The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Illuminated



Scientists Are Making Mysterious Dark Matter Less Mysterious But Others Still Fail to See the Light

In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
– Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


Current accepted scientific theory states that our Universe sprang into being through a sudden expansion known as the Big Bang. As the energy from this intensely hot beginning cooled, it formed matter. The distribution of matter was not uniform, so it began clumping together, eventually forming stars, planets, and everything else we can see throughout the vastness of space. The largest structures to form were galaxies and galaxy clusters. Here, astrophysicists ran into a problem.

Observable matter did not contain sufficient mass – and, thus, sufficient gravity – for galaxies to hold their colossal shapes. They ought to break down fairly quickly. Since they clearly do not, scientist theorized there must be something out there besides visible matter with sufficient mass to provide the necessary gravitational glue binding galaxies together. They called this invisible stuff “dark matter.” What is more, there had to be a lot it – about six times as much as ordinary visible matter – to square with observation.
The dark matter detected in
galaxy cluster Abell 1689 is
shown in light blue

Scientists did not know anything about dark matter. It was more than merely invisible and did not interact with ordinary matter in any way. However, they stubbornly insisted it must exist because factual observation demanded it and scientists regard empiricism as the highest form of human thinking. Some religious people did not think it was fair that they could not make up God to explain the unexplainable while scientists could make up dark matter to explain gravity.

Quite a few practical people – people who believe that common sense, as opposed to empiricism, is the highest form of human thinking – agreed. It proved to them that advanced degrees from universities did not make scientists smarter than they were. The practical people believe they would be better scientists than those trained to do so but they are too busy with practical concerns, such as making money or waging wars, to waste time over pointless matters like how the Universe holds itself together. They just accept that it does so and regard it as part of their natural rights.

The practical people realized scientists were cooking up dark matter in the pot of imagination. Luckily, the practical people were too smart to fall for it. They knew the source of gravity was either the same Supreme Being who can allow an infinite number of angels to dance on the head of a pin or natural, long-term climate shifts. “It stands to reason,” they said. This is something the practical people always say when they want to end a discussion and just get on with things.

Unfortunately, the scientists, some of whom actually did stand to reason whereas other preferred to do their reasoning while sitting down, refused to let go of the problem. They decided, in typically impractical fashion, that if they looked at what appeared to be nothing hard enough and long enough, they might actually see something. This demonstrates no common sense whatsoever and is probably the main reason why it worked. The trick lay in figuring out what not to look for.

The November 10 issue of Astrophysical Journal contains the observations of a group of astronomers, led by Dan Coe of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Edward Fuselier of West Point. The group pointed the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys at Abell 1689, a massive galaxy cluster located 2.2 billion light years distant in the constellation Virgo. Abell 1689 contains about a thousand galaxies, representing trillions of stars. However, none of these galaxies interested the astronomers. Instead, they focused on the galaxies behind the cluster.

Abell 1689 is so massive that it acts as a gravitational lens, distorting the light passing by it from the galaxies behind it. The astronomers found that, massive as it is, Abell 1689 did not have enough mass to explain the degree of distortion seen. The difference was the gravitational impact of dark matter. By measuring the distortions in many different places and then translating it as light blue coloration superimposed on the Hubble image, they were able to “see” the dark matter within Abell 1689 and how it was distributed.

They discovered dark matter, much like ordinary matter, distributed irregularly through space, forming massive, dense clumps found at the heart of galaxies as well as close around them. Another group of researchers, led by Meghan Gray of the University of Nottingham and Catherine Heymans of the University of British Columbia got exactly the same results pointing Hubble at the Abell 901/902 galaxy supercluster. They published their findings in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So now that we can see dark matter, what is it exactly? Astrophysicists think the most likely candidates are gauginos, hypothetical particles predicted by gauge theory combined with supersymmetry. Gauginos carry opposite spins from the particles making up ordinary matter (i.e. anti-matter). Like Standard Model particles, some carry a charge while others, called neutralinos, do not.

Neutralinos are likely dark matter candidates because they interact with other particles only through gravity and the weak nuclear force. The lack of electromagnetic and strong nuclear interactions makes them difficult to detect. Calculations demonstrate their possible thermal production in the early hot universe, with approximately the right amount remaining after cooling to account for dark matter.

Neutrinos are the only type of likely dark matter particles detected in the laboratory to date but have almost zero mass. However, the lightest type of neutralino predicted, called the photino, would be both stable and heavy enough to qualify as a WIMP (weakly interactive massive particle) making up dark matter. Interestingly, neutralinos and anti-neutralinos are identical, meaning any two pieces of dark matter colliding would self-destruct like any other interaction of matter and anti-matter.

The result of such explosions would be a stream of particles called positrons, the anti-matter counterpart to electrons. A 2009 article in the journal Nature describes the findings of PAMELA (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light nuclei Astrophysics), an Italian satellite designed to measure radiation in space. PAMELA found a much higher number of positrons than expected, suggesting that dark matter collisions, although rare, do sometimes occur.

Such explosions would also produce gamma rays. Yet another team of researchers, led by cosmologist Dan Hooper from the University of Chicago, used the Fermi space telescope, NASA’s gamma ray observatory, and found an abundance of gamma rays emanating from the core of our own Milky Way galaxy. We now know galactic cores are clumping points for dark matter.

One problem is that the gamma radiation measured by Hooper’s team points to WIMPs only eight to nine times heavier than protons. This is lighter than expected for dark matter particles. On the other hand, the astronomical surveys of the Abell clusters found a slightly higher amount of dark matter present than expected, so perhaps it all evens out.

The practical people are not going to like this dark matter/anti-matter connection. Anti-matter is scary stuff. The annihilations it produces are so devastating they may well be the only force in the Universe powerful enough to get Bristol Palin voted off Dancing with the Stars. The practical people have no time for annihilation. After all, what is the point of permanently ending/extending the Bush tax cuts or repealing/saving healthcare reform when two foreign, possibly Muslim, particles could meet at any point and time, wiping out everything within parsecs of the event?

On the other hand, it is estimated that if one could somehow bottle anti-matter and sell it, a price of about $62.5 trillion a gram (i.e. $1.75 quadrillion an ounce) would be fair market value, although I am talking auction estimate here as opposed to retail. This would be enough to pay off the entire U.S. national debt. Luckily, scientists have dedicated themselves to continue looking at nothing. A project called CLASH (Cluster Lensing And Supernova survey with Hubble) plans to survey twenty-five galaxy clusters over the next three years.

This might be enough for the practical people finally to start seeing the light. They are not so good actually coming up with ideas, preferring to outsource this to the scientists they otherwise disdain, but they are highly skilled at exploiting useful ones. Once there is money to make or power to gain from it, dark matter will suddenly start making a whole lot of common sense to them.

It stands to reason.


The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.
– Douglas Adams

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mandate Up



Their Promised Approach to Governance Didn’t Work Out So Well for the Last Guys

During one of their debates, Nevada Tea Party Senatorial candidate Sharon Angle famously told Majority Leader Harry Reid to “Man up!” meaning he needed to toughen up in the face of adversity and take responsibility for his actions and their consequences. As it turned out, Reid apparently manned up sufficiently to become one of the relatively few Democrats avoiding rejection by voters last Tuesday.

Republicans, the big winners in this election, were quick to see their victory as a justification to mandate up. Their victory moved Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the likely next Speaker of the House, to tear of relief because he believed his Party now could save the American Dream. “I think that it's a mandate for Washington to reduce the size of government and continue our fight for smaller, less costly and more accountable government,” he told reporters.
John Boehner and Mitch McConnell believe they have
been given a mandate to undo Obamacare and Obama

Boehner also believes Republicans have a mandate to repeal healthcare reform as passed by Democrats, calling it a “monstrosity” that “will kill jobs in America, ruin the best healthcare system in the world, and bankrupt our country.”

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will remain Minority Leader because candidates like Angle did not prevail, was even more belligerent. He argued Republican lawmakers should vote to repeal healthcare reform, over and over if necessary. Then McConnell took it a step further, maintaining that merely opposing Obama’s policies was insufficient.

Republicans top goal for the next two years should be doing anything and everything possible to deny the President a second term. McConnell reasons the only way for Republicans to undo everything is “to put someone in the White House who won't veto any of these things.”

For his part, Obama was chastened by the “shellacking” his Party suffered but unapologetic about his agenda, although he conceded he was so eager about what needed to be done he had forgotten how he promised to do it (i.e. outreach to Republicans and greater civility/bipartisanship). “I do believe there is [still] hope for civility,” he avowed.

Boehner and McConnell flatly stated they would accept Obama’s help only as far as it coincided with their mission.

They say the size of their victory demonstrates the American publicly has roundly rejected Democratic progressivism and this rejection cuts across all demographics and ideologies except for the extreme loony Left. Election results and exit polls tell a different story, however.

For starters, one might assume – given the extent to which Republicans used Obama as a proxy against Democratic contenders – that Democrats who voted with the President would suffer the worst loses while those who distanced themselves and voted against him would do better. In fact, of the thirty-three House Democrats running for re-election who voted against healthcare reform, two-thirds were defeated. About the same was true among the forty-two who voted against Cap and Trade. In comparison, only two Senate Demorats who voted for both the stimulus and healthcare reform lost.

CNN exit polls reject the oft-insisted conservative claim that this election was a referendum against Obamacare. Only seventeen percent of voters considered healthcare reform their top issue and more half voted for Democrats. Likewise, only thirty-seven percent said their vote meant “expressing opposition to Obama.” Even given continuing high unemployment and slow recovery, in the sixteen Democratic-represented Congressional districts hardest hit by the economy, only one flipped Republican.

There is no question that Republicans received a loud and clear mandate from a cadre of energized conservative voters. However, far from representing all Americans, this group was both whiter and, especially, more elderly than the population as a whole. Republicans continued to lose eighteen to twenty-nine year olds by seventeen points. As Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post observed, “There was absolutely a Republican wave on Tuesday, but it looks more like the wave of the past than the wave of the future.”

Republicans won with this cadre and Independent voters, who broke for the GOP in 2010 by about the same margin they went for Obama and Democrats in 2008. They were sending a mandate too but one less about ideological preference and more about results.

The Washington Post’s David Broder explains, “There will be a temptation to interpret the Democrats’ loss of their House majority and of at least six Senate seats as a rejection of Obama's first-term agenda . . . American voters are not that flighty or unsettled . . . The biggest problem by far was the economy . . . The worst mistake would be for [Obama] to abandon or reject his own agenda for government.”

Broder’s conservative colleague Charles Krauthammer disagreed, arguing the rejection was so complete that neither Obama nor any future Democratic can or would wish to govern from a progressive philosophy ever again. However, he concurred on this key point – “Republicans [should not] over-interpret their Tuesday mandate. They received none.”

Some pundits argue Obama’s fatal mistake was in overreaching while others maintain he was not nearly aggressive enough. Actually, Obama’s mistake was overestimating how long Americans would be patient over a sluggish economy from which the middle class had failed to benefit long before the recession. Republicans benefited as the only available alternative. They are also next in line for the boot if they fail to deliver. Moreover, nothing suggests voters have grown more patient.

To this end, Republicans must focus on economic growth and creating jobs in the private sector. They must press for reforms but be willing to compromise on details. While attempting to repeal healthcare reform is a gesture owed to their most ardent constituents, they must present viable conservative alternatives to its most unpopular components. This is not my policy prescription but that of Karl Rove, writing in the Wall Street Journal.

Boehner and McConnell may choose not to heed these admonitions. They may insist they have a mandate that represents the broad will of the American People. They may insist this election represented a permanent seismic shift to the ideological right by this country. They may insist compromise is a dirty word and only total repeal is sufficient. They may insist voters have seen the error of their ways and will patiently wait two years or more for them to build the majorities and power bases necessary to do things the right way. They may insist they only way they will not be successful is if the defeated Party is obstructionist.

Of course, they insisted in the run-up to this election that these are exactly the same mistakes made by the Democratic leadership after 2008. As chief of the defeated, Obama noted in his press conference, “Ultimately, I’ll be judged as President as to the bottom line, results.” The same is true for Boehner, McConnell, and the rest of the Republicans swept into office last week.

It is time for them to quit mandating up and start manning up. They have the acting tough part down pat. Now it is time to work on the taking responsibility part. Otherwise, it will quickly become clear nobody was listening to the American People this election.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Strong or Weak Tea?



The Tea Party Produces a Strange Initial Brew

The Tea Party prides itself as a spontaneous, grassroots movement with no formal organization, infrastructure, or leadership. Tuesday’s midterm elections presented the first chance to see how this approach fares on a national scale. Its strength was evident but so were its weaknesses.

Tea Party candidates Marco Rubio and Rand Paul won
their Senate elections while Christine O'Donnell and
Sharon Angle were defeated
The movement’s raw numbers are legitimately impressive. One hundred and thirty-five candidates officially backed by the Tea Party won election, including five Senators. They scored wins in twenty-four states, demonstrating genuine nationwide viability. Places where they experienced highest success included Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.

However, Tea Party candidates suffered loses in thirty-two states. Some of their worst performances were predictable, in such liberal places as California, Massachusetts, and New York. However, they also did poorly in purplish states with hard economic times. They won only one race and lost three in Pennsylvania, while Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio proved toss-ups, with multiple wins and losses. Perhaps most surprisingly, they lost four races in Texas, a solid red state, to a single victory.

Even where conservative voter turnout was strong, establishment GOP Senate candidates consistently fared better and won by larger margins than their Tea Party compatriots. For all their “authenticity,” angry, impulsive candidates did not necessarily inspire voter confidence, even in the year of the angry voter. Yet in Senate races, the Tea Party achieved an impressive fifty percent winning percentage, albeit for a much smaller set of races, than the thirty-one percent victory margin they realized in House races.

The Tea Party must realize two important mitigating factors about the ability of its winning candidates to influence Washington as well as its own ability to achieve success in future elections.

First, the relatively large number of Tea Party wins was due to the sheer volume of candidates it backed. Moreover, many Republican politicians were eager for a Tea Party endorsement to demonstrate their anti-big government credentials. However, conservative voters celebrating victories may come to realize they have replaced much-maligned RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) with TINOs.

For example, I live in Ohio’s 1st Congressional District. On Tuesday, Republican challenger Steve Chabot, who was officially backed by the Hamilton County Tea Party, unseated one-term Democratic incumbent Steve Driehaus. However, the Hamilton County Republican Party also backed Chabot. In fact, he was the seven-term Representative beaten by Driehaus in 2008. He is unquestionably conservative but hardly a Beltway outsider, serving throughout the former Bush Administration and faithfully supporting all of its spending initiatives.

Second, one reason for the Tea Party’s success in this particular election may have had much to do with the demographics of those voting this year. Compared to 2008, voters in 2010 consisted of more whites and fewer African Americans and Hispanics. Likewise, it consisted of significantly more voters aged sixty-five and older and significantly fewer under the age of thirty. I could not find percentages related to income. Otherwise, however, these demographics align neatly with how Tea Party membership differs from the U.S. population in general.

I do not wish to detract from the Tea Party’s accomplishments in these midterms, which frankly were impressive for its first foray on a national scale. Unlike unsuccessful Third Parties of the recent past, which tended to place their initial emphasis on a single Presidential candidate, the Tea Party has established a legitimate power base at the Congressional level from which it can build. However, it does suffer from limitations that seem structurally inherent rather than ancillary.

The Tea Party’s disdain for career politicians has already cost it several key elections – experience and competence do not necessarily equate with corruption. What is more, even its most novice winners are going to have to learn how to cooperate and compromise in Washington. The assumption that everyone else in government is going to obey and get out of the way for fear of “suffering the wrath of the People” is simply na├»ve in its underestimation of Beltway cynicism and hypocrisy.

In much the same way, Tea Party disdain for formal leadership only serves to curb its effectiveness. The spontaneous leaders that have emerged so far have been little more than provocateurs at best, sometimes doing more harm than good.

Finally, the Tea Party’s freewheeling spirit, born of frustration with government, may be genuine and even admirable but is nonetheless unsustainable. If its elected candidates do not become effective change agents in Washington, despondency will set in, much as it did for many Democratic supporters this year. Alternatively, success by its candidates will diffuse anger among Tea Party voters (you cannot be angry and happy at the same time) and the push for change will diminish with it.

This tempest in a teapot proved it could help bring about political tsunami in this country. However, the tea it has produced so far has proven a strange brew, with a strong initial flavor but weak aftertaste as one sips it.