This Saturday at 10AM PDT in SL : “How We Know Dark Matter Exists”

Posted on April 29th, 2009 — permalink

As part of my regular Dr. Knop Talks Astronomy series of public astronomy lectures in Second Life, this coming Saturday I’ll be talking about how we know that Dark Matter really exists.

The talk will be at the Large Ampitheater on StellaNova. Note that a Second Life account is completely free! You can register for an account here. This is the “SciLands” entry portal, which will put you at the SciLands own orientation island. (StellaNova, the sim of MICA, is part of the SciLands.)

Here’s a description of the talk:

Modern cosmology tells us that the majority of the Universe is made up of stuff whose nature is largely unknown to us. Two thirds of it is Dark Energy; most of the rest is Dark Matter, the subject of this talk. Dark Matter interacts with normal matter through gravity, but otherwise it interacts hardly at all. Yet, we have very high confidence that this mysterious Dark Matter really does exist. Because it doesn’t interact with light, we haven’t seen it glowing, nor have we observed it absorbing background light as we’ve seen with dust clouds. All of the evidence we have for Dark Matter comes from its gravitational interaction with other matter, and with light. Yet, this evidence is extremely compelling. In this talk, I will attempt to convince you that there is no reasonable doubt that Dark Matter exists.

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I’m with Arlen Specter

Posted on April 28th, 2009 — permalink

Or rather, he’s with me, since I ditched the Republican Party something like 6-7 years ago.  He’s been a Republican in the Senate forever… and now he’s a Democrat.  What’s more, the article has this choice quote from Olympia Snow:

But Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a fellow moderate, didn’t seem surprised. On the national level, she says, “you haven’t certainly heard warm encouraging words of how [the GOP] views moderates. Either you are with us or against us.”

As I observed back when Bush took off his “compassionate conservative moderate” mask shortly after the 2000 election, the Republican Party has increasingly become the party of homophobia and creationism.  (And, yes, also of rationalizing incompetence and of torture.  We knew in 2004 that Bush was the Torture President, and yet somehow we re-eledcted him.)  There are a lot of Republicans– you know, people like Olympia Snow and Arlen Specter– who have evidently been rationalizing that their party hasn’t been taken over by certain extreme cultural elements.  I know people who remained Republicans even though they are fully rational, because they aren’t comfortable with a lot of what the Democrats are doing– but they had to justify, somehow, that their party was more than the face that it has been presenting to the country and the world for the last decade.  That facade may be falling apart.  Anecdotally I know of Republicans who’ve fled the party because it has gone from being the fiscally conservative party to being the socially oppressive and scientifically ignorant party.  And now we see at least one, and perhaps more to follow, senators who don’t want to toe their party’s line leaving the party.

It’s very sad to me, because by and large people who aren’t creationists or who don’t hate homosexuals are left with effectively a one-party system.  I don’t by any means agree with everything that the Democratic party does.  But the Republican party has too strongly celebrated and mainstreamed parts of it that I simply can’t agree with.  It will be interesting to see if Arlen Specter’s switch is a wake-up call– or if Snow will be next, and the Republican party will become increasingly marginalized as a result of having let itself be taken over by its religious extremists.  But we do need more than one rational party in this country; if the Republicans aren’t it, I would hope that, somehow, all rational people won’t end up at the mercy of the power structure of the Democratic party.


Obama’s speech to the National Acaemy, my failure at my calling, and bad timing

Posted on April 28th, 2009 — permalink

It is a source of continual angst to me that I’m not teaching college physics at a small college.  It’s my calling, it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.  I sort of made a mistake by going to a research University (that really wanted to be even more of a research University, and was transitioning away from a balance in valuing teaching), but at the time it was the only job offer I had.  If you want to be faculty in physics and astronomy, you’re lucky to get in in the first place….  I would have been happy if I could have kept that job.  Alas, I failed, repeatedly, to get NFS (National Science Foundation) funding.  I tried reinventing my research program in an attempt to make something that would better match the preconception of the funding agencies.  Ironically, this was away from Dark Energy.  However, I was the only professor at my institution who was part of a large collaboration, and funding agencies aren’t interested in that.  Indeed, astronomy panels (at least 7 or so years ago) were suspicious of large collaborations in general.  But, still, no luck.  And, in my last few years, the knowledge (confirmed repeatedly by my department chair) that no NFS funding meant zero chance for tenure begin to weigh more and more heavily on me, and I became more and more dispirited, which made it increasingly difficult to produce any papers and to get good proposals written.  I was in a death spiral.

A year before I left Vanderbilt, I applied for jobs at small colleges, and got several interviews.  I did get one offer, but sadly, for family reasons, I wasn’t able to take the job.  The next year, I applied again, but only got a couple of phone calls, no actual interviews.  Now that I’m out, barring some particularly interesting angle, there’s very little chance of my being able to get back in.  There are just too many young hotshots out there with solid research records, no gap, and who aren’t already over 40.  This isn’t to say it’s inconceivable, but I’ve been on search committees, and I know what happens when they see somebody who’s more than 6 years in and not a superstar.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if things might have been different if the economy had crashed several years earlier, and if we didn’t have a president openly hostile to actual science in the white house.  In a speech to the National Academies, Obama announced that there’s going to be a huge increase in the budget for the NSF.  Mind you, only 1 in 6 grants were being funded, so even if it goes to 1 in 3 (which I doubt will really happen, because assuredly some of that NFS doubling will go to various big projects and other “rich get richer” sorts of things), it’s still difficult, you still spend a lot of your creative effort banging your head against thew all.  So, I might have had exactly the same outcome.  However, when grants were turned down, sometimes NFS program officers could only say they didn’t know what to say, because money was so tight; in previous years, they might have tried to help people applying figure out how to better tune their grants.  At 1 in 6, it was a complete crap shoot.

I can’t help but wonder if it might have been different.  If I was, in part, the victim of bad timing.

“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” –John Barrymore

The fact that I’m 40 doesn’t so much make me feel old.  The fact that I’m 40 and not spending my primary full-time-job creative effort on physics and astronomy, together with a realistic assessment that I’ll be able to get back into the sort of faculty job that I want, makes me realize that many (not all) of my primary dreams have in fact been replaced by regrets.


This Saturday : “The Discovery of the Accelerating Universe” in Second Life

Posted on April 1st, 2009 — permalink

“Dr. Knop Talks Astronomy”, in association with MICA (

Saturday, April 4, 10AM SLT

The Discovery of the Accelerating Universe

In 1998, two teams of astronomers observing supernovae discovered that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. The speaker, Dr. Knop, was on one of the two teams, working with Saul Perlmutter. In this talk, I will describe just how it is that you can measure the expansion history of the Universe by observing distant exploding stars, and what surprising things we saw in our results that indicated to us that the expansion of the Universe was in fact accelerating. At the end, I’ll briefly mention some things about “dark energy,” the mysterious substance that is causing this surprising universal acceleration.

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