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E.g., 2/14/2016
E.g., 2/14/2016
An artist's impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars.

Week in Geek - Ripples in spacetime edition

02/14/16 01:07PM

Can you think back to what you were doing on September 14, 2015 at around 4:50am EST? No? Okay, me neither. But I'm guessing every scientist involved in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) knows exactly where they were. That was the day and time of the first detection of gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are one of the many predictions of how the Universe behaves according to Einstein's theory of general relativity. If you're like me, you hear the words "theory of general relativity" and thoughts of complex equations and math beyond your wildest nightmares come to mind. But really, you can just think of it as Einstein's idea of how gravity works. In high school physics, gravity is taught as an invisible attractive force between any two bodies of mass. General relativity actually "visualizes" this force as the deformation of spacetime around these bodies - the more massive the body, the larger the deformation. Gravity is just how bodies moving through spacetime are affected by this deformation (or warping).

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Image: Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia dies, jolts political world

02/13/16 06:54PM

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most politically consequential justices in modern times, has died unexpectedly.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the bench's ideological conservative known for his fiery comments in and out of the courtroom, has died, Texas' governor said Saturday. He was 79. [...]
A cause of death was not immediately confirmed by NBC News. Chief Justice Roberts said that he and his fellow justices were saddened to learn of his death.
"He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues. His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he loyally served," Roberts said in a statement.
Scalia's passing creates the first high court vacancy since 2010. He is the first sitting justice to die since then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist's death in 2005.
Scalia, a larger-than-life personality with a controversial record on the court, leaves behind his wife, Maureen, and their nine children.
His death, of course, creates conditions that are likely to rock the political world for much of 2016. The current Supreme Court has earned a reputation for being friendly to the right, thanks largely to a five-member conservative majority, with justices who were appointed by Republican presidents.
Scalia's passing obviously changes that equation, offering President Obama an opportunity to not only replace one of the court's most reliable far-right jurists with a center-left successor, but also to shift the balance of ideological power on the Supreme Court and quite possibly change the direction of American jurisprudence for many years to come.
Obama has already placed two progressive justices on the Court -- Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- but in both of these cases, this president's nominees were replacing justices who were already considered members of the center-left contingent, leaving the larger balance of the institution unchanged.
Replacing Scalia, however, is a different story entirely.
Supreme Court could continue without Scalia

Supreme Court business could continue without Scalia

02/13/16 06:05PM

Pete Williams, NBC News justice correspondent, explains that the Supreme Court could continue hearing cases without Antonin Scalia's position filled, making it an eight-person body with cases on subjects ranging from abortion to immigration waiting to be heard. watch

This Week in God, 2.13.16

02/13/16 08:11AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a leading Republican presidential hopeful picking an unexpected fight with one of the world's most prominent religious leaders.
Over the course of the presidential campaign, Donald Trump has feuded with a surprising number of people, countries, groups, states, news outlets, and minority groups. But as the New York Times reported, the GOP frontrunner this week directed at least some of his ire at Pope Francis.
Donald J. Trump has a message for Pope Francis ahead of the pope's trip to pray with migrants along the Mexican border: You don't get it.
The pope is planning to go to the Rio Grande next week while on a visit to Mexico. He plans to offer prayer and show solidarity with suffering refugees.
Mr. Trump does not approve. In an interview with the Fox Business Network on Thursday, the Republican presidential candidate, who has proposed building a wall along the United States's southern border, suggested that Francis was serving as a pawn of the Mexican government.
Echoing a complaint Trump first made several months ago, the Republican candidate complained that the pope "is a very political person." Trump added, "I don't think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico. I think Mexico got him to do it because they want to keep the border just the way it is. They're making a fortune, and we're losing."
For the record, there is no "open border," illegal border crossings have declined, and border security has reached an all-time high in the Obama era.
I spoke yesterday with John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, who said, "If Trump wants to persuade Christian voters, he shouldn't pick a fight with the most popular religious leader on the global stage. Pope Francis knows that defending the dignity of immigrants isn't about playing politics. It's a Christian imperative. Trump likes to show off his family Bible, but he missed a central lesson about welcoming the stranger and protecting the refugee."
It's true that in the larger electoral context, Trump is making a concerted effort to appeal to Christian voters, and his criticism of Pope Francis probably won't help. Then again, in upcoming primary states like South Carolina, the vast majority of Republican primary voters are Evangelical Protestants, not Catholics, so perhaps Trump is willing to take the chance.
Also from the God Machine this week:

Friday's Mini-Report, 2.12.16

02/12/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* The latest school shooting: "The double shooting at a Glendale, Arizona, high school Friday morning involved two 15-year-old sophomores who both died of single gunshot wounds, authorities said. The incident at Independence High School was not an active shooter situation once police cleared the scene and found the teens dead, Glendale Police Officer Tracey Breeden said at a news conference."
* Syria: "World powers began work Friday on the details of a temporary ceasefire in war-ravaged Syria, but rebels and aid groups on the ground were skeptical the "ambitious" deal could be implemented."
* Flint: "The Obama administration plans to extend Medicaid coverage to pregnant women and children affected by the Flint, Michigan water crisis, senior officials told House Democrats on Friday."
* Protecting more natural treasures: "President Obama designated three new national monuments in the California desert Thursday, expanding federal protection to 1.8 million acres of landscapes that have retained their natural beauty despite decades of heavy mining, cattle ranching and off-roading."
* Encouraging economic data: "U.S. consumers boosted their spending during the year's first month, and finished 2015 on a stronger note than first thought, the latest sign of low unemployment and cheap gasoline outweighing concerns about market turmoil."
* Related news: "The U.S. government posted a $55 billion budget surplus in January, up from an $18 billion deficit in the same month a year ago, the Treasury Department said on Wednesday. Analysts polled by Reuters had expected a $45 billion surplus for last month. Treasury officials said the surplus was boosted by the highest receipts on record for the month of January."
* A minor miracle: "The Senate on Friday confirmed a handful of ambassadors and State Department officials, including the American ambassadors to Sweden and Norway -- a move that came after Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, lifted his months-long hold on the nominations which were in place because of his objection to the Iran nuclear deal."