Tag Archives: science

Trust A Climate Scientist?

infographic-trust-in-climate-scientists-is-low-among-republicans-considerably-higher-among-liberal-democrats

If you trust a climate scientist you are more likely to be a liberal Democrat. And, if you tend to be highly skeptical of climate science, scientific consensus, climate change causes, and even ways to address climate change, then you’re more likely to be a Republican.

A fascinating study from the Pew Research Center sheds more light on the great, polarized divide between the left and the right.

For instance, 70 percent of liberal Democrats “trust climate scientists’ a lot to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15% of conservative Republicans.” Further, just over half (54 percent) of liberal Democrats “say climate scientists’ understand the causes of climate change very well”, which compares with only 11 percent of conservative Republicans.

From Pew Research Center:

Political fissures on climate issues extend far beyond beliefs about whether climate change is occurring and whether humans are playing a role, according to a new, in-depth survey by Pew Research Center. These divisions reach across every dimension of the climate debate, down to people’s basic trust in the motivations that drive climate scientists to conduct their research.

Specifically, the survey finds wide political divides in views of the potential for devastation to the Earth’s ecosystems and what might be done to address any climate impacts. There are also major divides in the way partisans interpret the current scientific discussion over climate, with the political left and right having vastly divergent perceptions of modern scientific consensus, differing levels of trust in the information they get from professional researchers, and different views as to whether it is the quest for knowledge or the quest for professional advancement that drives climate scientists in their work.

This survey extensively explores how peoples’ divergent views over climate issues tie with people’s views about climate scientists and their work. Democrats are especially likely to see scientists and their research in a positive light. Republicans are considerably more skeptical of climate scientists’ information, understanding and research findings on climate matters.

Read the entire article here.

Infographic: Trust in climate science is low among Republicans; considerably higher among liberal Democrats. Courtesy: Pew Research Center.

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If it Disagrees With Experiment it is Wrong

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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.

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Early Adopters of Inconvenient Truths

Flat_earth

Conspiracy theorists are a small but vocal and influential minority. Their views span the gamut of conspiracy theories: holocaust denial, President Kennedy’s assassination, UFOs, extraterrestrials, Flat Earth, alternate technology suppression, climate change, to name just a handful.

The United States is after all host to a candidate for the Presidency who subscribes to a number of conspiratorial theories, and, importantly, there’s even a dating app — Awake Dating — for like-minded conspiracy theorists. Though, the site’s COO Jarrod Fidden prefers to label his members “early adopter[s] of inconvenient truths” over the term “conspiracy theorist”, which, let’s face it, is often used pejoratively.

So, perhaps it serves to delve a little deeper into why some nonsensical and scientifically disproved ideas persist in 2016.

Briefly, it seems that zombie ideas thrive for a couple of key reasons: first, they may confer some level of group identity, attention and/or influence; second, they provide a degree of simplistic comfort to counter often highly complex scientific explanations. Moreover, conspiracy theories do have a generally positive cultural effect — some bring laughter to our days, but most tend to drive serious debate and further research in the quest for true (scientific) consensus.

From the Guardian:

In January 2016, the rapper BoB took to Twitter to tell his fans that the Earth is really flat. “A lot of people are turned off by the phrase ‘flat earth’,” he acknowledged, “but there’s no way u can see all the evidence and not know … grow up.” At length the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joined in the conversation, offering friendly corrections to BoB’s zany proofs of non-globism, and finishing with a sarcastic compliment: “Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music.”

Actually, it’s a lot more than five centuries regressed. Contrary to what we often hear, people didn’t think the Earth was flat right up until Columbus sailed to the Americas. In ancient Greece, the philosophers Pythagoras and Parmenides had already recognised that the Earth was spherical. Aristotle pointed out that you could see some stars in Egypt and Cyprus that were not visible at more northerly latitudes, and also that the Earth casts a curved shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. The Earth, he concluded with impeccable logic, must be round.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Azimuthal equidistant projection, used by some Flat Earthers as evidence for a flat Earth. Courtesy: Trekky0623 / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Climate Change Threat Grows

A_Flood_on_Java_1865-1876

Eventually science and reason does prevail. But, in the case of climate change, our global response is fast becoming irrelevant. New research shows accelerating polar ice melt, accelerating global warming and an acceleration in mean sea-level rise. James Hansen and colleagues paint a much more dire picture than previously expected.

From the Guardian:

The current rate of global warming could raise sea levels by “several meters” over the coming century, rendering most of the world’s coastal cities uninhabitable and helping unleash devastating storms, according to a paper published by James Hansen, the former Nasa scientist who is considered the father of modern climate change awareness.

The research, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, references past climatic conditions, recent observations and future models to warn the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will contribute to a far worse sea level increase than previously thought.

Without a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the global sea level is likely to increase “several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years”, the paper states, warning that the Earth’s oceans were six to nine meters higher during the Eemian period – an interglacial phase about 120,000 years ago that was less than 1C warmer than it is today.

Global warming of 2C above pre-industrial times – the world is already halfway to this mark – would be “dangerous” and risk submerging cities, the paper said. A separate study, released in February, warned that New York, London, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai will be among the cities at risk from flooding by 2100.

Hansen’s research, written with 18 international colleagues, warns that humanity would not be able to properly adapt to such changes, although the paper concedes its conclusions “differ fundamentally from existing climate change assessments”.

The IPCC has predicted a sea level rise of up to one meter by 2100, if emissions are not constrained. Hansen, and other scientists, have argued the UN body’s assessment is too conservative as it doesn’t factor in the potential disintegration of the polar ice sheets.

Hansen’s latest work has proved controversial because it was initially published in draft form last July without undergoing a peer review process. Some scientists have questioned the assumptions made by Hansen and the soaring rate of sea level rise envisioned by his research, which has now been peer-reviewed and published.

Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, said the revised paper still has the same issues that initially “caused me concern”.

“Namely, the projected amounts of meltwater seem … large, and the ocean component of their model doesn’t resolve key wind-driven current systems (e.g. the Gulf Stream) which help transport heat poleward,” Mann said in an email to the Guardian.

“I’m always hesitant to ignore the findings and warnings of James Hansen; he has proven to be so very prescient when it comes to his early prediction about global warming. That having been said, I’m unconvinced that we could see melting rates over the next few decades anywhere near his exponential predictions, and everything else is contingent upon those melting rates being reasonable.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: A Flood on Java (c.1865-1876) by Raden Saleh, lithograph. Courtesy: Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and the Caribbean Studies. Public Domain.

Video: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms Video Abstract. Courtesy: Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions.

 

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Earth Day 2016: Silicon Swamp Edition

NOAA-Silicon-Valley-seal-level-rise-map

How better to mark this year’s Earth Day than to remind ourselves of the existential perils of climate change. As the Earth warms, polar ice melts, sea-levels rise. As sea-levels rise, low lying coastal lands submerge. Much of coastal Florida would disappear under a sea-level rise of a mere 6 feet.

Our tech innovation hub in Silicon Valley wouldn’t fare well either. Many of our tech giants, including Google, Facebook, Oracle, Cisco and Salesforce, have planted their roots on the bay-side of Silicon Valley. Much of this area is only a handful of feet above sea-level. Oh, and kiss goodbye to San Francisco International Airport as well — though perhaps the local VCs could re-purpose it into a sea-plane terminal.

The map above, courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), highlights the flood prone areas in shades of blue.

From the Guardian:

Technology giants including Facebook and Google face the prospect of their prestigious Silicon Valley headquarters becoming swamped by water as rising sea levels threaten to submerge much of the property development boom gripping San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Sea level forecasts by a coalition of scientists show that the Silicon Valley bases for Facebook, Google and Cisco are at risk of being cut off or even flooded, even under optimistic scenarios where rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions avoid the most severe sea level increases.

Without significant adaptation, Facebook’s new campus appears most at risk. The 430,000 sq ft complex – topped with a nine-acre garden rooftop – is an extension of its Menlo Park base and was crafted by architect Frank Gehry. Located near the San Francisco Bay shoreline, the offices are designed to house 2,800 staff.

“Facebook is very vulnerable,” said Lindy Lowe, a senior planner at California’s Bay Conservation and Development Commission. “They built on a very low site – I don’t know why they chose to build there. Facebook thinks they can pay enough to protect themselves.

“The temporary flooding within the campus can probably be addressed, but the temporary flooding onto the roadway can’t be addressed by them. I think they realize that is the weakest link for them. We’ll see how dedicated they are to that facility.”

Facebook has elevated its office to spare it from flooding, but even with a 1.6ft rise in sea levels by the end of the century – which is towards the lower end of projections – the area around it will be inundated. Much sooner, within the coming decades, the roads leading into the complex will flood so regularly that major adaptions will be required to keep the site viable. Facebook didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment on the issue.

The situation is a little better for Google, located in Mountain View and also unwilling to discuss sea level rise, and Cisco, headquartered in San Jose. But should the Antarctic ice sheet disintegrate, as outlined in a recent scientific paper, seas will be pushed up beyond 6ft and swamp both businesses.

The situation is similarly stark for Salesforce, which would see its San Francisco base submerged under the worst sea level rise scenario. Meanwhile, Airbnb, located near the vulnerable Mission Bay area, will have its headquarters gain a much closer bayside view simply by staying put.

Read the entire store here.

Image: Sea-level rise and coastal flooding impacts, San Francisco / Bay Area map. Courtesy of NOAA.

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SciDeny and Rain Follows the Plow Doctrine

Ploughmen

“SciDeny” is a growing genre of American fiction.

SciDeny is authored by writers who propose an alternate “reality” to rational scientific thought. But, don’t be fooled into believing that SciDeny is anything like SciFi.

There are 3 key differences between SciDeny and SciFi. First, SciDeny is authored by politicians, lawyers or lay-persons with political agendas, not professional novelists. Second, SciDeny porports to be non-fictional, and indeed many believe it to be so. Third, where SciFi often promotes a visionary future underpinned by scientific and technological progress, SciDeny is aimed squarely at countering the scientific method and turning back the clock on hundreds of years of scientific discourse and discovery.

SciDeny is most pervasive in our schools (and the current US Congress), where the SciDeniers promote the practice under the guise of academic freedom. The key target for the SciDeny movement is, of course, evolution. But, why stop there. I would encourage SciDeniers to band together to encourage schools to teach the following as well: flat-earth, four humors, luminiferous aether, alchemy, geo-centric theory of the universe, miasmatic theory of disease, phlogiston, spontaneous generation, expanding earth, world ice doctrine, species transmutation, hollow earth theory, phrenology, and rain follows the plow (or plough).

We’re off to a great start already in 2016, as various States vie to be the first to pass SciDeny-friendly legislation. Oklahoma is this year’s winner.

From ars technica:

The first state bills of the year that would interfere with science education have appeared in Oklahoma. There, both the House and Senate have seen bills that would prevent school officials and administrators from disciplining any teachers who introduce spurious information to science classes.

These bills have a long history, dating back to around the time when teaching intelligent design was determined to be an unconstitutional imposition of religion. A recent study showed that you could take the text of the bills and build an evolutionary tree that traces their modifications over the last decade. The latest two fit the patterns nicely.

The Senate version of the bill is by State Senator Josh Brecheen, a Republican. It is the fifth year in a row he’s introduced a science education bill after announcing he wanted “every publicly funded Oklahoma school to teach the debate of creation vs. evolution.” This year’s version omits any mention of specific areas of science that could be controversial. Instead, it simply prohibits any educational official from blocking a teacher who wanted to discuss the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories.

The one introduced in the Oklahoma House is more traditional. Billed as a “Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act” (because freedom!), it spells out a whole host of areas of science its author doesn’t like:

The Legislature further finds that the teaching of some scientific concepts including but not limited to premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics, and physics can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on some subjects such as, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

Read more here.

Image: Ploughing with oxen. A miniature from an early-sixteenth-century manuscript of the Middle English poem God Spede þe Plough, held at the British Museum. By Paul Lacroix. Public Domain.

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Science, Politics and Experts

NOAA-climate-data-trend

Nowhere is the prickly relationship between science and politics more evident than in the climate change debate. The skeptics, many of whom seem to reside right of center in Congress, disbelieve any and all causal links between human activity and global warming. The fossil-fuel burning truckloads of data continue to show upward trends in all measures from mean sea-level and average temperature, to more frequent severe weather and longer droughts. Yet, the self-proclaimed, non-expert policy-makers in Congress continue to disbelieve the science, the data, the analysis and the experts.

But, could the tide be turning? The Republican Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, wants to see the detail behind the ongoing analysis that shows an ever-warming planet; he’s actually interested in seeing the raw climate data. Joy, at last! Representative Smith has decided to become an expert, right? Wrong. He’s trawling around for evidence that might show tampering of data and biased peer-reviewed analysis — science, after all, is just one great, elitist conspiracy theory.

One has to admire the Congressman’s tenacity. He and his herd of climate-skeptic apologists will continue to fiddle while Rome ignites and burns. But I suppose the warming of our planet is a good thing for Congressman Smith and his disbelieving (in science) followers, for it may well portend the End of Days that they believe (in biblical prophecy) and desire so passionately.

Oh, and the fact that Congressman Lamar Smith is Chair of  the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology?! Well, that will have to remain the subject of another post. What next, Donald Trump as head of the ACLU?

From ars technica:

In his position as Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith has spent much of the last few years pressuring the National Science Foundation to ensure that it only funds science he thinks is worthwhile and “in the national interest.” His views on what’s in the national interest may not include the earth sciences, as Smith rejects the conclusions of climate science—as we saw first hand when we saw him speak at the Heartland Institute’s climate “skeptic” conference earlier this year.

So when National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists published an update to the agency’s global surface temperature dataset that slightly increased the short-term warming trend since 1998, Rep. Smith was suspicious. The armada of contrarian blog posts that quickly alleged fraud may have stoked these suspicions. But since, again, he’s the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Rep. Smith was able to take action. He’s sent a series of requests to NOAA, which Ars obtained from Committee staff.

The requests started on July 14 when Smith wrote to the NOAA about the paper published in Science by Thomas Karl and his NOAA colleagues. The letter read, in part, “When corrections to scientific data are made, the quality of the analysis and decision-making is brought into question. The conclusions brought forth in this new study have lasting impacts and provide the basis for further action through regulations. With such broad implications, it is imperative that the underlying data and the analysis are made publicly available to ensure that the conclusions found and methods used are of the highest quality.”

Rep. Smith requested that the NOAA provide his office with “[a]ll data related to this study and the updated global datasets” along with the details of the analysis and “all documents and communications” related to part of that analysis.

In the publication at issue, the NOAA researchers had pulled in a new, larger database of weather station measurements and updated to the latest version of an ocean surface measurement dataset. The ocean data had new corrections for the different methods ships have used over the years to make temperature measurements. Most significantly, they estimated the difference between modern buoy stations and older thermometer-in-a-bucket measurements.

All the major temperature datasets go through revisions like these, as researchers are able to pull in more data and standardize disparate methods more effectively. Since the NOAA’s update, for example, NASA has pulled the same ocean temperature database into its dataset and updated its weather station database. The changes are always quite small, but they can sometimes alter estimates of some very short-term trends.

The NOAA responded to Rep. Smith’s request by pointing him to the relevant data and methods, all of which had already been publicly available. But on September 10, Smith sent another letter. “After review, I have additional questions related to the datasets used to adjust historical temperature records, as well as NOAA’s practices surrounding its use of climate data,” he wrote. The available data wasn’t enough, and he requested various subsets of the data—buoy readings separated out, for example, with both the raw and corrected data provided.

Read the entire story here.

Image: NOAA temperature record. Courtesy of NOAA.

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Finding Meaning in Meaninglessness

If you’re an atheist, like me, you will certainly relate to the excerpted interviews below — where each individual “unbeliever” recounts her or his views on living a purposeful life in an thoroughly indifferent, meaningless and beautiful universe. If you’re a “non-unbeliever”, you will see that meaning is all around.

As writer Gia Milinovich puts it:

It is enough that I exist, that I am here now, albeit briefly, with all of you. And it’s an amazing, astonishing, remarkable, totally mind-blowing fucking miracle.

From Buzzfeed:

Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist:

“The way I find meaning is the way that most people find meaning, even religious ones, which is to get pleasure and significance from your job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music. People like me don’t worry about what it’s all about in a cosmic sense, because we know it isn’t about anything. It’s what we make of this transitory existence that matters.

“If you’re an atheist and an evolutionary biologist, what you think is, I’m lucky to have these 80-odd years: How can I make the most of my existence here? Being an atheist means coming to grips with reality. And the reality is twofold. We’re going to die as individuals, and the whole of humanity, unless we find a way to colonise other planets, is going to go extinct. So there’s lots of things that we have to deal with that we don’t like. We just come to grips with the reality. Life is the result of natural selection, and death is the result of natural selection. We are evolved in such a way that death is almost inevitable. So you just deal with it.

“It says in the Bible that, ‘When I was a child I played with childish things, and when I became a man I put away those childish things.’ And one of those childish things is the superstition that there’s a higher purpose. Christopher Hitchens said it’s time to move beyond the mewling childhood of our species and deal with reality as it is, and that’s what we have to do.”

Susan Blackmore, psychologist:

“If I get a what’s-it-all-for sort of feeling, then I say to myself, What’s the point of it all? There isn’t any point. And somehow, for me – I know it’s not true for other people – that is really comforting. It slows me down. It reminds me that I didn’t ask to be born here, I’ll be gone, and I won’t know what’ll happen, I’ll just be gone, so get on with it. I find that comforting, to say to myself that there is no point, I live in a pointless universe. Here I am, for better or worse, get on with it.

“I was thinking about this yesterday. I was gardening, out there pulling up brambles, and I thought, Why do I do this? And the answer is, because I’m smiling, I’m enjoying it, and actually I love it. It’s because of the cycles of life. I was thinking, What’s the point of growing these beans again, because they’ll just die, and then next year I’ll do the same thing again. But isn’t that a great pleasure in life, that that’s how it is? The beans come and go, and you eat them and they die, and you do the work, and you see it come and go. Today is the due date for my first grandchild, and I think similarly about that. The cycles of birth and death. Here I am in the autumn of my life, I suppose – I’m 64 – and I’m just going through the same cycles that everyone goes through, and it gives me a sense of connection with other people. God, that sounds a bit poncey.

“The pointlessness of life is not a thing to be overcome. It’s something to be celebrated now, because that’s all there is.”

Kat Arney, biologist and science writer:

“I was raised in the Church of England. As a teenager, I ‘found Jesus’ and joined the evangelical movement, probably because I desperately wanted to feel part of a group, and also loved playing in the church band. I finally had my reverse Damascene moment as a post-doctoral researcher, desperately unhappy with my scientific career, relationship, and pretty much everything else, and can clearly remember the sudden realisation: I had one life, and I had to make the best of it. There was no heaven or hell, no magic man in the sky, and I was the sole captain of my ship.

“It was an incredibly liberating moment, and made me realise that the true meaning of life is what I make with the people around me – my family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. People tell religious fairy stories to create meaning, but I’d rather face up to what all the evidence suggests is the scientific truth – all we really have is our own humanity. So let’s be gentle to each other and share the joy of simply being alive, here and now. Let’s give it our best shot.”

Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, molecular biologist:

“I think there are two things about living in a godless universe that scare some people. First, there is no one watching over them, benevolently guiding their lives. Second, because there is no life after death, it all feels rather bleak.

“Instead of scaring me, I find these two things incredibly liberating. It means that I am free to do as I want; my choices are truly mine. Furthermore, I feel determined to make the most of the years I have left on this planet, and not squander it. The life I live now is not a dress rehearsal for something greater afterwards; it empowers me to focus on the here and now. That is how I find meaning and purpose in what might seem a meaningless and purposeless existence; by concentrating on what I can do, and the differences I can make in the lives of those around me, in the short time that we have.”

Read the entire article here.

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Girlfriend or Nuclear Reactor?

YellowcakeAsk a typical 14 year-old boy if he’d prefer to have a girlfriend or a home-made nuclear fission reactor he’s highly likely to gravitate towards the former. Not so Taylor Wilson; he seems to prefer the company of Geiger counters, particle accelerators, vacuum tubes and radioactive materials.

From the Guardian:

Taylor Wilson has a Geiger counter watch on his wrist, a sleek, sporty-looking thing that sounds an alert in response to radiation. As we enter his parents’ garage and approach his precious jumble of electrical equipment, it emits an ominous beep. Wilson is in full flow, explaining the old-fashioned control panel in the corner, and ignores it. “This is one of the original atom smashers,” he says with pride. “It would accelerate particles up to, um, 2.5m volts – so kind of up there, for early nuclear physics work.” He pats the knobs.

It was in this garage that, at the age of 14, Wilson built a working nuclear fusion reactor, bringing the temperature of its plasma core to 580mC – 40 times as hot as the core of the sun. This skinny kid from Arkansas, the son of a Coca-Cola bottler and a yoga instructor, experimented for years, painstakingly acquiring materials, instruments and expertise until he was able to join the elite club of scientists who have created a miniature sun on Earth.

Not long after, Wilson won $50,000 at a science fair, for a device that can detect nuclear materials in cargo containers – a counter-terrorism innovation he later showed to a wowed Barack Obama at a White House-sponsored science fair.

Wilson’s two TED talks (Yup, I Built A Nuclear Fusion Reactor and My Radical Plan For Small Nuclear Fission Reactors) have been viewed almost 4m times. A Hollywood biopic is planned, based on an imminent biography. Meanwhile, corporations have wooed him and the government has offered to buy some of his inventions. Former US under-secretary for energy, Kristina Johnson, told his biographer, Tom Clynes: “I would say someone like him comes along maybe once in a generation. He’s not just smart – he’s cool and articulate. I think he may be the most amazing kid I’ve ever met.”

Seven years on from fusing the atom, the gangly teen with a mop of blond hair is now a gangly 21-year-old with a mop of blond hair, who shuttles between his garage-cum-lab in the family’s home in Reno, Nevada, and other more conventional labs. In addition to figuring out how to intercept dirty bombs, he looks at ways of improving cancer treatment and lowering energy prices – while plotting a hi-tech business empire around the patents.

As we tour his parents’ garage, Wilson shows me what appears to be a collection of nuggets. His watch sounds another alert, but he continues lovingly to detail his inventory. “The first thing I got for my fusion project was a mass spectrometer from an ex-astronaut in Houston, Texas,” he explains. This was a treasure he obtained simply by writing a letter asking for it. He ambles over to a large steel safe, with a yellow and black nuclear hazard sticker on the front. He spins the handle, opens the door and extracts a vial with pale powder in it.

“That’s some yellowcake I made – the famous stuff that Saddam Hussein was supposedly buying from Niger. This is basically the starting point for nuclear, whether it’s a weapons programme or civilian energy production.” He gives the vial a shake. A vision of dodgy dossiers, atomic intrigue and mushroom clouds swims before me, a reverie broken by fresh beeping. “That’ll be the allanite. It’s a rare earth mineral,” Wilson explains. He picks up a dark, knobbly little rock streaked with silver. “It has thorium, a potential nuclear fuel.”

I think now may be a good moment to exit the garage, but the tour is not over. “One of the things people are surprised by is how ubiquitous radiation and radioactivity is,” Wilson says, giving me a reassuring look. “I’m very cautious. I’m actually a bit of a hypochondriac. It’s all about relative risk.”

He paces over to a plump steel tube, elevated to chest level – an object that resembles an industrial vacuum cleaner, and gleams in the gloom. This is the jewel in Wilson’s crown, the reactor he built at 14, and he gives it a tender caress. “This is safer than many things,” he says, gesturing to his Aladdin’s cave of atomic accessories. “For instance, horse riding. People fear radioactivity because it is very mysterious. You want to have respect for it, but not be paralysed by fear.”

The Wilson family home is a handsome, hacienda-style house tucked into foothills outside Reno. Unusually for the high desert at this time of year, grey clouds with bellies of rain rumble overhead. Wilson, by contrast, is all sunny smiles. He is still the slightly ethereal figure you see in the TED talks (I have to stop myself from offering him a sandwich), but the handshake is firm, the eye contact good and the energy enviable – even though Wilson has just flown back from a weekend visiting friends in Los Angeles. “I had an hour’s sleep last night. Three hours the night before that,” he says, with a hint of pride.

He does not drink or smoke, is a natty dresser (in suede jacket, skinny tie, jeans and Converse-style trainers) and he is a talker. From the moment we meet until we part hours later, he talks and talks, great billows of words about the origin of his gift and the responsibility it brings; about trying to be normal when he knows he’s special; about Fukushima, nuclear power and climate change; about fame and ego, and seeing his entire life chronicled in a book for all the world to see when he’s barely an adult and still wrestling with how to ask a girl out on a date.

The future feels urgent and mysterious. “My life has been this series of events that I didn’t see coming. It’s both exciting and daunting to know you’re going to be constantly trying to one-up yourself,” he says. “People can have their opinions about what I should do next, but my biggest pressure is internal. I hate resting on laurels. If I burn out, I burn out – but I don’t see that happening. I’ve more ideas than I have time to execute.”

Wilson credits his parents with huge influence, but wavers on the nature versus nurture debate: was he born brilliant or educated into it? “I don’t have an answer. I go back and forth.” The pace of technological change makes predicting his future a fool’s errand, he says. “It’s amazing – amazing – what I can do today that I couldn’t have done if I was born 10 years earlier.” And his ambitions are sky-high: he mentions, among many other plans, bringing electricity and state-of-the-art healthcare to the developing world.

Read the entire fascinating story here.

Image: Yellowcake, a type of uranium concentrate powder, an intermediate step in the processing of uranium ores. Courtesy of United States Department of Energy. Public Domain.

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An Eleven Year Marathon

While 11 years is about how long my kids suggest it would take me to run a marathon, this marathon is entirely other-worldly. It’s taken NASA’s Opportunity rover this length of time to cover just over 26 miles. It may seem like an awfully long time to cover that short distance, but think of all the rest stops — for incredible scientific discovery — along the way.

Check out a time-lapse that compresses Opportunity’s incredible martian journey into a mere 8 minutes.

Video courtesy of NASA / JPL.

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Emmy Noether, Mathematician

Emmy-NoetherMost non-mathematicians have probably heard of Euclid, Pythagoras, Poincaré, Gauss, Lagrange, de Fermat, and Hilbert,  to name but a few. All giants in their various mathematical specialties. But, I would hazard a wager that even most mathematicians have never heard of Noether. Probably because Emmy Noether is a woman.

Yet learning of her exploits in the early 20th century, I can see how far we still have to travel to truly recognize the contributions of women in academia and science — and everywhere else for that matter — as on a par with those of men. Women like Noether succeeded despite tremendous (male) pressure against them, which makes their achievements even more astonishing.

From ars technica:

By 1915, any list of the world’s greatest living mathematicians included the name David Hilbert. And though Hilbert previously devoted his career to logic and pure mathematics, he, like many other critical thinkers at the time, eventually became obsessed with a bit of theoretical physics.

With World War I raging on throughout Europe, Hilbert could be found sitting in his office at the great university at Göttingen trying and trying again to understand one idea—Einstein’s new theory of gravity.

Göttingen served as the center of mathematics for the Western world by this point, and Hilbert stood as one of its most notorious thinkers. He was a prominent leader for the minority of mathematicians who preferred a symbolic, axiomatic development in contrast to a more concrete style that emphasized the construction of particular solutions. Many of his peers recoiled from these modern methods, one even calling them “theology.” But Hilbert eventually won over most critics through the power and fruitfulness of his research.

For Hilbert, his rigorous approach to mathematics stood out quite a bit from the common practice of scientists, causing him some consternation. “Physics is much too hard for physicists,” he famously quipped. So wanting to know more, he invited Einstein to Göttingen to lecture about gravity for a week.

Before the year ended, both men would submit papers deriving the complete equations of general relativity. But naturally, the papers differed entirely when it came to their methods. When it came to Einstein’s theory, Hilbert and his Göttingen colleagues simply couldn’t wrap their minds around a peculiarity having to do with energy. All other physical theories—including electromagnetism, hydrodynamics, and the classical theory of gravity—obeyed local energy conservation. With Einstein’s theory, one of the many paradoxical consequences of this failure of energy conservation was that an object could speed up as it lost energy by emitting gravity waves, whereas clearly it should slow down.

Unable to make progress, Hilbert turned to the only person he believed might have the specialized knowledge and insight to help. This would-be-savior wasn’t even allowed to be a student at Göttingen once upon a time, but Hilbert had long become a fan of this mathematician’s highly “abstract” approach (which Hilbert considered similar to his own style). He managed to recruit this soon-to-be partner to Göttingen about the same time Einstein showed up.

And that’s when a woman—one Emmy Noether—created what may be the most important single theoretical result in modern physics.

 …

During Noether’s stay at Göttingen, Hilbert contrived a way to allow her to lecture unofficially. He repeatedly attempted to get her hired as a Privatdozent, or an officially recognized lecturer. The science and mathematics faculty was generally in favor of this, but Hilbert could not overcome the resistance of the humanities professors, who simply could not stomach the idea of a female teacher. At one meeting of the faculty senate, frustrated again in his attempts to get Noether a job, he famously remarked, “I do not see that the sex of a candidate is an argument against her admission as Privatdozent. After all, we are a university, not a bathing establishment.”

Social barriers aside, Noether immediately grasped the problem with Einstein’s theory. Over the course of three years, she not only solved it, but in doing so she proved a theorem that simultaneously reached back to the dawn of physics and pushed forward to the physics of today. Noether’s Theorem, as it is now called, lies at the heart of modern physics, unifying everything from the orbits of planets to the theories of elementary particles.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Emmy Noether (1882-1935). Public domain.

 

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Death Explained

StillLifeWithASkull

Let’s leave the mysteries of the spiritual after-life aside for our various religions to fight over, and concentrate on what really happens after death. It many not please many aesthetes, but the cyclic process is beautiful nonetheless.

From Raw Story:

“It might take a little bit of force to break this up,” says mortician Holly Williams, lifting John’s arm and gently bending it at the fingers, elbow and wrist. “Usually, the fresher a body is, the easier it is for me to work on.”

Williams speaks softly and has a happy-go-lucky demeanour that belies the nature of her work. Raised and now employed at a family-run funeral home in north Texas, she has seen and handled dead bodies on an almost daily basis since childhood. Now 28 years old, she estimates that she has worked on something like 1,000 bodies.

Her work involves collecting recently deceased bodies from the Dallas–Fort Worth area and preparing them for their funeral.

“Most of the people we pick up die in nursing homes,” says Williams, “but sometimes we get people who died of gunshot wounds or in a car wreck. We might get a call to pick up someone who died alone and wasn’t found for days or weeks, and they’ll already be decomposing, which makes my work much harder.”

John had been dead about four hours before his body was brought into the funeral home. He had been relatively healthy for most of his life. He had worked his whole life on the Texas oil fields, a job that kept him physically active and in pretty good shape. He had stopped smoking decades earlier and drank alcohol moderately. Then, one cold January morning, he suffered a massive heart attack at home (apparently triggered by other, unknown, complications), fell to the floor, and died almost immediately. He was just 57 years old.

Now, John lay on Williams’ metal table, his body wrapped in a white linen sheet, cold and stiff to the touch, his skin purplish-grey – telltale signs that the early stages of decomposition were well under way.

Self-digestion

Far from being ‘dead’, a rotting corpse is teeming with life. A growing number of scientists view a rotting corpse as the cornerstone of a vast and complex ecosystem, which emerges soon after death and flourishes and evolves as decomposition proceeds.

Decomposition begins several minutes after death with a process called autolysis, or self-digestion. Soon after the heart stops beating, cells become deprived of oxygen, and their acidity increases as the toxic by-products of chemical reactions begin to accumulate inside them. Enzymes start to digest cell membranes and then leak out as the cells break down. This usually begins in the liver, which is rich in enzymes, and in the brain, which has a high water content. Eventually, though, all other tissues and organs begin to break down in this way. Damaged blood cells begin to spill out of broken vessels and, aided by gravity, settle in the capillaries and small veins, discolouring the skin.

Body temperature also begins to drop, until it has acclimatised to its surroundings. Then, rigor mortis – “the stiffness of death” – sets in, starting in the eyelids, jaw and neck muscles, before working its way into the trunk and then the limbs. In life, muscle cells contract and relax due to the actions of two filamentous proteins (actin and myosin), which slide along each other. After death, the cells are depleted of their energy source and the protein filaments become locked in place. This causes the muscles to become rigid and locks the joints.

During these early stages, the cadaveric ecosystem consists mostly of the bacteria that live in and on the living human body. Our bodies host huge numbers of bacteria; every one of the body’s surfaces and corners provides a habitat for a specialised microbial community. By far the largest of these communities resides in the gut, which is home to trillions of bacteria of hundreds or perhaps thousands of different species.

The gut microbiome is one of the hottest research topics in biology; it’s been linked to roles in human health and a plethora of conditions and diseases, from autism and depression to irritable bowel syndrome and obesity. But we still know little about these microbial passengers. We know even less about what happens to them when we die.

Putrefaction

Scattered among the pine trees in Huntsville, Texas, lie around half a dozen human cadavers in various stages of decay. The two most recently placed bodies are spread-eagled near the centre of the small enclosure with much of their loose, grey-blue mottled skin still intact, their ribcages and pelvic bones visible between slowly putrefying flesh. A few metres away lies another, fully skeletonised, with its black, hardened skin clinging to the bones, as if it were wearing a shiny latex suit and skullcap. Further still, beyond other skeletal remains scattered by vultures, lies a third body within a wood and wire cage. It is nearing the end of the death cycle, partly mummified. Several large, brown mushrooms grow from where an abdomen once was.

For most of us the sight of a rotting corpse is at best unsettling and at worst repulsive and frightening, the stuff of nightmares. But this is everyday for the folks at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility. Opened in 2009, the facility is located within a 247-acre area of National Forest owned by Sam Houston State University (SHSU). Within it, a nine-acre plot of densely wooded land has been sealed off from the wider area and further subdivided, by 10-foot-high green wire fences topped with barbed wire.

In late 2011, SHSU researchers Sibyl Bucheli and Aaron Lynne and their colleagues placed two fresh cadavers here, and left them to decay under natural conditions.

Once self-digestion is under way and bacteria have started to escape from the gastrointestinal tract, putrefaction begins. This is molecular death – the breakdown of soft tissues even further, into gases, liquids and salts. It is already under way at the earlier stages of decomposition but really gets going when anaerobic bacteria get in on the act.

Putrefaction is associated with a marked shift from aerobic bacterial species, which require oxygen to grow, to anaerobic ones, which do not. These then feed on the body’s tissues, fermenting the sugars in them to produce gaseous by-products such as methane, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia, which accumulate within the body, inflating (or ‘bloating’) the abdomen and sometimes other body parts.

This causes further discolouration of the body. As damaged blood cells continue to leak from disintegrating vessels, anaerobic bacteria convert haemoglobin molecules, which once carried oxygen around the body, into sulfhaemoglobin. The presence of this molecule in settled blood gives skin the marbled, greenish-black appearance characteristic of a body undergoing active decomposition.

Colonisation

When a decomposing body starts to purge, it becomes fully exposed to its surroundings. At this stage, the cadaveric ecosystem really comes into its own: a ‘hub’ for microbes, insects and scavengers.

Two species closely linked with decomposition are blowflies and flesh flies (and their larvae). Cadavers give off a foul, sickly-sweet odour, made up of a complex cocktail of volatile compounds that changes as decomposition progresses. Blowflies detect the smell using specialised receptors on their antennae, then land on the cadaver and lay their eggs in orifices and open wounds.

Each fly deposits around 250 eggs that hatch within 24 hours, giving rise to small first-stage maggots. These feed on the rotting flesh and then moult into larger maggots, which feed for several hours before moulting again. After feeding some more, these yet larger, and now fattened, maggots wriggle away from the body. They then pupate and transform into adult flies, and the cycle repeats until there’s nothing left for them to feed on.

Under the right conditions, an actively decaying body will have large numbers of stage-three maggots feeding on it. This ‘maggot mass’ generates a lot of heat, raising the inside temperature by more than 10°C. Like penguins huddling in the South Pole, individual maggots within the mass are constantly on the move. But whereas penguins huddle to keep warm, maggots in the mass move around to stay cool.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Bucheli explains, surrounded by large toy insects and a collection of Monster High dolls in her SHSU office. “If you’re always at the edge, you might get eaten by a bird, and if you’re always in the centre, you might get cooked. So they’re constantly moving from the centre to the edges and back.”

Purging

“We’re looking at the purging fluid that comes out of decomposing bodies,” says Daniel Wescott, director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Wescott, an anthropologist specialising in skull structure, is using a micro-CT scanner to analyse the microscopic structure of the bones brought back from the body farm. He also collaborates with entomologists and microbiologists – including Javan, who has been busy analysing samples of cadaver soil collected from the San Marcos facility – as well as computer engineers and a pilot, who operate a drone that takes aerial photographs of the facility.

“I was reading an article about drones flying over crop fields, looking at which ones would be best to plant in,” he says. “They were looking at near-infrared, and organically rich soils were a darker colour than the others. I thought if they can do that, then maybe we can pick up these little circles.”

Those “little circles” are cadaver decomposition islands. A decomposing body significantly alters the chemistry of the soil beneath it, causing changes that may persist for years. Purging – the seeping of broken-down materials out of what’s left of the body – releases nutrients into the underlying soil, and maggot migration transfers much of the energy in a body to the wider environment. Eventually, the whole process creates a ‘cadaver decomposition island’, a highly concentrated area of organically rich soil. As well as releasing nutrients into the wider ecosystem, this attracts other organic materials, such as dead insects and faecal matter from larger animals.

According to one estimate, an average human body consists of 50–75 per cent water, and every kilogram of dry body mass eventually releases 32 g of nitrogen, 10 g of phosphorous, 4 g of potassium and 1 g of magnesium into the soil. Initially, it kills off some of the underlying and surrounding vegetation, possibly because of nitrogen toxicity or because of antibiotics found in the body, which are secreted by insect larvae as they feed on the flesh. Ultimately, though, decomposition is beneficial for the surrounding ecosystem.

According to the laws of thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. In other words: things fall apart, converting their mass to energy while doing so. Decomposition is one final, morbid reminder that all matter in the universe must follow these fundamental laws. It breaks us down, equilibrating our bodily matter with its surroundings, and recycling it so that other living things can put it to use.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Still-Life with a Skull, 17th-century painting by Philippe de Champaigne. Public Domain.

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Belief and the Falling Light

Many of us now accept that lights falling from the sky are rocky interlopers from the asteroid clouds within our solar system, rather than visiting angels or signs from an angry (or mysteriously benevolent) God. New analysis of the meteor that overflew Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013 suggests that one of the key founders of Christianity may have witnessed a similar natural phenomenon around two thousand years ago. However, at the time, Saul (later to become Paul the evangelist) interpreted the dazzling light on the road to Damascus — Acts of the Apostles, New Testament — as a message from a Christian God. The rest, as they say, is history. Luckily, recent scientific progress now means that most of us no longer establish new religious movements based on fireballs in the sky. But, we are awed nonetheless.

From the New Scientist:

Nearly two thousand years ago, a man named Saul had an experience that changed his life, and possibly yours as well. According to Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the biblical New Testament, Saul was on the road to Damascus, Syria, when he saw a bright light in the sky, was blinded and heard the voice of Jesus. Changing his name to Paul, he became a major figure in the spread of Christianity.

William Hartmann, co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, has a different explanation for what happened to Paul. He says the biblical descriptions of Paul’s experience closely match accounts of the fireball meteor seen above Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013.

Hartmann has detailed his argument in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science (doi.org/3vn). He analyses three accounts of Paul’s journey, thought to have taken place around AD 35. The first is a third-person description of the event, thought to be the work of one of Jesus’s disciples, Luke. The other two quote what Paul is said to have subsequently told others.

“Everything they are describing in those three accounts in the book of Acts are exactly the sequence you see with a fireball,” Hartmann says. “If that first-century document had been anything other than part of the Bible, that would have been a straightforward story.”

But the Bible is not just any ancient text. Paul’s Damascene conversion and subsequent missionary journeys around the Mediterranean helped build Christianity into the religion it is today. If his conversion was indeed as Hartmann explains it, then a random space rock has played a major role in determining the course of history (see “Christianity minus Paul”).

That’s not as strange as it sounds. A large asteroid impact helped kill off the dinosaurs, paving the way for mammals to dominate the Earth. So why couldn’t a meteor influence the evolution of our beliefs?

“It’s well recorded that extraterrestrial impacts have helped to shape the evolution of life on this planet,” says Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama. “If it was a Chelyabinsk fireball that was responsible for Paul’s conversion, then obviously that had a great impact on the growth of Christianity.”

Hartmann’s argument is possible now because of the quality of observations of the Chelyabinsk incident. The 2013 meteor is the most well-documented example of larger impacts that occur perhaps only once in 100 years. Before 2013, the 1908 blast in Tunguska, also in Russia, was the best example, but it left just a scattering of seismic data, millions of flattened trees and some eyewitness accounts. With Chelyabinsk, there is a clear scientific argument to be made, says Hartmann. “We have observational data that match what we see in this first-century account.”

Read the entire article here.

Video: Meteor above Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013. Courtesy of Tuvix72.

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Heads in the Rising Tide

King-Knut

Officials from the state of Florida seem to have their heads in the sand (and other places); sand that is likely to be swept from their very own Florida shores as sea levels rise. However, surely climate change could be an eventual positive for Florida: think warmer climate and huge urban swathes underwater — a great new Floridian theme park! But, remember, don’t talk about it. I suppose officials will soon be looking for a contemporary version of King Canute to help them out of this watery pickle.

From Wired:

The oceans are slowly overtaking Florida. Ancient reefs of mollusk and coral off the present-day coasts are dying. Annual extremes in hot and cold, wet and dry, are becoming more pronounced. Women and men of science have investigated, and a great majority agree upon a culprit. In the outside world, this culprit has a name, but within the borders of Florida, it does not. According to a  Miami Herald investigation, the state Department of Environmental Protection has since 2010 had an unwritten policy prohibiting the use of some well-understood phrases for the meteorological phenomena slowly drowning America’s weirdest-shaped state. It’s … that thing where burning too much fossil fuel puts certain molecules into a certain atmosphere, disrupting a certain planetary ecosystem. You know what we’re talking about. We know you know. They know we know you know. But are we allowed to talk about … you know? No. Not in Florida. It must not be spoken of. Ever.

Unless … you could, maybe, type around it? It’s worth a shot.

The cyclone slowdown

It has been nine years since Florida was hit by a proper hurricane. Could that be a coincidence? Sure. Or it could be because of … something. A nameless, voiceless something. A feeling, like a pricking-of-thumbs, this confluence-of-chemistry-and-atmospheric-energy-over-time. If so, this anonymous dreadfulness would, scientists say, lead to a drier middle layer of atmosphere over the ocean. Because water vapor stores energy, this dry air will suffocate all but the most energetic baby storms. “So the general thinking, is that that as [redacted] levels increase, it ultimately won’t have an effect on the number of storms,” says Jim Kossin, a scientist who studies, oh, how about “things-that-happen-in-the-atmosphere-over-long-time-periods” at the National Centers for Environmental Information. “However, there is a lot of evidence that if a storm does form, it has a chance of getting very strong.”

Storms darken the sky

Hurricanes are powered by energy in the sea. And as cold and warm currents thread around the globe, storms go through natural, decades-long cycles of high-to-low intensity. “There is a natural 40-to-60-year oscillation in what sea surface temperatures are doing, and this is driven by ocean-wide currents that move on very slow time scales,” says Kossin, who has authored reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on, well, let’s just call it Chemical-and-Thermodynamic-Alterations-to-Long-Term-Atmospheric-Conditions. But in recent years, storms have become stronger than that natural cycle would otherwise predict. Kossin says that many in his field agree that while the natural churning of the ocean is behind this increasing intensity, other forces are at work. Darker, more sinister forces, like thermodynamics. Possibly even chemistry. No one knows for sure. Anyway, storms are getting less frequent, but stronger. It’s an eldritch tale of unspeakable horror, maybe.

 Read the entire article here.

Image: King Knut (or Cnut or Canute) the Great, illustrated in a medieval manuscript. Courtesy of Der Spiegel Geschichte.

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The US Senator From Oklahoma and the Snowball

By their own admission Republicans in the US Congress are not scientists, and clearly most, if not all, have no grasp of science, the scientific method, or the meaning of scientific theory or broad scientific consensus. The Senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, is the perfect embodiment of this extraordinary condition — perhaps a psychosis even — whereby a human living in the 21st century has no clue. Senator Inhofe recently gave us his infantile analysis of climate change on the Senate floor, accompanied by a snowball. This will make you then laugh, then cry.

From Scientific American:

“In case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, you know what this is? It’s a snowball. And that’s just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out.”

Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the biggest and loudest climate change denier in Congress, last week on the floor of the senate. But his facile argument, that it’s cold enough for snow to exist in Washington, D.C., therefore climate change is a hoax, was rebutted in the same venue by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse:

“You can believe NASA and you can believe what their satellites measure on the planet, or you can believe the Senator with the snowball. The United States Navy takes this very seriously, to the point where Admiral Locklear, who is the head of the Pacific Command, has said that climate change is the biggest threat that we face in the Pacific…you can either believe the United States Navy or you can believe the Senator with the snowball…every major American scientific society has put itself on record, many of them a decade ago, that climate change is deadly real. They measure it, they see it, they know why it happens. The predictions correlate with what we see as they increasingly come true. And the fundamental principles, that it is derived from carbon pollution, which comes from burning fossil fuels, are beyond legitimate dispute…so you can believe every single major American scientific society, or you can believe the Senator with the snowball.”

Read the entire story here.

Video: Senator Inhofe with Snowball. Courtesy of C-Span.

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US Politicians Are Not Scientists, They’re…

A recent popular refrain from politicians in the US is “I am not a scientist”. This is code, mostly from the mouths of Republicans, for a train of thought that goes something like this:

1. Facts discovered through the scientific method are nothing more than opinion.

2. However, my beliefs are fact.

3. Hence, anything that is explained through science is wrong.

4. Thus, case closed.

Those who would have us believe that climate change is an illusion now take cover behind this quaint “I am not a scientist” phrase, and in so doing are able to shirk from questions of any consequence. So, it’s good to hear potential Republican presidential candidate, Scott Walker, tow the party line recently by telling us that he’s no scientist and “punting” (aka ignoring) on questions of climate change. This on the same day that NASA, Cornell and Columbia warn that global warming is likely to bring severe, multi-decade long megadroughts — the worst in a thousand years — to the central and southwestern US in our children’s lifetimes.

The optimist in me hopes that when my children come of age they will elect politicians who are scientists or leaders who accept the scientific method. Please. It’s time to ditch Flat Earthers, creationists and “believers”. It’s time to shun those who shun critical thinking, reason and evidence. It’s time to move beyond those who merely say anything or nothing to get elected.

From ars technica:

Given that February 12 would be Charles Darwin’s 206th birthday, having people spare some thought for the theory of evolution doesn’t seem outrageously out of place this week. But, for a US politician visiting London, a question on the matter was clearly unwelcome.

Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin and possible presidential candidate, was obviously hoping for a chance to have a few experiences that would make him seem more credible on the foreign policy scene. But the host of a British TV show asked some questions that, for many in the US, touch on matters of personal belief and the ability to think critically: “Are you comfortable with the idea of evolution? Do you believe in it? Do you accept it?” (A video that includes these questions along with extensive commentary is available here.)

Walker, rather than oblige his host, literally answered that he was going to dodge the question, saying, “For me, I’m going to punt on that one as well. That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.”

“Punting,” for those not up on their sports metaphors, is a means of tactically giving up. When a football team punts, it gives the other team control of the ball but prevents a variety of many worse situations from developing.

In some ways, this is an improvement for a politician. When it comes to climate change, many politicians perform a dodge by saying “I’m not a scientist” and then proceed to make stupid pronouncements about the state of science. Here, Walker didn’t make any statements whatsoever.

So, that’s a step up from excusing stupidity. But is this really a question that should be punted? To begin with, Walker may not feel it’s a question a politician should be involved with, but plenty of other politicians clearly do. At a minimum, punting meant Walker passed on an opportunity to explain why he feels those efforts to interfere in science education are misguided and why his stand is more principled.

But, much more realistically, Walker is punting not because he feels the question shouldn’t be answered by politicians, but because he sees lots of political downsides to answering. Politicians had been getting hit with the evolution question since at least 2007, and our initial analysis of it still stands. If you agree with over a century of scientific exploration, you run the risk of alienating a community that has established itself as a reliable contributor of votes to Republican politicians such as Walker. We could see why he would want to avoid that.

Saying you refuse to accept evolution raises valid questions about your willingness to analyze evidence rationally and accept the opinions of people with expertise in a topic. Either that, or it suggests you’re willing to say anything in order to improve your chances of being elected. But punting is effectively the same thing—it suggests you’ll avoid saying anything in order to improve your chances of being elected.

Read the entire article here.

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Education And Reality

Recent studies show that having a higher level of education does not necessarily lead to greater acceptance of reality. This seems to fly in the face of oft cited anecdotal evidence and prevailing beliefs that suggest people with lower educational attainment are more likely to reject accepted scientific fact, such as evolutionary science and climate change.

From ars technica:

We like to think that education changes people for the better, helping them critically analyze information and providing a certain immunity from disinformation. But if that were really true, then you wouldn’t have low vaccination rates clustering in areas where parents are, on average, highly educated.

Vaccination isn’t generally a political issue. (Or, it is, but it’s rejected both by people who don’t trust pharmaceutical companies and by those who don’t trust government mandates; these tend to cluster on opposite ends of the political spectrum.) But some researchers decided to look at a number of issues that have become politicized, such as the Iraq War, evolution, and climate change. They find that, for these issues, education actually makes it harder for people to accept reality, an effect they ascribe to the fact that “highly educated partisans would be better equipped to challenge information inconsistent with predispositions.”

The researchers looked at two sets of questions about the Iraq War. The first involved the justifications for the war (weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda), as well as the perception of the war outside the US. The second focused on the role of the troop surge in reducing violence within Iraq. At the time the polls were taken, there was a clear reality: no evidence of an active weapons program or links to Al Qaeda; the war was frowned upon overseas; and the surge had successfully reduced violence in the country.

On the three issues that were most embarrassing to the Bush administration, Democrats were more likely to get things right, and their accuracy increased as their level of education rose. In contrast, the most and least educated Republicans were equally likely to have things wrong. When it came to the surge, the converse was true. Education increased the chances that Republicans would recognize reality, while the Democratic acceptance of the facts stayed flat even as education levels rose. In fact, among Democrats, the base level of recognition that the surge was a success was so low that it’s not even clear it would have been possible to detect a downward trend.

When it came to evolution, the poll question didn’t even ask whether people accepted the reality of evolution. Instead, it asked “Is there general agreement among scientists that humans have evolved over time, or not?” (This phrasing generally makes it easier for people to accept the reality of evolution, since it’s not asking about their personal beliefs.) Again, education increased the acceptance of this reality among both Democrats and Republicans, but the magnitude of the effect was much smaller among Republicans. In fact, the impact of ideology was stronger than education itself: “The effect of Republican identification on the likelihood of believing that there is a scientific consensus is roughly three times that of the effect of education.”

For climate change, the participants were asked “Do you believe that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity or natural patterns?” Overall, about the beliefs of 70 percent of those polled lined up with scientific conclusions on the matter. And, among the least educated, party affiliation made very little difference in terms of getting this right. But, as education rose, Democrats were more likely to get this right, while Republicans saw their accuracy drop. At the highest levels of education, Democrats got it right 90 percent of the time, while Republicans less than half.

The results are in keeping with a number of other studies that have been published of late, which also show that partisan divides over things that could be considered factual sometimes increase with education. Typically, these issues are widely perceived as political. (With some exceptions; GMOs, for example.) In this case, the authors suspect that education simply allows people to deploy more sophisticated cognitive filters that end up rejecting information that could otherwise compel them to change their perceptions.

The authors conclude that’s somewhat mixed news for democracy itself. Education is intended to improve people’s ability to assimilate information upon which to base their political judgements. And, to a large extent, it does: people, on average, got 70 percent of the questions right, and there was only a single case where education made matters worse.

Read the entire article here.

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Philae: The Little Lander That Could

Farewell_Philae_-_narrow-angle_view_large

What audacity! A ten year journey, covering 4 billion miles.

On November 12, 2014 at 16:03 UTC, the Rosetta spacecraft delivered the Philae probe to land on a comet; a comet the size of New York’s Manhattan Island, speeding through our solar system at 34,000 miles per hour. What utter audacity!

The team of scientists, engineers, and theoreticians at the European Space Agency (ESA), and its partners, pulled off an awe-inspiring, remarkable and historic feat; a feat that ranks with the other pinnacles of human endeavor and exploration. It shows what our fledgling species can truly achieve.

Sadly, our species is flawed, capable of such terrible atrocities to ourselves and to our planet. And yet, triumphant stories like this one — the search for fundamental understanding through science —  must give us all some continued hope.

Exploration. Inspiration. Daring. Risk. Execution. Discovery. Audacity!

From the Guardian:

These could be the dying hours of Philae, the device the size of a washing machine which travelled 4bn miles to hitch a ride on a comet. Philae is the “lander” which on Wednesday sprung from the craft that had carried it into deep, dark space, bounced a couple of times on the comet’s surface, and eventually found itself lodged in the shadows, starved of the sunlight its solar batteries needed to live. Yesterday, the scientists who had been planning this voyage for the past quarter-century sat and waited for word from their little explorer, hoping against hope that it still had enough energy to reveal its discoveries.

If Philae expires on the hard, rocky surface of Comet 67P the sadness will be felt far beyond mission control in Darmstadt, Germany. Indeed, it may be felt there least of all: those who have dedicated their working lives to this project pronounced it a success, regardless of a landing that didn’t quite go to plan (Philae’s anchor harpoons didn’t fire, so with gravity feeble there was nothing to keep the machine anchored to the original, optimal landing site). They were delighted to have got there at all and thrilled at Philae’s early work. Up to 90% of the science they planned to carry out has been done. As one scientist put it, “We’ve already got fantastic data.”

Those who lacked their expertise couldn’t help feel a pang all the same. The human instinct to anthropomorphise does not confine itself to cute animals, as anyone who has seen the film Wall-E can testify. If Pixar could make us well up for a waste-disposing robot, it’s little wonder the European Space Agency has had us empathising with a lander ejected from its “mothership”, identifiable only by its “spindly leg”. In those nervous hours, many will have been rooting for Philae, imagining it on that cold, hard surface yearning for sunlight, its beeps of data slowly petering out as its strength faded.

 But that barely accounts for the fascination this adventure has stirred. Part of it is simple, a break from the torments down here on earth. You don’t have to go as far as Christopher Nolan film Interstellar, which fantasises about leaving our broken, ravaged planet and starting somewhere else – to enjoy a rare respite from our earthly woes. For a few merciful days, the news has featured a story remote from the bloodshed of Islamic State and Ukraine, from the pain of child abuse and poverty. Even those who don’t dream of escaping this planet can relish the escapism.

But the comet landing has provided more than a diversion: it’s been an antidote too. For this has been a story of human cooperation in a world of conflict. The narrow version of this point focuses on this as a European success story. When our daily news sees “Europe” only as the source of unwanted migrants or maddening regulation, Philae has offered an alternative vision; that Germany, Italy, France, Britain and others can achieve far more together than they could ever dream of alone. The geopolitical experts so often speak of the global pivot to Asia, the rise of the Bric nations and the like – but this extraordinary voyage has proved that Europe is not dead yet.

Even that, as I say, is to view it too narrowly. The US, through Nasa, is involved as well. And note the language attached to the hardware: the Rosetta satellite, the Ptolemy measuring instrument, the Osiris on-board camera, Philea itself – all imagery drawn from ancient Egypt. The spacecraft was named after the Rosetta stone, the discovery that unlocked hieroglyphics, as if to suggest a similar, if not greater, ambition: to decode the secrets of the universe. By evoking humankind’s ancient past, this is presented as a mission of the entire human race. There will be no flag planting on Comet 67P. As the Open University’s Jessica Hughes puts it, Philea, Rosetta and the rest “have become distant representatives of our shared, earthly heritage”.

That fits because this is how we experience such a moment: as a human triumph. When we marvel at the numbers – a probe has travelled for 10 years, crossed those 4bn miles, landed on a comet speeding at 34,000mph and done so within two minutes of its planned arrival – we marvel at what our species is capable of. I can barely get past the communication: that Darmstadt is able to contact an object 300 million miles away, sending instructions, receiving pictures. I can’t get phone reception in my kitchen, yet the ESA can be in touch with a robot that lies far beyond Mars. Like watching Usain Bolt run or hearing Maria Callas sing, we find joy and exhilaration in the outer limits of human excellence.

And of course we feel awe. What Interstellar prompts us to feel artificially – making us gasp at the confected scale and digitally assisted magnitude – Philae gives us for real. It is the stretch of time and place, glimpsing somewhere so far away it is as out of reach as ancient Egypt.

All that is before you reckon with the voyage’s scholarly purpose. “We are on the cutting edge of science,” they say, and of course they are. They are probing the deepest mysteries, including the riddle of how life began. (One theory suggests a comet brought water to a previously arid Earth.) What the authors of the Book of Genesis understood is that this question of origins is intimately bound up with the question of purpose. From the dawn of human time, to ask “How did we get here?” has been to ask “Why are we here?”

It’s why contemplation of the cosmic so soon reverts to the spiritual. Interstellar, like 2001: A Space Odyssey before it, is no different. It’s why one of the most powerful moments of Ronald Reagan’s presidency came when he paid tribute to the astronauts killed in the Challenger disaster. They had, he said, “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God”.

Not that you have to believe in such things to share the romance. Secularists, especially on the left, used to have a faith of their own. They believed that humanity was proceeding along an inexorable path of progress, that the world was getting better and better with each generation. The slaughter of the past century robbed them – us – of that once-certain conviction. Yet every now and again comes an unambiguous advance, what one ESA scientist called “A big step for human civilisation”. Even if we never hear from Philae again, we can delight in that.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Philae lander, detached from the Rosetta spacecraft, on its solitary journey towards the surface of comet P67. Courtesy of ESA.

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Texas and Its Textbooks: The Farce Continues

Just over a year ago I highlighted the plight of accepted scholarly fact in Texas. The state, through its infamous School Board of Education (SBOE), had just completed a lengthy effort to revise many textbooks for middle- and high-school curricula. The SBOE and its ideological supporters throughout the Texas political machine managed to insert numerous dubious claims, fictitious statements in place of agreed upon facts and handfuls of slanted opinion in all manner of historical and social science texts. Many academics and experts in their respective fields raised alarms over the process. But the SBOE derided these “liberal elitists”, and openly flaunted its distaste for fact, preferring to distort historical record with undertones of conservative Christianity.

Many non-Texan progressives and believers-in-fact laughingly shook their heads knowing that Texas could and should be left its own devices. Unfortunately, for the rest of the country, Texas has so much buying power that textbook publishers will often publish with Texas in mind, but distribute their books throughout the entire nation.

So now it comes as no surprise to find that many newly, or soon to be, published Texas textbooks for grades 6-12 are riddled with errors. An academic review of 43 textbooks highlights the disaster waiting to happen to young minds in Texas, and across many other states. The Texas SBOE will take a vote on which books to approve in November.

Some choice examples of the errors and half-truths below.

All of the world geography textbooks inaccurately downplay the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity.

Discovery Education — Social Studies Techbook World Geography and Cultures

The text states: “When Europeans arrived, they brought Christianity with them and spread it among the indigenous people. Over time, Christianity became the main religion in Latin America.”

Pearson Education – Contemporary World Cultures

The text states: “Priests came to Mexico to convert Native Americans to the Roman Catholic religion. The Church became an important part of life in the new colony. Churches were built in the centers of towns and cities, and church officials became leaders in the colony.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – World Geography

The text states: “The Spanish brought their language and Catholic religion, both of which dominate modern Mexico.”

Various

All but two of the world geography textbooks fail to mention the Spaniards’ forced conversions of the indigenous peoples to Christianity (e.g., the Spanish Requerimiento of 1513) and their often-systematic destruction of indigenous religious institutions. The two exceptions (Cengage Learning, Inc. – World Cultures and Geography and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – World Geography) delay this grim news until a chapter on South America, and even there do not give it the prominence it deserves.

What’s Wrong?

The Christianization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was most decidedly not benign. These descriptions provide a distorted picture of the spread of Christianity. An accurate account must include information about the forced conversion of native peoples and the often-systematic destruction of indigenous religious institutions and practices. (This error of omission is especially problematic when contrasted with the emphasis on conquest – often violent – to describe the spread of Islam in some textbooks.)

One world history textbook (by Worldview Software, Inc.) includes outdated – and possibly offensive – anthropological categories and racial terminology in describing African civilization.

WorldView Software – World History A: Early Civilizations to the Mid-1800s

The text states: “South of the Sahara Desert most of the people before the Age of Explorations were black Africans of the Negro race.”

 Elsewhere, the text states: “The first known inhabitants of Africa north of the Sahara in prehistory were Caucasoid Hamitic people of uncertain origin.”

What’s Wrong?

First, the term “Negro” is archaic and fraught with ulterior meaning. It should categorically not be used in a modern textbook. Further, the first passage is unforgivably misleading because it suggests that all black native Africans belong to a single “racial” group. This is typological thinking, which disappeared largely from texts after the 1940s. It harkens back to the racialization theory that all people could be classified as one of three “races”: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, or Negroid. Better to say: “…were natives of African origin.” Similarly, in the second passage, it is more accurate to simply omit reference to “Caucasoid.”

From the Washington Post:

When it comes to controversies about curriculum, textbook content and academic standards, Texas is the state that keeps on giving.

Back in 2010, we had an uproar over proposed changes to social studies standards by religious conservatives on the State Board of Education, which included a bid to calling the United States’ hideous slave trade history as the “Atlantic triangular trade.” There were other doozies, too, such as one proposal to remove Thomas Jefferson from the Enlightenment curriculum and replace him with John Calvin. Some were changed but the board’s approved standards were roundly criticized as distorted history.

There’s a new fuss about proposed social studies textbooks for Texas public schools that are based on what are called the Texas Essential  Knowledge  and  Skills.  Scholarly reviews of 43 proposed history, geography and government textbooks for Grades 6-12 — undertaken by the Education Fund of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog and activist group that monitors far-right issues and organizations — found extensive problems in American Government textbooks, U.S. and World History textbooks,Religion in World History textbooks, and Religion in World Geography textbooks.  The state board will vote on which books to approve in November.

Ideas promoted in various proposed textbooks include the notion that Moses and Solomon inspired American democracy, that in the era of segregation only “sometimes” were schools for black children “lower in quality” and that Jews view Jesus Christ as an important prophet.

Here are the broad findings of 10 scholars, who wrote four separate reports, taken from an executive summary, followed by the names of the scholars and a list of publishers who submitted textbooks.

The findings:

  • A number of government and world history textbooks exaggerate Judeo-Christian influence on the nation’s founding and Western political tradition.
  • Two government textbooks include misleading information that undermines the Constitutional concept of the separation of church and state.
  • Several world history and world geography textbooks include biased statements that inappropriately portray Islam and Muslims negatively.
  • All of the world geography textbooks inaccurately downplay the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity.
  • Several world geography and history textbooks suffer from an incomplete – and often inaccurate – account of religions other than Christianity.
  • Coverage of key Christian concepts and historical events are lacking in a few textbooks, often due to the assumption that all students are Christians and already familiar with Christian events and doctrine.
  • A few government and U.S. history textbooks suffer from an uncritical celebration of the free enterprise system, both by ignoring legitimate problems that exist in capitalism and failing to include coverage of government’s role in the U.S. economic system.
  • One government textbook flirts with contemporary Tea Party ideology, particularly regarding the inclusion of anti-taxation and anti-regulation arguments.
  • One world history textbook includes outdated – and possibly offensive – anthropological categories and racial terminology in describing African civilization.

Read the entire article here and check out the academic report here.

 

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A Godless Universe: Mind or Mathematics

In his science column for the NYT George Johnson reviews several recent books by noted thinkers who for different reasons believe science needs to expand its borders. Philosopher Thomas Nagel and physicist Max Tegmark both agree that our current understanding of the universe is rather limited and that science needs to turn to new or alternate explanations. Nagel, still an atheist, suggests in his book Mind and Cosmos that the mind somehow needs to be considered a fundamental structure of the universe. While Tegmark in his book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality suggests that mathematics is the core, irreducible framework of the cosmos. Two radically different ideas — yet both are correct in one respect: we still know so very little about ourselves and our surroundings.

From the NYT:

Though he probably didn’t intend anything so jarring, Nicolaus Copernicus, in a 16th-century treatise, gave rise to the idea that human beings do not occupy a special place in the heavens. Nearly 500 years after replacing the Earth with the sun as the center of the cosmic swirl, we’ve come to see ourselves as just another species on a planet orbiting a star in the boondocks of a galaxy in the universe we call home. And this may be just one of many universes — what cosmologists, some more skeptically than others, have named the multiverse.

Despite the long string of demotions, we remain confident, out here on the edge of nowhere, that our band of primates has what it takes to figure out the cosmos — what the writer Timothy Ferris called “the whole shebang.” New particles may yet be discovered, and even new laws. But it is almost taken for granted that everything from physics to biology, including the mind, ultimately comes down to four fundamental concepts: matter and energy interacting in an arena of space and time.

There are skeptics who suspect we may be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. Recently, I’ve been struck by two books exploring that possibility in very different ways. There is no reason why, in this particular century, Homo sapiens should have gathered all the pieces needed for a theory of everything. In displacing humanity from a privileged position, the Copernican principle applies not just to where we are in space but to when we are in time.

Since it was published in 2012, “Mind and Cosmos,” by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, is the book that has caused the most consternation. With his taunting subtitle — “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” — Dr. Nagel was rejecting the idea that there was nothing more to the universe than matter and physical forces. He also doubted that the laws of evolution, as currently conceived, could have produced something as remarkable as sentient life. That idea borders on anathema, and the book quickly met with a blistering counterattack. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, denounced it as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”

What makes “Mind and Cosmos” worth reading is that Dr. Nagel is an atheist, who rejects the creationist idea of an intelligent designer. The answers, he believes, may still be found through science, but only by expanding it further than it may be willing to go.

“Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning,” he wrote, “but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that the tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.”

Dr. Nagel finds it astonishing that the human brain — this biological organ that evolved on the third rock from the sun — has developed a science and a mathematics so in tune with the cosmos that it can predict and explain so many things.

Neuroscientists assume that these mental powers somehow emerge from the electrical signaling of neurons — the circuitry of the brain. But no one has come close to explaining how that occurs.

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That, Dr. Nagel proposes, might require another revolution: showing that mind, along with matter and energy, is “a fundamental principle of nature” — and that we live in a universe primed “to generate beings capable of comprehending it.” Rather than being a blind series of random mutations and adaptations, evolution would have a direction, maybe even a purpose.

“Above all,” he wrote, “I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.”

Dr. Nagel is not alone in entertaining such ideas. While rejecting anything mystical, the biologist Stuart Kauffman has suggested that Darwinian theory must somehow be expanded to explain the emergence of complex, intelligent creatures. And David J. Chalmers, a philosopher, has called on scientists to seriously consider “panpsychism” — the idea that some kind of consciousness, however rudimentary, pervades the stuff of the universe.

Some of this is a matter of scientific taste. It can be just as exhilarating, as Stephen Jay Gould proposed in “Wonderful Life,” to consider the conscious mind as simply a fluke, no more inevitable than the human appendix or a starfish’s five legs. But it doesn’t seem so crazy to consider alternate explanations.

Heading off in another direction, a new book by the physicist Max Tegmark suggests that a different ingredient — mathematics — needs to be admitted into science as one of nature’s irreducible parts. In fact, he believes, it may be the most fundamental of all.

In a well-known 1960 essay, the physicist Eugene Wigner marveled at “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in explaining the world. It is “something bordering on the mysterious,” he wrote, for which “there is no rational explanation.”

The best he could offer was that mathematics is “a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”

Dr. Tegmark, in his new book, “Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality,” turns the idea on its head: The reason mathematics serves as such a forceful tool is that the universe is a mathematical structure. Going beyond Pythagoras and Plato, he sets out to show how matter, energy, space and time might emerge from numbers.

Read the entire article here.

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A Subsurface Anomaly

Enceladusstripes_cassini

Researchers published details of this “subsurface anomaly” in the journal Science, on April 4, 2014. The summary reads as follows:

Our results indicate the presence of a negative mass anomaly in the south-polar region, largely compensated by a positive subsurface anomaly compatible with the presence of a regional subsurface sea at depths of 30 to 40 kilometers and extending up to south latitudes of about 50°. The estimated values for the largest quadrupole harmonic coefficients (106J2 = 5435.2 ± 34.9, 106C22 = 1549.8 ± 15.6, 1?) and their ratio (J2/C22 = 3.51 ± 0.05) indicate that the body deviates mildly from hydrostatic equilibrium. The moment of inertia is around 0.335MR2, where M is the mass and R is the radius, suggesting a differentiated body with a low-density core.

In effect this means that the researchers are reasonably confident that an ocean of water lies below the icy surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s most intriguing moons.

From NYT:

Inside a moon of Saturn, beneath its icy veneer and above its rocky core, is a sea of water the size of Lake Superior, scientists announced on Thursday.

The findings, published in the journal Science, confirm what planetary scientists have suspected about the moon, Enceladus, ever since they were astonished in 2005 by photographs showing geysers of ice crystals shooting out of its south pole.

“What we’ve done is put forth a strong case for an ocean,” said David J. Stevenson, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and an author of the Science paper.

For many researchers, this tiny, shiny cue ball of a moon, just over 300 miles wide, is now the most promising place to look for life elsewhere in the solar system, even more than Mars.

“Definitely Enceladus,” said Larry W. Esposito, a professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado, who was not involved in the research. “Because there’s warm water right there now.”

Enceladus (pronounced en-SELL-a-dus) is caught in a gravitational tug of war between Saturn and another moon, Dione, which bends its icy outer layer, creating friction and heat. In the years since discovering the geysers, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has made repeated flybys of Enceladus, photographing the fissures (nicknamed tiger stripes) where the geysers originate, measuring temperatures and identifying carbon-based organic molecules that could serve as building blocks for life.

Cassini has no instruments that can directly detect water beneath the surface, but three flybys in the years 2010-12 were devoted to producing a map of the gravity field, noting where the pull was stronger or weaker.

During the flybys, lasting just a few minutes, radio telescopes that are part of NASA’s Deep Space Network broadcast a signal to the spacecraft, which echoed it back to Earth. As the pull of Enceladus’s gravity sped and then slowed the spacecraft, the frequency of the radio signal shifted, just as the pitch of a train whistle rises and falls as it passes by a listener.

Using atomic clocks on Earth, the scientists measured the radio frequency with enough precision that they could discern changes in the velocity of Cassini, hundreds of millions of miles away, as minuscule as 14 inches an hour.

They found that the moon’s gravity was weaker at the south pole. At first glance, that is not so surprising; there is a depression at the pole, and lower mass means less gravity. But the depression is so large that the gravity should actually have been weaker.

“Then you say, ‘A-ha, there must be compensation,’ ” Dr. Stevenson said. “Something more dense under the ice. The natural candidate is water.”

Liquid water is 8 percent denser than ice, so the presence of a sea 20 to 25 miles below the surface fits the gravity measurements. “It’s an ocean that extends in all directions from the south pole to about halfway to the equator,” Dr. Stevenson said.

The underground sea is up to six miles thick, much deeper than a lake. “It’s a lot more water than Lake Superior,” Dr. Stevenson said. “It may even be bigger. The ocean could extend all the way to the north pole.”

The conclusion was not a surprise, said Christopher P. McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., who studies the possibility of life on other worlds, but “it confirms in a really robust way what has been sort of the standard model.”

It also makes Enceladus a more attractive destination for a future mission, especially one that would collect samples from the plumes and return them to Earth to see if they contain any microbes.

Read the entire article here.

Image: View of Saturn’s moon Enceladus on July 14, 2005, from the Cassini spacecraft. Courtesy of NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute.

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Are You in the 18 Percent? A Cave Beckons

la-mar-labAccording to a recent survey, 18 percent of U.S. citizens believe that the sun revolves around the earth. And, another survey suggests that 30 percent believe in the literal “truth” of the bible and 40 percent believe in intelligent design. The surveys, apparently, were of functioning adults.

I have to suspect that a similar number of adults believe in the fat reducing power of soap.

A number of vociferous advocates of creationism-as-science have recently taken to the airwaves to demand equal time — believing their (pseudo)-scientific views should stand on a par with real science.

Astrophysicist and presenter of the re-made Cosmos series, Neil deGrasse Tyson recently provided his eloquent take on these scientific naysayers,

“If you don’t know science in the 21st century, just move back to the cave, because that’s where we’re going to leave you as we move forward.”

My hat off to Mr.Tyson. Rather than engaging in lengthy debate over nonsense his curt reply is very apt: it is time for believers — in the scientific method — to just move on, and move ahead.

From Salon:

We Americans pride ourselves on our ideals of free speech. We believe in spirited back-and-forth and the notion that we are all entitled to our opinions. We stack our media coverage of news events with “opposing views.” These ideals are deeply rooted in our cultural character. And they’re making us stupid.

Ever since it debuted earlier this month, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s blockbuster, multi-network reboot of “Cosmos” has been ruffling feathers with its crazy, brazen tactic of putting scientific facts forward as the truth. It’s infuriated religious conservatives by furthering “the Scientific Martyr Myth of Giordano Bruno” within its “glossy multi-million-dollar piece of agitprop for scientific materialism.” And this weekend, creationist astronomer and Answers in Genesis bigwig Danny Faulkner complained about “Cosmos” on “The Janet Mefferd Show” that “Creationists aren’t even on the radar screen; they wouldn’t even consider us plausible at all” and that “Consideration of creation is definitely not up for discussion,” leading Mefferd to suggest equal time for the opposing views. But on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” last week, Neil deGrasse Tyson shrugged off the naysayers, noting, “If you don’t know science in the 21st century, just move back to the cave, because that’s where we’re going to leave you as we move forward.” This is why he’s a treasure — he has proven himself a consistent and elegant beacon of how to respond to extremists and crazy talk – by acknowledging it but not wasting breath arguing it.

We can go round and round in endless circles about social and philosophical issues. We can debate all day about matters of faith and religion, if you’re up for it. But well-established scientific principles don’t lend themselves well to conversations in which I say something based on hard physical evidence and carefully analyzed data, and then you shoot back with a bunch of spurious nonsense.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of La-Mar Laboratories.

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Time Traveling Camels

camels_at_giza

Camels have no place in the Middle East of biblical times. Forensic scientists, biologists, archeologists, geneticists and paleontologists all seem to agree that camels could not have been present in the early Jewish stories of the Genesis and the Old Testament — camels trotted in to the land many hundreds of years later.

From the NYT:

There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place.

Camels probably had little or no role in the lives of such early Jewish patriarchs as Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, who lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C., and yet stories about them mention these domesticated pack animals more than 20 times. Genesis 24, for example, tells of Abraham’s servant going by camel on a mission to find a wife for Isaac.

These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history. These camel stories “do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium,” said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, “but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period.”

Dr. Mizrahi likened the practice to a historical account of medieval events that veers off to a description of “how people in the Middle Ages used semitrailers in order to transport goods from one European kingdom to another.”

For two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the anachronisms were motivation to dig for camel bones at an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley in Israel and in Wadi Finan in Jordan. They sought evidence of when domesticated camels were first introduced into the land of Israel and the surrounding region.

The archaeologists, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century B.C. — centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible. Some bones in deeper sediments, they said, probably belonged to wild camels that people hunted for their meat. Dr. Sapir-Hen could identify a domesticated animal by signs in leg bones that it had carried heavy loads.

The findings were published recently in the journal Tel Aviv and in a news release from Tel Aviv University. The archaeologists said that the origin of the domesticated camel was probably in the Arabian Peninsula, which borders the Aravah Valley. Egyptians exploited the copper resources there and probably had a hand in introducing the camels. Earlier, people in the region relied on mules and donkeys as their beasts of burden.

“The introduction of the camel to our region was a very important economic and social development,” Dr. Ben-Yosef said in a telephone interview. “The camel enabled long-distance trade for the first time, all the way to India, and perfume trade with Arabia. It’s unlikely that mules and donkeys could have traversed the distance from one desert oasis to the next.”

Dr. Mizrahi, a professor of Hebrew culture studies at Tel Aviv University who was not directly involved in the research, said that by the seventh century B.C. camels had become widely employed in trade and travel in Israel and through the Middle East, from Africa as far as India. The camel’s influence on biblical research was profound, if confusing, for that happened to be the time that the patriarchal stories were committed to writing and eventually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible.

“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Camels at the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Mars Emigres Beware

MRO-Mars-impact-craterThe planners behind the proposed, private Mars One mission to Mars are still targeting 2024 for an initial settlement on the Red Planet. That’s now a mere 10 years away. As of this writing, the field of potential settlers has been whittled down to around 2,000 from an initial pool of about 250,000 would-be explorers. While the selection process and planning continues, other objects continue to target Mars as well. Large space rocks seem to be hitting the planet more frequently and more recently than was first thought. So, while such impacts are both beautiful and scientifically valuable — they may come as rather unwanted to the forthcoming human Martians.

From ars technica:

Yesterday [February 5, 2014], the team that runs the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter released the photo shown above. It’s a new impact crater on Mars, formed sometime early this decade. The crater at the center is about 30 meters in diameter, and the material ejected during its formation extends out as far as 15 kilometers.

The impact was originally spotted by the MRO’s Context Camera, a wide-field imaging system that (wait for it) provides the context—an image of the surrounding terrain—for the high-resolution images taken by HiRISE. The time window on the impact, between July 2010 and May 2012, simply represents the time between two different Context Camera photos of the same location. Once the crater was spotted, it took until November of 2013 for another pass of the region, at which point HiRISE was able to image it.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Impact crater from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Courtesy of NASA / JPL.

 

 

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13.6 Billion Versus 4004 BCE

The first number, 13.6 billion, is the age in years of the oldest known star in the cosmos. It was discovered recently by astronomers in Australia at the National University’s Mount Stromlo SkyMapper Observatory. The star is located in our Milky Way galaxy about 6,000 light years away. A little closer to home, in Kentucky at the aptly named Creation Museum, the Synchronological Chart places the beginning of time and all things at 4004 BCE.

Interestingly enough both Australia and Kentucky should not exist according to the flat earth myth or the widespread pre-Columbus view of our world with an edge at the visible horizon. But, the evolution versus creationism debates continue unabated. The chasm between the two camps remains a mere 13.6 billion years give or take a handful of millennia. But perhaps over time, those who subscribe to reason and the scientific method are likely to prevail — an apt example of survival of the most adaptable at work.

Hitch, we still miss you!

From ars technica:

In 1878, the American scholar and minister Sebastian Adams put the final touches on the third edition of his grandest project: a massive Synchronological Chart that covers nothing less than the entire history of the world in parallel, with the deeds of kings and kingdoms running along together in rows over 25 horizontal feet of paper. When the chart reaches 1500 BCE, its level of detail becomes impressive; at 400 CE it becomes eyebrow-raising; at 1300 CE it enters the realm of the wondrous. No wonder, then, that in their 2013 book Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, authors Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton call Adams’ chart “nineteenth-century America’s surpassing achievement in complexity and synthetic power… a great work of outsider thinking.”

The chart is also the last thing that visitors to Kentucky’s Creation Museum see before stepping into the gift shop, where full-sized replicas can be purchased for $40.

That’s because, in the world described by the museum, Adams’ chart is more than a historical curio; it remains an accurate timeline of world history. Time is said to have begun in 4004 BCE with the creation of Adam, who went on to live for 930 more years. In 2348 BCE, the Earth was then reshaped by a worldwide flood, which created the Grand Canyon and most of the fossil record even as Noah rode out the deluge in an 81,000 ton wooden ark. Pagan practices at the eight-story high Tower of Babel eventually led God to cause a “confusion of tongues” in 2247 BCE, which is why we speak so many different languages today.

Adams notes on the second panel of the chart that “all the history of man, before the flood, extant, or known to us, is found in the first six chapters of Genesis.”

Ken Ham agrees. Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis (AIG), has become perhaps the foremost living young Earth creationist in the world. He has authored more books and articles than seems humanly possible and has built AIG into a creationist powerhouse. He also made national headlines when the slickly modern Creation Museum opened in 2007.

He has also been looking for the opportunity to debate a prominent supporter of evolution.

And so it was that, as a severe snow and sleet emergency settled over the Cincinnati region, 900 people climbed into cars and wound their way out toward the airport to enter the gates of the Creation Museum. They did not come for the petting zoo, the zip line, or the seasonal camel rides, nor to see the animatronic Noah chortle to himself about just how easy it had really been to get dinosaurs inside his ark. They did not come to see The Men in White, a 22-minute movie that plays in the museum’s halls in which a young woman named Wendy sees that what she’s been taught about evolution “doesn’t make sense” and is then visited by two angels who help her understand the truth of six-day special creation. They did not come to see the exhibits explaining how all animals had, before the Fall of humanity into sin, been vegetarians.

He has also been looking for the opportunity to debate a prominent supporter of evolution.

And so it was that, as a severe snow and sleet emergency settled over the Cincinnati region, 900 people climbed into cars and wound their way out toward the airport to enter the gates of the Creation Museum. They did not come for the petting zoo, the zip line, or the seasonal camel rides, nor to see the animatronic Noah chortle to himself about just how easy it had really been to get dinosaurs inside his ark. They did not come to see The Men in White, a 22-minute movie that plays in the museum’s halls in which a young woman named Wendy sees that what she’s been taught about evolution “doesn’t make sense” and is then visited by two angels who help her understand the truth of six-day special creation. They did not come to see the exhibits explaining how all animals had, before the Fall of humanity into sin, been vegetarians.

They came to see Ken Ham debate TV presenter Bill Nye the Science Guy—an old-school creation v. evolution throwdown for the Powerpoint age. Even before it began, the debate had been good for both men. Traffic to AIG’s website soared by 80 percent, Nye appeared on CNN, tickets sold out in two minutes, and post-debate interviews were lined up with Piers Morgan Live and MSNBC.

While plenty of Ham supporters filled the parking lot, so did people in bow ties and “Bill Nye is my Homeboy” T-shirts. They all followed the stamped dinosaur tracks to the museum’s entrance, where a pack of AIG staffers wearing custom debate T-shirts stood ready to usher them into “Discovery Hall.”

Security at the Creation Museum is always tight; the museum’s security force is made up of sworn (but privately funded) Kentucky peace officers who carry guns, wear flat-brimmed state trooper-style hats, and operate their own K-9 unit. For the debate, Nye and Ham had agreed to more stringent measures. Visitors passed through metal detectors complete with secondary wand screenings, packages were prohibited in the debate hall itself, and the outer gates were closed 15 minutes before the debate began.

Inside the hall, packed with bodies and the blaze of high-wattage lights, the temperature soared. The empty stage looked—as everything at the museum does—professionally designed, with four huge video screens, custom debate banners, and a pair of lecterns sporting Mac laptops. 20 different video crews had set up cameras in the hall, and 70 media organizations had registered to attend. More than 10,000 churches were hosting local debate parties. As AIG technical staffers made final preparations, one checked the YouTube-hosted livestream—242,000 people had already tuned in before start time.

An AIG official took the stage eight minutes before start time. “We know there are people who disagree with each other in this room,” he said. “No cheering or—please—any disruptive behavior.”

At 6:59pm, the music stopped and the hall fell silent but for the suddenly prominent thrumming of the air conditioning. For half a minute, the anticipation was electric, all eyes fixed on the stage, and then the countdown clock ticked over to 7:00pm and the proceedings snapped to life. Nye, wearing his traditional bow tie, took the stage from the left; Ham appeared from the right. The two shook hands in the center to sustained applause, and CNN’s Tom Foreman took up his moderating duties.

Inside the hall, packed with bodies and the blaze of high-wattage lights, the temperature soared. The empty stage looked—as everything at the museum does—professionally designed, with four huge video screens, custom debate banners, and a pair of lecterns sporting Mac laptops. 20 different video crews had set up cameras in the hall, and 70 media organizations had registered to attend. More than 10,000 churches were hosting local debate parties. As AIG technical staffers made final preparations, one checked the YouTube-hosted livestream—242,000 people had already tuned in before start time.

An AIG official took the stage eight minutes before start time. “We know there are people who disagree with each other in this room,” he said. “No cheering or—please—any disruptive behavior.”

At 6:59pm, the music stopped and the hall fell silent but for the suddenly prominent thrumming of the air conditioning. For half a minute, the anticipation was electric, all eyes fixed on the stage, and then the countdown clock ticked over to 7:00pm and the proceedings snapped to life. Nye, wearing his traditional bow tie, took the stage from the left; Ham appeared from the right. The two shook hands in the center to sustained applause, and CNN’s Tom Foreman took up his moderating duties.

Ham had won the coin toss backstage and so stepped to his lectern to deliver brief opening remarks. “Creation is the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era,” he declared, blasting modern textbooks for “imposing the religion of atheism” on students.

“We’re teaching people to think critically!” he said. “It’s the creationists who should be teaching the kids out there.”

And we were off.

Two kinds of science

Digging in the fossil fields of Colorado or North Dakota, scientists regularly uncover the bones of ancient creatures. No one doubts the existence of the bones themselves; they lie on the ground for anyone to observe or weigh or photograph. But in which animal did the bones originate? How long ago did that animal live? What did it look like? One of Ham’s favorite lines is that the past “doesn’t come with tags”—so the prehistory of a stegosaurus thigh bone has to be interpreted by scientists, who use their positions in the present to reconstruct the past.

For mainstream scientists, this is simply an obvious statement of our existential position. Until a real-life Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown finds a way to power a Delorean with a 1.21 gigawatt flux capacitor in order to shoot someone back through time to observe the flaring-forth of the Universe, the formation of the Earth, or the origins of life, or the prehistoric past can’t be known except by interpretation. Indeed, this isn’t true only of prehistory; as Nye tried to emphasize, forensic scientists routinely use what they know of nature’s laws to reconstruct past events like murders.

For Ham, though, science is broken into two categories, “observational” and “historical,” and only observational science is trustworthy. In the initial 30 minute presentation of his position, Ham hammered the point home.

“You don’t observe the past directly,” he said. “You weren’t there.”

Ham spoke with the polish of a man who has covered this ground a hundred times before, has heard every objection, and has a smooth answer ready for each one.

When Bill Nye talks about evolution, Ham said, that’s “Bill Nye the Historical Science Guy” speaking—with “historical” being a pejorative term.

In Ham’s world, only changes that we can observe directly are the proper domain of science. Thus, when confronted with the issue of speciation, Ham readily admits that contemporary lab experiments on fast-breeding creatures like mosquitoes can produce new species. But he says that’s simply “micro-evolution” below the family level. He doesn’t believe that scientists can observe “macro-evolution,” such as the alteration of a lobe-finned fish into a tiger over millions of years.

Because they can’t see historical events unfold, scientists must rely on reconstructions of the past. Those might be accurate, but they simply rely on too many “assumptions” for Ham to trust them. When confronted during the debate with evidence from ancient trees which have more rings than there are years on the Adams Sychronological Chart, Ham simply shrugged.

“We didn’t see those layers laid down,” he said.

To him, the calculus of “one ring, one year” is merely an assumption when it comes to the past—an assumption possibly altered by cataclysmic events such as Noah’s flood.

In other words, “historical science” is dubious; we should defer instead to the “observational” account of someone who witnessed all past events: God, said to have left humanity an eyewitness account of the world’s creation in the book of Genesis. All historical reconstructions should thus comport with this more accurate observational account.

Mainstream scientists don’t recognize this divide between observational and historical ways of knowing (much as they reject Ham’s distinction between “micro” and “macro” evolution). Dinosaur bones may not come with tags, but neither does observed contemporary reality—think of a doctor presented with a set of patient symptoms, who then has to interpret what she sees in order to arrive at a diagnosis.

Given that the distinction between two kinds of science provides Ham’s key reason for accepting the “eyewitness account” of Genesis as a starting point, it was unsurprising to see Nye take generous whacks at the idea. You can’t observe the past? “That’s what we do in astronomy,” said Nye in his opening presentation. Since light takes time to get here, “All we can do in astronomy is look at the past. By the way, you’re looking at the past right now.”

Those in the present can study the past with confidence, Nye said, because natural laws are generally constant and can be used to extrapolate into the past.

“This idea that you can separate the natural laws of the past from the natural laws you have now is at the heart of our disagreement,” Nye said. “For lack of a better word, it’s magical. I’ve appreciated magic since I was a kid, but it’s not what we want in mainstream science.”

How do scientists know that these natural laws are correctly understood in all their complexity and interplay? What operates as a check on their reconstructions? That’s where the predictive power of evolutionary models becomes crucial, Nye said. Those models of the past should generate predictions which can then be verified—or disproved—through observations in the present.

Read the entire article here.

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Printing the Perfect Pasta

Step 1: imagine a new pasta shape and design it in three dimensions on your iPad. Step 2: fill a printer cartridge with pasta dough. Step 3: put the cartridge in a 3D printer and download your print design. Step 4: print your custom-designed pasta. Step 5: cook, eat and enjoy!

In essence that’s what Barilla — the Italian food giant — is up to in its food research labs in conjunction with Dutch tech company TNO.

3D printers aimed at the home market are also on display at this week’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show), including several that print candy and desserts. Yum, but Mamma would certainly not approve.

From the Guardian:

Once, not so very long ago, the pasta of Italian dreams was kneaded, rolled and shaped by hand in the kitchen. Now, though, the world’s leading pasta producer is perfecting a very different kind of technique – using 3D printers.

The Parma-based food giant Barilla, a fourth-generation Italian family business, said on Thursday it was working with TNO, a Dutch organisation specialising in applied scientific research, on a project using the same cutting-edge technology that has already brought startling developments in manufacturing and biotech and may now be poised to make similar waves in the food sector.

Kjeld van Bommel, project leader at TNO, said one of the potential applications of the technology could be to enable customers to present restaurants with their pasta shape desires stored on a USB stick.

“Suppose it’s your 25th wedding anniversary,” Van Bommel was quoted as telling the Dutch newspaper Trouw. “You go out for dinner and surprise your wife with pasta in the shape of a rose.”

He said speed was a big focus of the Barilla project: they want to be able to print 15-20 pieces of pasta in under two minutes. Progress had already been made, he said, and it was already possible to print 10 times as quickly as when the technology first arrived.

According to reports, Barilla aims to offer customers cartridges of dough that they can insert into a 3D printer to create their own pasta designs.

But the company declined to give further details, dismissing the claims as “speculation”. It said that although the project had been going on for around two years, it was still “in a preliminary phase”.

When contacted by the Guardian, TNO said media interest in the project had spiked in recent days, and it declined to make any further comment on the nature of the project.

The technology of 3D printing is advancing in myriad sectors around the world. Last year a California-based company made the world’s first metal 3D-printed handgun, capable of accurately firing 50 rounds without breaking, and scientists at Cornell University produced a prosthetic human ear.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, the US company 3D Systems unveiled a new range of food-creating printers specialising in sugar-based confectionary and chocolate edibles. Last year Natural Machines, a Spanish startup, revealed its own prototype, the Foodini, which it said combined “technology, food, art and design” and was capable of making edibles ranging from chocolate to pasta.

Read the entire article here.

Video courtesy of TNO.

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How to Rendezvous With a Comet

First, you will need a significant piece of space hardware. Second, you will need to launch it having meticulously planned its convoluted trajectory through the solar system. Third, wait 12 years for the craft to reach the comet. Fourth, and with fingers crossed, launch a landing probe from the craft on to the 2.5 mile wide comet 67 P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, while all are hurtling through space at around 25,000 miles per hour.

So far so good. The Rosetta spacecraft woke up from its self-induced 30-month hibernation on January 20, having slumbered to conserve energy. Now it continues on its final leg of the journey — a year-long trek to catch the comet.

Visit the European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta mission home page here.

From ars technica:

The Rosetta spacecraft is due to wake up on the morning of January 20 after an 30-month hibernation in deep space. For the past ten years, the three-ton spacecraft has been on a one-way trip to a 4 km-wide comet. When it arrives, it will set about performing a maneuver that has never been done before: landing on a comet’s surface.

The spacecraft has already achieved some success on its long journey through the solar system. It has passed by two asteroids—Steins in 2008 and Lutetia in 2010—and it tried out some of its instruments on them. Because Rosetta’s journey is so protracted, however, preserving energy has been of the utmost importance, which is why it was put into hibernation in June 2011. The journey has taken so long because the spacecraft needed to be “gravity-assisted” by many planets in order to reach the necessary velocity to match the comet’s orbit.

When it wakes up, Rosetta is expected to take a few hours to establish contact with Earth, 673 million km (396 million mi) away. The scientists involved will wait with bated breath. Dan Andrews, part of a team at the Open University who built one of Rosetta’s on-board instruments, said, “If there isn’t sufficient power, Rosetta will go back to sleep and try again later. The wake-up process is driven by software commands already on the spacecraft. It will wake itself up autonomously and spend some time warming up and orienting its antenna toward Earth to ‘phone home.’”

If multiple attempts fail to wake Rosetta, it could mean the end of the mission.

Rosetta should reach comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May 2014, at which point it will decelerate to match the speed of the comet. In August 2014, Rosetta will enter orbit around the comet to scout 67P’s surface in search of a landing spot. Then, in November 2014, Rosetta’s on-board lander, Philae, will be ejected from the orbiting spacecraft onto the surface of the comet. There are a lot of things that need to come together perfectly for this to go smoothly, but space endeavors are designed to charter unknown territories, and Rosetta will be doing just that.

If Rosetta manages this mission successfully, it will make history as the first spacecraft to land on the surface of a comet. Success is by no means assured, as scientists have no idea what to expect when Rosetta arrives at the comet. Will the comet’s surface be icy, soft, hard, or rocky? This information will affect what kind of landing the spacecraft can expect and whether it will sink into the comet or bounce off. Another problem is that comet 67P is small and has a weak gravitational field, which will make holding the spacecraft on its surface challenging, even after a successful landing.

At a cost of €1 billion ($1.36 billion) it’s important that we get some value for our money with this mission. To ensure we do, Rosetta was designed to help answer some of the most basic questions about Earth and our solar system, such as where water and life originated, even if the landing doesn’t work out as well as we hope it will.

Comets are thought to have delivered some of the chemicals needed for life, including water to Earth and possibly other planets. This is why comet ISON, which sadly did not survive its close encounter with the Sun, had created excitement among scientists. If it had survived, it would have been the closest scientists could get to a comet with modern instruments.

Comet ISON’s demise means Rosetta is more important than ever. Without measuring the composition of comets, we won’t fully understand the origin of our planet. Comet 67P is thought to have preserved the very earliest ingredients of the solar system, acting as a small, deep-freeze time capsule. The hope is that it will now reveal its long-held secrets to Rosetta.

Andrews said, “It will be the first time a spacecraft will approach a comet and actually stay with it for a prolonged period of time, studying the processes whereby a comet ‘switches on’ as it approaches the Sun.”

Once on the comet’s surface, the Philae lander will deploy instruments to measure different forms of the elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen in the comet ice. This will allow scientists to understand the composition of the water and organic components that were collected by the comet 4.6 billion years ago, at the very start of the Solar System.

Read the entire article here.

Video: Rosetta’s Twelve-Year Journey to Land on a Comet. Courtesy of European Space Agency (ESA) Space Science.

 

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Asimov Fifty Years On

1957-driverless-car

In 1964, Isaac Asimov wrote an essay for the New York Times entitled, Visit the World’s Fair in 2014. The essay was a free-wheeling opinion of things to come, viewed through the lens of New York’s World’s Fair of 1964. The essay shows that even a grand master of science fiction cannot predict the future — he got some things quite right and other things rather wrong. Some examples below, and his full essay are below.

That said, what has captured recent attention is Asimov’s thinking on the complex and evolving relationship between humans and technology, and the challenges of environmental stewardship in an increasingly over-populated and resource-starved world.

So, while Asimov was certainly not a teller of fortunes, we had many insights that many, even today, still lack.

Read the entire Isaac Asimov essay here.

What Asimov got right:

“Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone.”

“As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set…”

“Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas…”

“Windows… will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight. The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.”

What Asimov got wrong:

“The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes.”

“…cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets…”

“For short-range travel, moving sidewalks (with benches on either side, standing room in the center) will be making their appearance in downtown sections.”

From the Atlantic:

In August of 1964, just more than 50 years ago, author Isaac Asimov wrote a piece in The New York Times, pegged to that summer’s World Fair.

In the essay, Asimov imagines what the World Fair would be like in 2014—his future, our present.

His notions were strange and wonderful (and conservative, as Matt Novak writes in a great run-down), in the way that dreams of the future from the point of view of the American mid-century tend to be. There will be electroluminescent walls for our windowless homes, levitating cars for our transportation, 3D cube televisions that will permit viewers to watch dance performances from all angles, and “Algae Bars” that taste like turkey and steak (“but,” he adds, “there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation”).

He got some things wrong and some things right, as is common for those who engage in the sport of prediction-making. Keeping score is of little interest to me. What is of interest: what Asimov understood about the entangled relationships among humans, technological development, and the planet—and the implications of those ideas for us today, knowing what we know now.

Asimov begins by suggesting that in the coming decades, the gulf between humans and “nature” will expand, driven by technological development. “One thought that occurs to me,” he writes, “is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. “

It is in this context that Asimov sees the future shining bright: underground, suburban houses, “free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common.” Windows, he says, “need be no more than an archaic touch,” with programmed, alterable, “scenery.” We will build our own world, an improvement on the natural one we found ourselves in for so long. Separation from nature, Asimov implies, will keep humans safe—safe from the irregularities of the natural world, and the bombs of the human one, a concern he just barely hints at, but that was deeply felt at the time.

But Asimov knows too that humans cannot survive on technology alone. Eight years before astronauts’ Blue Marble image of Earth would reshape how humans thought about the planet, Asimov sees that humans need a healthy Earth, and he worries that an exploding human population (6.5 billion, he accurately extrapolated) will wear down our resources, creating massive inequality.

Although technology will still keep up with population through 2014, it will be only through a supreme effort and with but partial success. Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.

This troubled him, but the real problems lay yet further in the future, as “unchecked” population growth pushed urban sprawl to every corner of the planet, creating a “World-Manhattan” by 2450. But, he exclaimed, “society will collapse long before that!” Humans would have to stop reproducing so quickly to avert this catastrophe, he believed, and he predicted that by 2014 we would have decided that lowering the birth rate was a policy priority.

Asimov rightly saw the central role of the planet’s environmental health to a society: No matter how technologically developed humanity becomes, there is no escaping our fundamental reliance on Earth (at least not until we seriously leave Earth, that is). But in 1964 the environmental specters that haunt us today—climate change and impending mass extinctions—were only just beginning to gain notice. Asimov could not have imagined the particulars of this special blend of planetary destruction we are now brewing—and he was overly optimistic about our propensity to take action to protect an imperiled planet.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Driverless cars as imaged in 1957. Courtesy of America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies/Paleofuture.

 

 

 

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