Cluster Map

Friday, January 21, 2011

Welcome to the world of Pollyanna

  Hi everyone,
this is the week of Tu B'Shvat, the Jewish holiday of nature.  In Israel it is a day for tree planting and going out to enjoy nature with which no one can argue.  In the Talmud it is mentioned as the New Year of fruit tithes.  The idea was that a date in the winter serves as a way of separating the fruits of last year from the fruits of the coming year.  |In medieval times, the Kabbalists devised a seder of fruits and wine associated with the spheres of heaven and earth and the types of people who inhabit them.  I have participated many times in such a seder as conducted by our former Rabbi.  In the 20th century it was  adopted by the Zionist movement and the JNF as a tree and nature day and now it is the central holiday of the Green Movement.  So enjoy the great outdoors and the sweet fruits which which our land is blessed.

This week also marks the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. which is celebrated throughout the US.  It coincides more or less with the reading in synagogue of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery.  I once spoke in synagogue on the fact that he is not only analogous to Moses, but also to the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Pu'a who disobeyed the racist orders of Pharaoh and did not kill the male infants.  Civil disobedience at great risk when standing up for moral principles is a great virtue.  Dante wrote that there is a special place in hell for those who remain silent during times of moral crisis.  King wrote that the evil of the bad is less distressing than the indifference of the good.  His legacy is worthy of our attention today.

This week there is an event in Prague honoring Sir Nicholas Winton now aged 101 who rescued hundreds of Jewish children in 1938,   He truely deserves to be considered among the righteous of the nations of the Earth.  So let us praise these great people who set an example for all of us.

Round and Round They Go  The fact that stars appear to be fixed in their positions in the night sky is partly the result of our relatively short life spans. All stars are in motion, most of them imperceptibly, but over time and with increasingly sophisticated observational tools it has become possible to map just where and how fast the stars are moving. Dutch astronomer Jacobus Kapteyn, born 160 years ago this week, devoted considerable effort to measuring the proper motion of stars, and he found that most were not traveling randomly, as had been thought, but were heading in one of two opposing directions. Kapteyn’s analysis provided some of the earliest evidence for the rotation of our galaxy. Seen here is NGC 2903, a rotating barred spiral galaxy slightly smaller than our own, 30 million light-years away.
Image credit: R. Jay GaBany /

In the spirit of marking birthdays and holidays, I am including a link to the calendar blog, The Year in Space  that contains many interesting events and anniversaries, such as the above picture in memory of Jacobus Kapteyn.  If you like it  or not, please comment.  If you like it, I will include it every week.  I am sure the bloggers will not mind.

Walking down memory lane  is something that we all like to do.  It is of interest that the walk is enhanced by the ongoing birth of new neurons in our brains.  This is encouraging for those of us who are getting on in years and would like our minds to stay with us as long as possible.  Contrary to what my daughter Zohar says, I have not given up on my mind yet.  She said this in the context of the fact that my late wife was a psychologist and my partner now is a physician, i.e. now that I have given up on my mind I now have a doctor around to look after what is left.  Some of you may agree with her, but I am still trying.

A supercluster of galaxies as it appears in Planck data (l) and in XMM data (r). Such structures contain hundreds of billions of suns
The Planck Space Telescope is revolutionizing our view of the universe.  I would like to share some of these mind-boggling discoveries with you.   It has found dozens of huge clusters of galaxies, the largest structures ever found in the universe. Its findings in the microwave spectrum where it sees the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) are confirmed by the X-ray observations of the Newton satellite shown on the right of the figure. The CMB is the radiation left over from the Big Bang that created our universe. I could go on about this forever, but instead will refer you to a BBC science report that contains links to other sources. 
Here is a nice shot of the universe gathered by Planck  over a year of observing.
Planck's view of the entire sky: Ultimately, scientists must remove all the foreground "noise" (blue) to get a clear view of the CMB (magenta and yellow)
 It is of interest to look back in time at the Big Bang and indeed what has been found is that there must be more out there than we can see, the so-called dark matter and dark energy, needed to account for the expansion of the universe.  I refer you to an interesting article in the New York Times science section.
Thanks to Richard for pointing it out.

In Israel we  are looking to desalinization to resolve our water crisis.  Now doubts have been raised about how eco-friendly the process is and what might be the hidden costs.  Not only is the energy involved considerable, it can have ecological effects, such as harming marine life.  If it focuses on brackish ground water, then there may be seismological problems.  For a review of this complex issue I recommend this article in Slate magazine.

 Congratulations to  the author IanMcEwan
on the occasion of his winning the Jerusalem prize.  I enjoyed both Atonement and Amsterdam and consider it a good choice.

Really great music to be taken away from us

Locations of visitors to this page

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Here comes Pollyanna again-January 7, 2011

Welcome to the first Pollyanna blog of 2011.  We Jews get to celebrate New Years Day twice, one in synagogue and once wherever having fun.
This has not been a week that Pollyanna would have enjoyed in Israel or around the world.  We are hearing about floods in Australia,  assassination  of a liberal politician in Pakistan and the passage of fascist legislation in Israel.   I would like to wish a Merry Christmas to our friends who observe the Orthodox calendar, especially the Copts in Egypt who suffered a terrible terrorist attack on their church in Alexandria last week.

Nevertheless, I shall try to find some good things to share with you.  We can start with something quite amusing:

Some of you may recall that serious news media in Saudi Arabia picked up on an Andy Borowitz satire in which he claimed that Obama was willing to admit to the Republicans that he was a Muslim and that his birth place was negotiable, possibly in the mid-Atlantic in return for the odd vote in the House of Representatives..  The Saudis took it seriously and trumpeted that indeed Obama was one of the Faith.  This week they cemented their claim to be the village idiots of the Middle East with the story of an espionage vulture used by Israel to spy upon them.

The poor griffin vulture (an endangered species) was carrying a GPS device placed on it by Israeli zoologists to track its migration pattern.  This competes very well with Egyptian claims that the shark of Sharm el Sheik had been sent by the Mossad to harm the Egyptian tourist industry.  Of course, since the Mossad does not own sharks, it must have borrowed it from Steven Spielberg, which of course makes it a loan shark.  (adapted from a bad pun by Aaron Barnes).  If there was only one shark, it also was a lone shark.  Sorry about that...
BTW, I was told once by an Amnesty International colleague from Norway that, according to Swedish TV, the Norwegians are the descendants of the village idiots of the Mediterranean.  The proof lies in the fact that when the ice sheets receded they followed them.  I have never figured out what this implies about the Swedes, but we have enough troubles of our own without concerning ourselves with the internal politics of Scandinavia.
January 1, 2011, ushers in the International Year of Chemistry. The American Chemical Society has compiled on online calendar that points to landmark events and trivia to celebrate on roughly 250 days, if you’re so inclined.  Some of the events are more earth shaking than others, but this is  chemistry not seismology...
Another piece of news from the Chemistry Department is the updating of the format of the periodic table to reflect the existence of isotopes and to show the range of masses of each element found in nature.

Before we go on to the science fun, let me report on a  soccer tournament  in Jerusalem 
that brought together Jewish and Arab children.
  It will not make peace in the Middle East but at least a few kids learned that the other is not a demon.

As a space plasma physicist, I have long shared the frustration of not understanding why the solar corona is several hundred  times hotter than the surface of the Sun.  Judy (thank you) pointed out a recent publication that indicates that we might have a handle on it and that instead of the magnetohydrodynamic waves whose absorption never provided a satisfactory answer in terms of energy, it may be in the spicules.  These wispy filaments coming out appear to have enough energy to drive the heating.  So let us salute Bart De Pontieu for this exciting result.  For details go to Physics World  or to Scientific American..  For those with library access, the paper was published in Science, January 7.
Physicists are mapping out how T cells (yellow) and other immune players respond to threats like viruses (blue).

 Biologists have long struggled to figure out how the immune system protects us from disease and infection.  Until recently the details have remained a mystery.  Now the introduction of statistical physics to model the interactions has shed light on the conundrum.  I am linking to a  report on recent progress.   It is somewhat long and detailed, but IMHO well worth the read.  I found it fascinating.

I quote here  a press release from Tel Aviv University about new findings in Israel that may shake up our view of the earliest history of our species.   For those of you who have library access to Nature News  I append a link to an interview with the researchers  that will also show some of the controversial aspects of the discovery and its interpretation.

The Qesem Cave site in Israel has yielded ancient human teeth with controversial implications.

Evidence was discovered pointing to the existence of modern man (Homo sapiens) in Israel as early as 400,000 years ago
This is the earliest evidence for the existence of modern man anywhere in the world : Up to now remains have been found of modern man from around 200,000 years ago only in Africa, and the accepted approach has been that modern man originated on that continent.
Researchers from Tel Aviv University have uncovered finds that indicate the existence of modern man (Homo sapiens) in Israel as early as about 400,000 years ago. This is the earliest evidence for the existence of modern man anywhere in the world. The findings were discovered in the Qesem Cave, a pre-historic site located near Rosh Ha’ayin that was uncovered in 2000, and are now being published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Researchers Prof. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai of the Institute of Archaeology, who run the excavations at the Qesem Cave, and Prof. Israel Hershkowitz of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine, together with an international team of scientists performed a morphological analysis on eight human teeth found in the Qesem Cave.
The detailed morphological analysis of the teeth, which included CT scans and X-rays, indicates that the size and shape of the teeth are very similar to those of modern man, early findings of which were previously discovered dating back only 200,000 years on the African continent. The teeth found in the Qesem Cave are very similar to evidence of modern man from Israel, dated to around 100,000 years ago, discovered in the Skhul Cave in the Carmel and Qafzeh Cave in the Lower Galilee near Nazareth.
Qesem Cave is dated to the period between 400,000 and 200,000 years BP (before the present) and archaeologists working there believe that the findings indicate significant changes in the behavior of ancient man. This period of time was crucial in the history of mankind from cultural and biological perspectives, and the fact that teeth of modern man were discovered indicates that these changes are apparently related to evolutionary changes taking place at that time.
Prof. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai noted that the findings that characterize the culture of those who dwelled in the Qesem Cave, such as the systematic production of flint blades, the habitual use of fire, evidence of hunting, cutting and sharing of animal meat, mining raw materials to produce flint tools from subsurface sources and much more, reinforce the hypothesis that this was, in fact, innovative and pioneering behavior that may correspond with the appearance of modern man.
According to researchers, the discoveries made in the Qesem Cave may change the perception that has been widely accepted to date, according to which modern man originated on the continent of Africa. In recent years archaeological evidence and human skeletons have been discovered in Spain and China that are liable to undermine this perception, but the findings now uncovered at Qesem Cave are significant and invaluable, and their early age is undoubtedly an extraordinary archaeological discovery. Excavations at Qesem Cave continue and the researchers hope to uncover additional finds that will enable them to confirm the findings published up to now and to enhance our understanding of the evolution of mankind, and especially the appearance of modern man.


Last month we (YandA) visited the Jewish Museum in San Francisco where we saw a video of the work of a female Torah scribe.  We reported on it in our YandA travel blog. which I invite you to visit.  Now we have a report on another female Torah scribe who is fighting against male chauvinism while remaining within the Orthodox fold.  Let us all salute her.


There is a widespread myth that educated Israelis speak and write English fluently. Over the years as a
Tel Aviv University faculty member I encountered countless counter examples. I taught a course in
scientific writing in English for Ph.D. students and while some of them were reasonably competent in the language, I turned down most of the applicants for the course. I might add that the writing skills of
most of them in Hebrew were not much better since the techniques that are (were?) taught in schools in
the US are absent in the local school curriculum. Even if we leave aside the total inability to come to
terms with perfect tenses and other mysteries of the universe, far too often we are called upon to read
something that is nearly incomprehensible. As an example, I append a
weather forecast   that could make
you both laugh and cry. I wonder if it was done by a computer. For example, why would Friday have more than one afternoon and "Tomorrow the winds have changed..." is priceless. This site appears to be a private meteorological company and I wonder if anyone paid for this forecast. Someone named Boaz Dayan has his name on it. He also has a Facebook link so I suggest you all go there and castigate him for the terrible English that he writes.

Of course I am not going to send you off without a Gene Weingarten Below the Beltway comment.

Have a nice week everyone.  I apologize for some of the format irregularities.  Sometimes this blogger software seems to have a mind of its own.