Friday, February 1, 2013

Redefining the Habitable Zone; Drilling for Bacteria in Antarctica; and Arson in Mali

Most of this post is about Mali, culture, and why I think the 18th Amendment was a stupid idea.

We've also probably found critters in a lake under Antarctica's ice: and have a better idea of where to look for life in the universe.
  1. Life, Planets, and Water
  2. Critters, Kerosene, and Cold Water
  3. Timbuktu Library Torched, Folks Need Help

Some folks in Mali have decided that their cultural preferences are what God wants for everybody.

Catholics, Rules, and Culture

Individual Catholics aren't immune to this sort of confusion. I suspect that what upsets some of us about the Church is that this really is a καθολικός, catholic, universal outfit. The Holy See doesn't try to make all Catholics act the way one parish did, a half-century ago.

Some rules do apply to everyone, like 'love God, love your neighbor.' Others vary from one culture to another. For example, the Church forbids liturgical dance in my native culture, and encourages it in others. (January 10, 2010)

Mali and Minnesota 13

I think there's a lesson in what folks in Mali are doing, now that Salafists aren't maiming or killing folks who don't follow their rules. People don't like being forced to act 'properly.' Particularly if we don't see a reason for the rules.

About a century back, America's Congress decided that Americans shouldn't drink alcohol. Americans here in central Minnesota were as law-abiding as any others, and promptly began producing moonshine: affectionately known as Minnesota 13.

I've been told that a monastery in this area did a brisk business in plumbing components that just happened to be handy for making stills: and that some priests acted as lookouts for bootleggers.

There are thorny legal and ethical issues involved with clergy engaging in criminal enterprises, but I'm not as shocked and horrified by what happened around 1920 as I might be.

For one thing, I'm half Irish, married a German, and understand how important beer and whiskey are for folks in my cultural heritage.

For another, although Volstead and others who wanted Prohibition may have meant well, the 18th Amendment was a stupid law. My opinion. It became the first and only constitutional amendment to be repealed, in 1933.

Learning the Wrong Lesson

I'm not happy about what the 18th Amendment did to my country. In the short term, it encouraged a great many Americans to break the law, with the costs and risks that go along with that decision. In the long term, it convinced many of us that all laws were stupid; and that trying to 'legislate morality' was a bad idea.

If 'legislating morality' means enforcing the malignant virtue of a particular subculture on all of us: I agree, it's a bad idea. On the other hand, all laws are in another sense an effort to 'legislate morality,' and I've been over this before. (June 28, 2011)

1. Life, Planets, and Water

" 'Habitable Zone' for Alien Planets, and Possibly Life, Redefined"
Clara Moskowitz, (January 29, 2013)

" One of the most important characteristics of an alien planet is whether or not it falls into what's called the habitable zone ­- a Goldilocks-like range of not-too-close, not-too-far distances from the parent star that might allow the planet to host life.

"Now scientists have redefined the boundaries of the habitable zone for alien planets, potentially kicking out some exoplanaets that were thought to fall within it, and maybe allowing a few that had been excluded to squeeze in...."
These new numbers almost certainly aren't the last word in what we know about stars, planets, and water. They are, however, based on more information than what scientists were working with before.

Earth: Still in the Habitable Zone

"...The scientists cautioned that the habitable zone definition still does not take into account feedback effects from clouds, which will also affect a planet's habitability.

"The previous habitable zone definitions were derived about 20 years ago by Penn State researcher James Kasting, who was also part of the team behind the updates.

" 'At the time when he wrote that paper no exoplanets were discovered,' Kopparapu told 'In 20 years, hundreds, maybe thousands have been discovered.'

"The new definition isn't radically different from the old one. For example, in our own solar system, the boundaries of the habitable zone have shifted from between 0.95 astronomical units (AU, or the distance between Earth and the sun) and 1.67 AU, to the new range of 0.99 AU to 1.7 AU.

" 'It's a surprise that Earth is so close to the inner edge of the habitable zone,' said astronomer Abel Méndez of the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, who was not part of the team behind the redefinition...."
(Clara Moskowitz,
I'm a bit surprised, too: but not all that much. Any definition of a star's habitable zone needs to place Earth inside our star's zone, since this is the only planet that we know supports life. But I don't imagine that Earth has to be squarely in the center of the 'Goldilocks' territory.

On a related topic, there's reason to think that Earth may be about as small as a planet can be, and still support life. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 5, 2009))

2. Critters, Kerosene, and Cold Water

"First Evidence of Life in Antarctic Subglacial Lake"
Crux Guest Blogger, Discovery (January 29, 2013)
"Science journalist Douglas Fox is in Antarctica on assignment for DISCOVER Magazine as the WISSARD Embedded Journalist.

"The search continues for life in subglacial Lake Whillans, 2,600 feet below the surface of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—but a thrilling preliminary result has detected signs of life.

"At 6:20am on January 28, four people in sterile white Tyvek suits tended to a winch winding cable onto the drill platform. One person knocked frost off the cable as it emerged from the ice borehole a few feet below. The object of their attention finally rose into sight: a gray plastic vessel, as long as a baseball bat, filled with water from Lake Whillans, half a mile below.

"The bottle was hurried into a 40-foot cargo container outfitted as a laboratory on skis. Some of the lake water was squirted into bottles of media in order to grow whatever microbes might inhabit the lake. Those cultures could require weeks to produce results. But one test has already produced an interesting preliminary finding. When lake water was viewed under a microscope, cells were seen: their tiny bodies glowed green in response to DNA-sensitive dye. It was the first evidence of life in an Antarctic subglacial lake...."
That greenly glowing sample isn't quite "the first evidence of life in an Antarctic subglacial lake." Researchers found bacteria in another Antarctic subglacial lake. That would have been a whole lot more interesting, if the microcritters had actually been from the lake. This is why researchers should be careful about what sort of equipment they use. Keeping it clean would help, too:
"...(A Russian team has reported that two types of bacteria were found in water from subglacial Lake Vostok, but DNA sequences matched those of bacteria that are known to live inside kerosene—causing the scientists to conclude that those bacteria came from kerosene drilling fluid used to bore the hole, and not from Lake Vostok itself.)..."
(Crux Guest Blogger)

A Whiz of a WISSARD

"Pay Dirt! Antarctic Drilling Reaches Lake Surface"
Govert Schilling, LiveScience (January 27, 2013)

" U.S. scientists successfully drilled into Lake Whillans, a subglacial expanse of water hidden deep beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, they reported on Sunday (Jan. 27).

"About a month ago, a similar British attempt to reach subglacial Lake Ellsworth had failed. Drilling operations for the WISSARD project (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling), which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs, started on Jan. 21.

"Over the next couple of days, equipment will be lowered down the 2,625-foot (800-meter)-deep hole to carry out measurements and to obtain water samples for further study on board container-based scientific laboratories on the surface. As of Sunday (Jan. 27), the WISSARD team said they may have penetrated the lake surface...."
It's not the water that's so important. It's what's in the water. Lake Whillans has been isolated from the rest of the world for quite a long time, so any critters down there may be unique. Not big, but unique:
"...Microbiologist Jill Mikucki of the University of Tennessee is pretty sure there might be life under the ice: microorganisms that are able to thrive in the cold, dark, isolated subglacial lakes. She doesn't expect to encounter larger organisms, because there's so little energy available at 2,625 feet (800 m) below the icecap, but 'microbes are everywhere,' Mikucki said. 'There's even potential to find new species.'...

"....Meanwhile, geologists and glaciologists are eager to learn more about water transport and ice dynamics beneath the frozen Antarctic surface. Lake Whillans lies beneath a 66-foot (20-meter) wide ice stream that moves about a meter per day, as opposed to something like a meter per year for the surrounding icecap. Little is known about the possible relation between ice streams on the surface and subglacial river systems, which have only been discovered - and charted through radar - over the past couple of decades...."
(Govert Schilling, LiveScience)
I'll be astonished if what's found in Lake Whillans, or other subglacial lakes, leads to flying cars or a World Series victory for the Chicago Cubs. I think this sort of research is worthwhile, anyway. (January 27, 2013)

3. Timbuktu Library Torched, Folks Need Help

"French seal off Mali's Timbuktu, rebels torch library"
Reuters (January 28, 2013)

"French and Malian troops on Monday sealed off Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, after fleeing Islamist rebel fighters torched several buildings in the ancient Saharan trading town, including a priceless manuscript library....
Folks use "ancient" to cover quite a lot of territory, or time. In this case, folks have been living in Timbuktu year-round for a bit less than a thousand years. That's a lot older than my country, the United States, but nowhere near as long as people have lived in the area I call home.

People have lived in North America for tens of thousands of years, which seems quite "ancient." On the other hand, people have lived in the northern parts of Africa for well over a million years. On that scale, a thousand-year-old city is practically brand-new.

Even so, Timbuktu has been around for quite a while.

Cultural Treasures and Arson

"...A French military spokesman said the assault forces at Timbuktu were being careful to avoid combat inside the city so as not to damage cultural treasures and mosques and religious shrines in what is considered a seat of Islamic learning.

"But Timbuktu's mayor, Ousmane Halle, reported that fleeing Islamist fighters had torched a South African-funded library in the city containing thousands of priceless manuscripts.

" 'The rebels set fire to the newly-constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans ... this happened four days ago,' Halle Ousmane told Reuters by telephone from Bamako. He said he had received the information from his chief of communications who had travelled south from the city a day ago.

"Ousmane was not able to immediately say how much the concrete building had been damaged. He added the rebels also torched his office and the home of a member of parliament.

"The Ahmed Baba Institute, one of several libraries and collections in the city containing fragile ancient documents dating back to the 13th century, is named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare and houses more than 20,000 scholarly manuscripts. Some were stored in underground vaults...."
That part of the world has a rich history. I hope at least some documents survive the fire.

People are getting hurt and killed, too - and many more are suffering indirectly from what 'Islamists' are doing.

No Smoking, No Music, No Faces

"...The world was shocked by its capture on April 1 by Tuareg desert fighters whose separatist rebellion was later hijacked by Islamist radicals who imposed severe sharia law.

"Provoking international outrage, the Islamist militants who follow a more conservative Salafist branch of Islam destroyed dozens of ancient shrines in Timbuktu sacred to moderate Sufi Moslems, condemning them as idolatrous and un-Islamic.

"They also applied amputations for thieves and stoning of adulterers under sharia, while forcing women to go veiled.

"On Sunday, many women among the thousands of Gao residents who came out to celebrate the rebels' expulsion made a point of going unveiled. Other residents smoked cigarettes and played music to flout the bans previously set by the Islamist rebels...."
I think smoking is a bad idea, but I don't think cigarettes are Satanic. There's some sorts of music I like more than others, but I don't think God ordained that everyone should share my musical taste: and I certainly don't think that music is a bad thing.

On a related note, I know from personal experience that alcohol abuse is a serious problem. But it's lack of moderation that got me in trouble: not alcohol. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2290)

The Salaist enthusiasts in Mali aren't the first folks who apparently mistook their personal and cultural preferences for God's commands. I doubt that they'll be the last.

Statistics, and 115% of the Population

News coverage of Mali's troubles often focus on the religious angle of the conflicts. That's important, but I don't think it's the only factor.

About eight out of 10 Malians speak Bambara. Others speak "numerous African languages," as one resource put it. Here's a quick look at Mali's statistics:
  • Population
    • 15,494,466 (July 2012 est.)
  • Ethnic groups
    • Mande 50%
      • Bambara
      • Malinke
      • Soninke
    • Peul 17%
    • Voltaic 12%
    • Songhai 6%
    • Tuareg and Moor 10%
    • Other 5%
  • Languages
    • French (official)
    • Bambara 80%
    • Numerous African languages
  • Religions
    • Muslim 90%
    • Christian 1%
    • Indigenous beliefs 9%
    ("CIA World Factbook," Mali (page last updated January 16, 2013))
I'm an American, so I'm used to living in a larger country; and one that's arguably more diverse. The same statistics, for the United States:
  • Population 313,847,465 (July 2012 est.)
  • Ethnic Groups
    • White 79.96%
    • Black 12.85%
    • Asian 4.43%
    • Amerindian and Alaska native 0.97%
    • Native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander 0.18%
    • Two or more races 1.61% (July 2007 estimate)
    • Hispanic* about 15.1%
      • White
      • Black
      • Asian
      • Other
  • Language
    • English 82.1%
    • Spanish 10.7%
    • Other Indo-European 3.8%
    • Asian and Pacific island 2.7%
      • Hawaiian is an official language in the state of Hawaii
    • Other 0.7% (2000 census) note: Hawaiian is an official language in the state of Hawaii
  • Religion
    • Protestant 51.3%
    • Roman Catholic 23.9%
    • Mormon 1.7%
    • Other Christian 1.6%
    • Jewish 1.7%
    • Buddhist 0.7%
    • Muslim 0.6%
    • Other or unspecified 2.5%
    • Unaffiliated 12.1%
    • None 4%
    ("CIA World Factbook," United States (page last updated January 14, 2013))
America's "ethnic" groups add up to about 115% of the population, since being Hispanic is important: and complicated.

The U. S. Census Bureau defines Hispanic as someone of Spanish/Hispanic/Latino origin: including folks who are Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic, Spanish, and Central or South American origin living in the US; and whose ancestors came from just about anywhere on Earth.

"White" is, I think, a deceptively general term. It includes folks whose ancestors, like mine, came from Ireland, Scotland, and Norway. It also includes those whose ancestral homelands are Sweden, Italy, France, Spain, Poland, and other more-or-less-European countries.

'All Europeans Look Alike,' and History

I suppose that 'all Europeans look alike,' but many of us are still quite aware of our distinct heritages. One the other hand, thanks to folks like some of my ancestors, ethnic distinctions are getting blurred. I'm okay with that, which is more than I can say with at least one of my forebears. (November 13, 2008)

Europeans occasionally kill over ethnic differences, but not often. Sometimes, sadly, 'religious' motives are involved, too:
But, happily, Europeans and Euro-Americans are, for the most part, not killing others for having the 'wrong' ancestors. As I've said before, that's partly due to our history:
...I think part of the problem is that carving up colonial territories in the Treaty of Versailles didn't take economic viability, languages, culture, and regional history into account.

Then the colonies became independent nations. With colonial authorities gone, there wasn't anything to stop the tribes, families, or other factions whose old territory hadn't been recognized by the Versailles treaty from trying to kill their rivals.

The way I explained it to my kids was to imagine Europe being colonized, run by alien overlords for generations, then split up into new 'nations:' like Francany, made from parts of France and Germany; and Iberitain, composed of the Iberian peninsula and those islands to the north.

The bratwurst-and-beer bunch in Francany might get along just fine with the wine-and-escargot factions. Then again, they might not....
(Another War-on-Terror Blog (March 2, 2009))
Mali's borders are what a Wikipedia article charitably called "artificial." When French Sudan was a colony, they made more sense: at least as a convenient way of dividing territory into French Sudan and Italian North Africa. As the border of an independent nation? I folks in that part of the world have a huge mess to clean up.

Helping Refugees

"Catholic Relief Services helps refugees in Mali conflict"
CNA (Catholic News Agency) (January 25, 2013)

"Catholic Relief Services is working to assist tens of thousands of refugees in Mali as the clash between government and rebel forces continues.

" 'Peace is their main need,' Sean Gallagher, Catholic Relief Services' Country Representative in Mali, said of the refugees.

"Refugees with host families in rural areas still have access to food from 'a relatively good harvest.'

"hose in urban areas, however, will need money to purchase food and other necessities to feed those new to the cities.

" 'As they settle into host families, most will need food and protection. As families accommodate the newly arrived, over time, they will seek to put their children in school and find additional space,' he told CNA Jan. 24.

"The fighting in Mali began in April 2012 after a military coup provided Islamist fighters and Tuareg rebels the opportunity to seize northern Mali...."
Catholic Relief Services has been in Mali since 1999. Catholics have been there for much longer. (Acts 8:27-38) The Church's presence there for the last 13 centuries, and that's another topic. References to Catholic history are easier to find, now that we've got the Internet, and that's yet another topic. Topics.

No pressure, but folks in Mali could use help. I've given to Catholic Relief Services in the past, and probably will again. But, please: do your own research and think before giving to any charity.
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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.