The Milky Way and the lighthouse

James Burke @rigb_science #connections

James Burke @rigb_science #connections (Photo credit: Toastwife)

Cover of "Cosmos"

Cover of Cosmos

Here we stand on the shores of a cosmic ocean. This (or something pretty close) is from the first episode of Cosmos, that I watched as an entranced sleepy 14 year old, up very late to catch every last resonant image, every last amazing fact (Hypatia, how had I not known of thee? Voyager, small ships of knowledge, the ancestors of all chip bound explorers of the local seas), of that seminal awakening for many of my generation.

Connections was also a hypnotic ride (please, I urge you, spend hours of delight watching every episode on YouTube – sometimes, the Internet is beyond bounteous).

I am thrilled Neil deGrasse Tyson is doing a new version of Cosmos, a fitting heir to the magic of Carl Sagan. Phil Plait is blogging over at Slate these days, and I am delighted to see his audience increase. He, too is, an heir to Sagan – we need more popularisers of science, men and women who can convey the joy and passion of science.

Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...

Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I knew, at 14, there could be no higher calling than scientific pursuits – astronomy would be preferable, but that turned out to be because I had not met my true (career) love – computing. That was my homecoming. But my love of science, all the sciences, from the atomic and subatomic awe inspiring and mind boggling worlds (such brave new (tiny) worlds that have such wonders), to the macro, the Universe, or universes, dimensions and galaxies, of physics and astronomy and on (brave enormous worlds etc). Of the earth sciences, of biology, of technological sciences. Of the wonder of engineering, and again, back to my discipline – computer science – the field of dreams. If you build it he (/she/they) will come, indeed…

We take dreams, ideas, thoughts, and strive to create realities of software and hardware. We create futures. We think in art and colour and movement, of usage and layout and need. If you can think of a more satisfying career, good for you. I cannot, and I can never recommend it highly enough.

Part of Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking ...

Part of Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From a 14 year old girl having her heart ache with the wonder and beauty of knowledge to a 45 year old woman still prone to joy and wonder at it all, I owe Carl Sagan such a thank you – for he inspired me as he inspired so many others. He showed me possibilities, and I had to follow the trail thereon.

From the shores of the cosmic ocean to my small light of knowledge, all scientists strive to claim a little more land in H.G. Wells’ ‘sea of ignorance’, as he exhorts every generation take up its responsibility to reclaim more land from it. Doing my best, Mr Wells. Doing my best, Mr Sagan.

The Milky Way and the lighthouse: photos from Australia.

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A world of women as chattel

In many cultures, women are property, chattel with no right or worth. Dowry must be paid to get rid of them. They only bring shame and dishonor – unless they do the only thing of validity for a woman and bear sons. Less valuable than animals if not suitably breeding, they can be raped, tortured and murdered with impunity – even have that cruelty celebrated if it provides ‘honor’ restoration to her family, for a deed that may not even be related to her. Her childhood is brief and dangerous, as she only has value as potential marriage bargaining. She has no choices, no worth.

We are sending soldiers over to Afghanistan and places like that but only to support regimes that still allow this, as the Taliban, goodness help us, are worse! It is an abiding horror and shame, and while men claim that this is the way of Islam (this is actually hotly disputed by more evolved Muslims), then the reputation of Islam as a brutal and backward religion is sadly but deservedly reinforced. Fundamentalist Christians and Catholics have no reason to point the finger, one must add – the brutality is less on the surface, but the woman is always the ‘slut’, to be blamed for needing contraception or pregnancy or rope support – she is always seen to be deserving of it. In domestic violence, she is often treated as a harridan shrew who earned it somehow.

No, religions have, as a whole across the spectrum, treated women abysmally – and are in a position to do the most to change it. While woman are less in the eyes of their religions, devout societies will also treat them that way. This can range from the brutality of such Stone Age treatment of women as chattel, to diminishing their roles in daily religious observance to less than that of men.

In Afghanistan, a 14-Year-Old Girl Is Beheaded – The Daily Beast.

The right to life – I have it.

The Way It Was | Mother Jones.

This article has made me angry. So angry, i am going to open very far too fresh wounds.

I don’t miscarry. Five times, the fetus died. Five times, this longed for child died before twenty weeks. Some early, two, very very late.

Once I gave birth to a little girl I grieved over, too tiny and perfect for life.

The rest of the time, I had a D&C. The fetus, long dead, had to be removed, as my body was not letting go, as my heart was not. It was killing me. I could have died of septicaemia.

With the law changes in the US, I WOULD have died. My subsequent miracles, my youngest children, never born. My equally cherished older children motherless too soon.

The pious arrogance of the anti abortionists. If they are all so pro life, why are they so willing to sacrifice mine? And my youngest two children, who would not have even had a chance to live? 

And all the women who must make the terrible, awful choice, whether the fetus is viable or not, to end a pregnancy. What cruelty is there in choosing for them. Choosing a way of vast expense and pain. Of almost certain death at the hand of backyard butchers. For these desperate women, often trapped in violence and poverty, frequently trying to protect other already born children, unable to access affordable contraception with the obscene lottery of health insurance (unless for the gift of Planned Parenthood, who do far more to prevent unwanted pregnancies than to end them), or perhaps young, vulnerable and scared, with parents who would not understand, or who would rage and throw them out, or with the consequence of death and revilement from their community, hard lined with religious intolerance, mocking the very words of their religious ethos – how dare ANYONE condemn women to this? Their children left motherless, often already fatherless, consigned to foster homes that may scar them in too many ways. The women dead or broken, from one awful episode left unable then to ever have that child they may have wished more than anything they could have had, who perhaps died, or meant the death of them? Or that they could have had if older, supported, or not abused?

People like these so called right to lifers make me sick with their sanctimonious hypocrisy. They seek only to preserve the narrow definition of life. All life is not sacred to them. ONly that which gestates. 

Those people have blood of far more on their hands than any abortionist. Those people are murderers far more vile.

Eva Braun – Stereotype tinged with evil

New Biography Explores the Life and Myth of Eva Braun – The Daily Beast.

Fascinating – a woman who was nothing without a man is a scenario played out daily. She becomes a non entity reflecting his wishes. She was forced into the background, but stayed because he did not leave. His marriage to her was a treat given to a dog before it is put down. It cost him nothing. We have seen that pattern repeated over and over again. A plot device recognised as having validity, it is the tale of low self esteem, the father issues, the needy clinging woman who will tolerate anything but rejection. We have seen both the woman and the man in those relationships.

But what if that man was Hitler?

The familiarity of this tale is altered : it is the patina of horror colouring the banality of her life with him that makes it extraordinary. The only notable thing she did herself was to choose to die with him, but while she is often described as loyal for both her sublimation of herself to his wishes, and her choice to die with him, she strikes me as merely needy and pathetic.


How sugar molecules secretly shaped human evolution

Sugar. How it has changed us. There is a speech i cherish from the seventh Doctor Who, storyline Remembrance of the Daleks, (the anniversary episode) which goes :
JOHN: Hmm? Your tea. Sugar?
DOCTOR: Ah. A decision. Would it make any difference?
JOHN: It would make your tea sweet.
DOCTOR: Yes, but beyond the confines of my tastebuds, would it make any difference?
JOHN: Not really.
JOHN: Yeah?
DOCTOR: What if I could control people’s tastebuds? What if I decided that no one would take sugar? That’d make a difference to those who sell the sugar and those that cut the cane.
JOHN: My father, he was a cane cutter.
DOCTOR: Exactly. Now, if no one had used sugar, your father wouldn’t have been a cane cutter.
JOHN: If this sugar thing had never started, my great-grandfather wouldn’t have been kidnapped, chained up, and sold in Kingston in the first place. I’d be a African.
DOCTOR: See? Every great decision creates ripples, like a huge boulder dropped in a lake. The ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.
JOHN: Life’s like that. Best thing is just to get on with it.

See? Life’s like that, and as it turns out, more than we think.

Three million years ago, a gene mutation switched off a sugar-making enzyme in early hominids. Our ancestors actually became unable to breed with those who still had the enzyme, possibly causing the emergence of our evolutionary grandparent, Homo erectus.

via How sugar molecules secretly shaped human evolution.

The story behind the photograph that shamed America – Telegraph

Powerful, confronting article. The sadness i feel in he whole thing is indescribable – yet i wasn’t the deluded teenager imitating adults, nor could i ever have been. Nor was i the frightened girl, masking her fear behind dark glasses and an innate dignity, born of many generations of oppression. This story makes no sense to me, yet the discrimination and racial divide still exists, more subtle in some places, overt in others. But there are islands of hope, and that has to mean something, doesn’t it? Anyway…read the story.

One was trying to go to school; the other didn’t want her there. Together, Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan starred in one of the most memorable photographs of the Civil Rights era. But their story had only just begun.

via Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan: the story behind the photograph that shamed America – Telegraph.

The lure of Ada

Ada, Lady Lovelace (the poet Lord Byron's daug...

Image via Wikipedia

Ada was my second programming language. I had used Basic on CP/M to do many things, pushing my Amstrad CPC 6128 well beyond its comfort zone. I went on to PCs, and finally ended up at Flinders University (the observant reader has noticed The Serval Project is based there, yes, it is a homecoming to be there). At the time, Java was still regarded as ‘new’ (oh, so many years ago). SO we did a modified version of ADA 83 – not even the modern, Object Oriented ADA of today, but an older, and still more simplified version. Verbose as anything, I actually quite LIKED this language. Though i would have preferred Java, to be honest. But it got me curious – ADA is such an odd name. And I discovered, pre Wikipedia, what ADA was named after.

Yes, ADA is an American Defence language, but it is named after the first programmer ever – Lady Ada Augusta Lovelace , only legitimate child of Lord Byron, that cad and poet.

A great and gifted mathematician, she contributed a set of notes containing an algorithm for  Charles Babbage‘s Differential Engine – regarded as the first computer. Should it have been built, these notes would have been run as the first program.

As a woman doing work in an industry i utterly love, that inspires me, and delights me daily, how can i not admire her? Like many of us, a working mother, she managed to combine her passion and her intellect with a family – no easy task at any point, but in her time, almost unheard of! So, i take time out to honour her memory, and be inspired by her, and all the wonderful talented women out there working in our amazing industry, and to hope many more join!

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The Body on Somerton Beach | Past Imperfect

Most murders aren’t that difficult to solve. The husband did it. The wife did it. The boyfriend did it, or the ex-boyfriend did. The crimes fit a pattern, the motives are generally clear.

Of course, there are always a handful of cases that don’t fit the template, where the killer is a stranger or the reason for the killing is bizarre. It’s fair to say, however, that nowadays the authorities usually have something to go on. Thanks in part to advances such as DNA technology, the police are seldom baffled anymore.

They certainly were baffled, though, in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, in December 1948. And the only thing that seems to have changed since then is that a story that began simply—with the discovery of a body on the beach on the first day of that southern summer—has bec0me ever more mysterious. In fact, this case (which remains, theoretically at least, an active investigation) is so opaque that we still do not know the victim’s identity, have no real idea what killed him and cannot even be certain whether his death was murder or suicide.

via The Body on Somerton Beach | Past Imperfect.

Looting with the lights on | Naomi Klein | Comment is free | The Guardian

This is what Cameron got wrong: you can’t cut police budgets at the same time as you cut everything else. Because when you rob people of what little they have, in order to protect the interests of those who have more than anyone deserves, you should expect resistance – whether organised protests or spontaneous looting. And that’s not politics. It’s physics.

via Looting with the lights on | Naomi Klein | Comment is free | The Guardian.