Category Archives: BigBang

Are FRBs Created by Aliens?

An FRB is an acronym coined by astronomers for fast radio burst. Since recent observations of our cosmos began with super-powerful telescopes only 17 such FRBs have ever been observed. These events last a mere handful of milliseconds but produce the equivalent power of around 100 million suns.

Two theories for these FRBs are relatively mundane. One theory proposes that FRBs are generated by powerful magnetars — highly magnetized, fast-rotating superdense stars. A second theory suggests that a FRB is a created by an especially exotic type of black hole.

And, then, there is a third, more fascinating, theory — that FRBs are the result of alien spaceship propulsion systems.

From the Economist:

Similar unrepeated signals have since been noted elsewhere in the heavens. So far, 17 such “fast radio bursts” (FRBs) have been recognised. They do not look like anything observed before, and there is much speculation about what causes them. One possibility is magnetars—highly magnetised, fast-rotating superdense stars. Another is a particularly exotic sort of black hole, formed when the centrifugal force of a rotating, superdense star proves no longer adequate to the task of stopping that star collapsing suddenly under its own gravity. But, as Manasvi Lingam of Harvard University and Abraham Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics observe, there is at least one further possibility: alien spaceships.

Specifically, the two researchers suggest, in a paper to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, that FRBs might be generated by giant radio transmitters designed to push such spaceships around. With the rotation of the galaxies in which these transmitters are located, the transmitter-beams sweep across the heavens. Occasionally, one washes over Earth, producing an FRB.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

Time to Move to Trappist-1

Those bright women and men at NASA have done it again. This time they’ve discovered 7 exoplanets all revolving around the same distant star. The cool news is that on the cosmological distance scale it’s relatively close, only around 40-light years away — a mere 230 trillion miles or so. And, even more fascinating, three of the system’s planets are within the so-called “Goldilocks” habitable zone.

The system is named TRAPPIST-1 (Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope). The TRAPPIST telescope in Chile originally discovered 3  exoplanets. Now, using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, researchers have upped the total to 7 exoplanets.

I’m ready. Now, just need a spacecraft, and a quick one at that.

From NASA:

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

Read more here.

Image: An illustration of seven Earth-sized planets observed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope around a tiny, nearby, ultra-cool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. Three of these planets are firmly in the habitable zone. Courtesy: NASA.

Send to Kindle

Reading Makes You A Better Person

Scientists have finally learned what book lovers have known for some time — reading fiction makes you a better person.

From Readers Digest:

Anyone who reads understands the bittersweet feeling of finishing a good book. It’s as if a beloved friend has suddenly packed her things and parted, the back cover swinging closed like a taxicab door. Farewell, friend. See you on the shelf.

If you’ve ever felt weird for considering fictional characters your friends or fictional places your home, science says you no longer have to. A new body of research is emerging to explain how books have such a powerful emotional pull on us, and the answer du jour is surprising—when we step into a fictional world, we treat the experiences as if they were real. Adding to the endless list of reading benefits is this: Reading fiction literally makes you more empathetic in real life.

Not all fiction is created equal, though—and reading a single chapter of Harry Potter isn’t an instant emotion-enhancer. Here are a few key caveats from the nerdy scientists trying to figure out why reading rules.

Rule #1: The story has to “take you somewhere.”

How many times have you heard someone declare that a good book “transports” you? That immersive power that allows readers to happily inhabit other people, places, and points of view for hours at a time is precisely what a team of researchers in the Netherlands credit for the results of a 2013 study in which students asked to read an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery showed a marked increase in empathy one week later, while students tasked with reading a sampling of news articles showed a decline.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

Zebra Stripes


Why do zebras have stripes? Well, we’ve all learned from an early age that their peculiar and unique black and white stripes are an adaptation to combat predators. One theory suggests that the stripes are camouflage. Another theory suggests that the stripes are there to confuse predators. Yet another proposes that the stripes are a vivid warning signal.

But Tim Caro, professor of wildlife biology at the University of California, has a thoroughly different idea, conveyed in his new book, Zebra Stripes. After twenty years of study he’s convinced that the zebra’s stripes have a more mundane purpose — a deterrent to pesky biting flies.

From Wired:

At four in the morning, Tim Caro roused his colleagues. Bleary-eyed and grumbling, they followed him to the edge of the village, where the beasts were hiding. He sat them down in chairs, and after letting their eyes adjust for a minute, he asked them if they saw anything. And if so, would they please point where?

Not real beasts. Despite being camped in Tanzania’s Katavi National Park, Caro was asking his colleagues to identify pelts—from a wildebeest, an impala, and a zebra—that he had draped over chairs or clotheslines. Caro wanted to know if the zebra’s stripes gave it any sort of camouflage in the pre-dawn, when many predators hunt, and he needed the sort of replicability he could not count on from the animals roaming the savannah. “I lost a lot of social capital on that experiment,” says Caro. “If you’re going to be woken up at all, it’s important to be woken up for something exciting or unpredictable, and this was neither.”

The experiment was one of hundreds Caro performed over a twenty year scientific odyssey to discover why zebras have stripes—a question that nearly every major biologist since Alfred Russel Wallace has tried to answer. “It became sort of a challenge to me to try and investigate all the existing hypotheses so I could not only identify the right one,” he says, “but just as importantly kill all those remaining.” His new book, Zebra Stripes, chronicles every detail.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Zebras, Botswana. Courtesy: Paul Maritz, 2002. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

Send to Kindle

Are You Smarter Than My Octopus?


My pet octopus has moods. It can change the color of its skin on demand. It watches me with its huge eyes. It’s inquisitive and can manipulate objects. Importantly, my octopus has around half a billion neurons in its brain, compared with around 100 billion in mine, and around 50 million in your pet gerbil.

Ok, let me stop for a moment. I don’t actually have a pet octopus. But the rest is true — about the octopus’ remarkable abilities. So, does it have a mind and is it sentient?

From the Atlantic:

Drawing on the work of other researchers, from primatologists to fellow octopologists and philosophers, Godfrey-Smith suggests two reasons for the large nervous system of the octopus. One has to do with its body. For an animal like a cat or a human, details of the skeleton dictate many of the motions the animal can make. You can’t roll your arm into a neat spiral from wrist to shoulder— your bones and joints get in the way. An octopus, having no skeleton, has no such constraint. It can, and frequently does, roll up some of its arms; or it can choose to make one (or several) of them stiff, creating an elbow. Surely the animal needs a huge number of neurons merely to be well coordinated when roaming about the reef.

At the same time, octopuses are versatile predators, eating a wide variety of food, from lobsters and shrimps to clams and fish. Octopuses that live in tide pools will occasionally leap out of the water to catch passing crabs; some even prey on incautious birds, grabbing them by the legs, pulling them underwater, and drowning them. Animals that evolve to tackle diverse kinds of food may tend to evolve larger brains than animals that always handle food in the same way (think of a frog catching insects).

Like humans, octopuses learn new skills. In some species, individuals inhabit a den for only a week or so before moving on, so they are constantly learning routes through new environments. Similarly, the first time an octopus tackles a clam, say, it has to figure out how to open it—can it pull it apart, or would it be more effective to drill a hole? If consciousness is necessary for such tasks, then perhaps the octopus does have an awareness that in some ways resembles our own.

Perhaps, indeed, we should take the “mammalian” behaviors of octopuses at face value. If evolution can produce similar eyes through different routes, why not similar minds? Or perhaps, in wishing to find these animals like ourselves, what we are really revealing is our deep desire not to be alone.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Common octopus. Courtesy: Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Send to Kindle

What Up With That: Nationalism

The recent political earthquake in the US is just one example of a nationalistic wave that swept across Western democracies in 2015-2016. The election in the US seemed to surprise many political talking-heads since the nation was, and still is, on a continuing path towards greater liberalism (mostly due to demographics).

So, what exactly is up with that? Can American liberals enter a coma for the next 4 years, sure to awaken refreshed and ready for a new left-of-center regime? Or, is the current nationalistic mood — albeit courtesy of a large minority — likely to prevail for a while longer? Well, there’s no clear answer, and political scientists and researchers are baffled.

Care to learn more about theories of nationalism and the historical underpinnings of nationalism? Visit my reading list over at Goodreads. But make sure you start with: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson. It’s been the global masterwork on the analysis of nationalism since it was first published in 1983.

I tend to agree with Anderson’s thesis, that a nation is mostly a collective figment of people’s imagination facilitated by modern communications networks. So, I have to believe that eventually our networks will help us overcome the false strictures of our many national walls and borders.

From Scientific American:

Waves of nationalist sentiment are reshaping the politics of Western democracies in unexpected ways — carrying Donald Trump to a surprise victory last month in the US presidential election, and pushing the United Kingdom to vote in June to exit the European Union. And nationalist parties are rising in popularity across Europe.

Many economists see this political shift as a consequence of globalization and technological innovation over the past quarter of a century, which have eliminated many jobs in the West. And political scientists are tracing the influence of cultural tensions arising from immigration and from ethnic, racial and sexual diversity. But researchers are struggling to understand why these disparate forces have combined to drive an unpredictable brand of populist politics.

“We have to start worrying about the stability of our democracies,” says Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He notes that the long-running World Values Survey shows that people are increasingly disaffected with their governments — and more willing to support authoritarian leaders.

Some academics have explored potential parallels between the roots of the current global political shift and the rise of populism during the Great Depression, including in Nazi Germany. But Helmut Anheier, president of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, cautions that the economic struggles of middle-class citizens across the West today are very different, particularly in mainland Europe.

The Nazis took advantage of the extreme economic hardship that followed the First World War and a global depression, but today’s populist movements are growing powerful in wealthy European countries with strong social programmes. “What brings about a right-wing movement when there are no good reasons for it?”Anheier asks.

In the United States, some have suggested that racism motivated a significant number of Trump voters. But that is too simplistic an explanation, says Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard University.  “Trump dominated the news for more than a year, and did so with provocative statements that were meant to exacerbate every tension in the US,” she says.

Read the entire story here.

p.s. What Up With That is my homage to the recurring Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch of the same name.

Send to Kindle

Reliving the Titan Descent

A couple of days ago NASA released this gorgeous video constructed from real images taken by the Huygens lander. This revisits Huygen’s successful landing on Titan — Saturn’s largest moon, just over 12 years ago, on January 14, 2005.

Huygens made up half of the Cassini-Huygens joint NASA-ESA (European Space Agency) mission to investigate Saturn and its strange moons. Cassini is currently still in close orbit around Saturn. To date the mission remains the first to successfully land on a moon beyond Earth’s own.

Video: This movie was built thanks to the data collected by ESA’s Huygens Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR) on 14 January 2005, during the 147-minutes plunge through Titan’s thick orange-brown atmosphere to a soft sandy riverbed. In 4 minutes 40 seconds, the movie shows what the probe ‘saw’ within the few hours of the descent and the eventual landing. Courtesy: NASA/ESA.

Send to Kindle

We Live in a Flat Universe


Cosmologists generally agree that our universe is flat. But how exactly can that be for our 3-dimensional selves and everything else for that matter? Well, first it’s useful to note that the flatness is a property of geometry, and not topology. So, even though it’s flat, the universe could be folded and/or twisted in any number of different, esoteric ways.

From Space:

The universe is flat. But there’s a lot of subtlety packed into that innocent-looking statement. What does it mean for a 3D object to be “flat”? How do we measure the shape of the universe anyway? Since the universe is flat, is that…it? Is there anything else interesting to say?

Oh yes, there is.

First, we need to define what we mean by flat. The screen you’re reading this on is obviously flat (I hope), and you know that the Earth is curved (I hope). But how can we quantify that mathematically? Such an exercise might be useful if we want to go around measuring the shape of the whole entire universe. [The History & Structure of the Universe (Infographic)]

One answer lies in parallel lines. If you start drawing two parallel lines on your paper and let them continue on, they’ll stay perfectly parallel forever (or at least until you run out of paper). That was essentially the definition of a parallel line for a couple thousand years, so we should be good.

Let’s repeat the exercise on the surface of the Earth. Start at the equator and draw a couple parallel lines, each pointing directly north. As the lines continue, they never turn left or right but still end up intersecting at the North Pole. The curvature of the Earth itself caused these initially parallel lines to end up not-so-parallel. Ergo, the Earth is curved.

The opposite of the Earth’s curved shape is a saddle: on that surface, lines that start out parallel end up spreading apart from each other (in swanky mathematical circles this is known as “ultraparallel”).

Read the entire article here.

Image: The shape of the universe depends on its density. If the density is more than the critical density, the universe is closed and curves like a sphere; if less, it will curve like a saddle. But if the actual density of the universe is equal to the critical density, as scientists think it is, then it will extend forever like a flat piece of paper. Courtesy: NASA/WMAP Science team.

Send to Kindle

Vera Rubin: Astronomy Pioneer

Vera Rubin passed away on December 26, 2016, aged 88. She was a pioneer in the male-dominated world of astronomy, notable for her original work on dark matter,  galaxy rotation and galaxy clumping.

From Popular Science:

Vera Rubin, who essentially created a new field of astronomy by discovering dark matter, was a favorite to win the Nobel Prize in physics for years. But she never received her early-morning call from Stockholm. On Sunday, she died at the age of 88.

Rubin’s death would sadden the scientific community under the best of circumstances. Countless scientists were inspired by her work. Countless scientists are researching questions that wouldn’t exist if not for her work. But her passing brings another blow: The Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. The most prestigious award in physics will never be bestowed upon a woman who was inarguably deserving.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Rubin and her colleague Kent Ford found that the stars within spiral galaxies weren’t behaving as the laws of physics dictated that they should. This strange spinning led her and others to conclude that some unseen mass must be influencing the galactic rotation. This unknown matter—now dubbed dark matter—outnumbers the traditional stuff by at least five to one. This is a big deal.

Read more here.

Send to Kindle

Spacetime Without the Time

anti-de-sitter-spaceSince they were first dreamed up explanations of the very small (quantum mechanics) and the very large (general relativity) have both been highly successful at describing their respective spheres of influence. Yet, these two descriptions of our physical universe are not compatible, particularly when it comes to describing gravity. Indeed, physicists and theorists have struggled for decades to unite these two frameworks. Many agree that we need a new theory (of everything).

One new idea, from theorist Erik Verlinde of the University of Amsterdam, proposes that time is an emergent construct (it’s not a fundamental building block) and that dark matter is an illusion.

From Quanta:

Theoretical physicists striving to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity into an all-encompassing theory of quantum gravity face what’s called the “problem of time.”

In quantum mechanics, time is universal and absolute; its steady ticks dictate the evolving entanglements between particles. But in general relativity (Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity), time is relative and dynamical, a dimension that’s inextricably interwoven with directions x, y and z into a four-dimensional “space-time” fabric. The fabric warps under the weight of matter, causing nearby stuff to fall toward it (this is gravity), and slowing the passage of time relative to clocks far away. Or hop in a rocket and use fuel rather than gravity to accelerate through space, and time dilates; you age less than someone who stayed at home.

Unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity requires reconciling their absolute and relative notions of time. Recently, a promising burst of research on quantum gravity has provided an outline of what the reconciliation might look like — as well as insights on the true nature of time.

As I described in an article this week on a new theoretical attempt to explain away dark matter, many leading physicists now consider space-time and gravity to be “emergent” phenomena: Bendy, curvy space-time and the matter within it are a hologram that arises out of a network of entangled qubits (quantum bits of information), much as the three-dimensional environment of a computer game is encoded in the classical bits on a silicon chip. “I think we now understand that space-time really is just a geometrical representation of the entanglement structure of these underlying quantum systems,” said Mark Van Raamsdonk, a theoretical physicist at the University of British Columbia.

Researchers have worked out the math showing how the hologram arises in toy universes that possess a fisheye space-time geometry known as “anti-de Sitter” (AdS) space. In these warped worlds, spatial increments get shorter and shorter as you move out from the center. Eventually, the spatial dimension extending from the center shrinks to nothing, hitting a boundary. The existence of this boundary — which has one fewer spatial dimension than the interior space-time, or “bulk” — aids calculations by providing a rigid stage on which to model the entangled qubits that project the hologram within. “Inside the bulk, time starts bending and curving with the space in dramatic ways,” said Brian Swingle of Harvard and Brandeis universities. “We have an understanding of how to describe that in terms of the ‘sludge’ on the boundary,” he added, referring to the entangled qubits.

The states of the qubits evolve according to universal time as if executing steps in a computer code, giving rise to warped, relativistic time in the bulk of the AdS space. The only thing is, that’s not quite how it works in our universe.

Here, the space-time fabric has a “de Sitter” geometry, stretching as you look into the distance. The fabric stretches until the universe hits a very different sort of boundary from the one in AdS space: the end of time. At that point, in an event known as “heat death,” space-time will have stretched so much that everything in it will become causally disconnected from everything else, such that no signals can ever again travel between them. The familiar notion of time breaks down. From then on, nothing happens.

On the timeless boundary of our space-time bubble, the entanglements linking together qubits (and encoding the universe’s dynamical interior) would presumably remain intact, since these quantum correlations do not require that signals be sent back and forth. But the state of the qubits must be static and timeless. This line of reasoning suggests that somehow, just as the qubits on the boundary of AdS space give rise to an interior with one extra spatial dimension, qubits on the timeless boundary of de Sitter space must give rise to a universe with time — dynamical time, in particular. Researchers haven’t yet figured out how to do these calculations. “In de Sitter space,” Swingle said, “we don’t have a good idea for how to understand the emergence of time.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Image of (1 + 1)-dimensional anti-de Sitter space embedded in flat (1 + 2)-dimensional space. The t1- and t2-axes lie in the plane of rotational symmetry, and the x1-axis is normal to that plane. The embedded surface contains closed timelike curves circling the x1 axis, though these can be eliminated by “unrolling” the embedding (more precisely, by taking the universal cover). Courtesy: Krishnavedala. Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

Send to Kindle

Wound Man


No, the image is not a still from a forthcoming episode of Law & Order or Criminal Minds. Nor is it a nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch artwork.

Rather, “Wound Man”, as he was known, is a visual table of contents to a medieval manuscript of medical cures, treatments and surgeries. Wound Man first appeared in German surgical texts in the early 15th century. Arranged around each of his various wounds and ailments are references to further details on appropriate treatments. For instance, reference number 38 alongside an arrow penetrating Wound Man’s thigh, “An arrow whose shaft is still in place”, leads to details on how to address the wound — presumably a relatively common occurrence in the Middle Ages.

From Public Domain Review:

Staring impassively out of the page, he bears a multitude of graphic wounds. His skin is covered in bleeding cuts and lesions, stabbed and sliced by knives, spears and swords of varying sizes, many of which remain in the skin, protruding porcupine-like from his body. Another dagger pierces his side, and through his strangely transparent chest we see its tip puncture his heart. His thighs are pierced with arrows, some intact, some snapped down to just their heads or shafts. A club slams into his shoulder, another into the side of his face.

His neck, armpits and groin sport rounded blue buboes, swollen glands suggesting that the figure has contracted plague. His shins and feet are pockmarked with clustered lacerations and thorn scratches, and he is beset by rabid animals. A dog, snake and scorpion bite at his ankles, a bee stings his elbow, and even inside the cavity of his stomach a toad aggravates his innards.

Despite this horrendous cumulative barrage of injuries, however, the Wound Man is very much alive. For the purpose of this image was not to threaten or inspire fear, but to herald potential cures for all of the depicted maladies. He contrarily represented something altogether more hopeful than his battered body: an arresting reminder of the powerful knowledge that could be channelled and dispensed in the practice of late medieval medicine.

The earliest known versions of the Wound Man appeared at the turn of the fifteenth century in books on the surgical craft, particularly works from southern Germany associated with the renowned Würzburg surgeon Ortolf von Baierland (died before 1339). Accompanying a text known as the “Wundarznei” (The Surgery), these first Wound Men effectively functioned as a human table of contents for the cures contained within the relevant treatise. Look closely at the remarkable Wound Man shown above from the Wellcome Library’s MS. 49 – a miscellany including medical material produced in Germany in about 1420 – and you see that the figure is penetrated not only by weapons but also by text.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Wound Man. Courtesy: Wellcome Library’s MS. 49 — Source (CC BY 4.0). Public Domain Review.

Send to Kindle

The Anomaly

Is the smallest, lightest, most ghostly particle about to upend our understanding of the universe? Recently, the ephemeral neutrino has begun to give up some of its secrets. Beginning in 1998 the neutrino experiments at Super-Kamiokande and Sudbury Neutrino Observatory showed for the first time that neutrinos oscillate with one of three flavors. In 2015, two physicists were awarded the Nobel prize for this discovery, which also proved that neutrinos must have mass. More recently, a small anomaly at the Super-Kamiokande detector has surfaced, which, is hoped, could shed light on why the universe is constructed primarily from matter and not anti-matter.

From Quanta:

The anomaly, detected by the T2K experiment, is not yet pronounced enough to be sure of, but it and the findings of two related experiments “are all pointing in the same direction,” said Hirohisa Tanaka of the University of Toronto, a member of the T2K team who presented the result to a packed audience in London earlier this month.

“A full proof will take more time,” said Werner Rodejohann, a neutrino specialist at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg who was not involved in the experiments, “but my and many others’ feeling is that there is something real here.”

The long-standing puzzle to be solved is why we and everything we see is matter-made. More to the point, why does anything — matter or antimatter — exist at all? The reigning laws of particle physics, known as the Standard Model, treat matter and antimatter nearly equivalently, respecting (with one known exception) so-called charge-parity, or “CP,” symmetry: For every particle decay that produces, say, a negatively charged electron, the mirror-image decay yielding a positively charged antielectron occurs at the same rate. But this cannot be the whole story. If equal amounts of matter and antimatter were produced during the Big Bang, equal amounts should have existed shortly thereafter. And since matter and antimatter annihilate upon contact, such a situation would have led to the wholesale destruction of both, resulting in an empty cosmos.

Somehow, significantly more matter than antimatter must have been created, such that a matter surplus survived the annihilation and now holds sway. The question is, what CP-violating process beyond the Standard Model favored the production of matter over antimatter?

Many physicists suspect that the answer lies with neutrinos — ultra-elusive, omnipresent particles that pass unfelt through your body by the trillions each second.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

Surplus Humans and the Death of Work


It’s a simple equation: too many humans, not enough work. Low paying, physical jobs continue to disappear, replaced by mechanization. More cognitive work characterized by the need to think is increasingly likely to be automated and robotized. This has complex and dire consequences, and not just global economic ramifications, but moral ones. What are we to make of ourselves and of a culture that has intimately linked work with meaning when the work is outsourced or eliminated entirely?

A striking example comes from the richest country in the world — the United States. Recently and anomalously life-expectancy has shown a decrease among white people in economically depressed areas of the nation. Many economists suggest that the quest for ever-increasing productivity — usually delivered through automation — is chipping away at the very essence of what it means to be human: value purpose through work.

James Livingston professor of history at Rutgers University summarizes the existential dilemma, excerpted below, in his latest book No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea.

From aeon:

Work means everything to us Americans. For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.

These days, everybody from Left to Right – from the economist Dean Baker to the social scientist Arthur C Brooks, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – addresses this breakdown of the labour market by advocating ‘full employment’, as if having a job is self-evidently a good thing, no matter how dangerous, demanding or demeaning it is. But ‘full employment’ is not the way to restore our faith in hard work, or in playing by the rules, or in whatever else sounds good. The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit. Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers. Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.

Those jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession just aren’t coming back, regardless of what the unemployment rate tells you – the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero – and if they do return from the dead, they’ll be zombies, those contingent, part-time or minimum-wage jobs where the bosses shuffle your shift from week to week: welcome to Wal-Mart, where food stamps are a benefit.

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Detroit Industry North Wall, Diego Rivera. Courtesy: Detroit Institute of Arts. Wikipedia.

Send to Kindle

You’re Not In Control


Press a button, then something happens. Eat too much chocolate, then you feel great (and then put on weight). Step in to the middle of a busy road, then you get hit by an oncoming car. Walk in the rain, then you get wet. Watch your favorite comedy show, then you laugh.

Every moment of our lives is filled with actions and consequences, causes and effects. Usually we have a good sense of what is likely to happen when we take a specific action. This sense of predictability smooths our lives and makes us feel in control.

But sometimes all is not what is seems. Take the buttons on some of the most actively used objects in our daily lives. Press the “close door” button on the elevator [or “lift” for my British readers], then the door closes, right? Press the “pedestrian crossing” button at the crosswalk [or “zebra crossing”], then the safe to cross signal blinks to life, right? Adjust the office thermostat, then you feel more comfortable, right?

Well, if you think that by pressing a button you are commanding the elevator door to close, or the crosswalk signal to flash, or the thermostat to change the office temperature, you’re probably wrong. You may feel in control, but actually you’re not. In many cases the button may serve no functional purpose; the systems just work automatically. But the button still offers a psychological purpose — a placebo-like effect. We are so conditioned to the notion that pressing a button yields an action, that we still feel in control even when the button does nothing beyond making an audible click.

From the NYT:

Pressing the door-close button on an elevator might make you feel better, but it will do nothing to hasten your trip.

Karen W. Penafiel, executive director of National Elevator Industry Inc., a trade group, said the close-door feature faded into obsolescence a few years after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

The legislation required that elevator doors remain open long enough for anyone who uses crutches, a cane or wheelchair to get on board, Ms. Penafiel said in an interview on Tuesday. “The riding public would not be able to make those doors close any faster,” she said.

The buttons can be operated by firefighters and maintenance workers who have the proper keys or codes.

No figures were available for the number of elevators still in operation with functioning door-close buttons. Given that the estimated useful life of an elevator is 25 years, it is likely that most elevators in service today have been modernized or refurbished, rendering the door-close buttons a thing of the past for riders, Ms. Penafiel said.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Elevator control panel, cropped to show only dual “door open” and “door close” buttons. Courtesy: Nils R. Barth. Wikipedia. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Send to Kindle

How and Why Did Metamorphosis Evolve?


Evolution is a truly wondrous thing. It has given us eyes and lots of grey matter [which we still don’t use very well]. It has given us the beautiful tiger and shimmering hues and soaring songs of our birds. It has given us the towering Sequoias, creepy insects, gorgeous ocean-bound creatures and invisible bacteria and viruses. Yet for all its wondrous adaptations one evolutionary invention still seems mysteriously supernatural — metamorphosis.

So, how and why did it evolve? A compelling new theory on the origins of insect metamorphosis by James W. Truman and Lynn M. Riddiford is excerpted below (from a detailed article in Scientific American).

The theory posits that a beneficial mutation around 300 million years ago led to the emergence of metamorphosis in insects:

By combining evidence from the fossil record with studies on insect anatomy and development, biologists have established a plausible narrative about the origin of insect metamorphosis, which they continue to revise as new information surfaces. The earliest insects in Earth’s history did not metamorphose; they hatched from eggs, essentially as miniature adults. Between 280 million and 300 million years ago, however, some insects began to mature a little differently—they hatched in forms that neither looked nor behaved like their adult versions. This shift proved remarkably beneficial: young and old insects were no longer competing for the same resources. Metamorphosis was so successful that, today, as many as 65 percent of all animal species on the planet are metamorphosing insects.

And, there are essentially three types of metamorphosis:

Wingless ametabolous insects, such as silverfish and bristletails, undergo little or no metamorphosis. When they hatch from eggs, they already look like adults, albeit tiny ones, and simply grow larger over time through a series of molts in which they shed their exoskeletons. Hemimetaboly, or incomplete metamorphosis, describes insects such as cockroaches, grasshoppers and dragonflies that hatch as nymphs—miniature versions of their adult forms that gradually develop wings and functional genitals as they molt and grow. Holometaboly, or complete metamorphosis, refers to insects such as beetles, flies, butterflies, moths and bees, which hatch as wormlike larvae that eventually enter a quiescent pupal stage before emerging as adults that look nothing like the larvae.

And, it’s backed by a concrete survival and reproductive advantage:

[T]he enormous numbers of metamorphosing insects on the planet speak for its success as a reproductive strategy. The primary advantage of complete metamorphosis is eliminating competition between the young and old. Larval insects and adult insects occupy very different ecological niches. Whereas caterpillars are busy gorging themselves on leaves, completely disinterested in reproduction, butterflies are flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar and mates. Because larvas and adults do not compete with one another for space or resources, more of each can coexist relative to species in which the young and old live in the same places and eat the same things.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon). Courtesy: fesoj – Otakárek fenyklový [Papilio machaon]. CC BY 2.0,

Send to Kindle



With all this earthbound turmoil around us perhaps it’s time to move elsewhere. Asgardia? Well, almost. You may soon be able to become an Asgardian citizen. First the project leaders must convince the United Nations that a satellite to be launched in 2017 deems legal, sovereign status. One catch, though. You’ll still have to reside on Earth.

From the Guardian:

Proposals for the “first nation state in space” have been unveiled by a team of scientists and legal experts, who say the move will foster peace, open up access to space technologies and offer protection for citizens of planet Earth.

Dubbed “Asgardia” after one of the mythical worlds inhabited by the Norse gods, the team say the “new nation” will eventually become a member of the United Nations, with its own flag and anthem devised by members of the public through a series of competitions.

According to the project website, Asgardia “will offer an independent platform
free from the constraint of a land-based country’s laws. It will become a place it in orbit which is truly ‘no man’s land’”.

Initially, it would seem, this new nation will consist of a single satellite, scheduled to be launched next year, with its citizens residing firmly on terra firma.

Speaking to the Guardian through an interpreter, the project lead Igor Ashurbeyli, said: “Physically the citizens of that nation state will be on Earth; they will be living in different countries on Earth, so they will be a citizen of their own country and at the same time they will be citizens of Asgardia.”

“When the number of those applications goes above 100,000 we can officially apply to the UN for the status of state,” he added.

Read the story here.

Image: Screenshot from Asgardia website.

Send to Kindle

Morality and a Second Language

Frequent readers will know that I’m intrigued by social science research into the human condition. Well, this collection of studies is fascinating. To summarize the general finding: you are less likely to follow ethical behavior if you happen to be thinking in an acquired, second language. Put another way, you are more moral when you think in your mother tongue.

Perhaps counter-intuitively a moral judgement made in a foreign language requires more cognitive processing power than one made in the language of childhood. Consequently, moral judgements of dubious or reprehensible behavior are likely to be seen as less wrong than those evaluated in native tongue.

I suppose there is a very valuable lesson here: if you plan to do some shoplifting or rob a bank then you should evaluate the pros and cons of your criminal enterprise in the second language that you learned in school.

From Scientific American:

What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.

And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?

Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language—as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.

In a 2014 paper led by Albert Costa, volunteers were presented with a moral dilemma known as the “trolley problem”: imagine that a runaway trolley is careening toward a group of five people standing on the tracks, unable to move. You are next to a switch that can shift the trolley to a different set of tracks, thereby sparing the five people, but resulting in the death of one who is standing on the side tracks. Do you pull the switch?

Most people agree that they would. But what if the only way to stop the trolley is by pushing a large stranger off a footbridge into its path? People tend to be very reluctant to say they would do this, even though in both scenarios, one person is sacrificed to save five. But Costa and his colleagues found that posing the dilemma in a language that volunteers had learned as a foreign tongue dramatically increased their stated willingness to shove the sacrificial person off the footbridge, from fewer than 20% of respondents working in their native language to about 50% of those using the foreign one. (Both native Spanish- and English-speakers were included, with English and Spanish as their respective foreign languages; the results were the same for both groups, showing that the effect was about using a foreign language, and not about which particular language—English or Spanish—was used.)

Using a very different experimental setup, Janet Geipel and her colleagues also found that using a foreign language shifted their participants’ moral verdicts. In their study, volunteers read descriptions of acts that appeared to harm no one, but that many people find morally reprehensible—for example, stories in which siblings enjoyed entirely consensual and safe sex, or someone cooked and ate his dog after it had been killed by a car. Those who read the stories in a foreign language (either English or Italian) judged these actions to be less wrong than those who read them in their native tongue.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

The Conspiracy of Disbelief

Faux news and hoaxes are a staple of our culture. I suspect that disinformation, fabrications and lies have been around since our ancestors first learned to walk on their hind legs. Researchers know that lying provides a critical personal and social function; white lies help hide discomfort and often strengthen support with partners and peers. Broader and deeper lies are often used to build and maintain power and project strength over others. Indeed, some nations rise and fall based on the quality of their falsehoods and propaganda.

The rise of the internet and social media over the last couple of decades has amplified the issue to such an extent that it becomes ever more challenging to decipher fact from fiction. Indeed entire highly profitable industries are built on feeding misinformation and disseminating hoaxes. But while many of us laugh at and dismiss the front page headlines of the National Enquirer proclaiming “aliens abducted my neighbor“, other forms of fiction are much more sinister. One example is the Sandy Hook mass shooting, where a significant number of paranoid and skeptical conspiracy theorists continue to maintain to this day — almost 4 years on — that the massacre of 20 elementary school children and 6 adults was and is a well-fabricated hoax.

From NY Magazine:

On December 14, 2012, Lenny Pozner dropped off his three children, Sophia, Arielle, and Noah, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Noah had recently turned 6, and on the drive over they listened to his favorite song, “Gangnam Style,” for what turned out to be the last time. Half an hour later, while Sophia and Arielle hid nearby, Adam Lanza walked into Noah’s first-grade class with an AR-15 rifle. Noah was the youngest of the 20 children and seven adults killed in one of the deadliest shootings in American history. When the medical examiner found Noah lying face up in a Batman sweatshirt, his jaw had been blown off. Lenny and his wife, Veronique, raced to the school as soon as they heard the news, but had to wait for hours alongside other parents to learn their son’s fate.

It didn’t take much longer for Pozner to find out that many people didn’t believe his son had died or even that he had lived at all. Days after the rampage, a man walked around Newtown filming a video in which he declared that the massacre had been staged by “some sort of New World Order global elitists” intent on taking away our guns and our liberty. A week later, James Tracy, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, wrote a blog post expressing doubts about the massacre. By January, a 30-minute YouTube video, titled “The Sandy Hook Shooting — Fully Exposed,” which asked questions like “Wouldn’t frantic kids be a difficult target to hit?,” had been viewed more than 10 million times.

As the families grieved, conspiracy theorists began to press their case in ways that Newtown couldn’t avoid. State officials received anonymous phone calls at their homes, late at night, demanding answers: Why were there no trauma helicopters? What happened to the initial reports of a second shooter? A Virginia man stole playground signs memorializing two of the victims, then called their parents to say that the burglary shouldn’t affect them, since their children had never existed. At one point, Lenny Pozner was checking into a hotel out of town when the clerk looked up from the address on his driver’s license and said, “Oh, Sandy Hook — the government did that.” Pozner had tried his best to ignore the conspiracies, but eventually they disrupted his grieving process so much that he could no longer turn a blind eye. “Conspiracy theorists erase the human aspect of history,” Pozner said this summer. “My child — who lived, who was a real person — is basically going to be erased.”

Read the entire disturbing story here.

Send to Kindle

Europa, Europa


A couple of days ago, September 26, 2016, tens of millions of us tuned in to the gory — and usually devoid of fact — spectacle that is the US Presidential election debate. On the same day, something else rather newsworthy took place; some would say much more important than watching two adults throw puerile nonsense at one another.

NASA has found evidence of water plumes spouting from a subsurface ocean on Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. The agency used the Hubble Space Telescope to look for signs of plumes as the icy moon transited Jupiter.

This should make for an fascinating encounter when NASA launches a mission in 2020 to examine Europa more closely, especially to investigate whether it could harbor conditions suitable for life.

Image: Trailing hemisphere of Jupiter’s ice-covered satellite, Europa. Europa is about 3,160 kilometers (1,950 miles) in diameter, or about the size of Earth’s moon. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/DLR (Deutsche Forschungsanstalt fuer Luftund Raumfahrt e.V., Berlin, Germany).

Send to Kindle

Tabby’s Star


Tabby’s Star, officially known by the cryptic notation KIC 8462852 is a very odd object. The star is around 1,500 light years from Earth, and has been puzzling astronomers with its strangely fluctuating brightness. Recent analysis shows that is even weirder than first thought, which has scientists baffled. Could the observations be caused by a storm of wildly orbiting comets? Or, much more compelling (for SciFi buffs), could it be an alien megastructure periodically shrouding the star?

From Space:

KIC 8462852 was observed by NASA’s Kepler mission and has become infamous for its bizarre and unprecedented transit signal that was flagged by citizen scientists. Now new research of precision Kepler observations has shown that the overall brightness of the star — unofficially named “Tabby’s Star” after astronomer Tabetha S. Boyajian who discovered the peculiar signal — has been decreasing, which poses a new and confusing problem for astronomers trying to understand what the heck is going on.

Kepler’s prime mission is to look for small worlds that pass in front of their parent stars causing a slight dimming of starlight. The “transit method” has been hugely successful and has confirmed well over 2,000 planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy.

But Tabby’s Star’s transit signal, otherwise known as a “light-curve”, stopped astronomers in their tracks. Something passed in front of it, dimming its starlight a whopping 20 percent and other jumbled transit signals revealed that something wasn’t quite right with this particular star. Then, in an interview with The Atlantic, Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright speculated that the signal could be indicative of an “alien megastructure” that’s in the process of being built. You can catch up on the controversy surrounding the anomalous signal in my recent Discovery News article “Closing In on ‘Alien Megastructure’ Clues.”

So, in an effort to track down a rational explanation, Bradley Schaefer from Louisiana State University decided to study historical observations of KIC 8462852 in astronomical photographic plates from the past century to see if the star exhibited any bizarre fluctuations in brightness in the past. Sure enough, yes, the star is a bit of an oddball and has shown a long-term decreasing trend in brightness! Since the 19th Century, its brightness has decreased steadily by nearly 20 percent.

Now, astronomers Ben Montet (from Caltech) and Joshua Simon (from the Carnegie Institute) have released a paper to the arXiv preprint service detailing recent Kepler observations of KIC 8462852 since the space telescope was launched in 2009. Although the dataset for this time period is comparatively small, Monet and Simon found yet another surprise.

In the 4 years of Kepler’s primary mission, the star showed an unprecedented dimming of 3.5 percent. So not only did Kepler detect transient dips in brightness of up to 20 percent, there also seems to be a very definite downward trend in brightness throughout our observational history of the star.

No matter how you slice it, this is strange.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Tabby’s Star, KIC 8462852, in infrared (2MASS survey) and ultraviolet (GALEX). Courtesy: IPAC/NASA (Infrared), STScI/NASA (Ultraviolet). Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Of Zebrafish and Men


A novel experiment in gene-editing shows how limbs of Earth’s land-dwelling creatures may have evolved from their fishy ancestors.

From University of Chicago:

One of the great transformations required for the descendants of fish to become creatures that could walk on land was the replacement of long, elegant fin rays by fingers and toes. In the Aug. 17, 2016 issue of Nature, scientists from the University of Chicago show that the same cells that make fin rays in fish play a central role in forming the fingers and toes of four-legged creatures.

After three years of painstaking experiments using novel gene-editing techniques and sensitive fate mapping to label and track developing cells in fish, the researchers describe how the small flexible bones found at the ends of fins are related to fingers and toes, which are more suitable for life on land.

“When I first saw these results you could have knocked me over with a feather,” said the study’s senior author, Neil Shubin, PhD, the Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. Shubin is an authority on the transition from fins to limbs.

The team focused on Hox genes, which control the body plan of a growing embryo along the head-to-tail, or shoulder-to-fingertip, axis. Many of these genes are crucial for limb development.

They studied the development of cells, beginning, in some experiments, soon after fertilization, and followed them as they became part of an adult fin. Previous work has shown that when Hox genes, specifically those related to the wrists and digits of mice (HoxD and HoxA), were deleted, the mice did not develop those structures. When Nakamura deleted those same genes in zebrafish, the long fins rays were greatly reduced.

“What matters is not what happens when you knock out a single gene but when you do it in combination,” Nakamura explained. “That’s where the magic happens.”

The researchers also used a high-energy CT scanner to see the minute structures within the adult zebrafish fin. These can be invisible, even to most traditional microscopes. The scans revealed that fish lacking certain genes lost fin rays, but the small bones made of cartilage fin increased in number.

The authors suspect that the mutants that Nakamura made caused cells to stop migrating from the base of the fin to their usual position near the tip. This inability to migrate meant that there were fewer cells to make fin rays, leaving more cells at the fin base to produce cartilage elements.

Read more here. A female specimen of a zebrafish (Danio rerio) breed with fantails. Courtesy: Wikipedia / Azul.

Send to Kindle

Intolerance and Divine Revelation


Another day, another heinous, murderous act in the name of religion — the latest this time a French priest killed in his own church by a pair shouting “Allahu akbar!” (To be fair countless other similar acts continue on a daily basis in non-Western nations, but go unreported or under-reported in the mainstream media).

Understandably, local and national religious leaders decry these heinous acts as a evil perversion of Islamic faith. Now, I’d be the first to admit that attributing such horrendous crimes solely to the faiths of the perpetrators is a rather simplistic rationalization. Other factors, such as political disenfranchisement, (perceived) oppression, historical persecution and economic pressures, surely play a triggering and/or catalytic role.

Yet, as Gary Gutting professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame reminds us in another of his insightful essays, religious intolerance is a fundamental component. The three main Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are revelatory faiths. Their teachings are each held to be incontrovertible truth revealed to us by an omniscient God (or a divine messenger). Strict adherence to these beliefs has throughout history led many believers — of all faiths — to enact their intolerance in sometimes very violent ways. Over time, numerous socio-economic pressures have generally softened this intolerance — but not equally across the three faiths.

From NYT:

Both Islam and Christianity claim to be revealed religions, holding that their teachings are truths that God himself has conveyed to us and wants everyone to accept. They were, from the start, missionary religions. A religion charged with bringing God’s truth to the world faces the question of how to deal with people who refuse to accept it. To what extent should it tolerate religious error? At certain points in their histories, both Christianity and Islam have been intolerant of other religions, often of each other, even to the point of violence.

This was not inevitable, but neither was it an accident. The potential for intolerance lies in the logic of religions like Christianity and Islam that say their teaching derive from a divine revelation. For them, the truth that God has revealed is the most important truth there is; therefore, denying or doubting this truth is extremely dangerous, both for nonbelievers, who lack this essential truth, and for believers, who may well be misled by the denials and doubts of nonbelievers. Given these assumptions, it’s easy to conclude that even extreme steps are warranted to eliminate nonbelief.

You may object that moral considerations should limit our opposition to nonbelief. Don’t people have a human right to follow their conscience and worship as they think they should? Here we reach a crux for those who adhere to a revealed religion. They can either accept ordinary human standards of morality as a limit on how they interpret divine teachings, or they can insist on total fidelity to what they see as God’s revelation, even when it contradicts ordinary human standards. Those who follow the second view insist that divine truth utterly exceeds human understanding, which is in no position to judge it. God reveals things to us precisely because they are truths we would never arrive at by our natural lights. When the omniscient God has spoken, we can only obey.

For those holding this view, no secular considerations, not even appeals to conventional morality or to practical common sense, can overturn a religious conviction that false beliefs are intolerable. Christianity itself has a long history of such intolerance, including persecution of Jews, crusades against Muslims, and the Thirty Years’ War, in which religious and nationalist rivalries combined to devastate Central Europe. This devastation initiated a move toward tolerance among nations that came to see the folly of trying to impose their religions on foreigners. But intolerance of internal dissidents — Catholics, Jews, rival Protestant sects — continued even into the 19th century. (It’s worth noting that in this period the Muslim Ottoman Empire was in many ways more tolerant than most Christian countries.) But Christians eventually embraced tolerance through a long and complex historical process.

Critiques of Christian revelation by Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume raised serious questions that made non-Christian religions — and eventually even rejections of religion — intellectually respectable. Social and economic changes — including capitalist economies, technological innovations, and democratic political movements — undermined the social structures that had sustained traditional religion.

The eventual result was a widespread attitude of religious toleration in Europe and the United States. This attitude represented ethical progress, but it implied that religious truth was not so important that its denial was intolerable. Religious beliefs and practices came to be regarded as only expressions of personal convictions, not to be endorsed or enforced by state authority. This in effect subordinated the value of religious faith to the value of peace in a secular society. Today, almost all Christians are reconciled to this revision, and many would even claim that it better reflects the true meaning of their religion.

The same is not true of Muslims. A minority of Muslim nations have a high level of religious toleration; for example Albania, Kosovo, Senegal and Sierra Leone. But a majority — including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Malaysia — maintain strong restrictions on non-Muslim (and in some cases certain “heretical” Muslim) beliefs and practices. Although many Muslims think God’s will requires tolerance of false religious views, many do not.

Read the entire story here.

Image: D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) movie poster. Courtesy: Sailko / Dekkappai at Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Send to Kindle

Tantalizing Enceladus


Sorry, Moon but my favorite satellite doesn’t even orbit the Earth.

Enceladus is my favorite moon, despite its diminutive size — its diameter is only around 500 km. It circles Saturn and while it only ranks as the ringed planet’s sixth largest moon, it is perhaps the most fascinating.

A decade of images courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope show amazing  plumes of icy material spouting from one or more underground sources. To date, astronomers and planetary scientists have catalogued over 90 geyser-like jets on the surface of Enceladus.

More recently, a couple of year’s ago, NASA’s researchers confirmed the presence of a vast subsurface ocean of liquid water beneath Enceladus’ icy crust. Scientists believe this ocean powers its many geysers or cryovolcanoes. Moreover, the many geysers spew a particle cocktail of ices and organic compounds. It is this mixture of liquid water and organic chemistry that has many scientists agog — pondering the possibility of life beyond the shores of our home planet.

Catch the latest on the search for possible signs of life on Enceladus from Scientific American, here.

Image: Fountains of Enceladus. Recent Cassini images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus backlit by the sun show the fountain-like sources of the fine spray of material that towers over the south polar region. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Public Domain.


Send to Kindle

If it Disagrees With Experiment it is Wrong


This post’s title belongs to the great physicist and bongo player Richard Feynman. It brings into sharp relief one of the many challenges in our current fractured political discourse — that objective fact is a political tool and scientific denialism is now worn as a badge of honor by many politicians (mostly on the right).

Climate science is a great example of the chasm between rational debate and established facts on the one hand and anti-science, conspiracy mythologists [I’m still searching for a better word] on the other. Some climate deniers simply wave away evidence as nothing but regular weather. Others pronounce that climate change is a plot by the Chinese.

I firmly believe in the scientific method and objective fact; the progress we have witnessed over the last 150 or so years due to science and scientists alone is spectacular. Long may it continue. Yet as Scientific American tells us we need to be alarmed and remain vigilant — it wouldn’t take much effort to return to the Dark Ages.

From Scientific American:

Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. “By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation’s founders,” Otto wrote, “the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.

Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: “It warn’t so. I tried it.” A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country’s particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation’s grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

Read the article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Send to Kindle

Osiris-Rex and Bennu


You might be mistaken for thinking Osiris-Rex and Bennu are the names of two rather exotic dogs. No.

Bennu is a 1,500 foot wide space rock, which circles the Sun at around 60,000 mph. OSIRIS-REx is the space probe which aims to catch the near-Earth asteroid in 2018 and return samples back to Earth in 2023. NASA is scheduled to launch OSIRIS-REx from aboard an Atlas V rocket on September 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Follow NASA’s asteroid mission here.

In case you were wondering, as is NASA’s wont, OSIRIS-REx is of course a convoluted acronym for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft.

From the Guardian:

At Cape Canaveral air force station on the Florida coast stands an Atlas V rocket bearing the Osiris-Rex probe, Nasa’s first hope to smash-and-grab material from a speeding asteroid and bring it safely back to Earth.

The size of a transit van, the two-tonne spacecraft is set to blast off Thursday night on a seven-year mission to a 500m-wide ball of rubble called Bennu, which circles the sun at more than 100,000km per hour.

The probe is the third of Nasa’s ambitious New Frontiers missions. It follows on the heels of the New Horizons spacecraft, which last year beamed home stunning images from Pluto, and the Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in July.

In returning a pile of asteroid to Earth, scientists hope to learn more about the source of water in the solar system and the origins of organic molecules from which life first arose. But getting their hands on pristine asteroid will also give researchers fresh clues about how to mine the bodies for valuable materials, and defend against wayward space rocks that may one day threaten our planet.

The mission has a title that is unwieldy even for the US space agency. Osiris-Rex stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer. “It is a mouthful,” said Ed Beshore, deputy principal investigator on the mission at Arizona State University. “But the name really does speak to our principal mission objectives.”

Bennu orbits the sun on a similar path to Earth. Classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid”, it swings close to the Earth – in cosmic terms, at least – once every six years. The nearest encounter scientists can predict is slated for 2135, when the coal-black space rock will hurtle between Earth and the moon at a distance of 300,000km.

One major question the mission will ask is how sunlight affects the orbits of asteroids. As they spin close to the sun asteroids are constantly heating up and cooling down. The heat the asteroid re-emits to space provides a minuscule thrust which over time can alter its course. But the effect is hard to quantify. “Often when we look at asteroids that may be a hazard to Earth, the limiting factor in predicting the orbit is this process called the Yarkovsky effect,” said Beshore. “We’d like to understand that and measure it much more precisely when we’re at Bennu and in doing so improve our predictive accuracy for other asteroids that may represent a future threat to Earth.”

Osiris-Rex aims to catch up with Bennu in August 2018 and spend two years mapping the surface. When mission scientists find a good spot, it will swoop down, blast the asteroid with a powerful jet of nitrogen, and collect dislodged material with a robotic arm. Once the material is safely aboard, the spacecraft will retreat and later send it home in a capsule due to land via parachute in the Utah desert in 2023.

Read the whole story here.

Image: Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx probe traveling to near-Earth asteroid Bennu on a sample return mission. Courtesy: NASA.

Send to Kindle

Psychopath Versus Sociopath


I’ve been writing for a while now about a certain person who wishes to become the next President of the United States. His name is Donald Trump. He carries with him an entire encyclopedia — no, bookshelves of encyclopedias — of negative character traits. But chief among these he lacks empathy, tends to feel no guilt or remorse, and disregards the needs and rights of others. These are traits common to both psychopaths and sociopaths.

Over the last few years I’ve been describing Mr. Trump as a psychopath. Others, particularly recently (here, here, here), characterize him as a sociopath. Who’s right?

I’m turning to some psychological resources, excerpted and paraphrased below — American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, WebMD — to help me clarify the differences.

On first analysis it looks like Mr. Trump straddles both! Though I must say, that regardless, I don’t want either a sociopath or a psychopath, or a psycho-sociopath or a socio-psychopath in the White House with fingers anywhere close to the nuclear codes.


Sociopaths tend to be volatile. That is, they tend to be nervous and easily agitated or angered. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. In addition, they may be uneducated and live on the fringes of traditional society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. They are frequently transients and drifters.

It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. They are capable of bonding emotionally and demonstrating empathy with certain people in certain situations but not others. Many sociopaths have no regard for society in general or its rules. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more likely the product of environmental influences (“nurture”), such as childhood trauma and physical/emotional abuse.


Psychopaths are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.

It is believed that psychopathy is the largely the result of “nature” (genetics) and is related to a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions.

Infographic courtesy of Psychologia.

Send to Kindle

Can We Move There?

Pale Red Dot is an international search for an Earth-like exoplanet around the closest star to us, Proxima Centauri. It will use HARPS, attached to ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory, as well as the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) and the Burst Optical Observer and Transient Exploring System (BOOTES). It will be one of the few outreach campaigns allowing the general public to witness the scientific process of data acquisition in modern observatories. The public will see how teams of astronomers with different specialities work together to collect, analyse  and interpret data, which may or may not be able to confirm the presence of an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest neighbour . The outreach campaign consists of blog posts and social media updates on the Pale Red Dot Twitter account and using the hashtag #PaleRedDot. For more information visit the Pale Red Dot website:

I’ve been toying with the idea of uprooting and moving to Canada should a certain orange-haired bigot win the US presidential election. But, no offense to Canadians, scientists have just discovered an Earth-like planet a mere 4.25 light-years away, our nearest celestial neighbor.

Can anyone convince Elon Musk (of SpaceX) to get cracking on a suitable spacecraft that will get us there, or at least help us leave, before November 8, 2016? Forget Mars, Proxima Centauri here I come!


The star closest to the sun hosts a planet that may be very much like Earth, a new study reports.

Astronomers have discovered a roughly Earth-size alien world around Proxima Centauri, which lies just 4.2 light-years from our own solar system. What’s even more exciting, study team members said, is that the planet, known as Proxima b, circles in the star’s “habitable zone” — the range of distances at which liquid water could be stable on a world’s surface.

“We hope these findings inspire future generations to keep looking beyond the stars,” lead author Guillem Anglada-Escude, a physics and astronomy lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, said in a statement.”The search for life on Proxima b comes next.” [In Pictures: The Discovery of Planet Proxima b]

The discovery of Proxima b was a long time in the making.

Astronomers have been hunting intensively for planets around Proxima Centauri for more 15 years, using instruments such as the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) and the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), both of which are installed on telescopes run by the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

UVES, HARPS and other instruments like them allow researchers to detect the slight wobbles in a star’s movement caused by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets.

Astronomers found hints of such a wobble back in 2013, but the signal was not convincing, Anglada-Escude said. So he and a number of other researchers launched a campaign to ferret out the planet. They called this effort the Pale Red Dot — a nod to Carl Sagan’s famous description of Earth as a “pale blue dot,” and the fact that Proxima Centauri is a small, dim star known as a red dwarf.

The Pale Red Dot team focused HARPS on Proxima Centauri every night from Jan. 19, 2016, through March 31 of this year. After they combined this new data with UVES observations from 2000 through 2008 and HARPS observations from 2005 through early 2014, the signal of a possible planet came through loud and clear.

Then, after analyzing observations of the star’s brightness made by several other telescopes, Anglada-Escude and his colleagues ruled out the possibility that this signal could be caused by the variable activity of Proxima Centauri.

“The conclusion: We have found a planet around Proxima Centauri,” Anglada-Escude said Tuesday (Aug. 23) during a news conference.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Pale Red Dot, an international search for an Earth-like exoplanet around the closest star to us, Proxima Centauri. It will use HARPS, attached to ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory, as well as the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) and the Burst Optical Observer and Transient Exploring System (BOOTES). It will be one of the few outreach campaigns allowing the general public to witness the scientific process of data acquisition in modern observatories. The public will see how teams of astronomers with different specialities work together to collect, analyse and interpret data, which may or may not be able to confirm the presence of an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest neighbour. The outreach campaign consists of blog posts and social media updates on the Pale Red Dot Twitter account and using the hashtag #PaleRedDot. For more information visit the Pale Red Dot website : Courtesy: ESO/Pale Red Dot –

Send to Kindle

Thoughts As Shapes

wednesday is indigo blue bookcoverJonathan Jackson has a very rare form of a rare neurological condition. He has synesthesia, which is a cross-connection of two (or more) unrelated senses where an perception in one sense causes an automatic experience in another sense. Some synesthetes, for instance, see various sounds or musical notes as distinct colors (chromesthesia), others perceive different words as distinct tastes (lexical-gustatory synesthesia).

Jackson, on the other hand, experiences his thoughts as shapes in a visual mindmap. This is so fascinating I’ve excerpted a short piece of his story below.

Also, if you are further intrigued by this subject I recommend three great reads on the subject: Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia by Richard Cytowic, and David M. Eagleman; Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks; The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic.

From the Atlantic:

One spring evening in the mid 2000s, Jonathan Jackson and Andy Linscott sat on some seaside rocks near their college campus, smoking the kind of cigarettes reserved for heartbreak. Linscott was, by his own admission, “emotionally spewing” over a girl, and Jackson was consoling him.

Jackson had always been a particularly good listener. But in the middle of their talk, he did something Linscott found deeply odd.

“He got up and jumped over to this much higher rock,” Linscott says. “He was like, ‘Andy, I’m listening, I just want to get a different angle. I want to see what you’re saying and the shape of your words from a different perspective.’ I was baffled.”

For Jackson, moving physically to think differently about an idea seemed totally natural. “People say, ‘Okay, we need to think about this from a new angle’ all the time!” he says. “But for me that’s literal.”

Jackson has synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that has long been defined as the co-activation of two or more conventionally unrelated senses. Some synesthetes see music (known as auditory-visual synesthesia) or read letters and numbers in specific hues (grapheme-color synesthesia). But recent research has complicated that definition, exploring where in the sensory process those overlaps start and opening up the term to include types of synesthesia in which senses interact in a much more complex manner.

Read the entire  story here.

Image: Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, bookcover, Courtesy: By Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman, MIT Press.

Send to Kindle

Pessimism About Positive Thinking

Many of us have grown up in a world that teaches and values the power of positive thinking. The mantra of positive thinkers goes something like this: think positively about yourself, your situation, your goals and you will be much more motivated and energized to fulfill your dreams.

By some accounts the self-improvement industry in the US alone weighs in with annual revenues of around $10 billion. So, positive thinking must work, right? Psychologists suggest that it’s really not that simple; singular focus on positivity may help us in the short-term, but over the longer-term it frustrates our motivations and hinders progress towards our goals.

In short, it pays to be in touch with the negatives as well, to embrace and understand obstacles, to learn from and challenge our setbacks. It is to our advantage to be a pragmatic dreamer, grounded in both the beauty and ugliness that surrounds us.

From aeon:

In her book The Secret Daily Teachings (2008), the self-help author Rhonda Byrne suggested that: ‘Whatever big thing you are asking for, consider having the celebration now as though you have received it.’

Yet research in psychology reveals a more complicated picture. Indulging in undirected positive flights of fancy isn’t always in our interest. Positive thinking can make us feel better in the short term, but over the long term it saps our motivation, preventing us from achieving our wishes and goals, and leaving us feeling frustrated, stymied and stuck. If we really want to move ahead in our lives, engage with the world and feel energised, we need to go beyond positive thinking and connect as well with the obstacles that stand in our way. By bringing our dreams into contact with reality, we can unleash our greatest energies and make the most progress in our lives.

Now, you might wonder if positive thinking is really as harmful as I’m suggesting. In fact, it is. In a number of studies over two decades, my colleagues and I have discovered a powerful link between positive thinking and poor performance. In one study, we asked college students who had a crush on someone from afar to tell us how likely they would be to strike up a relationship with that person. Then we asked them to complete some open-ended scenarios related to dating. ‘You are at a party,’ one scenario read. ‘While you are talking to [your crush], you see a girl/boy, whom you believe [your crush] might like, come into the room. As she/he approaches the two of you, you imagine…’

Some of the students completed the scenarios by spinning a tale of romantic success. ‘The two of us leave the party, everyone watches, especially the other girl.’ Others offered negative fantasies about love thwarted: ‘My crush and the other girl begin to converse about things which I know nothing. They seem to be much more comfortable with each other than he and I….’

We checked back with the students after five months to see if they had initiated a relationship with their crush. The more students had engaged in positive fantasies about the future, the less likely they were actually to have started up a romantic relationship.

My colleagues and I performed such studies with participants in a number of demographic groups, in different countries, and with a range of personal wishes, including health goals, academic and professional goals, and relationship goals. Consistently, we found a correlation between positive fantasies and poor performance. The more that people ‘think positive’ and imagine themselves achieving their goals, the less they actually achieve.

Positive thinking impedes performance because it relaxes us and drains the energy we need to take action. After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much.

Read the entire article here.

Send to Kindle

Comfort, Texas, the Timeship and Technological Immortality


There’s a small town deep in the heart of Texas’ Hill Country called Comfort. It was founded in the mid-19th century by German immigrants. Its downtown area is held to be one of the most well-preserved historic business districts in Texas. Now, just over 160 years on there’s another preservation effort underway in Comfort.

This time, however, the work goes well beyond preserving buildings; Comfort may soon be the global hub for life-extension research and human cryopreservation. The ambitious, and not without controversy, project is known as the Timeship, and is the brainchild of architect Stephen Valentine and the Stasis Foundation.

Since one the the key aims of the Timeship is to preserve biological material — DNA, tissue and organ samples, and even cryopreserved humans — the building design presents some rather unique and stringent challenges. The building must withstand a nuclear blast or other attack; its electrical and mechanical systems must remain functional and stable for hundreds of years; it must be self-sustaining and highly secure.

Read more about the building and much more about the Timeship here.

Image: Timeship screenshot. Courtesy of Timeship.

Send to Kindle