Friday, January 4, 2013

Guns, Gamma Ray Bursts, and Roller Coasters

I've picked two items for this week's 'in the news' post: a mass murder in Newtown, Connecticut; and a cosmic time bomb.
  1. "Disturbing Trends of Violence:" We Need Change
  2. WR 104: Cosmic Time Bomb, Maybe

My take on both is a bit counter-cultural, which may not mean what you think it does:
I also discovered that not all dictionaries include the definition of "take" I mean in the phrase "my take." This one does:
  1. The act of taking
  2. Something that is taken
  3. The quantity of fish, game, etc., taken at one time
  4. An opinion or assessment
    • What's your take on the candidate?
  5. An approach; treatment
    • A new take on an old idea
    (Dictionary.com)
And that's an entirely different topic.

Death, Taxes, and Mass Murder

If Benjamin Franklin had been living today, his death and taxes quote might have included the school year. Students are going back to school in Newtown Connecticut:
As 'judgmental' as this may sound, I think murdering more than a dozen people, most of them young children, is not right:
"...There's a huge difference between pretending that rules shouldn't exist, and hating 'that sinner over there'...

"...It's likely that someone will pounce on the choice of weapon, and blame guns. It's less likely that we'll hear an 'expert' say that public schools cause mass murder.

"It's possible that we won't learn the exact motives for this mass murder.

"The root of this particular crime goes back to the start of humanity, and the original sin we inherited...."
(December 14, 2012)

Original Sin, Catholic Style

Thinking that original sin is involved doesn't mean that humanity is utterly vile, a hideous mistake that God hasn't thrown out yet. I'm Catholic, so I recognize that there's something wrong with humanity. But I also recognize that God doesn't make junk, and that we're basically a good sort of creature:
"ORIGINAL SIN: The sin by which the first human beings disobeyed the commandment of God, choosing to follow their own will rather than God's will. As a consequence they lost the grace of original holiness, and became subject to the law of death; sin became universally present in the world. Besides the personal sin of Adam and Eve, original sin describes the fallen state of human nature which affects every person born into the world, and from which Christ, the 'new Adam,' came to redeem us (396-412)."
(Catechism, Glossary)

'The Refrigerator Made Me Do It'

An automobile was used in the commission of that mass murder in Connecticut: but I doubt that there's an impassioned editorial about the need for tougher car-control laws. Think about it: the murder might not have killed folks at the school, if he'd had to walk there from his first killing.

Silly? I think so. But a remarkable number of folks seem to think that murder would stop being a problem, if only guns were illegal. Maybe the history of pre-firearms murder is a lie, foisted on us by a conspiracy by gun manufacturers. Then again, maybe not.

I don't own a gun, and recognize that we need governments and laws. But I have no problem with most folks owning and using dangerous technologies and substances like:
I'm quite sure that folks wouldn't stop criticizing the government, if we outlawed computers, or that refrigerators make people eat too much.

That's because I think human beings:
  • Can make reasoned decisions
  • Have free will
  • Use technology
    • Not the other way around
I've been over this before:
Now, finally, here's my take on news: this week's and otherwise.

1. "Disturbing Trends of Violence:" We Need Change

"Bishops call for cultural changes after Newtown shooting"
Michelle Bauman, CNA/EWTN News (January 3, 2012)

" Disturbing trends of violence in society should prompt both policy examinations and cultural changes, said committee leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

" 'It is time for our nation to renew a culture of life in our society,' said Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

"The prelates, who lead the U.S. bishops' committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Communications; and Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, respectively, released a Dec. 21 statement responding to a recent mass shooting...."
I think most folks in America might agree that mass murders at schools are "disturbing." I also think that my native land has a long way to go before we have "a culture of life."

The Catholic Church says that:
  • Human life is sacred
    (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258)
  • Some actions are always wrong
    (Catechism, 1789)
    • Even if a leader says it's okay
      (Catechism, 2242)
    (Catechism, 2259-2262, 2268-2270)
  • Murder is wrong
    (Catechism, 2259-2262, 2268-2270)
  • Legitimate defense is permitted
    • But not more violence than necessary
      (Catechism, 2264)
    (Catechism, 2263-2267)
Saying that murder is wrong, but that it is morally acceptable to defend ourselves, isn't as crazy as it may seem. On the other hand, Catholic teaching probably won't sit well with either pacifists or the 'kill a commie for Christ' set.

America: Reconsideration and Restoration

I'm pretty sure that folks near the ends of various social and political continua will like what the bishops recommend:
"...They [the bishops] urged a re-consideration of national firearm policies, mental health treatment availability and violence in the entertainment industry, as well as broader efforts to restore the value that society places on human life.

"On Dec. 14, a gunman identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza opened fire on teachers and students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. He killed 27 people - including his mother and 20 elementary school students - before taking his own life.

"Offering a message of comfort and peace, the bishops extended their prayerful solidarity to all those affected by the 'horrific evil.'..."
(January 3, 2012)
Recapping the first paragraph, the bishops said that America should:
  • Take a new look at
    • National firearm policies
    • Mental health treatment availability
    • Violence in the entertainment industry
  • Restore our society's regard for human life

"Reasonable" Limits and Assumptions

"...To counter such violent acts, America's elected leaders should consider reasonable limits on firearms that do not infringe upon people's rights, the bishops said. While they acknowledged that 'the intent to protect one's loved ones is an honorable one,' they added that 'guns are too easily accessible.'

"The bishops reiterated the call made in their 2000 statement, 'Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,' for legislation aimed at protecting society 'from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons including assault weapons.'..."
(January 3, 2012)
I think "reasonable" is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, at least in the informal sense of the word. Judging from when I last did time in college, some Americans might think "reasonable limits on firearms" would involve one handgun kept in a museum.

There really were 'gun nuts' who apparently thought the commies were plotting to steal their deer rifles. Some of the rabid gun-haters I've encountered didn't help dispel that fear, in my opinion.

I don't know if "guns are too easily accessible," as the bishops put it. Quite a few influential Americans seem to think so: but I remember when influential Americans were hunting communists, real or imagined. I really do not want a return to the 'good old days,' and that's yet another topic.

I don't own a firearm, and regard them as dubiously effective as household defense weapons.

I am, however, very concerned that Congress might 'protect' Americans by restricting handguns and similar weapons to folks who do not obey the law. We've had spasms of self-righteous foolishness before: prohibition, for one.

"Violent Movies," Culture, and Censorship

"...The bishops also encouraged an evaluation of the impact that violent movies and video games have on the culture.

"Entertainers should recognize that when their products glorify violence, they also 'prey on the insecurities and immaturity of our young people,' they said...."
(January 3, 2012)
I think it's silly to assume that movies, video games, and other entertainment, has no effect on people. Entertainers, and everyone else, should recognize the ethical implications of their work. I think the bishops had the right idea, encouraging the folks who produce movies and video games to act responsibly.

An alternative approach is to force movie makers, game designers, writers, and others to produce only what's 'proper.' Between growing up in America, and spending my youth in the '60s, I have a lively distaste for censorship:

'Lock Up the Loonies?'

"...In addition, the bishops highlighted the need to address society's treatment of those with mental illnesses. Recognizing the 'pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime,' they encouraged reflection on social fears and prejudices toward those with special mental health needs.

"Emphasizing the importance of sensitivity and support, they also urged the removal of 'burdensome healthcare policies' that prevent those in need from receiving help.

" 'There is no shame in seeking help for oneself or others,' they said, 'the only shame is in refusing to provide care and support.'

"The bishops called on Catholics and 'all people of goodwill to help bring about a culture of life and peace.'..."
(January 3, 2012)
I think "sensitivity and support" for folks with mental illnesses is a good idea: although I'll settle for acceptance.

I've got a personal stake here, since I've got a mental illness. Two, actually: major depression; and something that's ADD-Inattentive, Asperger's, or something else. I can't recommend the experience, but happily we (now) have pharmaceuticals that allow me to have a mental clarity I hadn't experienced since my preteens:
On a related note, removing "feeble minded" folks and others from gene pool seemed like such a good idea at the time:

2. WR 104: Cosmic Time Bomb, Maybe

"WR 104 Won't Kill Us After All"
Ian O'Neill, Universe Today (January 7, 2009)

"Early last year, concern was growing for a Wolf-Rayet star named WR 104 that appeared to be aiming right at Earth (see Looking Down the Barrel of A Gamma Ray Burst). A Wolf-Rayet star is a highly unstable star coming to the end of its life, possibly culminating in a powerful, planet-killing gamma-ray burst (GRB). GRBs are collimated beams of high energy gamma-rays, projected from the poles of a collapsing Wolf-Rayet star. It was little wonder that we were concerned when a dying Wolf-Rayet star was found to be pointing right at us! Today, at the AAS in Long Beach, one scientist working at the Keck Telescope has taken a keen interest in WR 104 and shared new findings that show our Solar System may not be bathed in deadly gamma-rays after all...."
This isn't exactly "news." For one thing, the article is about four years old. I ran across it after hearing WR 104 mentioned in a documentary.

The bad news is that if a Wolf-Rayet star was close to Earth, and if it was 'pointed' at us when it exploded, we might not have to worry about the coming ice age, global warming, or whether the Cubs will win the World Series.

The good new is that those are two very big "ifs."

Getting a Grip About WR 104

This FAQ page goes into more detail about WR 104 than you probably want:
"WR 104: Technical Questions"
Peter Tuthill, School of Physics, Sydney University, NSW 2006, Australia

" This page is for a more in-depth technical discussion of the risk posed by WR 104. There is jargon and techincal [!] stuff ahead, and I won't try to explain all the terms. Ask your local friendly Astronomer if in doubt.

"This discussion focusses [!] on the risk to earth from a potential future gamma ray burst (GRB) in WR 104. Note that this was not a big part of my scientific article published in Astrophysical Journal. The article only had a paragraph or two about this scenario. But for understandable reasons, the press and public have picked up on this aspect of the work. It is maybe a little more widely relevant than, say, 'radiative braking in colliding-wind systems' (which is discussed at length in the paper)...."
There's a pretty good article about WR 104 in Wikipedia, too.

The bottom line is that:
  • WR 104 is
    • About 8,000 light years away
      • 'Close' on a cosmic scale
    • A double star
    • 'Pointed' in our direction
      • Maybe
      • Or maybe not
  • The stars will explode
    • Probably
    • Within the next 100,000 years
      • Or so
    • Twice
      • It's a double star
  • The explosions will produce either
    • Two gamma ray bursts
    • One gamma ray burst
    • No gamma ray bursts
  • The gamma ray burst(s), if any, will
    • Get deflected by magnetic fields
    • Be diffused by interstellar gas
    • Cause mass extinctions
      • Like the Ordovician mass extinction
      • Or not
I really don't think we need to worry about WR 104. Certainly not for another few hundred thousand years.

Of course, by then, humanity may have spread out a bit: in which case, at least some of the stars we call 'home' may be in the way of a gamma ray burst. I'll let generations yet unborn work out whether it's better to:
  • Evacuate a few planetary systems
  • Set up shielding
  • Or maybe turn WR 104 in another direction
    • In which case someone else may get peeved
Ridiculous? Maybe. But so was the idea that robot spaceships would be exploring the outer Solar system, not all that long ago.

And that's still another topic.

8,000 Light Years: Close?!

I grew up near the North Dakota-Minnesota border, so my notion of "close" is probably not the same as someone from, say, Brooklyn.

Light from WR 104 takes about 8,000 years to reach us. That's a lot farther away than the distance from Minnesota to Brooklyn. But it's "close" on a cosmic scale.

Well, fairly close. The little circle in this illustration from last week's post is 3,000 light years across:


Scared Silly

I suspect that 'end of the world' rumors are popular for about the same reasons that folks enjoy riding roller coasters. In a way, it's fun to be scared.

I don't mind folks having fun. When folks get scared silly, and start making daft decisions? That can be a problem. And - yep, that's another topic, too.

'End Time prophecies:'
Speculation and coming attractions:

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