New Spacecraft Arrives at Mars

It’s being reported that the MAVEN spacecraft has now arrived at Mars. Apparently the University of Colorado is one of the main contributors to the mission. Unlike the Mars rovers that have been famously operating for the past decade or so, this spacecraft will orbit the planet and measure the properties of its atmosphere.

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NYPD Stop and Frisk Finally Disappearing

The New York Times reports that since 2012 the NYPD’s much-hated stop and frisk policy seems to have finally ended. Stops have declined by more than 90%. The stop and frisk policy, where the NYPD would (obviously) stop and search random people to look for contraband or evidence of criminal activity, was widely seen as a convenient way to harass marginalized communities. Only a small fraction of stops resulted in arrests while the poor communities where stops were most concentrated felt as if they were under siege from the police. Not only was stop and frisk not very effective, but it may have even been counterproductive by reducing trust in the authorities. Interestingly, while stop and frisk became famous under the Bloomberg administration, which strongly supported the tactic, the precipitous decline in stop and frisk occurred well before the election of de Blasio and also well before the policy was declared illegal by a judge in August 2013.

New AMS Dark Matter Results

PRL published a couple new papers from AMS today, including this one, which shows an updated plot of the positron fraction (e+/(e+ + e-)) as a function of energy. I don’t think these have been posted to the arXiv yet, which is unusual for our field. Unfortunately, PRL must be accessed either through a network with access or with an account, which requires money, so if you’re not at a university and aren’t an APS member you might have trouble looking at the paper. In conjunction with the papers being released, there was a seminar at CERN earlier today. I didn’t find out about the seminar until it was too late for me to try to call in remotely.

AMS is a large multipurpose detector based at the International Space Station that studies cosmic rays, which are high energy particles flying around in space. The search for dark matter is one of the main purposes of the experiment, but it can study many things about cosmic rays, such as their composition, energy spectra, directions, etc.

This paper shows the positron fraction up to 500 GeV, which is a bit higher than in previous measurements. This measurement is useful for looking for dark matter annihilation to electron-positron pairs. The expected signal is for the positron fraction to increase at some energy and then peak and drop fairly sharply at an energy of approximately the dark matter mass. Previous measurements from AMS, Fermi, PAMELA and ATIC have all seen an increase in the ratio and have even seen the spectrum seem to level off. This new measurement shows that the leveling off continues, and the spectrum may even be starting to fall in the highest energy bin. However, the measurement is limited by both statistics and systematics at the highest energies, so the apparent decrease in the highest bin is not going to be statistically significant at this point in time. That may change with more events in the future and hopefully a better understanding of the detector and of astrophysical models for the non-dark matter background.

Scottish Independence Vote on Thursday

It’s already the 18th in the UK so there’s less than 24 hours left before the conclusion of the referendum on Scottish independence. I haven’t been following the debate that closely, but it looks like the most recent polls suggest that the “No” side has a slight edge.

Many people have been eagerly watching this because there are a number of other independence movements throughout Europe. Scotland seems to have the best chance of actually winning independence since the UK seems to actually allow secession votes without needing major constitutional changes.

I don’t have any particularly strong feelings either way about these votes, but I do find it interesting that a bare majority in a single referendum could be enough to make such permanent changes to a country. The history of secession in the US – where those trying to secede were willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives to maintain a stranglehold on political power and to enforce a brutal economic system – makes it difficult for me to not feel cynical about the whole endeavor.

NASA Announces Manned Spaceflight Contracts

Earlier today, NASA announced the winners of contracts for developing spacecraft to send astronauts to the Interantional Space Station. Both Boeing and SpaceX have been awarded contracts, with Boeing receiving $4.2 billion and SpaceX getting $2.6 billion.

I would guess that Boeing received the most because it has a long track record of supplying equipment to the US government. NASA can safely assume that Boeing is capable of completing the contract. SpaceX hopes to be able to do spaceflight cheaper than anyone else but also hasn’t previously been involved in such a major undertaking. The contract shows that NASA is confident that SpaceX can do it, but they also won’t want to risk the whole program by awarding all the money to a company that hasn’t shown itself to be reliable.

Having two options is also a good idea so that a delay in one of them doesn’t necessarily delay the return of NASA-led manned launches. It might also turn out that the two vehicles are better at different things, so maybe some missions will favor Boeing and some SpaceX. Having some competition might also keep costs down.

NASA hopes to have the first launches in 2017, so we’ll still have a couple more years without having manned launch capabilities. Many had criticized the US government for ending the shuttle program because of this gap with no manned launch vehicle. The shuttle was a decades-old design that was very expensive and very risky for the crew, so I think that discontinuing shuttle launches was probably the right move. We should have already had a replacement vehicle ready, but not having one is not a sufficient justification to continue risking astronauts’ lives when safer but not US-led options were available.

On Studying the Classics

While the New Republic is still getting some mileage out of it’s articles on the Ivy League, it has also just republished an interesting article from 1991 on studying the classics in college. Debates on the “classics,” or what might also be described as the “western canon,” are often portrayed as a dispute between stuffy traditionalists and free-thinking modernists or between conservative reactionaries and liberal revolutionaries. The article attempts to make the point that this framing is false. People from around the world and from many different political and social backgrounds have found inspiration in the classics. An education in classic works of literature need not be limited to inculcating beliefs in traditional values. There are many different ways to analyze literature and one might be surprised at how non-traditional the traditional western canon might seem. Subversive and even potentially radical viewpoints can be found in works such as Boccaccio’s Decameron (challenging religion through satire and bawdy jokes that might seem offensive even today), Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (viciously attacking his political opponents in the Inferno), and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (perhaps challenging the traditional gender roles in an incredibly patriarchal Athenian society).

The article also points out that the “classics” or the “canon” is an idea rather than a strict list. What constitutes the “classics” is constantly changing, but at the same time we can’t pretend that history never happened and that every class of people is equally represented in the canon at all times. Prior to the last few centuries the western canon is almost exclusively written by men of European descent because western culture – to the extent it even exists as a coherent concept – is largely just western European culture and because wealthy European men were more or less the only people given the opportunity to produce great works of art and literature. Things aren’t like that any more, so we might expect the canon to continue drawing from an ever more diverse cast of authors in the future.

It’s important to acknowledge that the canon is Eurocentric, but the author suggests that this is not a bad thing. I tend to agree. Drawing from a single tradition is helpful from a pedagogical standpoint because the works share common artistic values and cultural context. Trying to draw a bit from every tradition leads to a confusing, incoherent syllabus where everything seems like tokenism. Even then, it will be impossible to include everything so choices have to be made at some point anyway.

The article mentions the decline in liberal arts requirements, which seems to have only increased in the 20+ years since it was written. A few schools still maintain strong humanities cores. The most notable examples are Columbia and Chicago, both of which have extensive Core Curricula and a liberal arts focus at the undergraduate level. St. John’s College has an all-Great Books curriculum, which is an interesting idea for those interested in the humanities, but not particularly useful for many fields of study. Having attended Columbia, I find that I agree with most of what is said in the article. One of the most important things that I got out of my core classes was to look critically at everything – even the concepts of the canon and western culture.