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Monday, September 15, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Made of Star Stuff, but His Books Are Black Holes

Posted by on Mon, Sep 15, 2014 at 12:04 PM

(Neil deGrasse Tyson reads at the Paramount Theatre tonight at 7 pm.)

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  • CHRIS CASSIDY

You can't argue with Neil deGrasse Tyson's appeal. The celebrity astrophysicist (and let's just take a moment to marvel at those two words) recently fronted Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a relaunch of the 1980s Carl Sagan science documentary miniseries, to massive success. The show reached more than 130 million people worldwide in its first run, and is presumably reaching millions more now that it's streaming on Netflix. Can you recall the last time you've seen whole armies of human beings around the world enraptured by science? In this time when one in four Americans doesn't believe in global warming, Tyson's popularity is something to be cheered.

Fresh off the success of Cosmos, Tyson is now taking a victory lap, embarking on a tour of the United States and enjoying his newfound global celebrity. Four of his early books, too, have just gotten the deluxe treatment from W.W. Norton, seeing republication in a Cosmos-friendly trade dress. Originally published between 2004 and 2013, these books are likely next steps for people interested in expanding on the information that caught their attention in Cosmos, and they're also an opportunity to enjoy another dose of Tyson's personality.

As monuments to his charisma, the books are successful. Tyson's public persona—friendly, full of wonder, prone to dropping mind-blowing factoids into the conversation every few minutes to string along your interest—is thick in these pages. And his devotion to science is evident: Every few chapters, he rhapsodizes on the importance of NASA, say, or funding for scientific studies. But it's an unfortunate fact that the written Tyson simply doesn't measure up to some of the best science writing of our time...

Continue reading >>

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Volcanoes Like Iceland's Bárðarbunga Have a History of Going Beast Mode on the Planet

Posted by on Wed, Aug 20, 2014 at 5:33 PM

Iceland officials have raised the threat of that country's Bárðarbunga volcano eruption to code orange, the second highest level before an event. While the risk isn't critical at the moment, past Icelandic volcanos have gotten seriously rowdy with the planet, and no one is taking any chances. Over the last few days hundreds of minor earthquakes, referred to collectively as an earthquake swarm, have been detected underneath the island. The area north of Bardarbunga has been evacuated because officials "could not rule out an eruption." Reports thus far have ranged from breathless to measured.

Bárðarbunga, a subglacial volcano located under the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland, hasn't exhibited any signs that its magma is moving toward the surface just yet, which geologists tell us is a good thing. Still, even a minor eruption could cause glacial melting and subsequent flooding, and a massive one could prove cataclysmic.

In 2010, Iceland's sexily named Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, spewing ash into the sky that halted much of Europe's air travel for six days, affecting an estimated 10 million people and costing an estimated $1.7 billion.

But the mother of all was the Laki eruption of 1783-84. The event plumed gases into the air, eventually directly or indirectly killing 60 percent of the country's livestock, 22 percent of its human population, and possibly lowering temperatures in the northern hemisphere by 1.3 celsius for several years after. Of the 122 metric tons of sulfur dioxide emitted from that eruption, 95 made it into the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere, hit the jet stream, and circulated across the northern hemisphere. The stuff spread across Europe, forming what was called the Laki Haze, which damaged crops and reduced livestock. The haze was seen as far as Italy, China, and possibly Alaska (records from that time are scant), where a noted population decrease transpired in the years following, and the Inuit speak of the "Summer that did not come," which may correlate with the disaster.

Yikes! Let's hope this is just some indigestion.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

European Space Agency's Rosetta Satellite Is Now Orbiting a Comet

Posted by on Wed, Aug 6, 2014 at 3:47 PM

That's right: in the result of what had to have been a most baffling mathematical equation, the European Space Agency's Rosetta satellite spent 10 years, 31 months in "sleep mode," took multiple slingshots off Earth and Mars, and traveled 6.4 billion kilometers (3.8 billion miles) to finally fall into orbit with the sexily named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This is a scientific first, and if the mission is fully completed, the mission will boast another: the first time a lander will be sent onto a comet.

Currently circling at 100 km, (62 miles), the orbiter will perform several closer passes of the comet before determining the optimal spot to deposit a lander. The ESA hopes that data gathered by the implant will provide insights into just what the 3-by-5 km* chunk of rock and ice was doing at the inception of this solar system.

Scientists believe the shape of the comet could have been the result of either two separate entities melding together or "dramatic erosion." The European nerds have a tight time frame to calculate the landing and collect data, as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is binding into the inner solar system at the speed of 55,000 km an hour. Eventually, its proximity to the sun will complicate data collection. Ultimately, this is further proof that nerds are the coolest people going.

*No more conversions—can't we just switch to the metric system already?

Via Al Jazeera (the TV kind)

Neil deGrasse Tyson Talks GMOs

Posted by on Wed, Aug 6, 2014 at 12:32 PM

Beloved astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (aka America's science teacher) says people need to "chill out" about genetically modified foods. And people are mad at him about it.

Read more about Tyson's statements on the topic—and the liberal backlash—over here at DailyKos.com.

UPDATE: Neil deGrasse Tyson takes to Facebook to clarify his statements. You should read the whole thing.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Beauty of Light Pollution: A Website Collects Night Images of Cities Taken From the International Space Station

Posted by on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 1:05 PM

Fast Company has the story...

Since 2003, when an astronaut figured out how to snap a clear photo of the view from orbit, hundreds of thousands of amazing urban photographs have piled up in archives.

A new website is attempting to find volunteers to identify each of those cities—not just because the shots are beautiful, but because they can help scientists better understand the problem of urban light pollution.


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  • International Space Station & NASA

Not long ago, the local author Jonathan Raban pointed out to me that the daytime view from the windows on the second floor of his home, which faces Ballard and Fremont, make it look like he lives in the middle of a great forest. But at night, when the lights of human life emerge, the windows reveal that he does indeed live in a big city. Something similar happens with the view astronauts have of our planet from space. During the day, planet earth is all nature—green forests, blue seas, brown deserts, white mountaintops and clouds. But when the sun goes, nature vanishes with it, and the only thing we see is a planet of humans. We belong the to the city, we belong to night.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

A New Structure Is Discovered at the Center of Our Galaxy

Posted by on Thu, Jul 17, 2014 at 8:37 AM

It looks like this:

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  • NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Science and Astronomy:
“What we see are two gamma-ray-emitting bubbles that extend 25,000 light-years north and south of the galactic center,” said Doug Finkbeiner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who first recognized the feature. “We don’t fully understand their nature or origin.”
I will not say what those purple bubbles look like to me.

Monday, July 7, 2014

BBC Officially Has No Time for Science Skeptics

Posted by on Mon, Jul 7, 2014 at 12:16 PM

Lindsay Abrams writes for Salon:

Good news for viewers of BBC News: You’ll no longer be subjected to the unhinged ravings of climate deniers and other members of the anti-science fringe. In a report published Thursday by the BBC Trust, the network’s journalists were criticized for devoting too much airtime (as in, any airtime) to unqualified people with “marginal views” about non-contentious issues in a misguided attempt to provide editorial balance.

It sounds like the BBC is going to be more responsible in all its science coverage, which is good news. Blogs, especially, repeatedly make hash out of scientific studies. (And no, Slog is not innocent in this.) Not every reporter needs to be a trained scientist, but we all could be a lot less histrionic and a lot more thoughtful in our coverage of scientific issues.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

After Darwin, Lamarck: New Evidence That Bad Memories Can Be Genetically Transmitted

Posted by on Thu, Jul 3, 2014 at 8:32 AM

After being ruled for 80 years by a gene-centric form of Darwinism, the biological sciences might be at the dawn of a new age of Lamarckism. You do not believe me (one who sides with the developmental systems thinking of Susan Oyama and Richard Lewontin)? Well check out what a study conducted at Emory University School of Medicine, and published in the journal of Nature Neuroscience, found:

[Researchers] trained mice to fear the smell of cherry blossom using electric shocks before allowing them to breed.
The offspring produced showed fearful responses to the odour of cherry blossom compared to a neutral odour, despite never having encountered them before.
The following generation also showed the same behaviour. This effect continued even if the mice had been fathered through artificial insemination.
The researchers found the brains of the trained mice and their offspring showed structural changes in areas used to detect the odour.
This is not Darwinism, this as close to Lamarck as science can get. Lamarck, if you remember, believed that the living experiences of a parent could be passed down to his/her offspring. The idea was only allowed a home in cultural evolution, and banned from anywhere near biological evolution. But combine these striking findings at Emory University School of Medicine with those recently appearing in the emerging field of epigenetics, and you are pretty much looking at the next era of evolutionary biology, an era that will find the thinking of Susan Oyama more useful than that of Richard Dawkins and his science fictional survival robots.

Also, these findings may actually do a number on the whole mind modules thing that's pushed by the leading proponents of evolutionary psychology.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Quantum Biology, Advanced Microbes, and Primitive Humans

Posted by on Thu, Jun 19, 2014 at 8:42 AM

Science Daily:

[An] Australia-led team of researchers has discovered how algae that survive in very low levels of light are able to switch on and off a weird quantum phenomenon that occurs during photosynthesis.

The function in the algae of this quantum effect, known as coherence, remains a mystery, but it is thought it could help them harvest energy from the sun much more efficiently. Working out its role in a living organism could lead to technological advances, such as better organic solar cells and quantum-based electronic devices.
The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It is part of an emerging field called quantum biology, in which evidence is growing that quantum phenomena are operating in nature, not just the laboratory, and may even account for how birds can navigate using earth's magnetic field.

"We studied tiny single-celled algae called cryptophytes that thrive in the bottom of pools of water, or under thick ice, where very little light reaches them," says senior author, Professor Paul Curmi, of the UNSW School of Physics.

I have some idea of the relationship between coherence and decoherence, which explains the wave-fuction collapse—the point at which weird quantum probabilities are aligned with the standard probabilities of our stable and less ghostly world. I do not, however, have any idea of the role coherence plays in the harvesting of light for the production and storage of bio-energy. But I can say this for sure: The deeper we look into life, the more we see that many of the problems we are trying to solve with our seemingly advanced technologies have been solved at some point of the 3.5 billion years of life's evolution on this 4-billion-year-old planet. At some point before life went big, which constitutes much of the history of life, these bio-technologies were developed and distributed. Which is why even the complexity of a single-celled organism, such as the one described in this post, is just mind-boggling. Which is why when we turn to the level of microscopic cooperation needed to produce, say, a huge thing like a plant, an ant, or us, we must see our cities, jet planes, and communication networks as nothing but primitive.
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  • International Space Station & NASA

Friday, June 13, 2014

Clouds Are Planes for Microbes?

Posted by on Fri, Jun 13, 2014 at 4:06 PM

The praise in my review of Nicholas P. Money's new book The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes has lots to say about the author's writing (it's really good) but fails to mention that the author is also a fearless thinker. Money is not scared to mention/explain ideas or theories that other scientists would never give the time of day. Money is a grounded and yet not a closed thinker. An explanation for this might be that those who deal with the microscopic world are not in a position to enjoy the certainties and continuities of those who deal with animals or plants. Microbes are weird and constantly challenge our understanding of them and the world we live in. Here Money mentions a very strange idea about the source and possible function of clouds:

A few scientists have arrived at a radically different conclusion, positing that microbes form clouds, use them for dispersal over long distances, and may even cause changes in wind speed that get them airborne in the first place. Much of this highly speculative work falls within the pottiest parts of the Gaia Hypothesis.

The argument about microbes controlling weather patterns for their own devices begins with the idea that clouds are products of a biogenic process involving the formation of water droplets and ice crystals around airborne microbes. The bacterium Pseudomonas syringae is one of these biological rain makers. Pseudomonas infects cereals, peas, beets, and other crop plants. Proteins on its cell surface increase the temperature at which water freezes, inducing ice crystal formation on the leaves of its hosts. The crystals damage the leaves, bathing the bacterium in plant nutrients.

Pseudomonas is found in the atmosphere, along with other bacteria, and its isolation from hailstones supports the idea that it may be a player in cloud formation. Many other microbes have similar ice-nucleating properties and are found in raindrops and snow fakes.

Another biogenic mechanism of cloud formation involves chemical emissions from microbes rather than the physical properties of the cells themselves. Vast blooms of the marine coccolithophorid Emiliania huxleyi operate as huge dimethylsulfde (DMS) factories. DMS synthesis is a by-product of the alga’s method of maintaining hydration (osmotic regulation), and the compound acts as a potent cloud former over the ocean.

The influence of microbes on weather patterns is a powerful illustration of the importance of the microscopic world in controlling the health of the biosphere, but this does not mean that there is any adaptive significance to these physical processes.


What matters for me is not only that Money mentioned this theory but explained the reasoning behind it. No matter how crazy the microbe-cloud connection might sound to you or me, we do see from Money's breakdown that it wasn't pulled out of thin air.
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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Vaccinating Your Children Works, as Proven by New Numbers on Rotavirus Infection

Posted by on Wed, Jun 11, 2014 at 12:34 PM

Look at these numbers:


The United States continues to see dividends from efforts to vaccinate young children against rotavirus infection, with fewer children hospitalized for diarrheal illness through 2011, according to an analysis published in the journal Pediatrics today...

The rate of hospitalization for rotavirus among those vaccinated was reduced by 92% (for the pentavalent vaccine) and 96% (for the monovalent version) compared with hospitalization rates for rotavirus among unvaccinated children.

Even unvaccinated children experienced decreased rates of rotavirus hospitalization after vaccination began, with a 50% reduction in 2007-2008, a 77% reduction in 2009-2010, and a 25% reduction in 2010-2011. Presumably, higher vaccination rates reduced the amount of rotavirus circulating in the population, protecting even those who were unvaccinated.

The authors estimate that the rotavirus vaccination prevented 176,587 US children from being hospitalized for rotavirus between July 2007 and June 2011. Additionally, they estimated 242,335 fewer emergency department visits and about 1.1 million fewer outpatient visits for diarrheal illness during this period. About $924 million in health costs were saved as a result of these reductions, according to the authors’ calculations.

Nothing more natural than having your kid hospitalized for a vaccine preventable illness, right Vashon Island?

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Hey, Seattle Google Glass Owners!

Posted by on Thu, Jun 5, 2014 at 3:15 PM

Do you want to take part in a scientific, official Stranger Social Experiment™? Do you like to have an occasional drink? Do you ever wonder who would be kicked out of a bar first, YOU, or a really DRUNK PERSON? If any of this sounds interesting, please consider joining our official Stranger Focus Group™—and email us, at drunk@thestranger.com. Become an explorer.

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  • Kelly O

Monday, June 2, 2014

Today in Science: Life-Threatening Sexism Against Female Hurricanes, Horny Monkey Bests Electric Fence

Posted by on Mon, Jun 2, 2014 at 4:12 PM

1. Here's the latest sign that sexism is alive and well: People fear hurricanes with male names more than they fear hurricanes with female names.

Storms with female names have historically killed more people because they neither consider them as risky nor take the same precautions, the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes.

2. But at least some females out there are getting respect. Death and Taxes tells the heartwarming story of "Bella, a female Sulawesi crested black macaque" who became upset when officials at the Durrell Wildlife Park moved a male macaque to a different area of the park. First, Bella snuck into the male's enclosure anyway. Then, things got serious when park staff installed an electric fence:

A lot of good the electric fence did considering that Bella managed to pull a total “MacGyver” move by disarming the it with a wet piece of grass.

The staff then built a second electric enclosure, but Bella managed to disarm both of them by balancing a wet blade of grass across the two fences.

Unfortunately, this story doesn't have a happy ending for those who believe that love conquers all.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What A Noah's Ark of the Stars Can Only Be

Posted by on Wed, May 28, 2014 at 8:38 AM

When we begin to think about the survival of life in the terms of microbiology, and not the survival of the most dependent forms of life, the very limited terms of zoology, then we can finally say that we are thinking in a serious way about "the colonization of outer space." We have, however, very long before we come to appreciate this kind of post-human understanding, which is why we, in the age of science and technology (to use LKJ's words), are no better than the silly Noah story when it comes to the architecture and science of deep-space transportation...



Rachel Armstrong, who has performed innovative research in the architecture world, is part of Project Persephone, the Icarus task force that is looking into how to sustain human and other life forms in space. They specialize in developing "habitable starship architecture," which moves far beyond our current cities and urban design capabilities, offering adaptable environments.
Think about bacteria; forget about us.

Friday, May 23, 2014

That Asteroid Captured by Russian Dash Cams

Posted by on Fri, May 23, 2014 at 8:54 AM

The Guardian:

An asteroid that exploded last year over Chelyabinsk, Russia, leaving more than 1,000 people injured, collided with another asteroid before hitting Earth, research by scientists shows.

"This impact might have separated the Chelyabinsk asteroid from its parent body and delivered it to the Earth," lead researcher Shin Ozawa of the University of Tohoku in Japan wrote in a paper published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

The guess is that this collision happened in some deep part of space 290 million years ago—humans were not around at this time. Its explosion over Russian skies is estimated to have had 30 times the force of a nuclear bomb. When the fragments entered our atmosphere 290 million years after the fateful collision, the world could not tell which was more bizarre: the suddenness of all those bright streaks and flashes or the radio programs and music that Russians listen to as they drive...

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nicholas P. Money and the Art of Writing Science

Posted by on Wed, May 21, 2014 at 3:29 PM

There can be some amount of certainty about this statement when regarding our language: The tradition of writing about Biology is much richer than the tradition of writing about physics, a field that began its decline from the top spot of the big sciences when the plane carrying MIT's Samuel Ting landed in the Bay Area during the "November Revolution" and an important particle (J/ψ meson) was confirmed and added to the Standard Model. The literary richness of biology can in part be attributed, I think, to Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species is a masterpiece of English literature—as well as The Voyage of the Beagle. It can also in part be that biology demands a more sumptuous application of language because of its subject's staggering abundance, its natural hostility to reductionism, and its evolving processes of cooperation. As the British cosmologist Martin Rees points out in his book Our Cosmic Habitat: An ant is more complex than the sun. Writing about the physics of a star can't help but result in a kind of writing that's minimal. Writing about even a bacterium on the antenna of an ant induces in a writing that's very productive.

I bring all of this up because tonight at Town Hall, Nicholas P. Money, a Professor of Botany at Miami University, reads from a new book, The Microbes Around Us, that in my opinion continues a tradition of beautiful, lush, opulent writing that was inaugurated near the middle of the 19th century.

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Here is a sample:

To approach a meaningful picture of marine biology, we need to put aside the things studied by zoologists. A sushi bar to end all sushi bars will foster the necessary thought experiment. Every morsel of marine muscle must be eaten in this last supper: all the hagfish, lampreys, sharks, rays, and bony fish are diced, rolled in sticky rice, wrapped in seaweed, kissed with soy sauce, and swallowed; the red meat from whales, dolphins, manatees, and walruses works well as sashimi and sea turtles make soup; all the oysters slip down with the assistance of cold white wine, all the squid are crunched calamaried; orange sea urchin gonads make a sloppy topping for sushi rolls and jellyfish can be fried. Crabs and lobsters are dispatched after boiling, along with the related sea spiders, barnacles, and fish lice. This is a lot of food: fish, great whales, and Antarctic krill alone weigh more than 1,000 million tons. That leaves the sponges and comb jellies, penis worms and other worms, and exotics like mud dragons, but most of the gustatory labor is over and the ocean is much clearer for it. Now we can turn our full attention to the 90 percent of living things in the sea that cannot be seen without a microscope.
The book is filled with this kind of writing, this kind of fleshy imagery, these kinds of pleasures. Life is textual.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Power of Social Spiders

Posted by on Mon, May 12, 2014 at 8:22 AM

Yesterday, NYT's science section ran a great piece called "The Social Life of Spiders Thriving in a Social Web." Spiders do not have the reputation of ants—the queens of insect sociality. We see spiders as the complete opposite, as total loners, as the monsters of self-efficiency. We almost never see two big spiders on one web. And if we do see this, we think it must be sex, or a battle, or both. For us, the natural state for a spider is a solitary space in the dusty and dark corner. But there are social spiders. And this makes sense if one has read the recent works of the biologist E.0. Wilson and the mathematician Martin A. Nowak.

In separate books, The Social Conquest of Earth and SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed, Wilson and Nowak (who in 2010 collaborated on a controversial paper) make the argument that the path to the complex social cooperation we see in ants and humans, for example, is not exactly in the genes but actually outside of them: in a shelter, or a nest, or any kind space made by the animal. Niche construction is the gateway to social cooperation. Only once you have something like a nest, do the genes come into play. What is it the genes do in a shelter? Some are so arranged as to encourage stayers and others leavers. The insects that stay are the Adams and Eves of animal civilization. The potential space for the social development of spiders is, of course, the web.

Admittedly, none of this niche construction theory is discussed in the post. What we find instead is this amazing core:

The researchers studied Stegodyphus mimosarum, small social spiders that live in colonies of 20 to 300 individuals, weaving huge communal webs the size of automobiles over the trees and bushes of the Kalahari in southern Africa. The spider communities gain their strength through a division of labor, with some members specializing in web repair, some in attacking and subduing prey.

Still others in the group tend to the young, regurgitating liquefied food right into an offspring’s mouth and eventually liquefying their own bodies to nourish the next generation. Through team effort and professional expertise, the social spiders thrive.

“You can capture much larger prey,” Dr. Pruitt said. “I’ve seen the skeletons of birds and rats in some of these colonies.”

The post also mentions that the more stable a spider society is, then the more distinct each spider's personality becomes. A strong society produces strong individuals, and not the other way around.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Polar Bears Are Not an Old Species

Posted by on Fri, May 9, 2014 at 3:50 PM

The most interesting piece of information in this New Scientist post, which is about how polar bears evolved some genetic trick that helps them to safely process and live on a very fatty diet, is found in its last sentence:

A new analysis suggests that polar bears as a species are less than 500,000 years old, making them relative newcomers to the frozen north.

So new and yet soon to depart this world that humans are quickly changing...

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Future of Space Junk

Posted by on Wed, May 7, 2014 at 8:25 AM

WaPo:

Hundreds of thousands of pieces of man-made debris are floating around out there, the detritus of more than 50 years of spaceflight. There have been chunks of dead satellites and spent rocket boosters — even a glove that an astronaut dropped in 1965 and a spatula that escaped from a space shuttle in 2006.

Because it zips along faster than a speeding bullet, the trash poses an ever-growing threat to the satellites that help the military communicate and gather intelligence and serve the world’s obsession with Google Earth and on-demand movies. Until last year, the Pentagon used what was called a “Space Fence” to track the junk and warn of potential collisions that make owners scramble to move their satellites out of the way.


I have no idea why they call this future radar technology a Space Fence when it is just a Space Junk Detector. The radar will be designed to detect, catalog, and predict debris moving through our planet's space. It is not a fence. Nor does it solve the problem of all the junk that's up there. What we need is not a Space Fence, or Space Junk Detector, but a Space Janitor.

That said, here is that scene from Hollywood...

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Big-Government Republicans Want More Control Over Science

Posted by on Tue, May 6, 2014 at 11:28 AM

This is terrible news:

The Obama administration and the scientific community at large are expressing serious alarm at a House Republican bill that they argue would dramatically undermine way research is conducted in America.

Titled the “Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014," the bill would put a variety of new restrictions on how funds are doled out by the National Science Foundation. The goal, per its Republican supporters on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, would be to weed out projects whose cost can't be justified or whose sociological purpose is not apparent.

For Democrats and advocates, however, the FIRST Act represents a dangerous injection of politics into science and a direct assault on the much-cherished peer-review process by which grants are awarded.

This is terrible news because politicians aren't scientists. Worse, politicians don't understand science. All politicians understand is how to react to buzzwords, and how to be outraged about those buzzwords to score some votes. That's how George W. Bush came to be obsessed with stem cells. That's how Sarah Palin can get a room full of angry old people to boo fruit fly research. Handing the purse strings over to a bunch of rich assholes who malign evolution as "just a theory" and who use cold weather as an argument against global warming is the fastest way to turn this country into a full-bore idiocracy.

Friday, May 2, 2014

What Was the Last Piece of Music that Gave You the Chills?

Posted by on Fri, May 2, 2014 at 12:12 PM



Studies have shown that our brains tend to send us a shot of dopamine in the anticipatory seconds leading up to our favorite parts of compositions, and that we respond similarly to grand changes in pitch and melody. It's something truly great, and it just happened to me. I was just sitting here typing, minding my own business, listening to the above song, off an album I haven't listened to in a good while, when the part-change at 4:03 hit, and it was all goosebumps. I listened to the song a few more times but couldn't reproduce quite the same results, which is not to say I don't still love it.

So I put it to you, Slog, on this fine Friday: Do you remember the last time music gave you the chills? What was the music? Where were you? Let 'em know.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Waiting for the Graveyards of Supersymmetry and Neoclassical Economics

Posted by on Mon, Apr 28, 2014 at 8:38 AM

The basic purpose of the hypothesis of supersymmetry is to resolve deep mathematical problems and inconsistencies that result from the attempt to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity. It does this by basically picturing a shadow world of forces behind the world that is explained by the Standard Model, the deepest understanding humans have of the reality we find ourselves in and having, surely by accident, the brains to think about.

For example, we know there are quarks, and to make sense of how they behave, the hypothesis expects there are forces called squarks (I did not pick quark at random; the origin of this particle's name is found in James Joyce's unreadable Finnegans Wake—"Three quarks for Muster Mark!"). Supersymmetry, which has been around since the rise of neoclassical economics (the mid 70s—or more precisely, the year, 1976, Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences) is now in trouble because the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland has failed to find any evidence of its existence.

So far, not a trace of supersymmetry has graced the amazing detectors at CERN. Or the dozens of other experiments spread around the globe hunting for supersymmetric particles raining down from the heavens, something that should happen if they are, indeed, dark matter. Things are not looking good for SUSY.

The LHC has a new run planned for 2015 with substantially higher energy. As the energy of the collisions increase, heavier particles can be "made," out of the conversion of motion energy into matter, as described by the E=mc2 formula. If no supersymmetric particle is found then, physicists will have to make a very difficult decision, not unlike letting go of something you have loved deeply and committed to for a long time but that now is causing more harm than good.

But what's really at stake here, and why this hypothesis will not go away any time soon, is "the lifework of many eminent physicists, both theoretical and experimental." Supersymmtry will only die when these physicists die. The same is true for neoclassical economics, which until recently was simply called economics, but is now more and more distinguished as orthodox economics (this is the intellectual component of policies and practices called neoliberalism).

Anyone who studied neoclassical economics had to make a huge personal investment to comprehend its complex mathematical formulations. They were told the meaning of economics (the management of a nation's wealth) were only to be found in these dense formulas/models and nowhere else—especially in history. This way of thinking collapsed after the formulas/models failed to predict the enormous and plainly obvious crash of 2008. But neoclassical economics, which is now facing a serious challenge from neglected heterodox economists and the powerful return of historical thinking (Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21 Century is one such example, but also are books by Ha Joon Chang and Mariana Mazzucato), will not die until those who spent their whole lives mastering it die. This includes Paul Krugman:

Now, to be fair, there is a civil war within academic macroeconomics, and what I’m calling “mainstream” is the saltwater side of that civil war. But the critics want much more than to boost saltwater macro at the expense of the new classical guys — they want to drive people like me out of the temple, too.
They will not succeed in driving you tenured and established types out of the temple. They will have to wait for your generation to enter the silence of the grave.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Climate Change, US Citizens, and Thomas Piketty

Posted by on Mon, Apr 21, 2014 at 8:47 AM

Tweets by the science writer Carl Zimmer led me to a AP-GfK poll (a PDF file) that was conducted last month and shows, among other things, that only 33% of US citizens are very confident that the rise in global temperature is anthropogenic (caused by humans). This represents not just a victory for petroleum corporations but also the very rich. And not just because many of them have shares in these corporations but also because addressing climate change with any seriousness would probably provide the kind of shock to the economy that would destabilize their current position in society.

As the French economist Tomas Piketty convincingly argues in his new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the only thing that hit the rich hard and resulted in a massive transference of wealth from the top to the middle of capitalist societies was the two major wars in the first half of the 20th century. If these shocks are removed from history (as well as the welfare institutions and progressive tax systems they engendered), then the middle class as we understand it today (claiming about 25 to 30 percent of all wealth) wouldn't exist. Since the 70s, however, the rich have been successfully restoring the levels of wealth and power they had before these wars (80 to 90 percent), and the true horror of our times is the seeming absence of anything, politically speaking, that can arrest this process. Addressing climate change, however, could really shake things up. Why? Because of the massive amount of government spending and social reorganization that's required to meet this crisis.

In a post I made last year about James K. Galbraith's book The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, I shared a passage that concerned precisely this kind of action:

What are the elements of [a plan that deals with climate change]? A rough template can be drawn from the only major example of successful planning in the history of the United States: the economic mobilization for World War II. That mobilization doubled GDP within four years, reduced unemployment to zero, placed an army of 11 million men and women in the field, controlled inflation, and established both the technical and financial foundation for a generation of stable prosperity and social progress—albeit founded on ever-increasing use of fossil fuels. Unraveling fifty years of burning [fossil fuels] will require economic transformation on a similar scale...

Sadly, an economic and social mobilization of that scale is not going to happen with only 33% of Americans reading the writing on the wall.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Another Earth Is Discovered

Posted by on Fri, Apr 18, 2014 at 7:49 AM

What is that we can now say with the recent discovery of a distant planet that appears to be just like the only planet on which we humans know for sure that life exists?

"This is the first validated Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of another star," Dr. Quintana said. "We can now say other potentially habitable worlds the size of Earth can exist."



This other earth is in a constellation that's 459 light years from our earth.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Recycling Astronaut Urine

Posted by on Fri, Apr 11, 2014 at 8:28 AM

Science Daily has a curious short post about how a number of scientists are working on an innovative water treatment process for the urine of astronauts...

On the less glamorous side of space exploration, there's the more practical problem of waste — in particular, what to do with astronaut pee. But rather than ejecting it into space, scientists are developing a new technique that can turn this waste burden into a boon by converting it into fuel and much-needed drinking water. Their report, which could also inspire new ways to treat municipal wastewater, appears in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering

The post is curious because it seems very late in the day for scientists in the space exploration community to take the idea of recycling waste water seriously. The space age is mostly over. The astronaut is now more a relic than anything else. The question then is: Why did this very practical idea not occur to the scientists of the heyday (mid-60s to mid-70s) of human space travel? My guess: The former dominance of the ideology of nature as nothingness. This ideology has its roots in the 15th century, the moment of Europe's discovery of the New World, and it persisted without a challenge until the rise of the environmental movement in the 70s. Only in our time of growing ecological awareness does the practice of "ejecting [waste] it into space," space being the supreme form of nothingness, reveal itself as wasteful.
NASA.jpg
  • NASA

For us biological entities, there is nothing at all like nothingness.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lightning the World

Posted by on Tue, Apr 8, 2014 at 11:47 AM

In this post, NASA's Earth Observatory drops some facts on the cause, detection, and number of lightning bolts in our active atmosphere:

Across the atmosphere of Earth, lightning flashes about 50 times per second. That’s 4.3 million times a day and roughly 1.5 billion times a year. Using a new instrument on the International Space Station (ISS), scientists are hoping to observe and dissect at least a few of those lightning bolts every day.

The thunderstorm in the beautiful image below was captured over the country of Bolivia:
ISS026-E-016488_lrg.jpg
  • NASA/ISS

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

New Study Claims Humans Can Distinguish Up to a Trillion Scents

Posted by on Tue, Mar 25, 2014 at 8:15 AM

LA Times:

When it comes to the senses, smell often gets short shrift. Scientific research has shown humans can distinguish between 2.3 million and 7.5 million colors. It has also shown we can hear 340,000 different tones. But no one had taken the time to learn how many different smells we can access until now.
The study, however, did not test and find 1 trillion smells but instead extrapolated that astounding figure from a very small sample. The researchers are even bold enough to suggest that 1 trillion is a conservative estimate; they suspect we can distinguish much, much more than that. But the finding brings another and more interesting problem to mind: How much of this information gathered by the nose gets processed and used? What we know is that very little of it reaches the level of our consciousness. What we don't know is the extent to which such a wide variety of scents would meaningfully inform and even guide processes below our self-awareness.

My guess: This sense is like some old country manor that's huge for sure and was once the talk of the town but is now slowly decaying, slowly sinking, and growing more and more vacant.

Monday, March 24, 2014

When Our Galaxy Collides with Andromeda

Posted by on Mon, Mar 24, 2014 at 8:23 AM

As the image shows, the sky of some planet in the deep future (4 billion years from now) and in another galaxy will be filled with the slow collision between our galaxy, the Milky Way, and Andromeda...



Yes, the universe (meaning space) is expanding at a faster and faster rate, but local galaxies are coming together and will one day form the only universe that can be known. Distant galaxies will be gone, and this one galaxy will be surrounded in blackness. And the most brilliant minds of whatever is living at that time (a time when our star will be dead) will have theories of the universe that are not dissimilar to those of the Middle Ages in Europe. What our minds of today contain will not be found in the minds of that distant tomorrow. Those most other modes of thinking and reflecting just cannot know that faraway galaxies were pulled into a rapidly expanding nothingness that kills even the shumba of the universe, the speed of light.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Chatterbox: The Internet Is Talking About Gravity Waves and Gay St. Patrick's Day Shenanigans

Posted by on Mon, Mar 17, 2014 at 6:01 PM

Getting Their Irish Up: A gay float crashed Boston's anti-gay St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Big Science News! The existence of gravity gravitational waves has been confirmed, which validates the Big Bang Theory.

The Dark Side of YouTube: "Over the last few days, allegations of sexual abuse and emotional manipulation have surfaced in the YouTube community."

No Sympathy for the Carpetbagger: Former MA Senator (and future candidate for NH Senator) Scott Brown gets rough treatment from Fox News. This is delightful to watch.

Best GIFs Ever: Colossal's blog post exhibit of David Szakaly's optical illusion GIFs is a treat for the eyes.

William S. Burroughs Teaches Writing: Go to Open Culture to learn more.

Happy St. Patrick's Day! This video is older than dirt and has been on Slog many times, but it's also absolutely wonderful. If I had to choose two minutes of video to send into outer space to prove that human civilization existed and was worthwhile, I think it might be this:

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Friday, March 14, 2014

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Plane vs. Ocean

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The Music of Trees

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