Ideology sucks another scientific field down the drain

April 9, 2023 • 11:15 am

Several readers sent me a link to a Quillette piece by physicist Lawrence Krauss.  It adds another field—astrobiology, the search for extraterrestrial life—to the many (indeed all) scientific fields that have been corrupted by “progressive” ideology.  In fact, astrobiology has gotten so badly infected that it’s now difficult to do any science at all. Click the screenshot below to read his piece:

Krauss sees the high point of the field in the 1990s when the head of NASA called for more biologists to start looking for extraterrestrial life. Since then, he argues, that despite our increasing knowledge about the universe and technical sophistication, astrobiology hasn’t advanced much. His explanation:

. . . why on Earth, or, rather, why in the Milky Way would I cast any aspersions on this emerging field of science? The problem is that it is an emerging field, and that implies three important things: (1) the development and use of rigorous scientific standards characteristic of more mature fields has not yet been universally established; (2) unfounded claims are too often made, and they gain support in the popular press; and (3) small groups of ideologically driven researchers can have, and have had, an inordinately large impact, hindering progress and potentially pushing the field backwards.

He describes several early claims—including evidence for microbes in meteorites from Mars and a new type of DNA that implied life had two independent origins—that proved to be wrong. This supports points (1) and (2) above, In the rest of the article, Krauss expatiates on claim (3): the malign influence of ideology on the field. Here are a few bits of ideology that are holding back the field (Krauss’s prose is indented):

a.) Religiously-based objections to putting a telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Weirdly, many scientists joined the objections, although there are already several telescopes on Mauna Kea. It looks as if the effort to find truth about the Universe is still trumped by an unwarranted respect for unevidenced religion.  I’m not sure how far we’re supposed to “respect” Hawaiian religious beliefs, but I don’t think it should be to the extent that it puts the island’s major volcano off limits to science. Krauss:

The first inkling of the emerging emphasis of ideology over science in astrobiology came from the support by so many members of that community for the protests against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. In 2000, the National Academies of Science had identified the project as a top priority for the US astronomy community, and they  recommended that it be built within the decade. Almost immediately, after the dormant volcano Mauna Kea had been selected as the proposed site, local protests began. In spite of the fact that Mauna Kea is the most sacred mountain in Hawaiian religion and culture and was known to Native Hawaiians as the home of Wakea, the sky god, numerous large telescopes had already previously been built on the mountain. Conflict between the priorities of the scientific community and Indigenous religious myths, which had erupted from time to time in the past in Hawaii, escalated after the construction of TMT was set to begin.

While the conflict between science and religious myth is ubiquitous, as witnessed most recently by efforts in New Zealand to teach “Indigenous Knowledge” on the same level as science in high schools, one might have expected the scientific community to support the TMT project more or less unanimously. However, a new generation of young astronomy activists has begun online efforts using the hashtag #ScientistsforMaunaKea, and they consider protecting the sacred nature of the mountain to be more important than the possible scientific benefits of this trailblazing project.

Krauss shows a tweet:

b.) Calls to “decolonize” astrobiology because somehow it’s associated with racism. I can’t quite see the connection, but it’s coming to dominate this field, to the extent that “astrobiology” often seems more about ideology than about science:

 I have written earlier about the emerging effort by young astrobiologists to “decolonize” the search for extraterrestrial life. The once-great science magazine, Scientific American, which has degenerated in recent years as social justice concerns have taken priority over science, published an article entitled “Cultural Bias Distorts the Search for Alien Life” (“‘Decolonizing’ the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) could boost its chances of success, says science historian Rebecca Charbonneau”). Therein she made the argument that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence might be “undermined by biases they only dimly perceive—biases that could, for instance, be related to the misunderstanding and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups that occurred during the development of modern astronomy and many other scientific fields.”

Here’s a Q&A from Charbonneau’s piece, so you can see the argument. Countries are building empires on other planets! Ceiling Cat help us if we encounter “aliens”, especially if we can enslave them. (It’s more likely to be the other way around.)

[Magazine] How does this apply to SETI?

[Charbonneau] Oftentimes when we think about colonialism in SETI, we do think of it primarily in metaphors, right? Space being “the final frontier,” first contact with aliens as a stand-in for encounters with Indigenous peoples—that sort of thing. But it actually is much more than a metaphor. Because space exploration is also an extension of our imperial and colonial histories. We know that space infrastructure, including SETI infrastructure, exists in remote locations, with places that often have colonial histories or vulnerable populations, particularly Indigenous peoples. And then space, despite our best efforts, is highly militarized. Nations talk about becoming space superpowers, building new empires and colonizing other planets. So it’s not just a metaphor. It’s actually happening in the world and off the world, and that’s why I think it’s a useful term when we’re talking about SETI. And SETI in particular carries a lot of intellectual, colonial baggage as well, especially in its use of abstract concepts like “civilization” and “intelligence,” concepts that have been used to enact real, physical harm on Earth.

Yes, because “civilization:” and “intelligence” are parts of white supremacy (see below).

c.) Unacceptable and ideological policing of behavior and language. Yes, this takes place in astrobiology, as it does in chemistry, physics, biology, and math. Krauss ends his piece with a new rule for this year’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) meetings. (He first notes that last year’s meetings voted to ban the use of the word “intelligence” because it was a “white construct”!)

Not to be outdone by last year’s nonsense, the organizers of this year’s Penn State meeting, which will take place in June, just announced a code of conduct related to unacceptable behavior. The behavior that might lead to exclusion from these conferences now is not confined to mere actions but also to promoting or even citing the work of any scientist the organizing group deems as being unworthy! The code of conduct includes the following explanation:

II. Unacceptable behaviour

[…]Promote the work of those who have violated Professional Codes of Ethics (e.g., the AAS Code of Ethics). Promotion of an author’s work includes any verbal or visual presentation including that person’s name or likeness. In cases where the participant’s work is sufficiently scientifically-independent from that of the person who has violated the professional code, the work may be presented so long as the presenter is not engaging in promotion. Citations are not violations of this policy, though all participants should weigh the necessity of presenting that citation with the harm that it could perpetuate.

That last phrase is particularly telling. In almost all fields of scholarship, not citing the previous work of other authors on which one’s own work is based is referred to as plagiarism. In astrobiology, citing such work can also now be considered harmful.

The notion that citing past scientific results in scientific papers can “perpetuate harm” may not signal the beginning of the end, but it doesn’t bode well for a field that needs to work hard to ensure the highest level of scientific standards if it is to mature as it attempts to address some of the most significant questions we can ask about our place in the universe.

Once you start seeing the word “harm” connected with a science, you better give it close scrutiny, for nearly all the time the word means “offense”, not actual “harm.” And it’s been used in every other science I know of, as well as in medicine, to stymie research. I’m not denying that harm has been caused in the name of science, but nowadays the connection between the two is almost nonexistent.

There’s a lot more in Krauss’s piece, so go read it at the link. I’ll finish by again plugging a paper I’ve written with a colleague arguing that ideology is laying waste to our own field: evolutionary biology. You’ll have to wait until the end of June, though.

The New York Times touts a fake amity between science and religion

March 23, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’m posting this new NYT article not because it shows that Jesuits are engaged in science, which is well known (there’s an observatory in the Vatican), but because of “lesson” the paper draws from this fact, a lesson outlined by me in red in the subheadline below. Jesuit astronomers show that science and religion are pals!

But of course nobody doubts that religious people, even priests, can do science or love science, and nobody doubts that scientists can be religious.  The real conflict between religion and science lies in their both asserting certain truths about the universe, but with only science having a way to determine which “truths” are really true. (If religion had a way of determining what was true, there would not be lots of religions making conflicting claims.)

Anyway, click to read:

The take-home lesson of the article is that a few asteroids have been named for Jesuit astronomers, and that’s all she wrote. A couple of excerpts:

Centuries after the Holy See muzzled and burned Roman Catholic stargazers for questioning the centrality of the Earth in the cosmos, Jesuit astronomers from the Vatican’s in-house observatory are increasingly writing their names in the heavens.

The Vatican, run by Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope in history, recently announced that three more Jesuit scientists from its Jesuit-run observatory had asteroids named after them as part of a fresh batch that included the 16th-century pope who commissioned the Gregorian calendar and a Tuscan pastry chef whose hobby is the firmament.

Jesuits, while not quite yet as numerous as the stars, have had more than 30 asteroids assigned to them since the space rocks began to be formally named in 1801. That “should not be surprising, given the often scientific nature of this community,” said the astronomer Don Yeomans, who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and is now part of the group that gives official approval for the names given to asteroids.

This fact is taken as evidence that science and religion are not at odds:

The history of the observatory, which has been staffed by Jesuits since the 1930s, is a rebuttal to the notion that the Roman Catholic Church has always sought to stand in the way of scientific advancement, an idea perpetuated by high-profile cases like those of Galileo and Giordano Bruno at the hands of the Inquisition during the Renaissance.

“There are institutions like the Pontifical Academy of Science that tell the Vatican what’s going on in the world of science, but we actually do the science,” said Brother Guy Consolmagno, an asteroid honoree (4597 Consolmagno) and director of the observatory, whose website tagline is “faith inspiring science.” In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Brother Consolmagno said that part of the mission of the observatory was “to show the world that the church supports science.”

It’s telling that a former director of the observatory, the Jesuit astrophysicist Rev. George V. Coyne, who died in 2020, played a significant role in getting the Vatican to shift position and formally acknowledge in 1992 that Galileo might have been correct.

No, George Coyne is no relation! Note, though, that it was only in 1992 that the Vatican finally acknowledged that it treated Galileo badly: 350 years after the fact! If Catholicism were so down with science, why did it take more than three centuries for them to admit that they shouldn’t have condemned Galileo to house arrest for suggesting that the Sun doesn’t orbit the Earth?

The rest of the story is about how the asteroids were named, what rules are used to name them, and a bit about the three honored Jesuit astronomers.

As I said, if your view of the harmony between religion and science is that scientists can be religious or religious people can be scientists, then I’ll agree with you. Priests can even propose testable scientific theories: the Catholic priest Georges Lemaître (1894-1966) proposed early on that the universe was expanding and had originated in an event at a single point, now known as “The Big Bang”.

But when those astronomers walk to their telescope, they’re not using faith to find cosmic bodies, even though their search may be inspired by faith. They leave their religion at the observatory door.

And that’s the argument I make in Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, available in fine bookstores anywhere, with the hardcover now only twelve bucks on Amazon.  Religion and science both make claims about what’s true in the universe, but the set of tools each “magisterium” uses to discern truth are different. Science uses reason, testability, doubt, empirical research, replication, predictions, and so on. Religion has three tools only: scripture, authority and faith.  Those three are incapable of discerning truth, which is why every religion has a different set of truths that are often incompatible.  For example, Jesus is God/the son of God in Christianity, but he’s only a prophet to Jews and Muslims.

By the way, the claim that religion makes no truth claims was part of Steve Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) idea: that the domain of religion is determining and enforcing morality, and the domain of science is empirical truth. Gould said that these domains did not overlap. He was wrong (see my critique here).

So if you think that Catholicism and religion are not at odds, ask a pious Catholic these questions, or related ones:

    1. Is there a God? If so, what is His nature?
    2. Was Jesus the son of God who was sent to earth to be resurrected, thereby giving us all a shot at salvation?
    3. Is there a heaven where we will go if we are good?
    4. Do we have souls? If so, what do they consist of?
    5. Was Jesus born of a virgin?
    6. In what way do wafers and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus during the Eucharist?
    7. If you don’t confess your sins to a priest, will bad things happen to you after you die?

These are truth claims, some of them foundational for Catholicism, and there are many more.

(I know someone is going to point out that Jesuits may not believe in any of this stuff, but surely many of them do. If they said they didn’t, they’d be excommunicated.)

You get my drift: these involve truth claims of Catholicism, and those of a scientific mindset have no confidence in them because there’s no evidence for any of them. Thus the very same astronomers who peer through the Vatican’s telescope will go to Mass on Sunday, eat their wafers, go to confession, and accept the fact that Jesus was killed but came back to life, offering us salvation.  THAT is a conflict! For all of the questions and assertions above, the difference between science and religion rests on following up each “truth claim” with this question:  HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT? Science can give you a convincing answer; religion can’t.

My only question is why this article is using the naming of asteroids to show that religion and science are buddies. Lately the New York Times has been very soft on religion (viz., the mawkish Sunday columns of Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren). Just once I’d like them to have a column by an atheist, or to consult with atheists when writing palaver like the column above.

Today: First public presentation of photos from the Webb Space telescope

February 7, 2023 • 7:30 am

Reader Sue called my attention to this event, which you can watch free simply by registering (name and email will suffice).  You’ll get a quick email back with the link. Click below to register and see some details:

It’s TODAY at these times:

7-8:30 p.m. Eastern time

6-7:30 p.m. Chicago (Central) time

4-5:30 p.m. Pacific time

And the format:

Professor of astronomy Alex Filippenko explores the first stunning images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Now at its destination one million miles from Earth, the 21-foot-diameter telescope was launched in December 2021.

Alex Filippenko is a Distinguished Professor of Astronomy at UC, Berkeley.

Presented in partnership with Wonderfest: The Bay Area Beacon of Science.

You’ll want to watch it if you’re available!

A bizarre Cornell course about black holes that conflates astronomy and ideology

January 19, 2023 • 11:00 am

I get notices of weird courses like this every day, but this one is special for two reasons. First, it sounds completely off the wall, combining black holes and race. Second, a colleague of mine, Luana Maroja at Williams College, asked an AI bot what the connection between the two areas was, and the bot produced an amusing response.

First, below is the class at the renowned Cornell University, whose description was sent to me by a colleague. It appears to be cross-listed in both COML (comparative literature) and ASTRO (astronomy), though I’m not sure where your course credits go, whether they can apply to the majors, and so on.  The distribution requirements below (LA-AS, ALC-AS, PHS-AS) imply that you can get credit for it in Literature and the Arts, Physical Sciences, and Arts, Literature, and Culture—all in the College of Arts and Sciences. I’m not sure if it really does fulfill a science requirement, but it looks like it.

Realize that I’m not familiar with Cornell’s curriculum requirements for an undergraduate degree, and maybe this course isn’t as bizarre as the description. But remember that course descriptions tend to be fairly accurate, and are written to attract students. Click on the course title to go to the page (the descriptions are identical; it’s just that the course satisfies two different distributions requirements).  

And the same course cross-listed in Astronomy

Here’s the course description and details from the online catalogue:

Course information provided by the Courses of Study 2020-2021.

Conventional wisdom would have it that the “black” in black holes has nothing to do with race. Surely there can be no connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness. Can there? Contemporary Black Studies theorists, artists, fiction writers implicitly and explicitly posit just such a connection. Theorists use astronomy concepts like “black holes” and “event horizons” to interpret the history of race in creative ways, while artists and musicians conjure blackness through cosmological themes and images. Co-taught by professors in Comparative Literature and Astronomy, this course will introduce students to the fundamentals of astronomy concepts through readings in Black Studies. Texts may include works by theorists like Michelle Wright and Denise Ferreira da Silva, authors like Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson, music by Sun Ra, Outkast and Janelle Monáe. Astronomy concepts will include the electromagnetic spectrum, stellar evolution, and general relativity.

When Offered:  Spring.

Distribution Category (LA-AS, ALC-AS, PHS-AS)

Syllabi: none
  •   Regular Academic Session.  Combined with: ASTRO 2034

  • 3 Credits Stdnt Opt
  • 19548 LEC 001
    • MOnline Meeting
    • Feb 8 – May 14, 2021
    • Battaglia, N., Vaziri, P.
  • Instruction Mode: Hybrid-Online and In Person
    This course has two required meeting days.
    Enrollment limited to students who are able to attend in-person classes in the Ithaca area.

In this case the conventional wisdom is right: they’re called “black holes” because they appear black—no light can escape their terrific gravity.  So surely there is no connection between this and race except for the word “black,” but you know that’s enough to drag race into the mixture. This course is clearly part of an attempt to racialize everything, and it sounds like a disaster. Since there’s nothing but a semantic connection between the two areas, it’s probably a poor welding of physics and Black Studies, livened up with the tunes of Sun Ra and Janell Monáe.

It sounds exactly what we used to call a “gut course”, or, in the case of science, “football physics”—a course meant for those who don’t particularly want to learn anything rigorous, but want to have fun and perhaps get an easy “A.” Now of course some offended Cornell person is going to write in and tell me how rigorous the course is, or that I’ve completely misconstrued the contents. To the first beef I’d say, “No it’s not: you’re combining two wholly different and unconnected areas that should not be taught as a single course. You’re also trying to be trendy without rigor.” To the second I’d say, “Well, all I have is the course description, and if I were a student at Cornell who wanted to learn science, I’d run away from this course as fast as I could.” But we always have people to defend any course, no matter how weird it is.

At any rate, Luana decided to ask the ChatGPT about the connection. This is, you know, the AI bot site that students can use to get their essay written by AI. (See here for a NYT article about the bot and the problems it’s causing.) ChatGPT at the link is down at the moment: I’m not sure if it’s active only in the afternoons and evenings, which I’ve heard, or if it’s in abeyance (there are rumors of a lawsuit against it).

At any rate, the question Luana asked is in bold and ChatGPT’s answer is indented below that:

What are black holes and what is the relationship to race

Black holes are extremely dense regions of space that have extremely strong gravitational fields. They are formed when very massive stars die and collapse under the force of their own gravity. Nothing, including light, can escape from inside a black hole’s event horizon, the point of no return.

There is no relationship between black holes and race. Black holes are a scientific concept that is based on the laws of physics, and race is a social construct with no scientific basis. They are not related to each other in any way.

This would seem to make the Cornell course superfluous, wouldn’t it? It also tells us that ChatGPT is somewhat misinformed about “race”, which is not entirely a social construct (see here and here).

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 7, 2023 • 8:15 am

Send in your photos! I am sweating blood!

Two batches today: stars ‘n’ squirrels.  First, the three star photos come from Tim Anderson.  Click the photos to enlarge them:

M42, the Orion Nebula:

NGC3372, the Carina Nebula and NGC3532, the Wishing Well Star Cluster

And squirrel photos from Mary Barbara Vance Wilson:

I hit the cute diurnal squirrel trifecta at Collier State Park in Klamath County, Oregon, earlier in September 14Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels (Callopermophilus lateralis) are common sights in western parks.  These were busy stashing food for the winter.  They are often confused with chipmunks, which are smaller and have facial stripes.
The Yellow-Pine Chipmunk (Neotamias amoenus), one of the smallest chipmunks, were dashing so fast across the ground, up tree trunks, and over historic logging machinery that getting a photo was difficult.
The Douglas Squirrel  (Tamiasciurus douglasii) is only about as big as the ground squirrels but lacks stripes except for a short bar on the side.  It spends more time in the trees than the other two.

The controversy continues about naming the Webb Space Telescope; the woke won’t give up in the face of the facts

December 20, 2022 • 10:00 am

This article in a recent New York Times tells a sad tale of the vindictiveness of scientific ideologues and their determination to gain control over science by flaunting their own victim status, as well as by blatantly ignoring the truth. It involves the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) over the objections of people who asserted, wrongly, that Webb was a homophobe who fired gay people from NASA and the government (he was administrator of the organization from 1961-1968, and before that the Undersecretary of State from 1949 to 1952).

Click to read the article; if it’s paywalled, judicious inquiry will yield a copy. This is a piece worth reading, and shows that the NYT is not completely woke, for the piece gives an evenhanded story that winds up putting the woke in a pretty bad light.

For a long time, ideologues have criticized the name of the telescope, demanding it be changed (NASA refused to change it). The kvetchers argued that Webb, as both Undersecretary of State and NASA administrator, helped fire gay scientists under orders from people higher in the government. This all stemmed from an executive order issued by President Eisenhower in 1953 barring gay Americans from working for the federal government—an order that wasn’t formally rescinded until Bill Clinton barred job discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1998.

During this period, between 5,000 and 10,000 gay employees were booted out of government jobs. The allegations about Webb arose when NASA decided to name the space telescope after him, claiming that he was complicit in this firing.  But extensive delving into the historical record by several people and agencies shows that these allegations were false. From the NYT (all quotes indented):

Hakeem Oluseyi, who is now the president of the National Society of Black Physicists, was sympathetic to these critics. Then he delved into archives and talked to historians and wrote a carefully sourced essay in Medium in 2021 that laid out his surprising findings.

“I can say conclusively,” Dr. Oluseyi wrote, “that there is zero evidence that Webb is guilty of the allegations against him.”

That, he figured, would be that. He was wrong.

The struggle over the naming of the world’s most powerful space telescope has grown yet more contentious and bitter. In November, NASA sought to douse this fire. Its chief historian, Brian Odom, issued an 89-page report that echoed Dr. Oluseyi’s research and concluded the accusations against Mr. Webb were misplaced.

NASA acknowledged that the federal government at that time “shamefully promoted” discrimination against gay employees. But Mr. Odom concluded: “No available evidence directly links Webb to any actions or follow-up related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation.”

. . . As Dr. Oluseyi discovered and NASA’s report confirmed, it was not Mr. Webb but a different State Department official who oversaw the purge and spoke disparagingly of gay Americans.

Indeed, Webb helped to slow down the firing of gay governmental employees:

Secretary of State Dean Acheson denounced the “filthy business” of smearing diplomats. And President Harry Truman, records show, advised Mr. Webb to slow-walk the Republican investigation, while complying with its legal dictates. Mr. Webb did not turn over personnel files to Senate investigators, according to the NASA report.

Webb also has anti-racist bona fides:

Mr. Webb, who died in 1992, cut a complicated figure. He worked with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to integrate NASA, bringing in Black engineers and scientists. In 1964, after George Wallace, the white segregationist governor of Alabama, tried to block such recruitment, Mr. Webb threatened to pull top scientists and executives out of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

Finally, historians who work on gay history haven’t deemed Webb worthy of indictment:

Historians who specialize in this era in gay history said such expectations ignore the historical context. Mr. Webb did not lead efforts to oust gays; there was not yet a gay rights movement in 1949; and to apply the term homophobe is to use a word out of time and reflects nothing Mr. Webb is known to have written or said.

“The activists who say that James Webb should have stood up and spoken against the purges are anachronistic,” said Dr. Johnson, whose Twitter handle is @gayhistoryprof. “No one in government could stand up at that time and say ‘This is wrong.’ And that includes gay people.”

You’d think that would end the kvetching, right? WRONG!  People who argued that Webb was a homophobe didn’t change their tune in light of the multiple studies showing they were wrong. Instead, led by the notoriously woke physicist and activist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and an activist who doesn’t miss a chance to parade her intersectional victim status (see below), they simply recalibrated their claims, saying that Webb should have stood up to the government. She and her colleagues had written several pieces objecting to the naming of the JWST on the grounds that Webb was a homophobe.

In a blog written with three fellow scientists, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire with a low six-figure Twitter following, said that it was highly likely that Mr. Webb “knew exactly what was happening with security at his own agency during the height of the Cold War,” adding, “We are deeply concerned by the implication that managers are not responsible for homophobia.”

We’ve met Prescod-Weinstein on this site before—as author of a dreadful article on “white empiricism” that tried to conflate physics with social justice.

And she influenced others. Like all the critics of the JWST, Prescod-Weinstein didn’t do the research that NASA and Hakeem Oluseyi had done; they went after the man and his telescope based on rumors and distortions. Note below that Scientific American, now a woke, inflammatory rag of a magazine, participated in the tarring of Webb (see its two articles “The James Webb Space Telescope needs to be renamed“, of which Prescod-Weinstein was a coauthor, and “New revelations raise pressure on NASA to rename the James Webb Space Telescope“).

. . . . as the telescope neared completion, criticism flared. In 2015, Matthew Francis, a science journalist, wrote an article for Forbes titled “The Problem With Naming Observatories for Bigots.” He wrote that Mr. Webb led the anti-gay purge at the State Department and that he had testified of his contempt for gay people. He credited Dr. Prescod-Weinstein with tipping him off, and she in turn tweeted his article and attacked Mr. Webb as a “homophobe.”

Those claims rested on misidentification and that portion of Mr. Francis’ article has been deleted without notice to the reader. Mr. Francis declined an interview.


In October, the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain waded in, declaring that Mr. Webb engaged in “entirely unacceptable” behavior. The society instructed that no astronomer who submits a paper to its journals should type the words “James Webb.” They must use the abbreviation JWST.

The American Astronomical Society demanded in April that NASA issue a formal and public report on its naming decision. And a trio of top scientific publications — Nature, New Scientist and Scientific American — published essays and editorials sharply critical of Mr. Webb with nary a dissenting word. Dr. Oluseyi said Scientific American rejected a letter from him pointing out flawed statements in its essays and rejected his proposal to write about his findings on Mr. Webb.

Scientific American’s editor, Laura Helmuth, declined an interview and wrote in an email that its coverage had been “timely, thorough and fair.”

petition demanding NASA rename its telescope has garnered more than 1,700 signatures, a majority from faculty and graduate students.

“This is about who we canonize and who are our real saints,” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said in an interview. “We can’t just exonerate a dead white guy who was in the thick of a repressive government.”

There it is: a dead white guy, as if him being dead, white, and male count towards his perfidy. And even though he didn’t fire anybody, he was—as was every government employee in America—”in the thick of a repressive government.” This is what nasty wokesters say when they can’t pin malfeasance directly on someone. She also said this:

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein wrote that if Mr. Webb had been “a radical freedom fighter,” he would not have served in the Truman administration.

There were NO “radical freedom fighters during the Truman administration”!

Prescod- Weinstein’s rancor was exacerbated by Oluseyi’s report, which alluded to her, though not by name:

When Dr. Oluseyi wrote his essay on James Webb, he took to task journalists and an astrophysicist, whom he did not name, for not rigorously researching the accusations. He said that the scientist, who was cited by name in the Forbes article, had “propagated unsubstantiated false information.”

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein wrote on Twitter that she was this unnamed scientist in Dr. Oluseyi’s article and that he “is writing poorly researched articles that are basically hit pieces on me.”

“The leader of a professional society and a senior scientist,” she wrote, is “going out of his way to justify historic homophobia” and “attack a junior queer Black woman professor.”

Months, later, in August 2021, George Mason University recruited Dr. Oluseyi as a visiting professor, and Peter Plavchan, an astronomy professor, offered a tweet of welcome to the man he played a role in recruiting.

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein objected. In a stream of tweets, she said Dr. Oluseyi had championed “a homophobe.”

She wrote that Dr. Plavchan’s welcome was “a reminder that senior men in astronomy can treat junior women” poorly — using an expletive — “and be welcomed by colleagues with open arms.”

Notice the emphasis on her identity, and the victimhood she emphasizes by being attacked by a a “senior” man. When criticized for her inflammatory words, Prescod-Weinsten always brings up the fact that she’s black, gay, a woman, and, sometimes Jewish as well. More from the NYT:

Ms. Prescod-Weinstein, 40, was born in Los Angeles to a family of left-wing activists and is among a handful of Black women to work in theoretical cosmology. Charismatic and outspoken, she describes her writings on race and gender and science as inseparable.

“The civil rights versus gay people schtick is marginalizing and pathetic,” she said. “It’s straight people arguing about the straight canon. As a Black queer Jewish person, I’m not interested.”

Well, Dr. Weinstein, as a white, straight Jewish man (and an old one to boot), I do care: about the truth. Apparently you don’t, and your behavior reeks of self-aggrandizement and sheer nastiness.  Further Prescod-Weinstein also participated in the demonization of Oluseyi by spreading rumors—which again turned out to be false—that he was guilty of transgressions at his former university, Florida Tech.

The attacks against Dr. Oluseyi had shifted, as some accused him of personal misconduct.

Dr. Plavchan said that in July 2021, as word circulated in academia that Dr. Oluseyi might win an appointment at George Mason, he heard from a professor at a different university who claimed that Dr. Oluseyi had mishandled a federal grant and sexually harassed a woman.

Dr. Plavchan said that he reported these accusations to George Mason. Soon Florida Tech officials were combing through records and thousands of emails. They found nothing to substantiate these charges, according to Hamid K. Rassoul, a physics professor at Florida Tech and former dean who took part in the investigation. George Mason went ahead with its appointment in the fall of 2021.

Prescod-Weinstein, who must spend hours a day on Twitter, repeated these false rumors:

On Twitter, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein has pushed some of the same accusations, while not naming Dr. Oluseyi directly. “It continues to be the case that academic institutions play pass the harasser,” she wrote in a veiled reference to Dr. Oluseyi in August 2021. And this past November she questioned on Twitter why journalists have not asked why he left his last job.

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein did not reply to three emails asking for more information.

She’s clearly out to get Oluseyi, and since she didn’t get him for homophobia, she’s wants to get him for sexual harassment.

Another person who had no comment was the editor of Scientific American, whom we know well:

Scientific American’s editor, Laura Helmuth, declined an interview and wrote in an email that its coverage had been “timely, thorough and fair.”

Well, read this Sci Am op-ed, by Prescod-Weinstein and two colleagues, and see if it’s thorough and fair. A few quotes:

When he arrived at NASA in 1961, his leadership role meant he was in part responsible for implementing what was by then federal policy: the purging of LGBT individuals from the workforce. When he was at State, this policy was enforced by those who worked under him. As early as 1950, he was aware of this policy, which was a forerunner to the antigay witch hunt known today as the lavender scare. Historian David K. Johnson’s 2004 book on the subject, The Lavender Scare, discusses archival evidence indicating that Webb, along with others in State Department leadership, was involved in Senate discussions that ultimately kicked off a devastating series of federal policies.

. . . This struggle is not limited to science or to the past: Just a few months ago Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas introduced the LOVE Act of 2020, which “requires the State Department to set up an independent commission to review the cases of individuals who were fired since the 1950s as a result of their sexual orientation, receive testimony, and correct employment records.” Passage of the act would not only prompt an apology from Congress for its past complicity in the lavender scare but also provide protections for queer diplomats at home and abroad.

Yet we can honor the incredible heroes who worked tirelessly to liberate others. Before she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a disabled and enslaved Harriet Tubman almost certainly used the North Star, just as it is documented that others did, to navigate her way to freedom. Naming the next Hubble the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope (HTST) would ensure that her memory lives always in the heavens that gave her and so many others hope.

Shoot me now! At any rate, Oluseyi (and remember, he’s president of the National Society of Black Physicists) gets the last word:

Dr. Oluseyi is aware of the risk of damage to his reputation. For just a moment, he sounded plaintive.

“Look, I didn’t care about James Webb — he’s not my uncle,” Dr. Oluseyi said. “I had no motivation to exonerate. Once I found the truth, what was I supposed to do?”

The lesson is that being a black, gay, Jewish woman (or a woman editor of Scientific American) doesn’t give you special abilities to discern homophobia if there is no evidence, nor does it make you immune from criticism. If there’s any lesson Prescod-Weinstein should have learned as a member of the scientific community, it’s that the truth is independent of the personal characteristics of the person who finds it.

But then, in another post I wrote about Prescod-Weinstein, I analyzed her Slate piece called “Stop equating ‘science’ with truth.” To her, the truth is simply what is produced by those who have power, a distinctly postmodern position.

The final lesson is this: the woke never apologize (and they double down on their victims who do apologize), and they never admit they were wrong. Wouldn’t it be lovely if Helmuth and Prescod-Weinstein, along with the other critics of James Webb as a homophobe and Oluseyi as a sexual harasser, admitted they were wrong?

Don’t hold your breath.

Readers’ wildlife photos

November 26, 2022 • 8:15 am

Today we have photos from several readers. Their captions and IDs are indented; click to enlarge the photos.

First a few photos from reader Ken Phelps:

Attached photos of a fungus growing on a dead Arbutus tree, and backlit bark peeling from a live Arbutus. I believe the fungus is Laetiporus gilbertsonii, although I would take that with a grain of salt – literally, perhaps, as L. gilbertsonii is edible.

And from last year, a Roswell pear. As Ken says, “We are not eating alone!”:

Foggy morning dog walk in the yard:

From Rachel Sperling:

I was saving this photo for when I had more to share, but I saw your request this morning. I’m pretty sure this is a dark fishing spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus). I encountered it on the New York section of the Appalachian Trail earlier this month. In addition to insects (not sure what type of beetle this one has caught) larger ones are able to catch fish. According to Wikipedia, their bodies are covered with hydrophobic hairs that allow them to run on water (suck it, Jesus). When they submerge, the air trapped in these hairs becomes a thin film, allowing them to breathe underwater. The air makes them quite buoyant, so they have to hold onto a twig or a rock in order to stay submerged. I think they’re really cool.

Also sharing a photo I took last night [June 23, 2022] of the ALMOST full strawberry moon. This is from a park in Meriden, Connecticut, which has a lovely ridge that offers views to the east and west. This was taken around 8:30.

Two photos from Divy:

Ivan and I love to relax in our backyard each evening with a cold beer, and just watch the birds and the insects frolic in our garden.

I think this is a Red-tailed Hawk [Buteo jamaicensis].

A Red-bellied woodpecker [Melanerpes carolinus]:

A male Northern Cardinal and two females [Cardinalis cardinalis]:


Artemis-1 launch early tomorrow morning (and I mean EARLY)

November 15, 2022 • 11:00 am

My friend Jim Batterson, who worked for NASA and has written updates on space exploration on this site, now has a summary of the crewless NASA Artemis-1 Mission which has been scheduled for launch three times and delayed all three times. It’s now scheduled for early tomorrow morning (you can watch if if you’re a night owl or live overseas). The goal is to get humans to the Moon and have them stay there for a while, i.e., establish a lunar base. And that is preparation for the ultimate goal: establishing a base on Mars where humans can live for substantial periods, if not permanently.

NASA Artemis-1 Mission Update Summary

Jim Batterson

November 14, 2022 (1615 EST)

(Interpreted from public news reports with my best efforts)

As of this afternoon (Monday), NASA managers at Kennedy Space Station have assessed the hurricane storm-damage reports provided by engineers and technicians who have inspected the Artemis-1 rocket and launch systems after last week’s high winds and water from Hurricane Nicole. The report is that that the damage is either repairable or does not compromise flight safety; so they are still committed to a 1:04 AM EST Wednesday morning launch.

NASA plans to launch the delayed Artemis-1 moon rocket mission very early Wednesday morning at 1:04AM EST from NASA’s Cape Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The mission was delayed several times due to mechanical glitches, conflicts with other higher priority launches, and by a couple of late-season hurricanes that hit Florida this Fall.

This launch is designed to stress-test the NASA Space Launch System, a rocket-and-capsule configuration designed to send a human crew to the Moon and return them safely to Earth.  This test will NOT carry humans. The combination of four Space Shuttle-style main engines and two solid-fuel rocket boosters produces more thrust than either the Space Shuttle System or the Apollo/Saturn V systems.

The mission is designed to last around 26 days while the Orion Crew Capsule exercises its maneuvering capabilities in lunar orbit before returning to Earth with a high-speed entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. After Orion splashes down in the ocean, it will be recovered with a ship.

The nighttime launch should be spectacular, with the solid rockets burning out after two minutes, separating from the rest of the rocket and falling into the ocean, the main rocket stage with its four liquid-fueled rocket engines continuing for another six minutes before it separates from the upper stage rocket/Orion Crew Capsule combination.  At this point the upper stage and capsule are in Earth orbit.  Over the next two hours, the upper stage engine will perform a couple of burns that take it and the capsule out of Earth orbit into a trajectory to the moon (I get excited just writing this! – jgb).

At this point the capsule is headed into a five-day coast to the moon.  It will slow due to Earth’s gravitational pull on it until it reaches a point where the moon’s gravitational pull is greater than the Earth’s and at that point will begin an acceleration toward the moon.  So the action for now is pretty much between 1:00 and 3:00 AM EDT Wednesday morning, with the next critical maneuvering scheduled for when the capsule arrives in lunar vicinity early next week.  Jerry published a very informative write-up on WEIT on September 3, before an earlier delayed launch attempt at URL

All of the information and activities listed there should be the same for this mission, except for the actual dates.  NASA Live TV will cover the launch at NASA.GOV as will my website of choice, SPACE.COM.

JAC: Here’s a NASA video of the Orion spacecraft from some time ago. Orion is the capsuleFhot, and Artemis the name of the series of its projected mission.

JAC: Here’s a NASA video showing the goal of the entire project:

DART impact as photographed by companion craft

September 30, 2022 • 8:00 am

Readers’ wildlife will be postponed until tomorrow so that we can see astronomical “wildlife.”

Once again our faithful space-exploration reporter, Jim “Bat” Batterson, found some new photos of the DART impact on the asteroid Dimorphos, an attempt to knock the small asteroid out of its normal orbit around its larger companion asteroid, Didymos. This was, of course, a practice to see if we could perturb the course of a future celestial body that actually might hit the Earth. The impact was on target, but we don’t yet know whether we perturbed its orbit in the expected way.

Here’s a photo from Wikipedia of Dimorphos taken from the DART spacecraft moments before impact. It’s a pile of rubble! The diameter is 170 meters, or 560 feet.

And Jim sent this:

The first NASA-released images from the small companion craft are at

The rubble really blasted out!  Because of small gravitational field of the impacted asteroid, I imagine that some of the debris may form a ring around the larger one, some might have escape velocity from the system itself and just continue in orbit around the sun, and of course some may slowly drift down back onto Dimorphos’ surface.  I hope that the engineers will hold a press conference about this and I hope that they got a picture of the impact point and crater.

But I’ll show you the NASA pictures below. They were taken by DART’s companion spacecraft, the LICIACube (from “Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids”), the first autonomous spacecraft developed by a wholly Italian team under the Italian space agency. It was a tiny minicraft affixed to DART with the express purpose of photographing the impact. As the Wikipedia note shows below, it separate from DART more than two weeks before impact:

After the launch, the Cubesat remained enclosed within a spring-loaded box and piggybacks with the DART spacecraft for almost the entire duration of DART’s mission. It separated on 11 September, 2022 from DART by being ejected at roughly 4 km/h (2.5 mph) relative to DART, 15 days before impact. After release, as part of the testing process to calibrate the miniature spacecraft and its cameras, LICIACube captured images of a crescent Earth and the Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters.

It conducted 3 orbital maneuvers for its final trajectory, which flew it past Dimorphos about 2 minutes 45 seconds after DART’s impact. That slight delay will allow LICIACube to confirm impact, observe the plume’s evolution, potentially capture images of the newly formed impact crater, and view the opposite hemisphere of Dimorphos that DART will never see, while drifting past the asteroid.

Here’s the LICIACube by itself and then affixed to the DART spacecraft (I’ve circled it in the second photo). Look how small they can make a satellite these days!

As Jim wrote:

The LICACub is about 4x8x12 inches.  The cube class of vehicle (cheaper) was initiated by NASA in the 90’s, if I recall correctly, to give access to a broader class of potential users who wanted to conduct Their own space experiment.
The full DART mission itself is one of another class of “cheaper” at $300M or so compared with the more than $1B major mission to Pluto and beyond.

And the pictures that the cube took from NASA, with their captions (click to enlarge). They all show the dust cloud around Dimorphos after the impact:

Image captured by the Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube a few minutes after the intentional collision of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission with its target asteroid, Dimorphos, captured on Sept. 26, 2022. Credits: ASI/NASA


Image captured by the Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube a few minutes after the intentional collision of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission with its target asteroid, Dimorphos, captured on Sept. 26, 2022. Credits: ASI/NASA


Image captured by the Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube a few minutes after the intentional collision of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission with its target asteroid, Dimorphos, captured on Sept. 26, 2022. Credits: ASI/NASA


Here, from Facebook, is a lovely video taken from a telescope on Earth showing the impact. The asteroid system, in the center of the screen is moving to the left relative to the stars in the background:

There are a few more videos and more information in this article from the NYT (click to read):

Readers’ wildlife photos

September 22, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today we have extraterrestrial “wildlife”—astronomy photos sent in by Terry Platt as singles or small batches. I’ve collected them and present six images with Terry’s descriptions (indented). You can (and should) enlarge the photos by clicking on them

Here are a few more H-alpha images from the CygnusCepheus region of the Milky Way.

The NGC 6960 image shows another portion of the ‘Veil’ supernova remnant – this time in the Western arc in Cygnus. This part is often called ‘The Witches Broom’ and is about 1,470 light years away.

The ‘Elephant’s Trunk’ is a region of dark dust that projects into the large H-alpha complex called IC 1396 in Cepheus. It is a region of active star formation and one of these new stars occupies the cavity at the end of the feature. The trunk is being compressed by UV radiation from a massive star at the centre of IC 1396 and this is triggering new stars to form from the dust and gas. The distance is about 2,400 light years.

SH2-112 is a small, but photogenic, globule of gas and dust, just west of the star Deneb, in Cygnus. It always makes me think of a nautilus shell, probably because of the radial dust streaks at the top right. The distance to it is about 5,600 light years.

This is the ‘Cocoon’ nebula – IC 5146 – in northern Cygnus. It is about 3,262 light years away and is embedded in the end of a long dark nebula, called Barnard 168. Barnard 168 is visible as a reduction in the star count in the region to the upper right of the Cocoon, but it stretches a long way out of the frame. The Cocoon itself is a hole in the dark nebula, illuminated mainly by the hot star BD +46 3474, seen in the centre.

We had a very clear night last night and I captured this new object.

This is NGC 7635 – usually called ‘The bubble nebula’ for obvious reasons. It is a roughly spherical cavity in a hydrogen cloud that is located in the constellation of Cassiopeia, a short distance along the Milky Way from Cygnus.

The cavity is being formed by the strong stellar wind from the extremely hot star BD +60 2522 that is embedded in it. The distance seems to be uncertain, but between 7,000 and 11,000 light years.

Here is an H-alpha image of the nebula Sh2-155 in Cepheus. This is often called ‘The Cave’, due to the dark dust cloud that looks like an entrance to the underworld. It is at around 2,400 light years from Earth.