Welcome to the upgraded ScienceWriters web site! Please notify cybrarian@nasw.org if you find anything that's broken or need any other help.
 

On science blogs this week: Heavens

THE SKY IS (NOT) FALLING! Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has done an awfully nice job explaining the asteroid 2005YU55 and why it didn't hit the Earth as it did its flyby on Tuesday. Or cause the earthquake in Oklahoma either. He also explained how the 2005YU55 photos and movies embedded on his site (and others) were done. See also the deep explanations by Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society blog.

Credit: JPL/NASA

Credit: JPL/NASA

If, however, you prefer to believe that the sky is falling, or at least that it might, then you should consult Brad Plumer at the Washington Post's Wonkblog, who writes about Purdue University's asteroid impact calculator. And feed your paranoia further with Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth, who writes about astronaut Rusty Schweickart's campaign to get attention for his conviction that someday, somewhere, for certain, as night follows day, an asteroid will hit Earth, with catastrophic results.

And even if the sky isn't falling, Russia's space probe to a little moon of Mars may do so. The Phobos-Grunt mission is stuck in Earth orbit. ("Grunt" is said to mean "Earth" in Russian; make of that what you will.) Emily Lakdawalla is keeping track of that, too, to the extent possible with very limited information. Here's her most recent post on Phobos-Grunt as of this writing

You can take the long view at the SciAm blog History of Geology, where David Bressan explains how asteroids contributed to the Earth, with emphasis on the Cretaceous-Palaeogene (C/Pg) event of ~65 my bp, the one that famously disappeared the dinosaurs and promoted the mammals to Top Dog.

I GOT RHYTHM. AND SO DO YOU. Once again this week I find myself out of sync with most of the rest of the country. That's because the rest of the country observes Daylight Saving Time. But Arizona, where I live, does not. In this as in so many other matters, the state of Arizona declines to go along with the rest of the country. (Except on the Navaho reservation, whose residents have generously cast their lot, timewise, with the United States despite historical reasons to thumb their collective noses. Although the real reason seems to be that the reservation stretches across four states. But I assure you from experience that it makes for confusion when you're driving around Arizona between March and November and must zip discombobulatingly back and forth between Standard and Daylight Time depending on which stretch of highway you're traversing. Is it time for All Things Considered yet? Who knows?)

Anyway, this week I had to adjust my personal and professional clocks again. Most of my colleagues are in the East, which is now only two hours ahead of me instead of three. Since last spring we have been on the same time as our daughter in Seattle, but now she's an hour behind. Etc.

When I first moved to Tucson I thought staying on Mountain Standard Time all year was just one more Arizona intransigence, refusing to participate in a country that shifted time twice a year. But after my first summer here, I understood the logic. When daytime highs linger in three digits for weeks on end, it is only sensible to begin the day really early, especially if your work takes you outside. And you will have no wish to prolong daylight either; indeed, you are eager to see the sun go down.

A week ago Deborah Kotz, at Boston.com's Daily Dose, relayed advice on how to pre-adjust to the autumn time change. But there is also some sentiment for abandoning DST β€” in one case from an entire country, and a very large one at that. Russia is no longer observing DST, although it has not returned permanently to Standard Time. Instead, all nine of its time zones are remaining on Summer Time, which is what they call DST in the Old World.

David Biello outlines some reasons DST should be abolished at Scientific American's Observations. Also at SciAm, Boris Zivkovic, a chronobiologist, reprints his 2008 Blog Around the Clock take on DST. This post will tell you everything about what DST does to the human body, much of it not good. The problem is not DST itself, but the twice-yearly time changes and their derangement of normal body rhythms.

But as Bora himself suggests, you really should read his original post and its many comments, which expand the subject enormously. The post itself makes a strong case for getting rid of DST, but it also explains the timing of heart attacks while working as a primer on sleep deprivation and circadian rhythms. And then it turns into a give-and-take on a topic explored here beginning late last year in connection with the contentious paper reporting discovery of a bacterium that could use arsenic rather than phosphorus in its DNA: Are blogs a legitimate venue for critiques of scientific papers?

As we all know, the answer to that question is a definite Yes. So with that out of the way, we must bend our efforts to persuading Congress that DST doesn't belong in the 21st century. Which Arizona, weirdly, seems to have recognized back in 1967, when it opted out.

So I'm now in sync with Arizona time, although of course not with Arizona politics. (Which is why I live in Tucson, where there is a not entirely tongue-in-cheek movement to secede from the state and name our new state Baja Arizona.) Despite our political differences, I look forward to the day when the rest of the country behaves as sensibly as the state of Arizona.

I can't believe I'm really saying that.

UPDATE I: THE LYING DUTCHMAN. A post last week reported on the outing of a Dutch social psychologist who seems to have made up data to support fanciful contentions about human behavior in dozens of papers he published with dozens of colleagues. The doc is no more; Diederik Stapel has given back his 1997 doctorate, his thesis being one of those suspected of being fictional. No word yet on the doctorates previously awarded to the 14 Stapel grad students whose theses are also now in question. Martin Enserink reports in a brief at ScienceInsider.

UPDATE II: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE NATIONAL PRACTITIONER DATA BANK?. The Obama Administration reopened the public portion of the National Practitioner Data Bank on Wednesday, but the action comes with a government caveat. The closing and subsequent complaints by several journalism organizations were described in a post here last week.

At ProPublica, Marian Wang reports on the reopening and presents a timeline recounting events of the past couple months. The database contains information on disciplinary actions against physicians and records of malpractice awards. It had been closed after complaints by a Kansas doc trailing a long string of malpractice actions against him. Wang notes:

... users of the new database are no longer allowed to combine information gleaned from the public database with any other publicly available information in a way that would identify doctors. Or in other words, the government is now trying to tell the public β€” including the press β€” what it’s allowed to do with publicly available information. (The agency told the Kansas City Star that it has a duty "to make certain that information about individual practitioners remains confidential.")

That restriction is certainly naughty, but it also strikes me as unenforceable. She said hopefully.