• Erin Brockovich: the real-life unhappy ending of Hinkley, California, and a tale of science for sale

    [Video Link. BB Editor's note: This blog post originally appeared at the PBS NewsHour site. Miles investigated this story for PBS NewsHour in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity (CPI). Go to their site for an in-depth look at how industry scientists stalled government action on chromium-6.]

    HINKLEY, CALIFORNIA—We all love a neat, tidy Hollywood ending to a David and Goliath story. Sadly, in the real world, they are hard to come by. More often than not, the little guy might win a battle, but Goliath prevails over the long haul — winning the war.

    Before I went to Hinkley, I did, of course, watch the movie once again. As it turns out, Erin Brockovich is accurate in many respects.

    Water that is heavily contaminated with chromium-6 turns bright yellow. Public utility testing shows more than 70 million Americans drink tap water tainted by chromium-6. Photo by Cameron Hickey.

    You might remember the woman who gets a big check at the end of the movie after the down-on-her-luck, crusading legal assistant has brought a giant utility to its knees for polluting the groundwater beneath the tiny desert town half way between L.A. and Las Vegas.

    In the movie, she was known as Donna Jensen (and played by Marg Helgenberger). There is no real-life Donna Jensen — the details of her story are a composite of several real-life travails. (more…)

  • We left the moon 40 years ago today. Will we ever return?

    It was forty years today (at 22:54:37 UT) that human beings left the moon for the last time. Commander Gene Cernan's last words as stood on the moon were lofty, rehearsed and memorized:

    "As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come (but we believe not too long into the future), I'd like to just say what I believe history will record: That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind."

    His real last words uttered on the moon, just before hitting the button that would launch the "Challenger" Lunar Module carrying him and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt back to the orbiting Command Module "America" were more apt for a card-carrying member of the "Right Stuff Club".

    "Okay, Jack, let's get this mutha outta here," said Cernan.

    Cernan's autobiography "The Last Man on the Moon" is a great read. Among the things you might find surprising: Cernan crashed a Bell B-13 (M*A*S*H) helicopter into still water at Cape Canaveral in January of 1971 nearly killing himself. (more…)

  • Geminids Meteor shower: How to watch the big fireworks in the sky tonight

    Mother Nature is offering up her best fireworks show of the year tonight. All you have to do is hope for clear skies, pour a warm beverage in a thermos, put on some layers and head outside tonight to take it all in.

    I am talking about the Geminids Meteor shower which emanates from the Gemini constellation. Finding it should not be hard – even for a night sky newbie. Find Sirius. Up and to the right will be Orion's Belt. Up a little higher to the left will be Gemini. The meteors will emanate from there (astronomers call this the radiant).

    NASA is running a chat during the shower and will also be sending out a live image from the Marshall Spaceflight Center on their Ustream channel tonight. This is nice if you would prefer to stay warm and in your jammies! More on all of this here.

    My friends at Universe Today also have a good Gemind viewing guide.

    There are, of course some apps for this if you have trouble navigating in the dark. Star Walk is a good one for the Apple Nation. I cannot personally vouch for anything Android, but I would guess the Google Sky Map would be a good place to start.

    They show goes on from about 9:00pm until 4:30am wherever you happen to be. Peak viewing should be around midnight to 1:00am

    To get some deeper gouge, I Skyped the folks at AtronomyNow.com. I spoke with their night sky consultant, Mark Armstrong. You can watch, or read the transcript, or both!

    (more…)