Archive for the 'Cosmos' Category

May 31 2012

Congratulations to David Brin on his new book “Existence”

Published by under Cosmos

Science Fiction author David Brin
My friend and neighbor David Brin has outdone himself with his new book, Existence. Here is the trailer:

David has an amazing ability to see the big picture in things, and, as a science fiction writer, a license to write about it.  He can be a very frustrating intellectual sparring partner.  It seems every time I come up with what I think is a neat new idea, he says, “yes, I wrote a book about that…”

I know a bit of the creative turmoil he went through in getting this out, so congratulations!  Our wives have the same first name, and I can just imagine the conversation in the Brin household:  “I know you are trying to save humanity, uplift dolphins, and create intergalactic peace.  But we need the trash taken out now.”

Here is a sample of the conversations we’ve had.  This was on the Singularity and post-humanism with Vernor Vinge, Ben Goetzel, Jamais Cascio, Frederick Turner, David Ellerman, and others.






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May 03 2012

David Brin talking at Cosmos Research Center Star Party

David Brin is one of my favorite intellectual sparring partners.  Luckily, he lives nearby, so he was able to drop in at a children’s science star party I held in June 2007.

Here is a video of David’s presentation to the kids, (mostly K-8).

and here is a portrait I took of him:
Science Fiction author David Brin

I started the Cosmos Research Center in a shed in my backyard, and then got lab coats, a logo, a website, and named myself Executive Director. I really enjoy motivating kids to dig deeper into science, which has also lead to my becoming a NASA/JPL Solar Systems Ambassador.


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Aug 17 2009

The insidious world of scientific publishing

Imagine a group of thugs blocking entrance to a public park, forcing you to pay an admission fee to use it.  You’d be outraged: “How can this group block me, a taxpayer, from accessing a park also funded by taxpayers?”

Now, substitute “scientific knowledge” for “public park” and “scientific publishers” for “thugs” in the above example.  Want to read the latest research on positive psychology done at a public university under public funds? Chances are, that unless you belong to a university or have some other academic affiliation, you’ll have to pay a hefty fee.

What right do these publishers have to force me, a taxpayer, from freely accessing scientific knowledge that was performed at taxpayer expense at a public university? Is their behavior that much different than those gentlemen at the park collecting their admission fees?

This has happened to me.  One of the most influential papers I’ve ever read was Jonathan Haidt’s 2000 paper on The Positive Emotion of Elevation, and his suggestion that positive emotions could create an “uplift spiral” – of good things creating more good things in an ever-widening cascade of uplift.  I blogged about this in 2003 in About Schmidt, Elevation, and Poverty Porn and in 2002 in Positive Emotions.

At the time I posted these papers, the link was freely available to all.  Here is the version that was captured on the Internet Archives at the time.  However, after it was published freely, the American Psychology Association decided to move it behind their academic firewall.  If you want to read it, you will have to register with them, provide a credit card to pay $11.95, and agree to the conditions “I UNDERSTAND that further reproduction or distribution of downloaded content other than for personal use is not permitted without written permission from the American Psychological Association….  I UNDERSTAND that I am purchasing viewing rights to a single article for $11.95 and that those viewing rights will be in effect for 12 months from the date I download the article for the first time.”

This is a little like a book publisher printing in disappearing ink to maximize future sales.

Rather than acting as a promoter of scientific knowledge, APA is engaging in what economists call Rent Seeking, wallowing in the same economic gutters as illegal drug dealers, taxi medallion, bribery, and government corruption:

“In economics, rent seeking occurs when an individual, organization or firm seeks to earn income by capturing economic rent through manipulation or exploitation of the economic environment, rather than by earning profits through economic transactions and the production of added wealth.

Rent …  is obtained when a third party deprives one party to a transaction of access to otherwise accessible transaction opportunities, making nominally “consensual” transactions a rent-collection opportunity for the third party. The abnormal profits of the illegal drug trade are considered rents by this definition, as they are neither legal profits nor the proceeds of common-law crimes. Taxi medallions are another commonly referenced example of rent seeking….

Rent seeking is held to occur often in the form of lobbying for economic regulations such as tariffs. Regulatory capture is a related concept which refers to collusion between firms and the government agencies assigned to regulate them, which is seen as enabling extensive rent-seeking behavior, especially when the government agency must rely on the firms for knowledge about the market.

The concept of rent seeking has been applied to corruption by bureaucrats who solicit and extract ‘bribe’ or ‘rent’ for applying their legal but discretionary authority for awarding legitimate or illegitimate benefits to clients.[6] For example, many tax officials take bribes for lessening the tax burden of the tax payers. Faizul Latif Chowdhury suggested that ‘bribery’ is a kind of rent-seeking by the government officials.

Yes, the paper is available through a separate “request this paper” transaction at Haidt’s web site.  But this does not allow me to link directly to the information, nor does it provide access in the future if he’s no longer around to personally send copies.  It does not allow a permanent name or identifier (the DOI, for example).  If we are to support a “web of knowledge” we can’t have each node in the web setting up toll booths to rent access to information.  Paper-based authors, bloggers, email writers, twitterers or whatever should be able to freely link to scientific information or portions thereof (e.g. the Methods section)

Locking up scientific papers into obscure, restricted access web sites not only restricts access to those specific papers, but it also damages the connectors between those dots.  People all over the world are used to seeing a web page with a hyperlink to another page, which is instantly available. Why should scientific knowledge be locked up in this maze of proprietary, outrageously expensive links?

I once wrote a chapter for a Springer Verlag book, Person-Centered Health Records : Toward HealthePeople, edited by Demetriades, Kolodner, and Christopherson. I didn’t receive any royalty, nor did the other authors.  We had an editor who chased the authors into submitting their material, and did light copy editing, whom I presume was paid.  The book hit the shelves for $88.  Where did the money go?  How can Springer-Verlag impose these fees on people?

I’m sure that this is a hot topic in many places, but I think its time for the public to confront the bullies who are keeping the public from publicly supported research.  Enough is enough!  The results of scientific publishing should be open, freely, and permanently available to all.  Period.

Here are some things that I’ve seen relating to open publishing:

UC Riverside (my alma mater)  physicist John Baez’ response to this situation:

  1. Don’t do free work for overpriced journals (like refereeing and editing).
  2. Put your articles on the arXiv before publishing them.
  3. Only publish in journals that let you keep your articles on the arXiv.
  4. Support free journals by publishing in them, refereeing for them, editing them… even starting your own!
  5. Help make sure free journals and the arXiv stay free.

The Open Access Scholarly Publishing Association

And here is an interesting slide show to Free the Facts by Dave Gray:


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Dec 22 2008

Barbara Marx Hubbard in Conversation with Tom

Barbara Marx Hubbard has a conversation with Tom Munnecke about Conscious Evolution, the visions of Jonas Salk, Buckminster Fuller, and Abraham Maslow, her new book about Supra Sex, as well as her vision of a better world.  Jon Haidt appears briefly.  Filmed at her home in Santa Barbara, Ca. Dec. 10, 2008.  Videography by Jeremy Saville, music by Kevin MacLeod.

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Dec 19 2008

Wally Pacholka, Master Astro Photographer

Published by under Cosmos,photography

False Kiva in Canyonlands National Park

I just got some photos that I ordered from Wally Pacholka, an astro photographer who produces the most evocative images of the universe that I’ve ever seen.  Always including a terrestrial foreground, he manages to bring out the night sky against an intriguing foreground that connects our earth-bound vision with a love of the universe.  This image is a real photo, not a kluged-together photoshop project.

I’ve tried to shoot images like this, but somehow, it just doesn’t look the same.  Great work, Wally.


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Oct 29 2008

How to judge the height and distance of a shooting star

Published by under Cosmos

On a mailing list of the Orange County Astronomers, Donald Lynn told how to estimate the height and distance of a meteor or shooting star:

You can get a rough estimate of the distance, due to a characteristic of meteors. Most begin glowing when they reach 60 miles altitude, and stop glowing when they reach 40 to 45 miles altitude. So the assumption that the beginning of the meteor is 60 miles high (or end about 40), combined with simple geometry, including curvature of the Earth, tells you roughly how far away it is.
For example, a meteor beginning at 60 degrees elevation is about 35 ground miles away, 30 degrees elevation is about 100 miles, 15 degrees elevation is about 200 miles, 5.7 degrees elevation is about 400 miles, on the horizon (0 degrees elevation) is about 700 miles. The end points of meteors, being lower, are substantially closer for the same elevation angles. Objects in the sky lower than 15 degrees are often lost in murky atmosphere, though local exceptionally clear conditions occasionally occur. So it is unusual to see a meteor more than 200 miles away. So observers more than 400 miles apart would rarely see the same meteor, and then only when looking in the azimuth toward the other observers location, and fairly low to the horizon.
An exception to this is the rare meteor that hits the atmosphere at a very shallow angle to the ground, just sort of grazing the atmosphere, so the beginning and end point of glowing would be widely separated, and thus allow a larger region to see it.


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Sep 13 2008

Positive Genomics

One of the more dramatic revolutions in academia over the past decade has been the advent of Positive Psychology.  Below is an interview I did at Stanford University with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Civic Ventures’ 2006 Purpose Prize Summit (where I am a Sr. Fellow):

What interests me particularly, however, is the notion of what I’ll call positive genomics.  Is it possible to understand the genome in terms of the positive, life-affirming qualities that make us whole, resilient, and adaptive?  Can we find genetic contributors to Seligman and Peterson’ Character Strengths and Virtues? Rather than compiling endless taxonomies, can we find and understand what’s working?  Given the information explosion that we are undergoing, how do we even begin to discover this positive informationOne interesting study of the wellderly seems to be a step in the right direction:

The ‘Wellderly Study’ is a joint initiative between the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland. It hopes to investigate the genomes of 2,000 people aged 80 or more who take no significant medication and have never suffered from any serious disease.

“We are looking at a cohort that we think is harbouring major secrets. They have disease susceptibility genes, but they don’t get the diseases you would have expected. Something has protected them. We hope to find out what that is,” says study leader Eric Topol, who is director of genomic medicine at Scripps.”

And one of my favorite superstars of academia, Jon Haidt, has written on the emotions of elevation and awe, as well as some tantalizing pieces on the role of moral psychology and religion.

So, how do we bridge the information gap between the petabytes of genomic information inundating us to the notion of beauty, awe, and a a life well-lived?  I’m not quite sure at the moment, but it’s a wonderful question to be asking.  I am sure that we aren’t going to answer this question by breaking things and then looking for what fails.

I’m very open to hearing about other positive genomic research and efforts… mail me at if you have any suggestions, putting “Postive Genomics” in the subject line of your message.


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Jun 05 2008

Extra Solar Planet Communication Protocol

Published by under Cosmos,Uncategorized

hat creek observatory on rainy day
A group of astronomers has proposed a SETI search strategy:

Richard Conn Henry, a professor at Johns Hopkins’ Zanvyl Krieger
School of Arts and Sciences, is joining forces with Seth Shostak of
the SETI Institute and Steven Kilston of the Henry Foundation Inc., a
Silver Spring, Md., think tank, to search a swath of the sky known as
the ecliptic plane. They propose to use new Allen Telescope Array,
operated as a partnership between the SETI Institute in Mountain View,
Calif., and the Radio Astronomy Laboratory at the University of
California, Berkeley.

This is an idea that I have been batting around for some time I posted a quick note on the idea in 2004, at and talked to some folks at the Hat Creek about that time when my wife and I were driving by and just stopped in as tourists.

I called the idea a “Paired Transit Protocol” – because the timing of the transits between the pairs of planets would establish a communications clock for synchronous communications (akin to computers using synchronous rather than asynchronous communications protocols. Synchronous computer communications are more efficient because they share a common clock that obviates the need for “start” and “stop” bits in the protocol.). Because each star/planet system can see the other’s transit, it creates a “leading edge” and “trailing edge” timing signal that precisely links to each other. One system transmitting an anomalous signal precisely when its planet enters or leaves the shadow of its star as cast on the other planet would confirm that that planet had seen the transit of the other planet.

Continue Reading »


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Jun 28 2007

METI: From Globalization to Galactization

Published by under Cosmos

Just in case folks are bored with the issues of globalization, civilization faces another, longer term issue, call it galactization. We’ve had SETI, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence looking for signals from outer space, for some time. David Brin No luck yet, but maybe they are so smart that they don’t want us to know about them. As my neighbor David Brin points out, if you were wandering around a dark jungle at night, it probably isn’t a good idea to shine a bright light on yourself and shout, “Anybody out there?” See his essay, SHOUTING AT THE COSMOS: …Or How SETI has Taken a Worrisome Turn Into Dangerous Territory.

Now, there is a new issue civilization faces: METI: Messaging to Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. This might seem a little advanced to some, for example, the iPhone doesn’t support it. The issue revolves around whether we should be actively sending messages to possible extra terrestrial intelligences. Should we broadcast our presence out into space, hoping to attract the attention of other civilizations? What are the pros and cons of this?

This is definitely a “long fuse, big bang” type of problem. Even if the Other gets the message in say 20 years, then the earliest we would get a reply would be 40 years… unless they’ve figured out some physics we don’t quite know yet.

Leaving the improbability issues aside, though, this still brings up an issue: just who decides whether to have a coming out party for Earthlings? Is this a UN issue? Do astronomers decide this? If New Age enthusiasts want to broadcast a message from a pyramid, do we let them speak for everyone on earth? Do we create a METI Institute?

See Meet the neighbours: Is the search for aliens such a good idea? in the June 25, 2007 issue of the Independent:

Many scientists, frightened by the danger that might lurk out there, have argued against our actively seeking contact with extraterrestrials. Jared Diamond, professor of evolutionary biology and Pulitzer Prize winner, says: ” Those astronomers now preparing again to beam radio signals out to hoped-for extraterrestrials are naive, even dangerous

I have been lurking on some of the mailing lists talking about this issue, and that even on a fairly closed list, the conversation broke down amidst typical mailing list dynamics. Its kind of ironic that a homogeneous group with a common language, culture, environment, and biology are having trouble talking about the possibility of communication with others wildly different.


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