you’ll often see creationists dismiss evidence for evolution after finding some fault with it, as they often do for transitional fossils. But something else you’ll see a lot is reexplaining evidence in a way that fits it into the Creation story.

As a writer, I can tell you that this can be fun. It’s like a puzzle, finding a way to make all of the pieces of a story fit together. But fiction is a forgiving medium, and science is not, and if you dig into it, you’ll soon find that creationist reexplanations usually don’t hold water. One such point that comes up a lot is this:

“The apparent progression of fossils in the geologic record is due to Noah’s Flood.”

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New Year’s Resolutions, Part 3

As I’ve written before, back in January, I made several New Year’s resolutions, but I later wound up adjusting them every three months. All year, I’ve been trying to set goals for myself that are ambitious, but doable—particularly to improve my writing speed, but also for other things. It always seems to take about three months for me to see where things need to change, either because I miscalculated at the beginning, or because of external changes in my life. So this is my third report this year as to my progress on these resolutions.

I’ve decided I’m going to try to be more honest this time about how my progress is going and cut some things to focus more closely on the others. I’m hoping I can springboard from this to something more substantial in 2020, but time will tell.

First off, my “New Year’s” resolutions for the year as of July 1 stand as follows:

  1. Exercise 30 minutes (at home) at least 3 days per week, except when I’m traveling. One of them must be Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Completion rate: 23%.
  2. Send 2 query letters for my novels to agents per month. Completion rate: 67%.
  3. Read at least 3 chapters of different books per week, including one audiobook. Completion rate: 96%.
  4. Publish at least 1 blog post per week. Completion rate: 87%.
  5. A complicated set of weekly and monthly writing goals that I did not list in detail. Completion rate: 73%.
  6. Write at least 250 words immediately after dinner on days when I don’t have something else going on. Completion rate: 94%.

Obviously, the exercise thing never really worked out. It seems like that would be the first thing to go (and fittingly so since it’s by far the most cliche resolution on my list). But I want to try to make one more push on it starting tomorrow, especially since I’ve moved and can’t walk to work anymore, so I’m going to keep it.

As for the others, these numbers look pretty good, considering so many people’s New Year’s resolutions fail by February. However, my point in setting these goals was to make them things I’d be able to finish 100%, so I do want to subject them to closer scrutiny.

For the query letters, that’s fallen behind because I’ve already taken care of the low-hanging fruit. The remaining agents who are of interest want more complex queries that take time to write, and between that and getting sidetracked with moving, I fell behind. I’m also far enough into the process that I want to start looking at how to go about self-publishing. I still want to try to move on that by the end of the year, but it’s at a point where I can’t really make it a routine task. Therefore, I’m going to drop that one as a resolution, though I’ll keep working on it.

One of my goals was to read a chapter from three books each week. This was increased from two before, but I’ve now finished the extra books I wanted to read, and I feel the need to do something else. In particular, I never finished watching the last season of Doctor Who, andI need to finish watching it before Christmas, when the new Christmas special will be out. This one fell by the wayside because I found it hard to set aside an unbroken hour of time to watch it. Mind you, it’s not really that hard, but I had a hard time stopping to focus on it on a weekly basis when I was always trying to catch up on my writing goals. I mentioned before that’s the same reason I never really picked the exercise back up. So my new goal is to watch at least one episode of Doctor Who per week. And when I run out of Doctor Who episodes, well, I always meant to watch Season 2 of The Orville and never got around to that either, so I can use that to fill in the space.

My blog is coming along pretty well. I always have enough half-finished posts to meet my goal (although I’ve been a bit sidetracked working on a big project for next year). I just need to be more diligent about finishing them.

Likewise, adding my daily writing goal has been a good move. Sadly, it hasn’t done that much for my total word count, but it has helped me get back into the rhythm, so that stays.

Finally, at the beginning of the year, I set a monthly writing goal that I chose not to detail. I made it monthly because that is how National Novel Writing Month does it. However, I rarely managed to meet it, and because of my schedule and workflow, I’ve decided a weekly writing goal will work better for me. And the complex set of subgoals I was trying to juggle have ultimately proved unworkable for similar reasons to the query letters. So I’m just going to cut through them and come out and say it this time: my new goal is to write 5,000 words per week. That includes blog posts, my novels, long-term projects that may or may not be published, and writing for my personal use that definitely won’t be. It’s all just about getting my word count up, but I do hope it will lead to knock-on effects like more reliable posting.

So finally, here is my new set of goals for the remaining quarter of 2019:

  1. Exercise 30 minutes at least 3 days per week, except when I’m traveling. One of them must be Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday.
  2. Read or watch parts of 3 different stories per week, including one paper book, one audiobook, and one television episode from my backlog.
  3. Publish at least 1 blog post per week.
  4. Write at least 250 words immediately after dinner on days when I don’t have something else going on.
  5. Write at least 5,000 words per week.

Posted in Personal, Writing | Tagged , ,

The Handmaid’s Tale as a Different Kind of Dystopia

The Handmaid’s Tale is the famous dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood in which a radical theocratic regime has taken over America, brutally oppressing everyone who isn’t a Reconstructionist “Christian,” but particularly focusing on women. Since the book was released, and especially since the launch of the Hulu series based on it, feminists have been using it to protest policies and politics they oppose—things like restrictions on abortion, the Supreme Court nomination of Bret Kavanaugh, and the perceived anti-women attitudes of Donald Trump.

I feel like this is an interesting and somewhat misplaced move—not because of the merits of the policies themselves. (This isn’t a political blog, and I’ll admit that the red Handmaids’ costumes are a powerful symbolic image.) Instead, I’m thinking about two factors stemming from the story itself. First, as I described in my review, The Handmaid’s Tale was not meant to be overtly feminist nor political. And second, I think it is a dystopia of a very different kind from the earlier classics—one that is not a direct warning to the readers, but instead asks thought-provoking questions—questions I believe are just as important as its acquired political message.

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Movie Review: Ad Astra

You don’t see many movies like Ad Astra these days—movies that depict space exploration in the future, but in the forseeable future. Ad Astra falls in that narrow, but vital window in storytelling with Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian in showing what could be rather than what has been (Hidden Figures, First Man, etc.) or what probably can’t be (Star Wars, Valerian, etc.). This is the kind of movie that we hope will inspire people to explore, not just entertain them.

Unfortunately, while Ad Astra is a cinematic achievement, it doesn’t actually do those things that well.

My rating: 3 out of 5.

In an ambiguous “near future” in which humankind has colonized Mars and made the Moon a tourist destination (and spawned Moon pirates, apparently), astronaut Roy McBride is tasked with contacting his father, Clifford, long presumed dead at Neptune, who seems to be involved with mysterious electromagnetic surges that threaten the entire Solar System. These surges are by far the most outrageously nonsensical “science” of the film, which otherwise gets things mostly right. The offered explanation doesn’t even match what is shown on screen! But in response to them, McBride is led on a harrowing journey both across the Solar System and personally to reconciliation with his father.

The good part of this film is that it shows (in my opinion) such a plausible depiction of colonization of the Solar System. I won’t quite say “realistic” because realistic would be cramped underground tunnels that look more like a submarine than an airport terminal. But from a suborbital fall ripped straight from Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 stunt, to a well choreographed and silent high-speed chase on the Moon, to a beautiful if slightly stylized depiction of a mission to Neptune, a setting you don’t see very often, the look of the film is very real. Even with the scientific errors, I only really begrudge them the “surges” mess.

The bad, however, is (to start with) that the film is very slow-paced. I still rather enjoyed it, and if that were the only problem, I would have rated it higher, but you have to have the right attitude going in to appreciate it. There’s a certain class of science fiction that you’ll see in books like Mission of Gravity, Helliconia Spring, and The Left Hand of Darkness, where to varying degrees, the planet is the main character, not the people. I enjoy those kinds of books because they bring a sense of wonder that few others do. (Granted, I do need some characters. In books like Helliconia Spring where it starts to skip across decades or centuries of time, I lose interest fast.)

That is the feeling I get from Ad Astra. That’s not actually what kind of story it is. The movie is very much about Roy and Clifford, their relationship, and the concept of fatherhood, but seeing the Solar System colonized like that brings that same sense of wonder, and I don’t mind the story taking its time with it.

However, that’s not the only problem with this film. The other big problem, the one that really hurts it in my mind, is that the writing is substandard. The whole plotline with Clifford and what he’s been doing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and the way each of the two men go about resolving it doesn’t feel like it fits their characterization up to that point. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what gets resolved in the end.

It’s this substandard writing that really bumps this movie down to so-so for me, but thus qualified, if you’re into this kind of sci-fi, I still think I can say it’s worth a matinee or rental price to see it and enjoy it as a treatise on exploring the Solar System.

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