Doctor Science Knows

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

GalaxyZoo Tool Use

Use GalaxyZoo: don't just explore the world, explore the *Universe*!

So I ask for a galaxy, and at first all I saw was this:

"That's not a galaxy", says I. "I wonder what it really is?"

So I clicked through to the SkyServer Object Explorer page via the "Galaxy Ref:" link. Here I was disappointed to see the words, No scienceprimary SpecObj linked to this PhotoObj, which means they don't have a spectrum for the object and thus we don't know how far away it is. I then clicked on the image on that page, to get a bigger picture with the SDSS Finding Chart Tool:

Oh. I guess it is a galaxy, all right.

I wondered if some other part of this galaxy might have had its spectrum taken, so I went to the Navigate Tool, which is reachable both from the Object Explorer page (under PhotoObj on the left navigation bar) and from Finding Chart (as Navi, just below the DR6 logo).

On Navigate, the object you're looking at is outlined with a green box. One of the useful things to do here is to check the box under "Drawing options" for "Objects with spectra". When you do that, red boxes go around every object in the view for which there is spectroscopic data. This is extremely important, because the spectrum summary tells you (a) whether the object is really a galaxy at all, and (b) if so, how far away it is.

If there *is* a red spectrum box, you can click it in Navigator to select that object, then get to the new Object Explorer page by clicking "Explore" over the right.

In this case, I was surprised to find that there don't seem to be any parts of this galaxy with a spectrum (and thus distance), but since it takes up the most screen space of any galaxy I've stumbled upon yet, I assume it's pretty close by the standards of the universe.

I don't know (yet!) how to find out whether this galaxy has a NGC number or other "scientific name". I don't even know how to go from the RA/Dec parameters SDSS gives in degrees to the more usual hr:min:sec, so I can figure out what constellation this might be in. While I was exploring I noticed that there's a very bright, probably naked-eye-visible star to the South of this galaxy, at 190.417,-1.457, but I don't know how to convert that to more conventional coordinates, either. If you know, tell me!

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What do mine eyes see?

So as I'm moseying through the universe, like you do, I run across this:

Look at its specs: it's at redshift z=0.067, so maybe a billion light years away. Play around with it at different magnifications. Get your-friend-the-astronomer to look at it. Explain it, because my brain must *not* be parsing what I'm seeing properly. Right?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Many, *many* mansions

Recently I've been spending my occasional spare relax-a-time working for Galaxy Zoo. This project uses volunteers (e.g. me) to classify distant galaxies found by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, because no computer program yet can come near to the human visual cortex when it comes to pattern recognition.

Working on GalaxyZoo is an amazing combination of easy and awe-inspiring. In most cases, classifying the galaxies is either very easy:

-- this is a spiral galaxy at redshift z=0.24, less than 100 million parsecs [1 parsec=3.2 light-years] away -- or else it's pretty much impossible:

-- this is a galaxy I called "elliptical" but which might be more honestly called "blob" at z=0.475, well over a billion parsecs away. Although the imaging equipment & programs have looked at these galaxies before (that's how I got the redshift measurements), they had probably never before been examined by the human eye before they popped up on my screen.

It is awesome in every way. Even though I've been a scientist all my life, I've never had such a strong sense of how *big* the universe is, until I look at galaxy after galaxy, going back into the dark.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

How to Tell Biology from Bullshit: Polygyny and Female Choice

echidne of the snakes made a series of four posts about a recent article in Psychology Today, Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature by Satoshi Kanazawa and Alan S. Miller.

Echidne has done a lot of work dissecting what is wrong with Kanazawa & Miller's article from the point of view of what you might call basic logic and knowledge of human society. I'm going to write about why their work (and a lot of so-call "Evolutionary Psychology" in general, which I'll call EvoPsy to distinguish it from actual scientific studies of evolution or psychology) is scientifically bogus.

I am a Real Evolutionary Biologist™ by training (*waves sheepskins*) and a science writer by sometimes trade. I will say as a blanket, dogmatic statement that you shouldn't write about evolution if you don't know biology. If you're going to claim to be an expert in the evolution of human behavior, you'd better show expertise in: evolution in general; the behavior of non-human primates; and anthropology, the study of a variety of human cultures. Kanazawa & Miller fail all these tests.

To start with their most obvious scientific failure: K&M state that humans are naturally polygynous (use a mating system where one male mates with many females). They also talk about a variety of qualities men supposedly look for in a mate: youth, hair color (!), beauty, etc.

These two things are opposites. It is true that biologists expect as a default that a mammal about which we know nothing else will be polygynous, because most mammals apparently are. We also expect that a bird will be monogamous, because most birds apparently are.

But -- we always expect that the males are the pretty ones. And the more polygynous the species, the prettier the males are likely to be.[1] It is the male peacock who has the beautiful, enormous tail; the male deer who has the big spreading antlers.

To use slightly more scientific terminology, sexual selection acts on males, because it is females who do the selecting. Females are the choosers, males are the choosees. If biologists talk about mate choice we are usually talking about female choice, because by the very definition of "male" (="the one with the small sex cell aka sperm") and "female" (="the one with the big sex cell aka egg") the female has more to lose by making a bad choice.

If real biologists see a species where the females show more sighs of sexual selection than males -- brighter colors, more complex display behavior, more elaborate secondary sex characteristics -- our gut reaction is, "wow, polyandry, how unusual." [2]

So, in nature polygyny means males choose their mates *less* and females are less beautiful. In nature, if a male gets to have many mates, he does not get to choose them, they are choosing him. In crude human terms, you can get a lot of action or you can be picky, you cannot have both. Females, who are expected to be more picky, can get mates more easily than males, and so they have the power of choice.

K&M are clearly not writing about "human nature" in the biological sense, they are writing a fantasy of power and sex. Any feminist can tell that they're doing this from their title -- "politically incorrect" is usually shorthand for "I have the power to not treat other people decently". K&M want the power to have sex with many women, but they also want the power to get women to look and act a certain way. This is not nature, this is a fantasy -- something in the human mind.

I'm not denying that the system K&M yearn for, polygyny with male choice, doesn't happen in many human societies. But it is patently unnatural, even anti-natural: it's not the human instance of a widespread natural pattern, it's something peculiar to human societies, something that makes it seem "natural" to behave in ways no other creature does. K&M don't seem interested in learning what that might be, and that makes them even worse scientists than they seemed already.

Because echidne asked so very nicely -- hardly any rains of amphibians or reptiles! really! -- I shall try to make this a series. Not on K&M, because they are too stupid and hurt my brain. But please make suggestions about topics you'd like to see a feminist Real Evolutionary Biologist address. Also, tell me where I need to put in links. Most of this stuff I know off the top of my head, so it's sometimes hard for me to recognize that you won't necessarily take my unsupported word for it.

[1] Should I put in a picture for illustration here?
[2] The link here is reasonably scientific, but out-of-date: it's now clear that there are various types of cooperative polyandry even in mammals. Examples: The small New-World monkeys marmosets and tamarins; the naked mole rat, the only fully eusocial mammal; the spotted hyena. Should I put links to accounts of these species?

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