blood bag

Generally, when skeptics or popular science writers talk about medicine and money, it’s to ward off something one could call an argument ad-shillium, or rejecting scientific studies outright with declarations that anyone who sticks up for doctors and pharmaceutical companies over the hot and trendy snake oil salesperson of the month must be a paid shill. Shilling certainly happens in both the real world and online, but when one’s argument rests in basic science, money is not a topic relevant to the conversation. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not important when new ideas come along and gain some serious traction. Case in point, Theranos, a company which a lot of people rightly suspect can shake up healthcare in the United States by offering dozens of blood using just a drop of blood at your corner pharmacy, is facing a barrage of questions as to how exactly its tests work and seems to be unwilling to tell anyone about their lab on a chip.

Ordinarily, this is where an experienced skeptic would look for signs of quackery. Useless tests, pseudoscientifc mumbo-jumbo on the website, avoidance of the FDA, and special pleading for the enigmatic technology which offers vague benefits that don’t run afoul of the agency’s rules for the same of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. But that’s not the case with Theranos. In fact, the company recently got a nod from the FDA to continue its work and is seeking approval of its technology and testing methods, and scientists who have tried to parse how it can test for so many things with so little blood say that it’s more than likely upgrading old technology into a new, compact toolkit. There’s no voodoo or snake oil here, just good old fashioned science and faster, better computers and machinery. Furthermore, the fees for each test are posted openly, and they’re a lot less than what’s offered by its competitors, whose pricing is opaque at best.

So if there’s nothing amiss at Theranos, why all the secrecy? Well, after many millions spent on research, development, and testing, the company wants to expand significantly and if it shares how it does what it does with the world, especially if it’s just an overhaul of existing methodology with better machinery, its competitors can quickly catch up and limit its growth. I’m sure it’s also trying to avoid getting patent trolled and bogged down in expensive litigation, more than likely of the frivolous, made to line lawyers’ pockets variety, since there’s no shortage of people with an abandoned medical testing device patent from which a troll can manufacture an infringement or two and file in East Texas. Perhaps this is unfair to scientists, and to some degree patients who may want a second opinion after Theranos’ tests show something alarming, but this is the result of setting up a healthcare system with opaque pricing and strict regulation, and legal minefields in the technology world through easy to obtain and vaguely worded frivolous patents.

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kids

Anti-vaccine activists would have us believe that autism is the result of some sort of undefined, or scary sounding toxicity and should be cured by a gluten-free diet and detoxification typically conducted by a profiteering quack. However, the real scientific evidence points to genetics and brain development, meaning that no one develops autism or turns autistic, but is born this way and will fall at some point along the spectrum when the condition can be diagnosed. Recently, another study provided additional evidence for this theory by comparing how modified skin cell cultures taken from those with autism, reverted into stem cells, and induced to grow into micro brains developed to skin cells from their non-autistic parents, subjected to the same treatment. Right away, the researchers noted an over-abundance of inhibitory neurons which created the roadblocks to forming necessary connections for sensory and social input processing.

While this isn’t confirmation that this is in fact what causes autism, it’s a substantial step toward identifying the culprits. It also narrowed down the gene responsible and gave the researchers a good idea for how to control its expression. While some pop sci outlets trumpet this as work we can use to develop a cure for autism, I’m not so sure that it’s so simple. After all, autism isn’t a structural disorder in which an excess of inhibitory neurons blocks important functions and pills or even gene therapy would suddenly turn autistic individuals into neuro-typical ones. With their brains affected from birth, their lives have been built around their neurons compensating for all the neurotransmitter dead ends. It would take many years for their brains to re-wire themselves and fashion a new personality. And while those with severe autism would greatly benefit, would this be a desired, or even an ethical treatment for high functioning autistic people?

If autism shapes how you see the world and you have always had it, yes, it can make life really confusing and difficult. But when one learns to overcome, to recognize one’s problems and find coping mechanisms, the journey has made this person who he or she is today. It’s tempting, in the words of autism quacks to “fix” them, but considering how integral autism has been to how they became who they are, the “fix” in question would mean undoing a lifetime of learning, and in some way undoing what they are today for the ability to better process certain stimuli, social interactions, and better emotional coping skills. Again, for low functioning autistic people, there are arguments in favor of the benefits outweighing the risk, but for those who’ve learned to see this condition as a part of who they are and can easily function on their own, even benefiting a little from some of its positive side effects, being “cured” won’t always be the best choice…

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self-steeping tea

All right, look Newsweek, I get it. You need a catchy title for a throwaway article, ideally one you can tie into recent events bubbling up on search engines to get those sweet, sweet hits. And it’s understandable that once you start off with that headline, you don’t want to disappoint all those readers who came in to read about people who believe that a flyby of Pluto was just a part of a complicated conspiracy. But at the same time, two idiots who can’t even articulate what it is that was actually conspired and why, and seem to have no idea that there are two of them, aren’t a movement by even the most generous stretch of the imagination. No one except them believes that the New Horizons flyby didn’t happen and most of the people who comment on their videos do so to tell them how incredibly scientifically illiterate they are. For example, take this gem…

A man who goes by Crow Trippleseven questioned the initial Pluto images in a YouTube video last week… His argument: How is it that NASA’s images of Pluto, supposedly taken from a only few million miles away, are of poorer quality than those he took of Jupiter with his telescopic camera from 484 million miles away?

Well, let’s see, you have the lack of an adjustable focal length on the space probe to reduce the amount of moving parts and the fact that Jupiter has a diameter of 86,881 miles and comes as close as 365 million miles to us, while Pluto is 3 billion miles away at its closest and is just 1,473 miles across, or 8 times farther away, 58 times smaller, and fainter by a factor of thousands. So Crow expects a far smaller object, much farther away to be seen as clearly as the largest one in our solar system, gets schooled by countless people who actually realize this because they can do basic math and understand middle school optics, and his ignorance of basic science is proof of a conspiracy and comments calling him out on his imbecilic video are actually “death threats” in light of which he must keep his identity secret. But hold on, what is the actual conspiracy he’s trying to expose? Why is NASA staging a flyby of a would people are slightly curious about?

Maybe the truth is that NASA can’t do as much as we’ve been led to believe. It is a hard thing to know. Why does any government lie to its people? While there seems to be no simple answer, it seems to be the way of things. Governments lie and always have.

Ah, that clears it up. No, wait, no it doesn’t. He’s basically saying that he has no idea why there was a staged flyby of Pluto, what anyone had to gain form it, and what was the point of doing it in the first place, but dammit government lie and this must be a lie too. He’s just there to wake up the sheeple to the fact that there are conspiracies everywhere. His supposed counterpart in the movement of two dullards is just as clueless, basically just saying that he has no idea why a space agency would fake a mission but he knows they faked it. He also appears quite sure that the flouride in his local drinking water is poisonous and doesn’t understand that spacecraft can indeed propel themselves through a vacuum on top of re-tweeting pro-precious metal standard economic pamphlets based on what I’d like to call the peek-a-boo theory of economics, i.e. “if a currency isn’t backed by precious metal I can see and touch, it’s not real money.” So in short, he appears to be a somewhat bored rebel looking for a cause rather than for a clue.

However, this pair does teach us an important lesson. While some of us look to space to get an amazing little dose of inspiration and hopefully a glimpse of our future beyond humanity’s small, fragile blue cradle, others look to the heavens to find something else to complain about with the utmost confidence in their own genius, desperate to come across as incisive thinkers who have answers to life’s toughest questions and out-think the average person. These are people with a huge chip on their shoulders, people who want to be appreciated and admired for their feats of intelligence and insights, and whose eggshell-thin egos cannot process the fact that they more often than not end up coming across as the exact opposites of what they wanted to project. I’m sure they think of an article about them in Newsweek as long overdue recognition, while it really just let them humiliate themselves in public while calling them a movement to milk a few hits…

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woman on bench

Once in a while, the internet remembers random things, such as a woman who wanted to trim the male population by at least 90% and use the survivors as breeding stock to reduce gender inequality across the world. While MRAs believe that this is what all feminists secretly want and most people understand that this is little more than a joke that went too far and has absolutely zero chance of happening, ever, all of the online discussions on the subject have focused on a trip down the histrionics-laden minefield of gender politics instead of a relevant scientific issue that should be front and center. Sure, being one of the few males left on Earth and given a life filled with relative luxury and constant sex sounds like the plot of a particularly wishful porn film which I’m sure has been made a few hundred times by now. But would it actually work? What’s the consequence of eliminating up to 99% of men from the gene pool? Well, it could very likely doom our species in the long run, even with heavy reliance on artificial insemination and gene therapy. We thrive thanks to variety, and reducing our genetic diversity will only harm us.

Let’s say that 90% of men are somehow culled. With about 10 women for every remaining man we’d quickly end up with the same problem as Iceland worldwide. In just a few generations, the attractive stranger with whom you’re flirting is likely your half-sibling. Sure, you can curate who gets to reproduce and how, but the sheer lack of new male genes will quickly have you trying to fight math. Artificial insemination using same sex donors is possible and has been done, but it’s still a very touchy, expensive process that doesn’t always work. Women in poverty or in remote, undeveloped parts of the world are going to have extremely limited access to this resource and women in wealthy nations will be looking at high costs and failure rates. Nature got really, really good at this whole reproduction thing over 3.5 billion years and re-inventing the wheel is not an easy feat. Today, the best we can do with tried and true technology is successful about 15% of the time per implanted zygote on average. After just ten generations, there’s going to be a very serious threat of a genetic bottleneck which spells evolutionary doom for any organism.

An even more base, but still relevant question in the face of us no longer being able to just out-breed our way through genetic defects and weaknesses as we do today, is what about women who want monogamous, long-term heterosexual relationships? That’s close to 90% of those on the planet in this post-male apocalypse world. Instead of having a boyfriend or a husband they just plain want, they’re now on waiting lists among rationed men who also can’t have any sort of meaningful relationship. While more women than men admit to same-sex fantasies, and acting on them, you might end up with artificially high same-sex pairings among women simply out of emotional and physical necessity. It’s one thing if you’re homosexual and have your choice of a partner everywhere you look. But if you’re not, your choices are to get on a waiting list for some person to whose gender you have a strong innate attraction, pair up with a same sex partner to release some stress until you can’t do it anymore, or be lonely. Again, there are good reasons why nature prefers a 50/50 ratio between the sexes, one of which is more choices in mating.

For better or worse, the survival of humanity depends on having plenty of men available, and a significant amount of genetic diversity. Look at every successful species in history. They thrived in enormous numbers because they reproduced efficiently and had many mates available on a moment’s notice. Small, inbred populations nearly always die out because they lack the genetic diversity and numbers to absorb a change in diet, or the environment, or new diseases to come out on the other end as strong as ever. Humans survived a supervolcanic eruption which left an uncomfortably small population that might have dropped to as few as 10,000 individuals, awful plagues, and an ice age. Had we become too dependent on over-structured breeding systems, or had our species grown far too sex-lopsided, we would’ve went extinct. So an idea involving a reduction of up to 99% of one sex shouldn’t just be met with political and social objections, but it should be first dismissed from the most important point of all: that of evolutionary biology.

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sci-fi plane

Now, I don’t mean to alarm you, but if Boeing is serious about its idea for the fusion powered jet engine and puts it into a commercial airplane in the near future more or less as it is now, you’re probably going to be killed when it’s turned on as the plane gets ready to taxi. How exactly your life will end is a matter of debate really. The most obvious way is being poisoned by a shower of stray neutrons and electrons emanating from the fusion process, and the fissile shielding which would absorb some of the neutrons and start a chain reaction much like in a commercial fission plant but with basically nothing between you and the radiation. If you want to know exactly what that would do to your body, and want to lose sleep for a few days, simply do a search — and for the love of all things Noodly not an image search, anything but that — for Hiroshi Ouchi. Another way would be a swift crash landing after the initial reaction gets the plane airborne but just can’t continue consistently enough to stay in the air. A third involves electrical components fried by a steady radioactive onslaught giving out mid-flight. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Of course this assumes that Boeing would actually build such a jet engine, which is pretty much impossible without some absolutely amazing breakthroughs in physics, material sciences, and a subsequent miniaturization of all these huge leaps into something that will fit into commercial jet engines. While you’ve seen something the size of a NYC or San Francisco studio apartment on the side of each wing on planes that routinely cross oceans, that’s not nearly enough space for even one component of Boeing’s fusion engine. It would be like planning to stuff one of the very first computers into a Raspberry Pi back in 1952, when we theoretically knew that we should be able to do it someday, but had no idea how. We know that fusion should work. It’s basically the predominant high energy reaction in the universe. But we just can’t scale it down until we figure out how to negotiate turbulent plasma streams and charged particles repelling each other in the early stages of ignition. Right now, we can mostly recoup the energy from the initial laser bursts, but we’re still far off from breaking even on the whole system, much generate more power.

Even in ten years there wouldn’t be lasers powerful enough to start fusion with enough net gain to send a jet down a runway. The most compact and energetic fission reactors today are used by submarines and icebreakers, but they’re twice the size of even the biggest jet engines with a weight measured in thousand of tons. Add between 1,000 pounds and a ton of uranium-238 for the fissile shielding and the laser assembly, and you’re quickly looking at close to ten times the maximum takeoff weight for the largest aircraft ever built with just two engines. Even if you can travel in time and bring back the technology for all this to work, your plane could not land in any airport in existence. Just taxiing onto the runway would crush the tarmac. Landing would tear it to shreds as the plane would drive straight through solid ground. And of course, it would rain all sorts of radioactive particles over its flight path. If chemtrails weren’t just a conspiracy theory for people who don’t know what contrails are, I’d take them over a fusion-fission jet engine, and I’m pretty closely acquainted with the fallout from Chernobyl, living in Ukraine as it happened.

So the question hanging in the air is why Boeing would patent an engine that can’t work without sci-fi technology? Partly, as noted by Ars in the referenced story, it shows just how easy it is for corporate entities with lots of lawyers to get purely speculative defensive patents. Knowing how engineers who design jet engines work, I’m betting that they understand full well that this is just another fanciful take on nuclear jet propulsion which was briefly explored in the 1950s when the dream was nuclear powered everything. We’re also entertaining the idea of using small nuclear reactors for interplanetary travel which could ideally fit into an aircraft engine, though lacking all the necessary oomph for producing constant, powerful thrust. But one day, all of this, or even a few key components, could actually combine to produce safe, efficient, nuclear power at almost any scale and be adopted into a viable jet engine design for a plane that would need to refuel a few times per year at most. Boeing wants to be able to exploit such designs while protecting its technology from patent trolls, so it seems likely that it nabbed this patent just in case, as a plan for a future that might never come, but needs to be protected should it actually arrive.

[ illustration by Adam Kop ]

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pluto on flyby

After finally getting a close look at Pluto and putting many decades of speculation to rest, there are three important things to keep in mind. First is that humans have now seen every world we once considered a planet in our solar system and have taken pictures and measurements that will give us decades of research to help us figure out where we came from and provide a basic foundation for figuring out if we are really alone in our tiny little corner of the cosmos. Second is that we need to keep thinking about how to properly define what a planet is, since Pluto shows pretty much all the signs of geologic activity we expected to find, and isn’t merely a rock which simply hangs around in space, absorbing the solar wind and asteroid impacts. And third, and in many ways very exemplary of how science can drive us to do odd but beautiful things, is that a container on New Horizons was carrying the ashes of the scientist who discovered Pluto, and in a way, the man who set the chain of events ending with this mission in motion, was there when the small world he spotted so many decades ago, was finally visited for the very first time.

People tend to lament spending money on basic science, curiosity-driven research which is not going to be obviously responsible for creating new jobs or founding new companies, but simply asks what is and why it works that way. But notice how many people were fascinated to see an icy, remote world, and how impressed they were that a 3 billion mile flight was planned to within several thousand miles between spinning alien objects we couldn’t see as anything more than a few faint pixels with out most powerful telescopes. We may have chained ourselves to desks in gray offices, toiling away on reports no one wants to read under the buzz of florescent lights as we watch the clock for quitting time, but deep inside we’re still explorers and wanderers. That’s why no matter how dullards and politicians who pander to them try to bankrupt space travel and exploration, we’ll always find a way to go. The urge is always there. The challenge attracts way too many curious minds. Clyde Tombaugh found a way to visit the outer solar system. He may have not been alive for it, but still, where there was a will to explore, we found a way…

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reddit aliens

Gawker really has it out for reddit and has for years. Blithely ignoring the many millions of users who’ll browse everything from makeup tips and funny pictures of animals, to relationship advice and startup ideas, engaging in perfectly civil exchanges of stories and perspectives, every post they publish goes after a small, seedy underbelly of the enormous site and pretends that every single subreddit is full of nothing but racists, bigots, misogynists, and trolls. From the very same site which slut-shamed a punchline of a politician it didn’t like, published celebrity revenge porn, and in general behaves like the TMZ of social media, recently came a high and mighty treatise of a man whose poor soul can’t bear to enjoy a million programmers trading tips on a site which can’t shut down recurring white supremacist forums with thousands of subscribers. Right. As all of us who spent any time on the internet know, deleting stuff on the web once means it forever vanished, never to return. It’s not like the white supremacists of reddit just set up new subs and new alts every time they get banned or their subreddits get shut down. Oh wait, they do.

Really, not only does Gawker seem to be willfully unable to understand how large websites for sharing user-generated content work, which is suspicious enough, but it also used this sudden moral epiphany as a prelude to their conspiracy theory about Pao’s outster as CEO. As usual, I wouldn’t trust Nick Denton to report that two plus two still equals four without fact-checking it on my own, so my very strong recommendation would be to take this reddit bashing as simply one more hypocritical salvo at a site he uses as a punching bag and a repository of scandals when his existing well runs dry. Directing users to the very worst of an enormous set of forums just to pretend that the entire community is like that, or prime readers to go into the site looking for an evil bigoted misogynist to fight only sets them up for a terrible experience. Jezebel will tell you a swarm of MRAs trawl the site looking for any excuse to post something awful about women and yes, you’ll find a few every once in a while. What it conveniently omits is that they will quickly get voted down into oblivion, their offending comments requiring action on your part to view.

This pattern applies to homophobes, racists, and every other kind of bigot. Among hundreds of millions of voices, the statistical probability of running into some user with regressive or hateful opinions he or she is proud to voice is high enough to be a certainty. There are simply way too many people surfing the site to avoid it. However, they’re either a punchline or a subject of very vocal derision among the biggest, most trafficked, and most visible subreddits, which is why the average reddit MRA, or white supremacist, or homophobe, has to stick to small communities in which he could preach to his choir. He’ll be run out of any other one. Could reddit delete these evil subreddits then? If they’re aware of what they’re currently being called, yes. But think about it from the following perspective: why should they? They’ll just come back. Hate is like a zombie, its only urge is to perpetuate itself through assaults on the rest of us. Deleting a subreddit that’s dedicated to insulting women like r/redpill is not going to make the misogynists within suddenly have an epiphany and recant their tracts on why women should be abused and manipulated. It will just give them another annoyance in life to blame on women. Same idea with racists.

Sure, we can employ armies of moderators in the Philippines who are getting PTSD from trying to fight humanity’s darkest impulses on the web, and keep hitting the delete button. Then, we’d pat ourselves on the back for creating “safe spaces” with the mentally scarring work of a digital day labor sweatshop that will have to continue in perpetuity to keep them that way, and pretend that after sanitizing a few big sites we now live in a post-racial, gender-equal, sex-positive world where the sun is always shining and the clouds are a fluffy virgin white. This is what Europe has done with its criminal statutes against racist and bigoted speech. It still has just as many racists and bigots as ever, and its policies still encourage subtle but constant segregation between the natives and immigrants advocated by very popular right wing parties. Censoring hate speech is not doing them any favors and neither will it for reddit, or even Americans at large. When we let those with regressive, archaic, and downright repugnant viewpoints speak their minds, they will never be able to claim the mantle of free speech martyrs speaking truth to power. 

They will just self-identify as people with whom we don’t want to associate and let the hate filling their minds speak for itself. It won’t be “safe” or “respectful,” but it will let us know exactly where we stand as a society in regards to race, gender, and sexual attitudes. We can police the most egregious, threatening, and out of control hatred because we do need a mechanism to prevent hate form turning into real world violence, and either censor our way to deluding ourselves into thinking that we’ve done away with bigotry and hate, or choose to face the harsh truth. We can choose to be mad at reddit for not playing whack-a-mole with its worst members, or we can be happy that among the tens of millions of members, these tens of thousands are pariahs whose fanatical hatred is mocked, downvoted, and chased from subreddits they try to infest, limited to the very fringes where they’re constantly ostracized from the outside. And we can even use the hateful content they generate as a perfect counterpoint to the raving ex-girlfriend’s best friend’s cousin’s uncle on Facebook preaching that there’s no such thing as racism anymore with a few links showing racists he claims don’t exist celebrating behaviors he claims are no more…

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infosec

Imagine that every time you had to buy a lock to your house, you had to send a key to some far off government office which could use it to enter your house at any time. Whoever it sent would not be required to have a warrant, or may have obtained one in a secret procedure you’d have no right to challenge, or even talk about with others, and can make copies of anything you own, liable to be used against you in whatever investigations sent him there. And what if a greedy or desperate government clerk in charge of people’s keys sells them to gangs of thieves who now have access to your house, or mandated that all locks should be easy to pick for agents since a key sent in by a person could be fake or misplaced? Sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel in which a dictator tries to consolidate newly found power, doesn’t it? And when questioned, could you not see this despot justifying such overreach by claiming it was your protection and it would only be used for catching and convicting the worst sort of violent and perverted criminals?

Well, a similar situation is currently happening in the tech world as governments demand that a system designed to keep your private data secure from prying eyes comes with a backdoor for spooks and cops. The data about your comings and goings, your searches for directions, your medical data, your browsing habits, your credit card information and sensitive passwords, they want it all to be accessible at the click of a button to stop all manner of evildoers. Just listen to a passionate plea from a New York District Attorney designed to make you think that encryption is only for the criminally malevolent mastermind trying to escape well-deserved justice…

This defendant’s appreciation of the safety that the iOS 8 operating system afforded him is surely shared by […] defendants in every jurisdiction in America charged with all manner of crimes, including rape, kidnapping, robbery, promotion of child pornography, larceny, and presumably by those interested in committing acts of terrorism. Criminal defendants across the nation are the principal beneficiaries of iOS 8, and the safety of all American communities is imperiled by it.

Wow, terrorists, pedophiles, rapists, kidnappers, and more, all in one sentence. If he only found some way to work in illegal immigrants, we could have won a game of Paranoia Bingo. Notably missing from his list of principal beneficiaries of better encryption, however, are those trying to keep their banking and credit card information safe from the very defendants he’s so very keen on prosecuting. Who, by the way, vastly outnumber the defendants for whom having some sort of an encryption defeating backdoor would be a huge boon for committing more crimes. If your primary goal is to stop crime, you should not be asking for a technical solution which would very quickly become the primary means of committing more of it. Computers will not understand the difference between a spy trying to catch a terrorist sleeper cell and a carder trying to get some magnetic strip data for a shopping spree with someone else’s money. A backdoor that will work for the former, will work exactly the same way for the latter, and no amount of scaremongering, special pleading, and threats from the technically illiterate will ever change that fact.

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pop culture aliens

If you don’t remember Chandra Wickramasinghe, here’s a quick refresher. Back in the day, the scientist worked with Fred Hoyle, the brilliant astronomer whose really poorly supported notions about the origins of life inspired many a creationist, and led him and a few of his colleagues on a hunt for evidence of panspermia, the idea that life originated somewhere in deep space and as our planet was finally settling down after its turbulent infancy, it settled here and evolved into all the species we know, and numerous ones we don’t. On the face of it, it’s not an inherently bad, or even wrong idea. It has actually been around since Darwin started wondering about the very same questions, and despite being occasionally criticized, it’s still popular in astrobiology. There does appear to be plenty of interesting evidence in favor of at least some building blocks of life coming form space, especially from asteroids and comets. This is why finding complex organic structures in the carbon layer of 67P wasn’t a surprise at all. In fact it was widely expected.

Yet according to Wickramasinghe, it’s proof that comet 67P is actually teeming with life and the scientific community at large needs to step up and announce that we found aliens. Despite how generously he’s treated by The Guardian’s staff writer however, he’s not a top scientist and his claim to expertise in astrobiology comes from declaring pretty much every newsworthy event in any way related to viral and microbial life as undeniable proof of aliens. He’s done this with mad cow, polio outbreaks, SARS, AIDS, and one of his fans recently declared that Ebola could have come from outer space. His proof of all this? Pretty much none. What papers he published to at least clear up how he thought life actually got its start and how it can travel across billions upon billions of light years so easily were in a vanity journal which was basically mocked into shutting down after failing to include a single entry of real scientific merit, and are absolutely inane. Hey, personally, I’m a huge fan of the panspermia hypothesis myself, but even in my very generous approach to reviewing astrobiology papers, what Wickramasinghe produced was absurd.

But of course, as all cranks eventually do, Wickramasinghe cried conspiracy after his work was battered by other scientists, declaring that astrobiology was a discipline under assault from the conservative geocentric cabal made up of old scientists hell bent on shutting down research on possible alien life forms in the wild. This came as a surprise to the flourishing researchers who had been studying extremophiles, theoretical alien biochemistry, and discovering more proof of organic molecules and water floating in space. You see, astrobiology is doing great and keeps advancing every day. Wickramasinghe, on the other hand, is not doing well because he doesn’t actually conduct any rigorous scientific experiments while desperately aspiring to be the person who goes into the history books as the scientist who discovered alien life. His constant attempts to stay in the media spotlight with his out-of-left-field proclamations and conspiracy theories are the typical self-serving machinations of a vain elder past his prime jealous that someone else is going to do what he aspired to accomplish. Honestly, it’s a sad way to end one’s career, to just chase after those doing the real work with outlandish soundbites and wallowing in self-pity.

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black hole accretion disk

Falling into a black hole is a confusing and complicated business, rife with paradoxes and weird quantum effects to reconcile. About a month ago, we looked at black holes’ interactions with the outside world when something falls into them, and today, we’re going to look into the other side of the fall. Conventional wisdom holds that inside a black hole gravity is exponentially increasing until time, space, and energy as we know it completely break down as the singularity. Notice I’m not talking about matter at all because at such tremendous gravitational forces and with searing temperatures in the trillions of degrees, matter simply can’t exist anymore. Movies imagine that singularity as some sort of mysterious portal where anything can happen, while in reality, we’re clueless about what it looks like or even if it really exists. We don’t even know if anything makes it down to the singularity in the first place. But what we do know is that somewhere, whatever is swallowed by the black hole should persist in some weird quantum state because we don’t see any evidence for black holes violating the first law of thermodynamics. Enter the fuzzball.

Quantum fuzzballs aren’t really objects or boundary layers as we know them. Instead, they’re a tangle of quarks and gluons made up of the matter that gave rise to the black hole and what it’s been eating over its lifetime. They don’t have singularities, just loops of raw energy trapped by the immense gravitational forces exerted on them. On the one hand, thinking of a black hole as just a hyper-dense fuzzball eliminates the anomalies and paradoxes inherent in descriptions of singularities, but on the other, simply making a problem go away with equations doesn’t mean it was solved. And that’s the real problem with quantum fuzzballs. They appear as exotic math in general relativity being extended deep into a realm where its predictive powers begin to fail, so while it’s entirely possible that we identified in what direction we need to explore and what we’d expect were we to look into a black hole, it’s equally likely that the classic idea of their anatomy still holds. Unless we drop something into one of those gravitational zombies nearby, we won’t know if the current toy models of what lies inside of it are right. All we have is conjecture.

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