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Submission + - Sad Astronomy: Privilege and Sexual Harassment in Academia (

Dr. Scatterplot writes: Richard Feynman is celebrated as a brilliant scientist and idiosyncratic character. He is also someone who today might be accused of sexual harassment. That is, if his students felt empowered to report him. Whether his department would have done anything back then is a different matter. How far should academic communities go to protect their intellectual capital, at the expense of further harm to their students, past and present? UC Berkeley and exoplanet astronomers are walking that line with prominent professor and exoplanet discoverer Geoff Marcy. "Four women alleged that Marcy repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping. As a result of the findings, the women were informed, Marcy has been given 'clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students,' which he must follow or risk 'sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal.'”

Comment Re:Enceladus (Score 1) 57

I vote Europa. Enceladus is small, so tides are probably powering its weird south polar thermal anomaly. No one knows when the tides started. It's possible the ocean has not been there long enough for life to get started. Even a million years would be a blink of an eye compared with the 4.5 Gyr age of the solar system. From what Cassini observations have revealed, Enceladus's ocean, if it exists, is probably under 40 km or more of ice. In contrast, Europa almost certainly has a global ocean, possibly just a few km beneath the ice (based on Galileo and Voyager spacecraft recon). The surface geology contains hints that perched liquids exist tens to hundreds of meters below the surface. Hubble observations of possible plume-like emissions mean there could be a chance to sample material from the ocean without needing to land on the surface (out of respect for Clarke, of course).

Comment Re:Classic comment (Score 3, Interesting) 104

Yeah, I get butterflies thinking about this thing landing. I'm told that the skycrane has been tested extensively on Earth and the engineers involved are not any more worried about that than about the chain of other more mundane things that can go wrong between launch and instrument check-out in situ. As to previous elegant solutions, I think I would have been just as antsy about the beach-ball landing scheme of the MER had I been in the biz back then (disclosure: I'm a scientist at JPL).

Comment Implementation (Score 1) 1173

I work at a government lab that recently installed a roundabout at a three-way intersection that includes a security checkpoint. This would be great for the people leaving work and not needing to stop for security. True to our lab's inefficient bureaucratic style though, they put in stop signs too. I've made it my small act of civil disobedience to run the stop sign every time I leave work through the west gate. I'm not the only one either.

Comment Re:Unfunded mandates (Score 1) 562

From the article, which is quoting the bill: "The National Aeronautics and Space Administration shall plan to return to the moon by 2022 and develop a sustained human presence on the moon in order to promote exploration, commerce, science and United States preeminence in space as a stepping stone for the future exploration of Mars and other destinations. The budget requests and expenditures of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shall be consistent with achieving this goal" To its credit, the bill stipulates that NASA should ask for the money. Of course, it doesn't say that congress should appropriate the money. Way to micromanage, guys. (another disclaimer: I'm also a NASA employee at a NASA center, but not a Civil Servant. It's unclear that my work (science) would benefit or suffer from the passage of such a bill, but, in fairness, I should air any potential conflict of interest.)

Comment Re:Wrong way to think about it (Score 1) 549

I think this would be more useful as a vehicle for social pressure. Imagine all cars have these. You've been to a party and had a few. You get in your car, thinking, "maybe I've had too many". Your car tells you, yup, you have. At that point, you can either drive anyway (to the chagrin of any passengers with you), or find another solution. Better, you're a passenger with someone who either fails the test, or doesn't have the test turned on. You have a definite and quantitative reminder of the risk you may be taking.

Submission + - Bad Breath on Mars (

Dr. Scatterplot writes: New Scientist has a short blurb about work showing that Curiosity, NASA's VW Bug-sized rover launching at the end of 2011, can sniff out methyl mercaptan (CH3SH), a prominent compound in bad breath and flatus (farts), and the additive responsible for the smell of natural gas. Steve Vance and colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab used an instrument similar to the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, which will look for methane from the martian surface, to show that the instrument can also pick up absorption features for CH3SH. The journal article discusses methyl mercaptan's role as a decay product and its potential importance as a marker for life.

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