The Half-Astrophysicist Blog

Fuzzy Math in Arizona…

I was reading the Arizona Daily Star last night and came across an article about taxing medical marijuana in Arizona.  Medical marijuana was narrowly approved by voters in November.  Due to the technical wording of the proposition, some politicians (from both parties, which shows that there are some taxes Republicans will get behind) are saying medical marijuana should be taxed even though prescription drugs are not.

But this blog isn’t about the politics of the issue so much as stupid math being used to justify the tax. From the article…

Horne (AZ attorney General) figures the levy could generate $40 million for the state, based on a Denver Post story on how much marijuana is sold through dispensaries in that community“.

Okay, nothing wrong with that. Just a statistical comparison, probably not a bad estimate overall.  But how much tax revenue do they expect from this $40 million in medical marijuana?  Let’s find out…

With that in mind, Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, wants to go further. Much further. With some Republican support, he is proposing a 300 percent tax on marijuana sold at dispensaries.

Farley had no estimate on how much his proposal would bring in. But using Horne’s $40 million as a starting point, a 300 percent levy could produce $1.8 billion a year – far more than enough to erase the state’s projected $1.1 billion deficit for next year.”

What?  100% of $40 million is $40 million.  300% is three times that much or $120 million, not chump change but a far cry from the $1.8 billion per year!

Now to be fair, it’s not clear from the article where this number came from.  It specifically says Rep Farley didn’t know how much revenue would be generated by the tax and it’s not attributed to Horne either.  It could have been the reporter trying to do math.  Wherever it came from, it is amazingly wrong.  Being able to do basic math is important when we are having public policy debates and discussions. We are not going to be able to solve our problems simply by taxing medical marijuana. Think I will write a letter to the editor on this one.


January 28, 2011 Posted by | Education | Leave a comment

Be Vewy, Vewy, Quiet…I’m Hunting Pwanets!

And you can too.  Another citizen science project from my friends at the Zooniverse lets you join in the hunt for planets orbiting other stars by analyzing their light curves.  Planet Hunters lets you look at data from the Kepler satellite launched in 2009.  Kepler is monitoring the brightness of over 150,000 stars in a small chunk of the sky near the constellation of Cygnus.  Whenever a planet passes in front of the star, the star will get a little bit dimmer as some of its light is blocked.  By looking at a graph of the intensity of light versus time, you can see a series of dips when planets pass in front of the star.  Sounds simple right?

In principle, yes.  However these dips in light are VERY small, only fractions of a percent.  At this level, there is a lot of noise in the data.  Computers can pick out some of the obvious candidates, but for complex light curves, even a basically trained human eye is better. Here is a sample of a light curve to analyze.

The interface asks questions to lead you through the analysis.  You can see some dips but also some peaks in this one. The dips could be a planet or this could be a variable star.  By identifying the dips, you start building up a pattern.  If the pattern continues, follow up observations will be scheduled to determine if this is a planet or something else is going on here (even if its not a planet, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if a couple of new types of variable stars are discovered in this project!)

There is a short tutorial you can go through to practice before you start looking for planets.  You don’t need to worry about messing up too much since they show each light curve to many people, so any mistakes should get averaged out.

What if you find a planet?  Well, you don’t get to name it as there are conventions for that already.  However, if you register with the site they will offer to make you a co-author on the discovery paper.  Then you can lord it over your friends that you got published in a science research journal!

For teachers out there, this can be used in the classroom as well.  When you log in, they keep track of all the stars you classify so it is easy to see if students have done their homework.  You can even go back and look at interesting stars again, so if a student finds something unusual, it is easy to show others.

This project comes with the usual discussion forums where you can discuss interesting objects with other users.

If you can read this, you can discover an extrasolar planet!

December 16, 2010 Posted by | citizen science, Education | Leave a comment

The Galileoscope Photo and Sketching Contest

Saturn through the Galileosope

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory and the National Earth Science Teacher’s Association just announced the Galileoscope Photo and Sketching Contest.  The goal is to get students observing with the Galileoscope and to record their observations either with photography or by sketching their observations like Galileo.

The are categories for high school and middle school students.  There are separate categories for photos and sketches of the Moon, Jupiter and Galileo’s Choice (a category where you can photography any astronomical object with the Galileoscope).  In the spring, Jupiter will be replaced with Saturn when Saturn returns to the evening sky.

You don’t need fancy equipment to enter.  For sketching, you just need a pencil, paper and a good eye.  For photography, inexpensive digital cameras can be used to capture images through the Galileosope.  The camera should be mounted on a second tripod and pointed directly into the eyepiece.  Be sure to turn off the flash.  You might use settings for low light if you camera has them but even the auto settings can work if your image is well focused. Even cell phone cameras can take images through the Galileoscope if you can hold it steady!

You can see examples of photos people have taken through the Galileoscope on Flickr. I have taken pics of the Moon and Saturn through the Galiloscope with a cheap HP point and shoot camera so I know it doesn’t take much to get a decent shot!

December 15, 2010 Posted by | Astrophotography, Education | 1 Comment

A Couple of Good Reads

It’s well known that I am a big fan of Science Friday.  Last week’s show had interviews with two authors that intrigued me.

The first interview was with Jeff Potter, author of the soon to be released Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks and Good Food. There is a Cooking for Geeks website where you can learn things like how to make ice cream in 30 seconds.

Be sure to check out the blog for all the latest geek cooking tips.

The second interview is with Danica McKellar and covers the next book in her series of math books for girls, Hot X: Algebra Exposed.  McKellar first gained fame as Winnie on the Wonder Years before earning a degree in math and appearing on the West Wing.  She keeps chugging along and I am already trying to avoid coming up with semi-crude names for the inevitable Calculus Books (can anyone say Calculus Coed?  That’s one of the milder things that crossed my mind!)

They are both entertaining interviews.  If you’ll excuse me, I am hungry!

August 8, 2010 Posted by | Education, general science, Math | Leave a comment

Kitchen Science…Try This at Home

One of my favorite podcasts is the Naked Scientists (and its sister podcast, Naked Astronomy).  In spite of its name, this is a perfectly safe podcast for almost all audiences (save for an occasional mild double entendre).  Both podcasts originate from Cambridge University.  A rotating cast of faculty members tackle the science news on a weekly basis (monthly for Naked Astronomy) in a humorous fashion aimed at a general audience.

One of their weekly segments is called Kitchen Science.  Kitchen Science focuses on experiments that you can do at home.  And since its does not originate in the U.S., they do more fun experiments that a U.S. based broadcaster would dare air for fear of being sued.  Recently, they showed how to build a homemade cloud chamber to watch cosmic rays and radioactive particles decay, the science of Pop Rocks, and how to make a fire tornado.

Many of the activities have videos showing how to do them as well as the segments from the radio show.  They are great activities to play with at home or for teachers to check out for classroom use. The podcast and all materials on the website are free, so the price is right for the cash strapped (and many of the activities have low cost, using readily available materials).

So it’s a fun site to explore, whether you are a teacher looking for ideas or a bored tinkerer looking for something to put together and play with in your spare time.

July 28, 2010 Posted by | Education, Fun Stuff, general science | Leave a comment

How Many Licks and Other Fermi Problmes

You might remember the classic old commercial that poses the question “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?”  The wise old owl licks twice, bites one and proclaims the answer is three.

Now author Aaron Santos has taken a stab at the question in his new book How Many Licks? Or How to Estimate Damn Near Anything. He takes on what are commonly called Fermi problems.  Fermi problems are basically exercises in estimation.  You take a problem, make a few quick reasonable assumptions, and try to figure out a reasonable (although not exact) answer.  The legendary Fermi problem is Fermi estimating the strength of the atomic blast at Trinity by observing how far the blast wave blew some paper.  Knowing how far away he was, he got a pretty good estimate of the strength of the blast.

I heard about this book on the podcast the Naked Scientists.  Naturally, they had to estimate how many people are having sex in the world at any given moment (a question sure to get the attention of high school students!)

I used these when teaching.  They are great exercises in creative thinking.  You can probably do some if you give it a shot. How many gallons of gasoline are used each year in the U.S. by automobiles?  Well, you have an idea of how many cars there are, how far the average U.S. driver drives per year (my car insurance statement tells me this!) about what the average fuel economy is and you can get a reasonable number with a basic four function calculator (and if you are only interested in the nearest power of 10, you might be able to do it in your head).

One of my favorites was when my students asked me if there was a google (a 1 followed by 100 zeroes) of atoms in the universe.  I didn’t know the answer but quickly started jotting down some figures on the board (average density of the universe, size of the universe), got out my four function calculator, and quickly pronounced no.  Off by many powers of 10.  I got about 10^79 atoms which puts me nicely in the range of accepted estimates.

Fermi problems also serve as a good B.S. detector.  Earlier this year with Obama’s stimulus plan, a bunch of chain emails proposing other solutions that were allegedly cheaper.  One such email proposed giving everyone over 50 $1 million to retire to solve unemployment.  Well, a quick check of the math (that I could do without a calculator) put the cost of this proposal at about $40 trillion (which is a lot more than $787 billion).  For reference, the entire U.S. economy is about $14 trillion per year.  Obviously people need to be able to estimate things a little bit better before passing on chain emails!  Another one claimed that the stimulus package amounted to more than $1 million per day every day since Jesus was born.  I heard this, estimated the number of days in 2,000 years, and that one turned out to be true.

Fermi problems have a wide variety of applications.  You can use them to figure out if you are being charged too much at the store or to see if the chain email your crazy uncle sent you is total nonsense. They are easy and one of the more powerful and useful tools that everyone should have in their mathematical toolbox.

September 16, 2009 Posted by | Education, Fun Stuff, Math | Leave a comment

Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity Online

I just found out that the planetarium show Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity is now available on Hulu.  This show takes you through a lot of the science behind black holes with some computer simulations of what would happen if you feel in one.  I know the effect isn’t quite the same on a small computer screen as it is on a big dome with digital projectors, but it is still worth checking out.

Unfortunately, you can’t embed it on WordPress, so check it out here.

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Astronomy, Black Holes, Education | 2 Comments

George Banks Loves Astronomy Again

I have been traveling a lot and haven’t had time to post.  One of my stops was New York where I got to take in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins.  It is different than the movie, although many of the same themes are present.

One little addition I noticed is Michael, the son, had a small telescope and an interest in astronomy.  At one point George (the father) says, “I used to love astronomy when I was his age…until Ms. Andrews (his nanny) beat it out of me”.

And there is a heapin’ pile of truth there.  The way science is taught in school, portrayed by the media, and even talked about in everyday life pretty much beats the love of science out of people.  When I tell people I majored in physics and work at an observatory, I get all kinds of, “You must be really smart” or “Science is just so hard” comments.  People say this around their children without thinking who soak up these messages that science is something they can’t do.  We really do our best to beat the love of science out of people.

I remember the old Carl Sagan quote, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”  This is truly a recipe for disaster.  The lack of understanding of the scientific process and principles taints debates on many important issues including global warming, stem cell research, genetic engineering, evolution, environmental issues, net neutrality, autism, cancer clusters, and a whole host of other issues.  Misinformation is so readily available on the internet and most people are poorly equipped to evaluate the claims and counter claims.

In the end, after Mary Poppins sets everything right, the family goes outside and looks at the stars.  George spies a shooting star and asks Michael for his telescope to look at it.  Of course, you don’t use a telescope to see a shooting star, but its really Mary Poppins flying away leaving the happy family so I will forgive this little breach of protocol.  May more of us follow George’s footsteps and rediscover our childhood love of science.

August 13, 2009 Posted by | Astronomy, Education, Televsion/Movies | 2 Comments

The Cost of Ignorance

With the changes taking place in the US and world economy, having a scientifically and technically literate workforce is growing in importance all the time. It seems we get a lot of studies coming out showing how low US students score in math and science which begs the question, what price do we pay for our low achievement?

Although it has been out a while, I just had someone forward to me a link to a report by McKinsey & Compay on the cost to the US economy of our failure to educate students in science and math. You can download the report as well as lots of supporting graphs and charts. They explore lots of different topics, but the big, bottom line stat is

“If the United States had in recent years closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of better-performing nations such as Finland and Korea, GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher. This represents 9 to 16 percent of GDP.”

Even the lower end of that estimate is a LOT of economic activity we are missing out on and drives home the importance of math and science education.

The problems with our education system are many and varied and don’t have a single silver bullet solution. Other sections of the report look at differences in achievments in different ethnic groups and students of different income levels in the US illustrating the scope of the problem.

I haven’t been able to find a lot of info on McKinsey & Company outside of their Wikipedia page…if anyone knows more about them, please feel free to post a comment.

Even if their estimates are off a factor of 10, we are still talking about hundreds of billions of dollars per year. As the old saying goes, You think education is expensive, try ignorance.

May 7, 2009 Posted by | Education, general | Leave a comment