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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Dear Science: Lightning Round!

posted by on September 1 at 15:14 PM

Vegetarians: outsource your meat eating. Venus fly traps can go vegan, if with a shortened and miserable life.

Hybrid drivers: stop duping yourselves and others. Hybrids are no more environmentally friendly than a small regular car, and maybe even a bit worse. Want to be sanctimonious? Ride a bike.

Bus riders: time does slow down when you’re on the bus — provided you’re traveling above about a tenth of the speed of light. Thanks Hendrik!


Pot smokers: yes, you might have “psychotic symptoms”, like hallucination, disorganized thoughts, agitation, or aggression. Pot might make you crazy, or you might just be high. Science isn’t overly concerned.

Have a question on stem cells, epigenetics, transplant biology or gene therapy? Put it in the comments and I’ll answer it within a day, or your money back. Or send your questions to

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Not so fast for ruling out Einstein. You neglect the twin paradox. With only special relativity (i.e. the Lorentz effect) you'd have two systems with different relative velocities and it would not be possible to say which system was the one that was moving and which is the one that is stable. So is the bus rider's time dilated or is the earth/moon's in your example. There is no answer to this question without GR. With GR you can take accelaration into account and resolve the twin paradox. The bus's time is dilated becuase it's the system that accelerated to reach that state.

Posted by kinaidos | September 1, 2007 3:39 PM

You know what, that made me decide to actually get a bike.

I have health insurance now, so when I get hit it will be okay! (I don't know anyone who bikes who hasn't gotten hit).

Posted by exelizabeth | September 1, 2007 4:08 PM

Ooh ooh! Talk about the obese mice and their epigenetically-reprogrammed svelte offspring!!

Posted by L | September 1, 2007 4:18 PM

Great, move the high tech jobs to downtown and I'd love to take a bus. Since that's not going to happen and it'll be 90 minutes one way to use Metro (15 minutes driving), I'll stick to getting the best possible car out there.

Posted by zzyzx | September 1, 2007 4:45 PM

545 roxx0r!

Posted by The Baron | September 1, 2007 4:49 PM

Instead of spending five billion dollars to add another lane to the 520 bridge, would it work to offer Microsoft a five billion dollar bribe to move downtown?

I don't think they deserve the money, but since the bridge is going to float away anyhow when the sea levels rise over the Ballard locks, why not use the money to save the planet?

Just wondering.

Posted by elenchos | September 1, 2007 5:14 PM

What are the chances of having some kind of effective gene therapy or other kind of cure for schizophrenia in my lifetime? Is it possible at all? Do you think gene therapy is the way to go or do you think they will just keep fine-tuning medications?

Posted by Kristin Bell | September 1, 2007 5:17 PM

Amazon, Real Networks, F5, thePlatform,
QPass, Redfin, Zillow, Visible Technologies, Medio,, Par 3 Communications,
Expiditors International, and Widemile are just a few of the companies with high tech jobs downtown.

Posted by Mike of Renton | September 1, 2007 5:21 PM

Limiting how often you crawl into your private two tons of absurdity to go to work or the store is the key to an environmental lifestyle.

I just found my new favorite phrase.

Posted by buffalo | September 1, 2007 6:32 PM

I'm sorry, but can anyone else see that Whiskey Bar ad over to the side? Why is there money shooting out of her pussy and why is she wielding a knife and smiling like she's having fun? Seriously, I wouldn't mind if money was shooting out of my vagina, but I think it might be a bit painful and I wouldn't be smiling about it until I got all the goop off and was able to spend it. What a creepy ad.

Posted by Kristin Bell | September 1, 2007 6:54 PM

So even the Dear Science column has mounted the high horse of "live in an urban area to solve all environmental problems?" Except that I live in an urban area which necessitates a 20+ mile commute, and inevitably drive SOMETHING to work. I'd live closer to work, but then my girlfriend would have the 20+ mile commute, but stuck in city-bound gridlock.

Of course, that situation doesn't fit the narrow view point associated with the aforementioned high horse, thus it's ignored.

Posted by brandon | September 1, 2007 7:46 PM

What's up with that big ass void in space, the one that's a billion light years across and has no matter? How's that happen?

Posted by Gitai | September 1, 2007 8:35 PM

Q. What's up with the white stuff in bird shit?

A. That's bird shit too.

I think the empty space in out in empty space is sort of like that.

Posted by elenchos | September 1, 2007 9:14 PM

Please don't encourage biking under the influence of sanctimony. It's a severe enough problem as it is.

Posted by flamingbanjo | September 1, 2007 9:22 PM

Watch it there, Dear Science. You state: "The big idea behind hybrids is to capture a fraction of the energy lost during breaking by adding about 100 pounds of batteries and another heavy motor."

The idea behind a hybrid is to operate the engine at or near its peak energy efficiency for most of the time it's running, and shut it off if it isn't. Regenerative braking helps some as well.

Are there sucky hybrids out there? Absolutely. Is a bike better? Much! Does it also help to drive in a manner that uses less gas (drive a bit slower, avoiding quick starts and stops)? Yes.

I drive a Prius 53 miles per hour back and forth to work each day, 60 miles round trip. I get about 55 mpg. I also know, after doing the numbers, that my Prius is the biggest part of my carbon footprint right now. It uses half the gas of the car it replaces, but still I'm using too much. Guess I'll have to start a carpool. If only BART would go one more town over, I could take it with my bike. My co-worker has a Kawasaki 750 and gets 45 mpg.

A good hybrid, such as a Prius or Honda Civic, carefully driven, uses a whole lot less gas than an SUV, hybrid or not. Not perfect, but a step in the right direction.

I'm not sanctimonious, just trying to use less and less if I get the chance...and I do ride my bike when I can.

Posted by glasspusher | September 2, 2007 7:12 AM

Do you think gene therapy is the way to go or do you think they will just keep fine-tuning medications?

Which answer is ultimately the better money maker? Go with that one.

Posted by BallardDan | September 2, 2007 7:21 AM

Dear Science:

I noticed the advertisement for over the last few weeks in the paper and on stranger websites. Being the consumerist sucker I am, one click later, and I already felt I was chosen (free-will, manipulation, subliminality - a sampling of concepts that floated by momentarily). Regardless of my choice, I scanned the invite to join the site's blog which states that I can "log in to... connect with other jew-ish folks."

My question: Considering the play on words, is there scientific data to back up a claim to be jew-ish? In other words, can I be jew-ish in a hard science manner other than the phenotypic behavior, appearance and/or thought-processing of "authentic" Jewish folks?

Posted by Absi | September 2, 2007 7:35 AM

I think that a 25% improvement over the Yaris and a 100% improvement over the average on the road car is great. If people will be more likely to drive a fuel efficient vehicle because of the hybrid tag, that's just fine. According to recent stories meat eating contributes more to GHG than cars, don't know if I believe that but if so those bikers had better be vegans. Has there been an analysis of how much energy biking uses - only in the interest of the scientific method - and how that compares to three people in a hybrid.

The idea that biking will be the solution in the short or medium term seems unrealistic. The ST2 measure will take twenty years to complete if they make their schedule and forty years if they perform as they are performing on ST1. High efficiency vehicles will be crucial if we are to meet GHG reduction schedules.

Posted by whatever | September 2, 2007 12:00 PM

Dear Science,

Your discussion of hybrids does not make sense to me. You seem to be answering a question, but not the one you were asked (this is not what scientists are supposed to do, I hear)

The question you answer is "Should I drive a car?" Your answer is no (unless you carpool I guess).

-You say that driving cars is inefficient.
-You say that starting, stopping and turning uses energy.
-You say that hybrids are heavy, and that the gains are little better than driving a small conventional car.
-Then you say that a Prius gets aroung 50 mpg, compared to the Yaris, which gets 40 mpg. (on they calculated a combined city/hwy efficiency of 46mpg for prius and 32 for yaris)
-Then you say that at 50mpg you still burn gas.
-From this you conclude that one should carpool, bus, or bike.

First of all, are you really suggesting that no one should ever own a car? Do you think there will never be a time when you will need to own a car?

If yes, well, I think you are deluded. If no, then let's move on to whether it matters what car you buy.

You suggest that a 10mpg difference in efficiency is negligible. In that case, would you agree that driving a relatively efficient SUV at 25mpg is just as bad as driving a Yaris? After all, "Is it anything really different?" I suggest that, yes, something is different - you are burning less gas. Sort of like how efficient lightbulbs are better than inefficient ones.

Finally, your suggestion to carpool is kind of odd. How do you know the questioner does not carpool, and wants to make the carpool more efficient? Also, public transport uses energy. So no one should use buses, they should bike. And so on and so forth.

Seems to me that you either didn't think this one through or did a knee jerk response.

A more interesting avenue would have been to find out how much energy goes into CREATING a new car. I think it is probably much more eco friendly to buy a used 100% gas burner than to buy a brand-new hybrid, but I don't really know.

-Jude, who does not own a car at the moment.

Posted by Jude Fawley | September 2, 2007 12:08 PM

"Carrying around a couple hundred pounds of you in a couple thousand pounds of steel, rubber, and glass is utterly insane."

Spoken like someone who doesn't have children. I'll keep my kids in the 3000+lb cacoon, thanks. I was 200 ft behind my friends when their car (with their 2 year old in the back seat) was t-boned by a drunk driver. Their daughter was uninjured. Versus my friend who bikes everywhere and says he's been hit at least 25 times.

This is *just* like the viaduct discussion. The Stranger says "let's set public policy based on how we would *like* things to be, rather than on how the *are*." If you want me to move into the city, make the jobs and good schools located there. If you want me to stop clogging the highways, offer decent (instead of pathetic) mass transit and a real biking infrastructure (try biking from Magnolia to downtown.)

ps- the benefit of hybrids are that they are forcing the car makers to really and truly invest in battery technology. In ten years all cars will be electric powered. This will result in either a somewhat improved carbon footprint (because big power plants are way more efficient than little IC motors) or a much improved carbon footprint (because here in the NW hydropower generates no carbon.)

Posted by Big Sven | September 2, 2007 12:22 PM

@3 Oooh, that is a great question. In fact, I think I'll use it for a future column. For now: Viva Lamarck!

@7: Schizophrenia is a bit better understood, but there still isn't a clear gene target. Maybe neuregulin-1, the type 4 protein or by fiddling with the canonical Wnt pathway? Still, I'd bet on better medications coming out before gene therapy.

Honestly, I think gene therapy is going to find success in vaccine development. The HPV vaccines, the upcoming Ad5-based Herpes vaccines and even the Ad-based HIV vaccines (that I *love*) are all looking pretty good.

@17. Being Jew-ish is a choice, not an inborn trait. Still, I think Jews should be allowed to marry and adopt.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | September 2, 2007 1:16 PM

Call me crazy, but I tend to disregard opinions about hybrids that come from people who already have $20k+ worth of self-esteem invested in the answer.

Props to Big Sven at #20, though, it never would have occurred to me that someone might use "THINK OF TEH CHILDREN!!?!" as a defense of heavier, more environment-destroying personal transportation.

I guess this way, when your kids get old and the government they've elected is turning away refugees from coastal flood zones, they can just blame you for it all instead of feeling any personal guilt. It's great how you protect your kids like that.

Posted by robotslave | September 2, 2007 3:26 PM

robotslave, I *do* tend to find "Think of the Children!" to be a useful thing to say on the Slog every so often. Because many of the threads assume that every human in King Co is an underemployed 20-something barista on Capital Hill.

Just curious- how do you get your children to school, daycare, the dentist, etc?

Posted by Big Sven | September 2, 2007 5:18 PM

Big Sven:

walk, n/a, the bus, and depends on which flavor of "etc" you're talking about.

My parents didn't even own a car until I was 5 and my little sister was 2, and we weren't living in Manhattan or Belltown, either. And from what I see around me, transit options have only increased since the '70s

It's also a mistake, Sven, to come across with that attitude that Real Average People With Kids are all living in thinly-settled exurbs with nothing within biking distance, no school busing, no public transportation, and no other alternatives to using the SUV for every little errand that needs (or doesn't need) to be run.

There are a lot of neighborhoods in the Seattle area that aren't Capitol Hill, yet do have excellent local amenities, decent schools, and adequate if not stellar public transportation. I happen to live in such a neighborhood. You can choose to live in a place that doesn't provide these things for your kids, but you can't pretend the consequences were forced on you.

Posted by robotslave | September 2, 2007 5:56 PM

Mr Golob:

I appreciate your, uh, answer, but let's back up a little:

My question: Can I be jew-ish in a hard science manner other than the phenotypic behavior, appearance and/or thought-processing of "authentic" Jewish folks?

@17. Being Jew-ish is a choice, not an inborn trait.

I'd appereciate if we can just forget the word play and just say Jewish. I am Jewish and a scientist. As for choice, you really believe that someone being born into a Jewish tradition observing family has a choice? As much a choice as an adult converting? You're answer is obviously a blowoff to my concerns; I expect a partial refund. In the meantime, please familiarize yourself with the work of population geneticist, Antonio Arnaiz-Villena. His work at the turn of the century is especially concerned with the type of data I might have been looking for in your response, however, in your colloquial verbiage that makes the topic of science so ... quaint. I'll look for your future writings in the by-lines of annals such as Psychology Today and Discover magazine.

Posted by Absi | September 2, 2007 7:49 PM

The kind of controversy Science encounters in cases such as this is often Science's own fault. Asking the wrong questions, or not asking any questions, and then being too confident: it's a recipe for trouble. Well, in the case of "Ask Science," overconfident doesn't even begin to capture the snotty hubris with which these shaky theories are delivered.

Anyway, why doesn't Science consider some of the other variables in the equation?

If mass is such a big damn deal to Science, than why not ask what would happen if humans didn't weigh so much? I think an average weight of under 100 pounds is scientifically feasible. The acceleration and battery problems would be much easier to solve with lighter people.

Or maybe we need larger, heavier people. If we all weighed more than 1000 pounds, then bicyclists would be much safer in the inevitable collision with a car. Don't look at me like that! I mean, yes 1000 pounds, but totally HWP, okay?

Or has Science thought much about the lil chilluns? They are precious cargo, of course. Or are they? Maybe the problem is are absurdly low birth rate. Couldn't Science find practical way to give us 10 to 20 children each? Then if a few got caught here and there in the wheels of progress, would we even notice? If we added some redundancy to our families' children sub-systems, we could live with a much higher error rate in our transport system. Speaking scientifically.

I'm not advocating these approaches. But one of the jobs of Science is to dispassionately consider our alternatives, and inform the body politic of the consequences of our various possible avenues.

To become a partisan bike Nazi, however, is not Science at all. Plus, that's Erica's job.

Posted by elenchos | September 2, 2007 9:18 PM

roboslave, I respect that you've made decisions that allow you to get by w/ mass transit. Really I do.

But I never said a fucking thing about SUVs- don't own one- and as a long time advocate of electric cars (I've actually driven one) I refuse to feel bad because I'm not as much of a purist as you are.

In a world where Republicans deny the very existance of global warming, and car companies sell hundreds of thousands of sub-20mpg trucks and SUVs, I think it's sad that people sit here on the Slog and bash hybrid and EV advocates.

Good is not the enemy of great, roboslave. Lots of progressive Democrats live in suburbs (I wouldn't call Issaquah an "exurb") who support mass transit (I used to bike/bus 2 days a week into Seattle when my job was there) and environmental activism. Let's try to remember who the real enemy is.

Posted by Big Sven | September 2, 2007 9:54 PM

El - if we bred smaller, people would eat less therefore less GHG from food production. They could fit in smaller cars. Smaller cars would mean narrower lanes which would mean the highways would effectively be widened. Smaller room heights equal less heating and cooling energy costs. Skinny planes and landing strips resulting in no need for more airport space. Less cloth, smaller shoes, etc. etc.

But in the present, decreasing enegy costs per passenger mile is key and the best way to dramatically reduce those cost is to use more efficient vehicles.

Posted by whatever | September 3, 2007 8:54 AM

I agree with Science but also with many of the commenters - I will own a car as long as my children are small, we need to overhaul the biking infrastructure for less contact with cars (also possibly start to limit vehicle weight along with gas mileage), current hybrid technology is a step toward better technology and all-electric vehicles, and none of this addresses the problems of freight and distance travel. China is investing heavily in maglev technology, is this a viable possibility for human mass transit or, eventually, freight?

Posted by Erica T. | September 3, 2007 9:32 AM

@15: The thing about hybrids is they don't really do any better than a conventional diesel car the same size. It seems like it would be better to just get a diesel and skip all the extra complexity and weight.

Me, my commute is only 5 miles to the park-and-ride, so it doesn't much matter what I drive from an environmental standpoint. I was glad I was in my big, heavy car and not on a bicycle when I got rear-ended by a van a couple weeks ago, though.

@24: If you can afford to live in Seattle, count yourself lucky. I couldn't find anywhere affordable that was any closer than Kent.

Posted by Orv | September 4, 2007 12:18 PM

Careful w/ diesel. Diesel weighs more than gasoline (850g/l vs. 720g/l) and has a higher energy density (41MJ/l vs 35MJ/l). So in any comparison w/ a gas engine you have to take into account that the diesel has 15% higher emissions per gallon. TANSTAAFL.

Still better than driving a god damned Hummer, though.

Posted by Big Sven | September 4, 2007 1:25 PM

@31: That's true, and there are fuel savings to be had. With even six year old hybrids still selling for well over what other used cars cost, though, I can't see myself owning one any time soon.

Posted by Orv | September 4, 2007 2:20 PM

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