On the job at the National Science Foundation

Some employees of the taxpayer-funded National Science Foundation are not spending their days doing science. The agency is reportedly plagued with a pornography epidemic.

Employee misconduct investigations, often involving workers accessing pornography from their government computers, grew sixfold last year inside the taxpayer-funded foundation that doles out billions of dollars of scientific research grants, according to budget documents and other records obtained by The Washington Times.

The problems at the National Science Foundation (NSF) were so pervasive they swamped the agency’s inspector general and forced the internal watchdog to cut back on its primary mission of investigating grant fraud and recovering misspent tax dollars.

“To manage this dramatic increase without an increase in staff required us to significantly reduce our efforts to investigate grant fraud,” the inspector general recently told Congress in a budget request. “We anticipate a significant decline in investigative recoveries and prosecutions in coming years as a direct result.”

The budget request doesn’t state the nature or number of the misconduct cases, but records obtained by The Times through the Freedom of Information Act laid bare the extent of the well-publicized porn problem inside the government-backed foundation.

For instance, one senior executive spent at least 331 days looking at pornography on his government computer and chatting online with nude or partially clad women without being detected, the records show.

When finally caught, the NSF official retired. He even offered, among other explanations, a humanitarian defense, suggesting that he frequented the porn sites to provide a living to the poor overseas women. Investigators put the cost to taxpayers of the senior official’s porn surfing at between $13,800 and about $58,000.

“He explained that these young women are from poor countries and need to make money to help their parents and this site helps them do that,” investigators wrote in a memo.

The independent foundation, funded by taxpayers to the tune of $6 billion in 2008, is tasked with handing out scientific grants to colleges, universities and research institutions nationwide. The projects it funds ranges from mapping the genome of the potato to exploring outer space with powerful new telescopes. It has a total of 1,200 career employees.

Recent budget documents for the inspector general cite a “6-fold increase in employee misconduct cases and associated proactive management implication report activities.” The document doesn’t say how many cases were involved in the increase, and officials could not immediately provide a figure. . . .

Another employee in a different case was caught with hundreds of pictures, videos and even PowerPoint slide shows containing pornography. Asked by an investigator whether he had completed any government work on a day when a significant amount of pornography was downloaded, the employee responded, “Um, I can’t remember,” according to records.

They do this on the job? While they are being paid?

India probe finds water on the moon

A lunar probe sent off by India has found evidence that the moon has water. That may make a moon colony possible. But it might not be an American colony. I wonder if this breakthrough may signal a shift away from American scientific and technological dominance to that of Asian countries that are doing a better job of educating their children in math and science than we are.

Butterfly in space

Here is a beautiful, evocative picture taken by the Hubble telescope.
vast streams of gas racing at over 600,000mph from a dying star.

Butterfly in Space

This gossamer, delicate image is of streams of gas shooting out at 600,000 m.p.h. from a dying star. The beautiful and the sublime (including Burke’s sense of both the vast and the terrifying) come together.

Photograph of a molecule

Scientists for the first time have managed to take a photographic image of a single molecule:

It may look like a piece of honeycomb, but this lattice-shaped image is the first ever close-up view of a single molecule.

Scientists from IBM used an atomic force microscope (AFM) to reveal the chemical bonds within a molecule.

‘This is the first time that all the atoms in a molecule have been imaged,’ lead researcher Leo Gross said.

The researchers focused on a single molecule of pentacene, which is commonly used in solar cells. The rectangular-shaped organic molecule is made up of 22 carbon atoms and 14 hydrogen atoms.

In the image . . . the hexagonal shapes of the five carbon rings are clear and even the positions of the hydrogen atoms around the carbon rings can be seen.

To give some perspective, the space between the carbon rings is only 0.14 nanometers across, which is roughly one million times smaller than the diameter of a grain of sand.

First Photograph of a Molecule

How mysterious this is, how full of wonder, how intricately made is everything in the universe, on every scale, from the vast to the miniscule.

Burke reminds us that the sublime–something that fills us with overwhelming awe–can be found not only in the vastness that seems to partake of infinity, but also in the smallness that seems to partake of infinity:

as the great extreme of dimension is sublime, so the last extreme of littleness is in some measure sublime likewise; when we attend to the infinite divisibility of matter, when we pursue animal life into these excessively small, and yet organized beings, that escape the nicest inquisition of the sense; when we push our discoveries yet downward, and consider those creatures so many degrees yet smaller, and the still diminishing scale of existence, in tracing which the imagination is lost as well as the sense; we become amazed and confounded at the wonders of minuteness; nor can we distinguish in its effect this extreme of littleness from the vast itself.

The shadow universe

Fermi lab, in suburban Chicago, is going to send a beam of neutrinos underneath Wisconsin to be collected all the way in northern Minnesota, all in the hopes of understanding these mysterious entities. From Blasting Neutrinos Under Wisconsin May Yield Big Payoff – washingtonpost.com:

Neutrinos blast right through the Earth with nary a spark. They interact so rarely and so weakly with normal matter that they can zip right through solid rock as though it were not even there — much like light through a clear glass window. That’s why, contrary to the hopes of some private contractors who heard about a big new experiment under construction, Fermilab does not need to dig a tunnel underneath Wisconsin.

A common adjective applied to neutrinos is “ghostly.” They have no charge. Until recently, it was unclear if neutrinos had any mass at all (they do, but just a smidgen). Trillions of neutrinos from the sun pass through our bodies every minute, scientists say. You could be hit with a neutrino beam right between the eyes without getting so much as a blemish.

“These neutrinos are a type of matter that essentially form a shadow universe,” said Marvin Marshak, a University of Minnesota physicist working on the new neutrino experiment, called Nova. “They share space with us, but they have very little interaction with us. So you have neutrinos going through your body all the time — neutrinos from the sun, neutrinos from the cosmic rays coming down from space, neutrinos left over from the birth of the universe — but they go right through you.”

Again, the universe is far more mysterious than mere materialists realize. Even material is not so material any more. The more science learns, the more mysterious the universe proves to be.

Rheticus on TV

If Luther is the definitive Lutheran theologian, and Melanchthon is the definitive Lutheran scholar, and Cranach is the definitive Lutheran artist, and Bach is the definitive Lutheran musician, then Rheticus is the definitive Lutheran scientist.

A colleague of Luther and Melanchthon at the University of Wittenberg, Rheticus was the only pupil of Copernicus. He was the one who published Copernicus’s papers that promoted the revolutionary notion that the earth was not the center of the universe. Rheticus defended this position, which turned out to be true. Just as Luther overthrew human-centered theology, Rheticus overthrew human-centered science.

But he never gets any press, and hardly anybody has ever heard of him. Imagine my surprise to be surfing on the internet while my wife was watching a DVR of Warehouse 13, an X-Files wannabe on the SciFi–sorry, SyFy–network and hearing the characters talk about Rheticus. The story has Rheticus inventing a human teleportation device. And the picture they showed of him is really Melanchthon. Still.

Here is what he really looked like: