Monday, December 29, 2014

How online comments matter, and Black lives so often don't

I recently read an article at Uppercutting about a WTF_was_that_racist Tweet by sports journalist Jason Whitlock. The article is about the use of a "racist dog whistle" and the risk of lending credibility to white supremacists by making that sort of statement as a black person. The piece is well worth reading. But what inspired me to write here is what I found in the comments area.

Many people respond to terrible things that are written in online comment threads by saying something like, "Ugh! Never read the comments." I disagree with this stance. Comment threads are where you get to see how people actually think. After all, online commenters are actual people, fellow citizens of our country. While it's easy and perhaps preferable to think that the people who work with and around us are the Good People, and that racist online comments are left by Bad People. But people are people. 

The more I've learned about the history and nature of racism, the more easily I can see that there is no such thing as Good People who do Good Things. The fact of the matter is that good, upstanding citizens do absolutely terrible things, and have throughout all history. Slave owners weren't Bad People. They were the venerated men who founded this country

Modern-day racists follow no special form of racism. The racism behind online comments is one and the same as the racism that has resulted in science being a mostly white enterprise in our country. Racism isn't the provenance big, scary monsters living under the beds of Black people. Racism is something propagated by everyday folk, the good, upstanding citizens of our country. 

So, yeah, I don't really have the privilege of not noticing the comments. If I turn away, I miss out on key data bout how the world around me works.

Now, back to the Uppercutting article's comment section:

Go back to that comment and read that sentence ("Yet people are so outraged and shocked each time a black person is killed by a cop.") Imagine that instead of "black person" the 18-year-old who was killed---and to whom the commenter is presumably referring---was an 18-year-old white girl who was going to Yale next year. Try saying that sentence in this slightly revised scenario: "Yet people are so outraged and shocked each time a white girl is killed by a cop." Somehow it doesn't roll off the tongue so easily, does it?

The inability to transfer that sentence across race lines is precisely where American racism lives. The commenter, "Dirtyheat," is probably someone old enough to have held this thought longer than the moment she/he wrote it, and that it likely went unchallenged each time they expressed it. For many Good white people, this sort of thinking, expressed aloud may at first glance seem anomalous. "What?! In 2014?!" But the fact is, the comment is so ordinary that most people wouldn't even notice it unless it was explicitly pointed out to them. Forget Donald Sterling's use of the N-word (gasp!). No, this is the everyday racism that is absolutely everywhere. 

Whether or not a Black person can see it and explicitly name it for what it is, this sort of everyday racism affects them because they are human, trained to respond to general social cues just the same as any other human. The message from white people expressing this sort of "outrage against outrage" sends a clear and powerful message to Black people, especially when it goes unchallenged by other white people. It says that Black people can be killed by the cops and it's no big deal. It's just part of the "grand scheme of things." It simply does. Not. Matter. That hurts, it adds up, and it has huge effects on the psyches of Black people. 

Say it with me: Black lives matter!

Now please say it to that fellow white person on your Facebook thread.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

NASA K2's first planet discovery

Cambridge, MA - To paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of the Kepler spacecraft's death was greatly exaggerated. Despite a malfunction that ended its primary mission in May 2013, Kepler is still alive and working. The evidence comes from the discovery of a new super-Earth using data collected during Kepler's "second life."

"Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries. Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies," says lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

NASA's Kepler spacecraft detects planets by looking for transits, when a star dims slightly as a planet crosses in front of it. The smaller the planet, the weaker the dimming, so brightness measurements must be exquisitely precise. To enable that precision, the spacecraft must maintain a steady pointing.

Kepler's primary mission came to an end when the second of four reaction wheels used to stabilize the spacecraft failed. Without at least three functioning reaction wheels, Kepler couldn't be pointed accurately.

Rather than giving up on the plucky spacecraft, a team of scientists and engineers developed an ingenious strategy to use pressure from sunlight as a virtual reaction wheel to help control the spacecraft. The resulting second mission, K2, promises to not only continue Kepler's search for other worlds, but also introduce new opportunities to observe star clusters, active galaxies, and supernovae.

Due to Kepler's reduced pointing capabilities, extracting useful data requires sophisticated computer analysis. Vanderburg and his colleagues developed specialized software to correct for spacecraft movements, achieving about half the photometric precision of the original Kepler mission.

Kepler's new life began with a 9-day test in February 2014. When Vanderburg and his colleagues analyzed that data, they found that Kepler had detected a single planetary transit.

They confirmed the discovery with radial velocity measurements from the HARPS-North spectrograph on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands. Additional transits were weakly detected by the Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) satellite.

The newfound planet, HIP 116454b, has a diameter of 20,000 miles, two and a half times the size of Earth. HARPS-N showed that it weighs almost 12 times as much as Earth. This makes HIP 116454b a super-Earth, a class of planets that doesn't exist in our solar system. The average density suggests that this planet is either a water world (composed of about three-fourths water and one-fourth rock) or a mini-Neptune with an extended, gaseous atmosphere.

This close-in planet circles its star once every 9.1 days at a distance of 8.4 million miles. Its host star is a type K orange dwarf slightly smaller and cooler than our sun. The system is 180 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces.

Since the host star is relatively bright and nearby, follow-up studies will be easier to conduct than for many Kepler planets orbiting fainter, more distant stars.

"HIP 116454b will be a top target for telescopes on the ground and in space," says Harvard astronomer and co-author John Johnson of the CfA.

The research paper reporting this discovery has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

For more information, contact:

David A. Aguilar
Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Christine Pulliam
Public Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Not much new under the Sun

The protests against police brutality, centered around the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, have forced race into the consciousness of most Americans. Those who support the protests focus on the pattern of abuse that they represent. Those who stand in opposition of the protests tend to focus on the specific details of each killing, becoming armchair lawyers and ballistics experts. Black America sees the police killings as symptoms of systemic racism. White America, for the most part, wants to see the killings as unfortunate but isolated events divorced from racist factors. Indeed, racism isn't a thing, right?

Here's an excerpt from a blog that seems to exemplify the view of the latter group:
[T]he shooting is being used to prove a point about police discrimination in America. The means of distribution are simple: destruction of private property and interference with commerce. In other words, brute thuggery and ignominious acts of violence. 
Note the assumption that all protest necessarily must be violent. What's frustrating to me as I read more about the Civil Rights movement in the 50's and 60's---and what's so sad for people who express views like this---is that this sentiment and even the specific arguments are so very unoriginal. This author probably thought that they were penning original thoughts based on sound logical arguments. But check out what I just read in The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks:
The [1963 Washington D.C. march] itself now is remembered in a nostalgic glow as an inspirational and quintessentially American event, but at the same time, it was dreaded and feared by many white Americans. In a Wall Street Journal poll taken in the days leading up to the march, two-thirds denounced the idea as "un-American." Most newspapers, as well as many politicians, predicted violence...Even when the fears of violence proved unfounded, the Wall Street Journal remained critical: "This nation is based on representative Government not on Government run by street mobs, disciplined or otherwise." 
Again, Black people protesting must portend violence. Mobs then, thugs now. Back then, the Civil Rights movement terrified white America while it was happening. Very few saw the racism that drove Black people to march and protest. Very few white people saw the big deal. It's the same today as it was then. 

Fifty years later, every white liberal wants to tell you they were there marching hand-in-hand with Martin. Keeping an historical perspective is useful in understanding what is happening in Ferguson and around the country, and how historical events are viewed very differently while in progress compared to later on. I've been to several Boston-area anti-racism/anti-police-violence protests and I've witnessed zero violence from the protesters. The marches are peaceful and powerful. The cars and trucks stopped honk in support more often than in anger, particularly from drivers of color. But, of course, this doesn't matter. When Black people gather in large numbers, white people start seeing violence, whether real or imagined.

It seems only logical that anyone wishing to criticize this movement should at least go see one for themselves rather than relying on second-hand accounts filtered through popular media and their myopic Twitter feeds. But as with so many arguments and world views, when racism enters the room, logic jumps out the window. 

There's a revolution happening right now. How big will it be? How far-reaching will it go? What will result from it? History hasn't been written yet, but I'm cautiously optimistic as I  march and join in. If you have ever thought about what you would have done during the Montgomery bus boycott, or the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, or if you would have been in D.C. that summer day in 1963, now is your time to find out what you'd do during a Civil Rights movement. Will your role be parroting the views of Wall Street Journal editorials written by racists 50 years ago. Or will you honestly get to claim that you were on the side of social justice at this key juncture in history? 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Black lives matter. Anyone? Anyone?

I simultaneously have much to say and little to say about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I have much to say because these men are so similar to the Black men in my life: my uncles, cousins, nephews, my sons, myself. I don't have much to say because, hell, what is there left to say? There's only so many times I can repeat the notion that Black Lives Matter.

I keep making this argument in various forms, and from white people I keep hearing, "Yeah, it's tragic, but..." But, nothing! If people accept the radical notion that a 6'4", 240 lb Black man is a living person, a citizen of our country, and a human being with hopes, dreams, and aspirations for a better life, then there can be no "but." We live in a country where we get to hear the "good aspects" of even our serial killers, who, BTW, are predominantly white. We hear about how they were clean-cut, peaceful, good students and how their friends and loved ones couldn't imagine that their son would so something so terrible (because yes, it is usually a white male). 

But with Michael Brown? We didn't even know the name of his killer before we heard that he stole cigarillos from a local convenience store. We hear about how he was a thug. We hear about how he "rushed" the officer, how he looked like a demon. We heard only the worst aspects of Michael Brown, even though he didn't kill anyone and barely harmed that cop. You can be white and kill dozens, and we'll hear about your good side on the History Channel. If you are a Black man standing on the sidewalk before you get your life taken by a white cop, and we'll hear about every misdeed you've ever done. Sold loosie cigarettes? Well, you deserved to die.

Being killed by a police officer is relatively rare, but it's three times more likely to happen to you if you're Black than if you're white. There are fewer Black people than white people in this country, yet Black women and men are still more likely to be killed by a cop. It's relatively rare, but so is dying in a plane crash, or a terrorist attack. But these rare events carry something important in common: when it happens, it is singularly terrifying.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

ExoLab Update: Ellen Price and the Photoeccentric Effect

Today's guest post is by Ellen Price, a Senior astrophysics major at Caltech. 

Professor Johnson pitched me this project idea just after I took his Introduction to Astronomy class (Ay20) in 2012. At that time, I was a sophomore with very little research experience, I knew absolutely nothing about exoplanets. In fact, I had pretty recently considered dropping my astrophysics major entirely. I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do, but classes were a lot more enjoyable when I felt like they mattered in the context of my research. Prof. Johnson’s Ay117 (Statistics and Data Analysis for Astronomers) class, for example, was immeasurably important for me – I learned scientific programming in Python and Bayesian statistics for the first time. 

I attended the Exolab group meetings and started to pick up exoplanet jargon and, eventually, I started to absorb the science, too. Prof. Johnson warned me up front that this wasn’t going to be a “packaged” project for an undergrad, and it wasn’t! By the summer following my sophomore year I was still working on it, which is when Dr. Leslie Rogers (Caltech) and Dr.Rebekah Dawson (Berkeley) got involved, bringing some new ideas and a lot of expertise. Then, the project took an interesting turn and we put it on hold temporarily so I could develop a different project, since we needed that result to move forward. Now, as a senior at Caltech, the paper is finally finished, accepted to ApJ, and posted on the arXiv. If doing research as an undergrad has taught me anything, it’s that this is really what I want to do with my life and my career.

How Low Can You Go? The Photoeccentric Effect for Planets of Various Sizes
Ellen M. Price, Leslie A. Rogers, John Asher Johnson, Rebekah I. Dawson

Monday, December 1, 2014

Are Black People Wrong About Police Abuse?

This morning, I came across this polling result regarding the police shooting of Michael Brown:

This plot, this statistical result, demands an explanation. How is it that two groups of Americans can see the world so very differently?

Setting aside any appeal to actual evidence regarding racial bias in the use of deadly force by the police, of which there is plenty, I can think of two explanations for the statistical result shown above: