PZ Myers: Humanist of the Year

PZ Myers: Humanist of the Year

PZ Myers: Humanist of the Year

Paul Zachary Myers, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota at Morris, has been named Humanist of the Year by the publishers of the The Humanist magazine, a publication of the American Humanist Association. It is a pleasure to see an “Old Atheist” organization honoring a “New Atheist”.

PZ, as he is often called, acknowledged this honor in Cover Boy, linking to the text of his acceptance speech.

PZ has long worked in evolutionary developmental biology, “evo-devo” for short, and he currently works on zebrafish development, though he has a fascination with cephalopods. He has named his blog Pharyngula after the “pharyngula” stage that vertebrate embryos go through. He describes his blog as “Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal”; he blogs about biology, politics, religion, and whatever else might interest him. He makes no secret of his atheism and opposition to religious follies; he has satirized fancy theology as The Courtier’s Reply.

So congratulations to him!

MESSENGER’s Third Flyby of Mercury

The MESSENGER spacecraft has recently made its third flyby of Mercury, taking pictures of parts of that planet that no spacecraft had earlier been able to photograph. So about 90% of the planet has now been photographed from spacecraft, leaving only some regions near the poles.

MESSENGER was launched on August 3, 2004, it flew by the Earth on August 2, 2005, by Venus on October 24, 2006 and June 5, 2007, and by Mercury on January 14, 2008, October 6, 2008, and September 29 this year. It is expected to arrive in orbit around Mercury on March 18, 2011.

It has been sent on all these flybys so it can slow down relative to the Sun by flying by those planets, making it get closer to the Sun and saving on rocket fuel.

Only one spacecraft has been sent to Mercury before it, the Mariner 10 spacecraft, which flew by 3 times in 1974 and 1975.

Mercury looks much like the Moon, with lots and lots and lots of impact craters and some lava plains. Its biggest one is the Caloris Basin, about 1550 km / 960 mi across, bigger than most of the Moon’s ones. At its antipode is some chaotic or “weird” terrain, likely produced by focusing of tremors from the Caloris impact. When MESSENGER arrives in orbit, it will have a lot to look at in the months that it will be there. Like the Moon’s surface features, many of Mercury’s likely date back to the first few hundred million years of the Solar System’s history, giving us some clues as to what had happened back then.

Mercury from MESSENGER's third flyby

Mercury from MESSENGER's third flyby

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Has justice been done?

Dale and Leilani Neumann killed their eleven year old daugter off by refusing to get her medical attention for diabetes. Instead they prayed and, to no-one’s amazement but their own, the little girl died. They’ve just been sentenced to six months jail and ten years probation, though they’ve apparently not yet grasped just what they were sentenced for. The attorney for the mother argues that “My client has been charged with homicide because she has faith in her creator, ultimate faith.”

No, you idiot. Your client was charged with homicide because she could have saved her child’s life but chose instead to let her suffer and die. So, our question for the day is whether or not the sentence was adequate for the crime. Cast your vote now!

Saturn’s new ring

Take a look at this, fellow science geeks!

No book-burning at UNESCO, hooray!

You may remember that several months back we ran an article on Farouk Hosny, the Egyptian Culture Minister who appeared to be front-runner in the election for the new head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. We didn’t consider Hosny a good choice because of his stated desire to burn “Israeli books in Egyptian libraries”. Bad enough if this was a youthful indiscretion, but he said it just last year. Of course, once the shit hit the fan at election time, the apologies began to roll out, but under the circumstances they appeared hollow.

A book-burner heading up UNESCO? We didn’t like it.

Irina Bokova

Irina Bokova

And neither, it appears, did the states voting. After a sustained opposition by Reporters Without Borders and other organisations, Hosny failed in his bid. It took five rounds of voting, but the new head of UNESCO, and the first woman ever appointed to the task, is Bulgaria’s former Minister for Foreign Relations, Irina Bokova. Bokova has been the Bulgarian delegate to UNESCO since 2005, and one assumes she has never tried to build a bonfire of the books that she has disagreed with.

Hosny, who would have been the first Arab to head UNESCO had he won the position, is not being gracious in defeat. One suspects sour grapes and a distorted view of reality are at the base of his accusations of conspiracy. “The organisation has become politicised,” he said. “The reality is that we waged a fantastic battle. The Egyptian candidate had the newspapers and Zionist pressures against him every day.” He added “The north always has to control the south,” stating that “the American ambassador did everything he could” to prevent his winning.

There you have it. An advocate of book-burning did not succeed to the head of the UN’s cultural department not because of the disgust most intelligent people feel at book-burning, but because of a plot to keep him down. One suspects if he’d only shut up and not shown himself to be a completely inappropriate candidate he would be head of UNESCO today. In retrospect, we can all be grateful that he didn’t have the sense to keep his feet well away from his mouth.