Thursday, July 22, 2010
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
A gamma ray burst temporarily blinded the X-ray instruments on the Swift spacecraft in June. Great rundown from the blog of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
X-ray astronomers often get teased for getting so few photons, that they name each one as it comes in from space. ("Photon, I will name you Fred, and treasure you forever.") But this GRB produced a peak count rate of 143,000 photons per second! (For 0.2s -- it's a burst after all.) Incredibly bright.
I like the blog writeup because it profiles a scientist in the process of doing science, and a postdoc scientist rather than some senior guy paraphrasing for the press what his postdoc discovered. Even better, it mentions that the scientist was out camping with his family, and returned to the lab to find this crazy event waiting for him in the latest data sent down from the telescope.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
A new article by a chorus of Italian astronomers, "A decline and fall in the future of Italian Astronomy?", laments the precipitous cutoff of funding for astronomical research in Italy, the home of Galileo. Three excerpts:
The community is astonished, shocked by the news (most of the Italian astronomers - including the INAF president - learned this from the newspapers) that INAF is listed among several institutes considered useless. An April Fools’ Day prank? No, it is not . . . Messages rapidly overflow all our mailboxes. Is Italy turning off the stars? Is the homeland of Galileo leaving his heirs orphans? What is going to happen to us? And to all young (and not-so-young anymore) people working on short-term contracts? And to our projects funded on European or International Grants? Several protests take place in Italy, and not just from researchers working at INAF. Several other institutes have gone under the same hatchet.
How is INAF going to survive with a severely reduced budget? All programmed cuts are likely going to bring to a very significant reduction of short-term contracts and trigger a new brain drain of young (and also not so young) researchers to foreign countries. At the same time, it will become very hard to attract foreign researchers to our country. This implies that Italian astronomy will lose the most productive and competitive part of their researchers. Not the best way to save money, at least not on the long term. The prediction is that of a rapid and irreversible decline of Italian astrophysical research.
The usefulness of basic, intermediate, and high education, as well as of research, is being questioned in Italy, mainly because they do not produce quick and easy money. We realize that, unfortunately, this approach and way of thinking is not limited to our country (although Italy probably represents a dire example of cultural decay). As scientists, we cannot turn aside from fighting this way of thinking, that we consider blind, foul, and irresponsible. It is not these principles that we want to hand on to future generations of astronomers, Italians, and citizens of this world.
(Via AstroBetter on Facebook.)
at 9:13 AM
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Good news! U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro ruled today in two companion lawsuits that section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional! (Read the decisions: Gill v. OPM and Massachusetts v. HHS).
"The next step in the case is for the federal government to decide whether it will appeal Judge Tauro’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. That decision should come within the next 60 days." - GLAD's website
Background: seven same-sex married couples and three widowers from Massachusetts sued the federal government because their legal marriages are not recognized by the federal government under section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage (DOMA). DOMA, a blanket rejection of any marriage between persons of the same sex, hurts gay families in many ways: You can't sponsor your spouse for a green card, or collect social security survivor benefits when she dies, or file a joint tax return, or (if a federal employee) cover your spouse on your health insurance plan.
One of the two lawsuits is Gill v. OPM, argued by GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders). (The lawsuit does not challenge the rest of DOMA, which says a state can choose not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in another state.) (NY Times summary of the case from 3/2009.) The other lawsuit is Commonwealth of Mass v. Dept. of HHS.
Judge Tauro's 39-page opinion in Gill v. OPM includes several choice bits of sarcasm:
Furthermore, this court seriously questions whether it may even consider preservation of the status quo to be an “interest” independent of some legitimate governmental objective that preservation of the status quo might help to achieve. Staying the course is not an end in and of itself, but rather a means to an end."
"... federal agencies merely distribute federal marriage-based benefits to those couples that have already obtained state-sanctioned marriage licenses. That task does not become more administratively complex simply because some of those couples are of the same sex. Nor does it become more complex simply because some of the couples applying for marriage-based benefits were previously ineligible to marry. Every heterosexual couple that obtains a marriage license was at some point ineligible to marry due to the varied age restrictions placed on marriage by each state. Yet the federal administrative system finds itself adequately equipped to accommodate their changed status."
"In fact, as Plaintiffs suggest, DOMA seems to inject complexity into an otherwise straightforward administrative task by sundering the class of state-sanctioned marriages into two, those that are valid for federal purposes and those that are not. As such, this court finds the suggestion of potential administrative burden in distributing marriage-based benefits to be an utterly unpersuasive excuse for the classification created by DOMA."
"It strains credulity to suggest that Congress might have created such a sweeping status-based enactment, touching every single federal provision that includes the word marriage or spouse, simply in order to further the discrete goal of consistency in the distribution of federal marriage-based pecuniary benefits."
Friday, July 2, 2010
Thursday, July 1, 2010
Google announced they would begin paying the extra taxes employees pay when they sign up their same-sex partners for health insurance.
What "gay tax", you ask? Let me provide a little context. When an employee puts their married, opposite-sex spouse on their company health insurance plan, the government doesn't count that as taxable income. But when an employee signs up their same-sex partner for the same health plan, regardless of marital status, the federal government counts the employer's share of the premiums as taxable income to the employee. So, several thousand dollars of extra taxes. In addition, there are other "gay taxes" -- here's a short summary.
Of course, this is a stop-gap solution. The easiest comprehensive solution would be for Congress to change the law about taxability of insurance premiums for domestic partners. And while they're at it, change the laws on Social Security, disability, and the thousand other federal benefits. Or if that seems like too much effort, just repeal Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage.