Arguing with a Flerf pt. 2

So I pressed the conversation longer than I really should have. But I did discover a number of motivations behind the obstinate adherence to an easily disproved view of the world. It took more conversation, but his motivations did become clearer.

Total Solar Eclipse 2017
The 2017 total solar eclipse as photographed from central Oregon

To no surprise part of the reason is religion. When he began to quote bible verses in support of his claims of a “immovable” Earth one can begin to see where he is starting from.

Our flat, enclosed, immovable earth is absolute proof of a creator. God is real. We don’t have to believe in Him anymore. We can know it to be true.
Flat earth absolutely destroys the atheist/humanist worldview. Just like that.

Adam Asing in a Facebook Comment

If one begins with the belief that the Earth is flat, it is easy to reinforce that idea in this modern internet age. A thriving community of flerfs form one of the clearest examples of an echo chamber to be found on the net, a cult really. Circulating photos and YouTube videos reinforce the worldview, ridicule the “globe heads”, cement a community together in a belief of “true knowledge”.

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Arguing with a Flerf

What is a flerf?

Flerf is simply short for a flat earth fanatic, a little easier to type than the whole thing. Some may consider this derogatory, I do not particularly see it as so. Well? Maybe a little. But considering what I have been called by flerfs, I have no regrets.

Chang'e 5 Earth and Moon
The Chang’e 5 test vehicle service module took this photo of Earth and the Moon together. Credit CSNA

Our local flerf goes by the screen name of Adam Asing. That might even be his real name as there is a local musician of the same name. We have occasionally identified other screen names he uses, probably because he has been blocked under his primary alias in so many media outlets.

I would probably not normally notice Mr. Asing, except he routinely attacks the telescopes in just about any media he still has access to. As such he intentionally makes himself a target. As such I sometimes respond… It can be so much fun!

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Science Images are Ugly

One of the questions that comes up often enough is what do the pictures look like? And that question is followed by… Where can I see them.

A raw widefield 1.2um NIRC2 image of Jupiter taken 21July2006, credit Imke de Pater, UC Berkeley
A raw widefield 1.2μm NIRC2 image of Jupiter taken 21July2006, credit Imke de Pater, UC Berkeley

The problem… Science data is usually pretty ugly.

Keep in mind that the astronomers are often pushing the telescopes and instruments right to the limit. This means that the data is barely there, a trickle of photons that have come from unimaginably distant sources.

I have been in the observing room as the data comes in. I have watched over the telescope operator’s shoulder. It is strange to see folks so excited over a smudge.

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Observing Sunset from the Summit of Mauna Kea

During discussions concerning a previous posting another aspect of the video of Ms. Pisciotta became the subject of the conversation. For one familiar with the summit and the position of the features, the claims seem unlikely, something worth a closer look.

Kealoha Pisciotta testifying on religious practice on the summit of Mauna Kea during a BLNR public meeting, video from Nā Leo TV
If you listen to the clip Ms. Pisciotta makes a very emphatic claim… That the construction of TMT will block the view of the Sun as it makes its annual pattern of sunsets along the horizon.

While I am singling out Ms. Pisciotta a bit here, she is a key figure in the opposition. She is a leader of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, the most active opposition group and a primary participant in every significant legal case on the issue for the last several decades.

How can we examine this claim? From winter solstice, to equinox, to summer solstice, the position of sunrise and sunset changes significantly. This cycle has been tracked by shamans and priests for millennia, using the pattern to set the time of planting or religious ceremonies.

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The Most Reviled of Scientific Instruments

Scientific instruments have a habit of presenting us with uncomfortable truths. Galileo’s telescopes showed that our solar system did not conform to the prevailing teachings of the day. The great particle accelerators show a complexity underlying reality that defies a simple explanation of the universe. Likewise an almost forgotten instrument sitting atop a volcano has shown that humans have altered our world in very damaging ways.

NOAA Mauna Loa Climate Observatory
The NOAA Mauna Loa Climate Lab in the light of dawn
I had driven to the top of Mauna Loa for a session of Geminid meteor watching and photography, joining Steve, a local photographer and friend for a cold, beautiful morning atop the mountain. As we were about to leave another friend drove past. Ben used to work with me at Keck and now tends the solar observatory adjacent to the NOAA climate laboratory. Looking at the sky and the drizzling fog that had rolled in with the dawn he noted that it would be a while before he could open the telescope. Instead he offered us a tour.

It was in the main building that we stopped to look at a little instrument parked rather oddly in the hall. Not much, a simple box with a few aluminum tubes and a bit of circuitry and wiring. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at a piece of scientific history. Here was the Scripps Carbon Dioxide Analyzer that has provided the data that has changed our relationship with our planet.

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Perspectives on the Future of Mauna Kea

A lot of emotion and bandwidth has been swirling around our mountain this past month. It has been unfortunate that two otherwise positive forces have collided atop one summit. Last night the local community had a chance to listen to various perspectives in a more personal and reasoned forum. The Honokaʻa Peoples Theater, located on the slopes of Mauna Kea is the perfect place for this to happen. An evening of face to face discussion.

Hāwane Rios
Hāwane Rios addresses the audience at the Honokaʻa People’s Theater
While the issues surrounding Mauna Kea have captured international attention, this conversation was all the more powerful as it was limited to those of us who live and work on this mountain, many from families who have lived for generations in the mountain’s shadow. The conversation was all the more impressive in that it was conducted in the full spirit of aloha… There was no yelling, no waving signs, just respectful listening.

The format was simple, a presentation by Hāwane Rios, explaining her perspective on growing up in the traditions of Mauna Kea. This was followed by a presentation by Doug Simons, executive director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. After a 15 minute intermission there was another hour of panel discussion with questions provided by the audience. What started at 6pm went on until well after nine, with personal conversations that kept the theater a buzz until well after 11pm.

Unfortunately one of the featured speakers Lanakila Mangauli was unable to attend, having flown to Oahu for a hasty meeting with OHA and state officials. He was not completely absent, a Skype connection projected on the theater screen allowed him to give a short presentation at the start. After having watched video of his tirade (Yes, I will call it that!) at the TMT groundbreaking ceremony, I had been given a somewhat less than flattering opinion of him. The person who addressed the audience this night was much more impressive, giving an intelligent and reasoned argument to his cause. I wish he had been able to address the audience in person.

Panel Discussion
Doug Simons, Hāwane Rios, and Ruth Aloua participate in Perspectives on the Future of Mauna Kea, Apr 24th, 2015
Thus it was up to Hāwane Rios to present the traditional and cultural perspective, a role she filled spectacularly well. She relater her personal relationship with the mountain, whom she considers part of her family. Impressing upon the audience the importance of place, the importance of continuity to the culture. Her discussion was interspersed with song, chants composed in traditional form and a notable song with a more modern flair. I could attempt to describe her presentation further, but I do it no justice, I suggest you watch the video.

Doug Simons also related his personal connection to the mountain, having spent the last 30 years working, hunting and raising his family here in Waimea and on Mauna Kea. Starting with the great discoveries that have been accomplished by the telescopes atop Mauna Kea, Doug did an admirable job of covering the importance of the research done at the telescopes and why these great instruments belong to all of mankind.

Technical Crew
A plethora of computers illuminate the technical crew at Perspectives on the Future of Mauna Kea
The question and answer went smoothly, no real surprises in the questions or the answers. Asked of the future of the telescopes Doug reflected that there will probably be fewer telescopes in the future, but that those should be the best in the world, nothing else is worthy of Mauna Kea. Asked about her personal vision of the future of the summit Hāwane asked for nothing less that the dismantling of all of the telescopes.

I spent the evening listening and operating a production video camera we had brought over from Keck. CFHT, Subaru and Keck staff operated a battery of audio/visual gear, live casting the event on YouTube, recording video for later editing and managing a Skype connection for Lanakila. I expect we should have good videos up shortly, they are definitely worth watching by anyone interested in the issues surrounding our mountain. The presentation by Hāwane should be worth watching just to hear her sing. I will put the links here as soon as they become available.

Update… Check out the video here.

Neil Gets The Question

More than once I have gotten “The Question“.

Standing in front of the crowd under a starry sky, I spend an evening answering questions. There are many versions of “The Question”… God, UFO’s, anything where astronomy crosses with the unknown, or imagined.

There are things we just do not know. When faced with an unknown many people prefer to simply make something up, or adopt a common belief that may have no basis in fact. This is where belief and science clash… A critical skill for a true scientist it the ability to be comfortable with the unknown.

Having answered the usual questions so many times I do get better at it. I also enjoy watching other folks answer these same thorny questions, I learn and borrow some of the good lines. The trick is to somehow convey the proper skepticism of a scientific view without directly confronting the closely held beliefs of your audience. Not an easy task.

No one is better at explaining science than Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of Chicago’s Hayden Planetarium. Watching him field questions from an audience is pure gold to anyone who does public outreach. He is personable, he connects well with the audience, and he nails the science with perfection.

Note: This article originally posted July 7, 2011 on the old Darker View blog.

Don’t take my word for it, watch the video as Neil answers “The Question”. At the end of the video Neil gives the answer I use most often for the UFO version of the question… Amateur astronomers, like myself, do not generally report UFO’s, because we have seen, and understand many of the interesting things nature can display in the sky. Education is the key.

Looking Forward to the Thirty Meter Telescope

While science observations may be almost a decade away, the science possibilities of the Thirty Meter Telescope are already eagerly anticipated by astronomers. In the attempt to answer many of the basic questions of our universe, the limitations of the existing telescopes have become apparent. The eight and ten meter telescopes that represent the forefront of astronomy today are reaching their limit, a limit the research astronomy community is ready to step past.

TMT Rendering
An overhead view of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope, credit TMT Observatory Corporation
Taking place this week is the Thirty Meter Telescope Science Forum. Over 140 astronomers and engineers representing all of the partner countries meeting in Waikoloa to discuss new science that will be made possible by the TMT.

One thing was clear from the science presentations… The science case for the TMT is compelling. The sheer size of the new telescope will allow observation of the early universe that is just out of reach of the current generation of large telescopes. The thirty meter primary mirror will provide significant advantages even over the next generation of space telescopes in resolution and flexibility of operation. The excellent site available on Mauna Kea allows advantages over the selected site for the European E-ELT in Chile.

While the goal of the conference is to look ahead. It is interesting that what is being presented is a wonderful summary of where current research stands today. In the effort to detail what research could be accomplish with TMT, the astronomers succinctly cataloged the state of current research as it is limited by today’s instruments and telescopes.

Much of the first day discussion was focused on the possibilities of observing the very early universe, the first stars and galaxies that formed in the era just after the big bang. Current telescopes can observe a few tantalizing glimpses of this era, just enough to show astronomers what they do not know about the formation of our universe. A few massive galaxies bright enough to be seen across the gulf of time, a few fainter galaxies that are luckily aligned with closer massive galaxy clusters. Clusters that form gravitational lenses that allow us to peer through a keyhole into the dim past. Astronomer have used every trick they can muster to allow observation of this first era. The TMT will open the door into this first era of stars, allow real study of the beginning of what we see around us today.

Planning for the TMT is in the final stages, where the capabilities of the telescope and the instruments can be forecast with reasonable assurance that those goals will be met. Astronomers can use the design data of the telescope to simulate exposures and signal to noise ratios of the data, on targets they can just barely see today. This sort of planning is critical to the astronomy community, it may be another ten years before science observations begin, but when they do the astronomers will be ready to use the telescope to its fullest capability.

This sort of feedback is critical to the engineers as well. As instruments pass through final development, it is important to know what capabilities are most valuable, what to prioritize when the final design is produced. Questions of spectral resolutions, throughput and exposure times are often heard in the discussions.

Through conferences like this one, the astronomy community will know what to expect when the new telescope comes online around 2022. They will be ready to push forward our understanding of the universe. We know what to expect. But, as Andrea Ghez reminded us, we must “Expect the unexpected!”. Many of the discoveries made by Keck and the other great telescopes of the current generation were completely unexpected. It is likely that the universe still has a few surprises for us.

Exploding Glass: Prince Rupert’s Drop

As anyone who has worked with glass knows, the material is fascinating. Glass is fragile, yet it can be extraordinarily strong. This is a seeming contradiction, but one that makes sense if you start to understand what makes glass crack.

Via Phil at Bad Astronomy, a truly awesome video on Prince Rupert’s Drop, a simple construct of glass that exhibits the strength and weakness of glass in a very visual way.

Science is cool!