Archives For science

spider attack

Are you a religious fundamentalist who despises modern science as the root of all evil? Do you think vaccines will give your children autism or allow them to become pawns of a sinister global cabal bent on world domination through population control? Do you believe that cancer is cured by prayer and sacred herbs instead of clinically proven surgery and chemotherapy? Do trials of engineered viruses capable of controlling malignant tumors make you fear the coming Rapture as man plays God? Do you want to protect your children from this unholy progress and stop a future in which we might become space-faring cyborgs with indefinite lifespans? Well, do I have great news for you! Only two states in America won’t let you claim religious exemptions when it comes to decisions about the medical well-being of your children, so you could readily neglect, pray, and fear-monger all you want as long as you say you’re doing it for religious reasons, and should your child die or fall gravely ill, you might not even be prosecuted, unlike a secularist.

Noted atheist, scientist, and author, Jerry Coyne is extremely unhappy with the current situation regarding religious exemption laws. By his logic, it’s more or less an excuse to fatally neglect, or even kill children with few or no consequences and sets up a different legal standard for theists than secularists and atheists, which means that these exemptions need to be struck down. Not even someone who loves playing Devil’s advocate could really argue here. Our society is set up to give everyone equal representation under the law and while this doesn’t happen in practice, I would think that any law which allows you to get out of jail for cruelty to children because you’re very sincere in your belief that God personally told you that little Timmy or Susie didn’t need any surgery or medication, while someone who doesn’t play the same card can lose custody rights, do serious time, and even face the death penalty, is asinine to the point of being offensive.

It’s a national shame that we allow religion to be an excuse for something we seem to all agree is beyond the pale, and it needs to stop. People should be allowed to worship as they wish and are certainly entitled to voice their religious views regardless how offensive we find them since freedom of speech should also allow for freedom to offend. But one’s right to religious practice needs to stop where the health and well-being of others begins, doubly so when the others are not old enough to make their own decisions or understand the harm that may be inflicted by an authority figure they love and trust. And again, the double standard that allows one to declare a fervent religious belief to escape prosecution that’s considered fair and appropriate for equally guilty offenders who did not make such claims, turns religious freedom into religious privileges, something that American fundamentalists convinced themselves to be entitled to but should not exist under the law. People of faith are being mocked and subjected to legal bullying, we’re told, as the very same oppressed people of faith routinely get away with negligent homicide.

Even worse, the very same fundamentalists and those who grovel to them constantly bombard us with the idea that atheists and secularists, the ones who actually will face the consequences of ignorantly malicious parenting by the way, of not loving their children enough because their worldview holds that all humans are just flesh, blood, and chemistry. What they’ll conveniently leave out is that large fundamentalist families often have large broods not because they just so love children that they can’t stop, but because “it’s their duty to raise soldiers for Christ,”which means having child after child and keeping them locked away from modernity so they’ll emerge from their Quiverfull cocoon oblivious to any other worldview. No wonder they panic when they see Muslim immigrants having high birth rates. It was their strategy to crowd out the secularists by sheer numbers and now they have competition from equally zealous imams! And I suppose, when to fundamentalists, their kids are just arrows in a quiver, they can maintain their purity in the eyes of their faith and just add another arrow should one be broken by their negligence…

late night

Every summer, there’s always something in my inbox about going to college or back to it for an undergraduate degree in computer science. Lots of people want to become programmers. It’s one of the few in-demand fields that keeps growing and growing with few limits, where a starting salary allows for comfortable student loan repayments and a quick path to savings, and you’re often creating something new, which keeps things fun and exciting. Working in IT when you left college and live alone can be a very rewarding experience. Hell, if I did it all over again, I’d have gone to grad school sooner, but it’s true that I’m rather biased. When the work starts getting too stale or repetitive, there’s the luxury of just taking your skill set elsewhere after calling recruiters and telling them that you need a change of scenery, and there are so many people working on new projects that you can always get involved in building something from scratch. Of course all this comes with a catch. Computer science is notoriously hard to study and competitive. Most of the people who take first year classes will fail them and never earn a degree.

Although, some are saying nowadays, do you really even need a degree? Programming is a lot like art. If you have a degree in fine arts, have a deep grasp of history, and can debate the pros and cons of particular techniques that’s fantastic. But if you’re just really good at making art that sells with very little to no formal training, are you any less of an artist than someone with a B.A. or an M.A. with a focus on the art you’re creating? You might not know what Medieval artisans might have called your approach back in the day, or what steps you’re missing, but frankly, who gives a damn if the result is in demand and the whole thing just works? This idea underpins the efforts of tech investors who go out of their way to court teenagers into trying to create startups in the Bay Area, telling them that college is for chumps who can’t run a company, betting what seems like a lot of money to teens right out of high school that one of their projects will become the next Facebook, or Uber, or Google. It’s a pure numbers game in which those whose money is burning a hole in their pockets are looking for lower risk to achieve higher returns, and these talented teens needs a lot less startup cash than experienced adults.

This isn’t outright exploitation; the young programmers will definitely get something out of all of this, and were this an apprenticeship program, it would be a damn good one. However, the sad truth is that less than 1 out of 10 of their ideas will succeed and this success will typically involve a sale to one of the larger companies in the Bay rather than a corporate behemoth they control. In the next few years, nearly all of them will work in typical jobs or consult, and it’s there when a lack of formalism they could only really get in college is going to be felt more acutely. You could learn everything about programming and software architecture on your own, true. But a college will help you but pointing out what you don’t even know you don’t yet know but should. Getting solid guidance in how to flesh out your understanding of computing is definitely worth the tuition and the money they’ll make now can go a long way towards paying it. Understanding only basic scalability, how to keep prototypes working for real life customers, and quick deployment limits them to fairly rare IT organizations which go into and out of business at breakneck pace.

Here’s the point of all this. If you’re considering a career in computer science and see features about teenagers supposedly becoming millionaires writing apps and not bothering with college, and decide that if they can do it, you can too, don’t. These are talented kids given opportunities few will have in a very exclusive programming enclave in which they will spend many years. If a line of code looks like gibberish to you, you need college, and the majority of the jobs what will be available to you will require it as a prerequisite to even get an interview. Despite what you’re often told in tech headlines, most successful tech companies are ran by people in their 30s and 40s rather than ambitious college dropouts for whom all of Silicon Valley opened their wallets to great fanfare, and when those companies do B2B sales, you’re going to need some architects with graduate degrees and seasoned leadership with a lot of experience in their clients’ industry to create a stable business. Just like theater students dream of Hollywood, programmers often dream of the Valley. Both dreams have very similar outcomes.

seamus

When we moved to LA to pursue our non-entertainment related dreams, we decided that when you’re basically trying to live out your fantasies, you might as well try to fulfill all of them. So we soon found ourselves at a shelter, looking at a relatively small, grumpy wookie who wasn’t quite sure what to make of us. Over the next several days we got used to each other and he showed us that underneath the gruff exterior was a fun-loving pup who just wanted some affection and attention, along with belly rubs. Lots and lots of belly rubs. We gave him a scrub down, a trim at the groomers’, changed his name to Seamus because frankly, he looked like one, and took him home. Almost a year later, he’s very much a part of our family, and one of our absolute favorite things about him is how smart and affectionate he turned out to be. We don’t know what kind of a mix he is, but his parents must have been very intelligent breeds, and while I’m sure there are dogs smarter than him out there, he’s definitely no slouch when it comes to brainpower.

And living with a sapient non-human made me think quite a bit about artificial intelligence. Why would we consider something or someone intelligent? Well, because Seamus is clever, he has an actual personality instead of just reflexive reactions to food, water, and possibilities to mate, which sadly, is not an option for him anymore thanks to a little snip snip at the shelter. If I throw treats his way to lure him somewhere he doesn’t want to go and he’s seen this trick before, his reaction is just to look at me and take a step back. Not every treat will do either. If it’s not chewy and gamey, he wants nothing to do with it. He’s very careful with whom he’s friendly, and after a past as a stray, he’s always ready to show other dogs how tough he can be when they stare too long or won’t leave him alone. Finally, from the scientific standpoint, he can pass the mirror test and when he gets bored, he plays with his toys and raises a ruckus so we play with him too. By most measures, we would call him an intelligent entity and definitely treat him like one.

When people talk about biological intelligence being different from the artificial kind, they usually refer to something they can’t quite put their fingers on, which immediately gives Singularitarians room to dismiss their objections as “vitalism” and unnecessary to address. But that’s not right at all because that thing on which non-Singularitarians often can’t put their finger is personality, an intricate, messy process in response to the environment that involves more than meeting needs or following a routine. Seamus might want a treat, but he wants this kind of treat and he knows he will needs to shake or sit to be allowed to have it, and if he doesn’t get it, he will voice both his dismay and frustration, reactions to something he sees as unfair in the environment around him which he now wants to correct. And not all of his reactions are food related. He’s excited to see us after we’ve left him along for a little while and he misses us when we’re gone. My laptop, on the other hand, couldn’t give less of a damn whether I’m home or not.

No problem, say Singularitarians, we’ll just give computers goals and motivations so they could come up with a personality and certain preferences! Hell, we can give them reactions you could confuse for emotions too! After all, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, who cares if it’s a biological duck or a cybernetic one if you can’t tell the difference? And it’s true, you could just build a robotic copy of Seamus, including mimicking his personality, and say that you’ve built an artificial intelligence as smart as a clever dog. But why? What’s the point? How is this utilizing a piece of technology meant for complex calculations and logical flows for its purpose? Why go to all this trouble to recreate something we already have for machines that don’t need it? There’s nothing divinely special in biological intelligence, but to dismiss it as just another form of doing a set of computations you can just mimic with some code is reductionist to the point of absurdity, an exercise in behavioral mimicry for the sake of achieving… what exactly?

So many people all over the news seem so wrapped up in imagining AIs that have a humanoid personality and act the way we would, warning us about the need to align their morals, ethics, and value systems with ours, but how many of them ask why we would want to even try to build them? When we have problems that could be efficiently solved by computers, let’s program the right solutions or teach them the parameters of the problem so they can solve it in a way which yields valuable insights for us. But what problem do we solve trying to create something able to pass for human for a little while and then having to raise it so it won’t get mad at us and decide to nuke us into a real world version of Mad Max? Personally, I’m not the least bit worried about the AI boogeymen from the sci-fi world becoming real. I’m more worried about a curiosity which gets built for no other reason that to show it can be done being programmed to get offended or even violent because that’s how we can get, and turning a cold, logical machine into a wreck of unpredictable pseudo-emotions that could end up with its creators being maimed or killed.

atom

Dear Standard Model, we need to talk. Now, now, don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not that you are not doing your job well, in fact the exact opposite is what we want to address. It may sound odd that a number of scientists are getting frustrated when they can’t seem to break you, but look at the situation from their angle. For physics to take a huge leap forward, it needs to outgrow you, much like general relativity was the next iteration of Newtonian physics, and like neo-Darwinian synthesis combined genetics and natural selection for evolutionary research to advance in new and meaningful directions. But before we can start working on your eventual replacement, we’ll need to discover your shortfalls, something outside of your predictive power. And right now, the sad truth is that we can’t. We’re desperately stuck and are looking for a way out.

The last attempt even used particles with exotic quark alignments, neutral B mesons, to trigger the decay of the heavy top quark into a muon/anti-muon pair, or a matter/anti-matter pair with an electron’s husky cousins. The idea was to smash them and show enough such pairs forming out of the debris to exceed your limit on them. Sadly, that refused to happen. Not only were the decays in ranges described by you, but so much within them that we can’t even hint at possibly breaking you with another attempt. All hopes are on the huge power boost to the Large Hadron Collider to maybe, just maybe, create a decay path or a particle debris cloud you can’t explain, giving scientists a peek at what lies beyond the world in your framework, and possible solutions to the paradoxes and mysteries that still exist. Although you’re supremely helpful and were one of the biggest scientific triumphs of the last century, now you’re actually holding us back.

Again, this isn’t a grudge. We like you and we’ll still have work for you. But science can’t simply coast on what it has already accomplished, it must find answers to questions that still loom long after a discovery is made, or better yet, introduced by a discovery. Regardless of what all those misguided postmodernist sophists preach, science thrives on disproving itself and finding out an axiom is actually wrong or woefully incomplete. Overthrowing and improving existing theories or introducing brand new ones is how we advance and what wins Nobel Prizes. And we won’t hold ourselves down just because you won’t break today or even tomorrow. There will be a day we will pass your limitations as the media across the world will declare that the hunt for your future iteration is now on. Because you see, we know there has to be something more laying beneath you, we know there has to so we can explain the anomalies with which bleeding edge work has to be peppered. And we will break you to find it. Nothing personal. It’s just science.

black hole eating planet

Black holes are, needless to say, strange places, and over the years, I’ve written much about all the bizarre paradoxes and extreme questions they pose. All this weirdness is what makes them fun to study because solving some of these paradoxes and questions ultimately gets us closer and closer to figuring out how time and space works. Consider the science this way. When you build an airplane wing, you want to flex it as hard as you can until it snaps because that will tell you the limits of the materials you used and the soundness of your design. Much the same way as destructive testing helps engineers hone their craft, so does studying a place where physics seems, well, broken, helps scientists test the outer limits of their discipline. Of course when you have the broken fabric of space-time to piece together, some problems will be much harder to solve than others and one of the most persistent ones is whether black holes have firewalls.

What exactly is a black hole firewall? We don’t really know because it’s not supposed to be one of the defining features of its anatomy. Instead, it’s what happens when spontaneous quantum particles litter the cosmos in the wrong place. These particles constantly blink into existence as particle and anti-particle pairs which instantly annihilate each other, and where this won’t pose any problem anywhere else in the cosmos, when they appear too close to an event horizon of a black hole, one particle will get drawn in while the other is repelled into space, with a small flash of energy from the maw of the black hole which it must give up to keep with the laws of physics. It’s a fraction of a fraction of a nanowatt, but over the eons a black hole will exist, this adds up and the black hole would eventually be unable to hold itself together and explode. At least this is the theory behind what we call Hawking radiation, which will balance out the escaping particle’s energy and returns the swallowed matter back to the universe. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem lays in a technicality that’s actually quite a big deal because it breaks a very fundamental principle of how quantum systems work. Entangled quantum particles are said to have a monogamy of entanglement, meaning that once you entangle one particle in a system, you can’t entangle it with another. To paraphrase a great explanation the source of which I just can’t recall, imagine quantum entanglement as rolling some dice and no matter what numbers come up for each individual dice, the sum of those numbers is the same with every roll. This is important because it lets us know that if we entangle a pair of dice and get 12 in our first throw, when we throw them again and one comes up as a 7, we understand that the other is 5 without even looking at it. Understanding how this works allows us to do some amazing experiments on the very nature of causality itself. But to make this balance out, we would have to know for sure that our 5 isn’t also being used to change the sum of another roll, elsewhere.

And this is exactly what a black hole’s event horizon allows. When one of our virtual particles is swallowed and the black hole gives off the teeny Hawking emission, the remaining particle and the emission are entangled. But the infalling anti-particle is still there, and the outgoing one is still entangled with it. Two independent quantum systems have created a mass-energy surplus, which is a very blatant violation of the laws of thermodynamics, and most solutions to this weird state of affairs involve even further violations of the laws of physics. Enter the firewall. Not really an ongoing phenomenon just beyond the event horizon, it’s instead a line crossing which would permanently sever the entanglement between the outgoing and infalling particles, leaving just a Hawking emission and the outgoing particle as a quantum system. This would release massive amounts of energy proportional to the event, and trap the particle in the black hole forever. It’s not a tidy solution, but it sort of works if you try not to think about it too hard.

Of course thinking too hard about things is what scientists do and they quickly pointed out that breaking quantum entanglement on a whim just doesn’t work, no matter how much energy you release to compensate for the inequality in the resulting equations. And that means, the firewall isn’t really the answer to what happens to the energy and information when black holes devour something. A new solution proposes that black holes actually spawn wormholes when they eat entangled particles. Those aren’t the conventional kind of wormholes we think of, they couldn’t be used to cross space and time on a whim, but they’re essentially a connection which keeps both the escaping and the infalling particle entangled. Recall our dice-based quantum system, and imagine that you roll a dice in NYC while someone else in Hong Kong rolls the other. Both will still amount to 12, and if your dice shows a 6, the one in Hong Kong will as well. But should you be unable to see what you rolled, you can count on a call telling you what the other dice is showing at the moment. That phone call? That’s more or less the wormhole in question.

Yes, this does basically jettison Hawking radiation and leads to its own weird conclusions about the fabric of the universe being composed of a constantly entangled quantum mesh, but that’s how science works. Slowly and carefully, we chip away at complex problems and flesh out all of the toy models until we can simulate real systems, and try and observe them and their behavior out in the wild. What happens to matter that falls into a black hole and if it’s still connected to a quantum system on the outside is still a wide open question. But the fact that it’s just so difficult to even try to answer what seems like a simple question at first glance, shows just how bizarre, complex, and self-contradictory the universe can be. Far from a steady, ordered system, it’s an incredibly wild mess that seems to barely be governed by its own rules should we look just a bit too close, and nowhere is this more evident than with black holes. They’re places where all we know about time and space is broken. But they’re also the places that could teach us the most about these laws, especially because that’s where they’re being tested at their extremes…

woman vector

With the media fascinated by Bruce Jenner’s transition from male to female and Laverne Cox’s photo shoot for Allure intended to inspire others struggling with gender identity issues, there’s a rare discussion of what it means to be transgendered. More importantly, if someone decides to transition to another gender, what can science do to make this person feel comfortable in what would basically be a new body after all the hormone therapy and surgeries? And what can the kind of technology still in infancy, but barreling towards clinical testing, offer in the foreseeable future? Could modified viruses for gene therapy turn males into females and vice versa? Could printing new organs produce an entire new reproductive system? In short, would gene therapy and printed organs and tissues make the transition more complete?

Despite offering us a way of manipulating the fundamental building blocks of life, they would be dealing with an entire body which developed not just from reading the genome and translating the codons into proteins, but from environmental cues, triggers, and anomalies. Even using the same homebox genes to define our body plans doesn’t quite get you a full instruction set for a human body so changing these genes after the body is formed is unlikely to have much effect. Such genes are like Lego blocks you get to arrange once. Each gets you a finger, a toe, a foot, or a leg, etc. During development you could use chemical signals to tweak them and assemble them how you want. But after they’re finally locked into place, things are more of less done and the formed structures would need to be modified mechanically, i.e. surgically.

We don’t yet know if it’s possible to change a Y chromosome to an X, only that it’s possible for our modified viral agents to silence or promote gene expression. And even if we could, there’s not going to be a mechanism for a penis to suddenly become a vagina or the other way around because, again, these structures are now in place. Surgery would still be the only way to make this step of the transition until we can figure out some sort of nanotechnology to do this, though we could argue that this will also be a form of surgery, just a much less outwardly invasive one than scalpels and saws. And by now it should really go without saying that we couldn’t naturally induce a different reproductive system to grow. But what if we print one, or grow one, using the patient’s modified stem cells, then implant it? Would this work?

From an engineering standpoint, it seems like it would, and after extensive hormonal therapy, they might work as they should, and allow something as radical as a trans-man to impregnate his partner or a trans-woman to become pregnant or give birth. However, there’s a catch. We know how to make the organs but have no guarantee that such complex organs could grow in the lab and function without a hitch. Creating viable germ cells and supporting a gestation don’t seem so complicated to us at first blush because it seem so natural as to be troublesome and leads us to trying to figure out how to stop both until we want them to happen. But consider the fact that if we knew what’s necessary to support a pregnancy, we could create artificial uteri to allow premature babies to develop fully rather than place them in incubators to support them in development and hope for the best. A uterus grown in a lab would seem like a good shortcut at first blush, what ethics board would permit the necessary experiments for clinical studies?

So what’s the takeaway here? For those struggling with gender identity and wanting to make a transition to another sex, there’s a lot of promise in new medical technologies being developed today and on paper, it looks like a complete biological transition could be in the cards. But this technology is not quite there yet and there are so many questions to answer that it will be more than a decade at the very least before we can even think about using them in clinical practice. I would say though, that helping and studying transgender issues raises so many interesting and widely relevant questions, it would be a disservice to the future of medicine not to explore them because answering them will help us understand that does being male or female mean, as well as offer treatments to many reproductive conditions and anomalies, like infertility, ED, or even replace reproductive systems destroyed by cancerous tumors with a brand new one. In other words, transgender people could be a reproductive researcher’s Rosetta Stone…

futurama heads in jars

Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero has been planning to do something that sounds like a scene straight out of Frankenstein: transplanting a head onto a new body. He’s been trying to figure out how to do it for many years, publishing a paper detailing how he sees the procedure could work a bit over a year ago, and making his case to the medical community since then. As of a few days ago, however, his work has exploded into the mainstream because there is a public volunteer for this radical surgery, Valery Spiridonov, a Russian programmer suffering from a rare genetic condition which rendered him unable to walk and take care of himself. As he sees his options, a head transplant is the only chance he has to ever live a normal life, and there’s someone who says he will be ready to perform the procedure in two years. However, despite Canavero’s enthusiasm, much of the science he presents as settled is still not ready for prime time, and the procedure is more likely to kill the patient than give him a new body.

Basically, as the history of head transplant experiments shows, connecting a head to a brand new body is the easy part. Giving it control of this new body and avoiding rejection is the real struggle, and this is where Canavero and the majority of the medical community aren’t seeing eye to eye. Most surgeons have little doubt that Spiridonov would survive the surgery, it’s the subsequent inability to join the spinal cords and the tissue rejection that worries them. They’re not really concerned as to whether he would be able to walk or have a normal life afterwards, believing these questions to be irrelevant since they’re not sure he’ll survive more than a few days after the procedure. In fact, they’re betting that the whole idea will be dropped since the odds of Canavero actually being ready to do a head transplant in 2017 are virtually nil. And if we’d look at the broader medical context, this might never be a viable procedure anyway.

Here’s the problem. Patients already wait for years to get organ transplants. Can you imagine how long someone would have to wait for an entire donor body suitable for the operation? On top of being intact, it also has to be that of an otherwise healthy person compatible enough to reduce the risk of rejection, otherwise whatever organ failure, trauma, or illness that ended the donor’s life would kill the patient as well. We would have to be able to quickly and easily get the body into a healthy state, limiting potential donors to solely head trauma or stroke victims who are otherwise young and healthy. But as they get the body ready to receive a new head, there will be a different calculus to consider. Yes, they can give this body to a patient for a very risky experimental procedure unlikely to end well, or they could use the body for parts to give new organs and tissues to dozens of people, doing far less risky surgeries with high success rates and adding many quality years to those patients’ lives. Its a sad but clear choice.

Still, there is a reason why head transplants even came up as an idea. Some people basically need a new, well, body because nothing short of that would help them. Sadly, there is nothing medical science can do today for Spiridonov. We’re making strides towards 3D printed organs and implantable devices that can bypass damaged sections of spinal cords to allow paralyzed patients to walk again under their own power, as well as honing genetic engineering to treat a host of powerful cancers and some genetic diseases. But while there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for patients who could benefit from these advancements, they’re still several decades away from being new standards of care and will require countless trials and hundreds of billions of dollars from government grants and private companies to be readily available. It’s awful to say this, but for patients like Spiridonov, these potential cures will come too late and a lot of patients like him will succumb to their ailments before medical science can help.

Canavero is trying to help people and Spiridonov is trying to aid him in pioneering a hope for a normal life for those to whom nature didn’t give a fighting chance. Unfortunately, we’re still just now making a few baby steps towards the technologies they would need to be successful, and it’s our sad duty as scientific skeptics to point out that while all death is awful, some ways to die are far, far worse than others, and it would be more humane not to try head transplants. In the future, when we can rebuild bodies with advanced robotics, harmless viruses that can purge a genome of life-threatening defects, and 3D printed tissues, it may be possible for many would-be volunteers for a head transplant to end up living healthy, happy lives. But today, we are just too far away from making this a reality, and while volunteering to advance medicine should be praised, there are some cases where allowing an experiment to go forward, even when all the participants involved know the risks, would still be cruel. And that’s the bad thing about the real world. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you still won’t get a happy ending…

meat plate

Allow me to declare something that will quickly make the blood of many modern, trendy vegans run cold. Meat is very, very delicious and humans have an innate hunger for it. There’s a good reason why meat prices and consumption are surging upwards across world. When people in developing nations make more money, they don’t rush out to buy more rice or vegetables, but instead, substitute them with meat and seafood. Yes, it’s possible to live and long and healthy life as a vegan if you know what you’re doing and find the right balance of proteins and various supplements to make up for the loss of iron and beneficial fats in meat, but most people will be craving a burger or a steak at some point because humans are omnivorous, and the only way that our bodies know to make up for some vitamin or nutrient deficiency is to hit us with a very strong desire to eat something full of those vitamins and nutrients.

However, there’s really no denying that meat is very environmentally and medically expensive over the long run. As much as I enjoy biting into seared flesh after a long day of work, and as much as I’d love for it not not be true, livestock and fish farming are turning into disasters. We use too many antibiotics which greatly contribute to a rise in antibiotic resistance, coupled with our constant overuse of them in medicine — which is actually a whole other problem — and the amount of water wasted and runoff generated by animal farms is troublesome at best and way out of control at worst. And this is why some entrepreneurs with serious funding behind them have been trying to create meat alternatives in a lab to significantly curtail the impact of cattle farming and help the environment by either making meat a thing of the past, or turning to high tech tools that redefine meat as we know it.

It’s a noble goal to be sure, but as a savvy food critic who was recently sent to investigate their efforts notes, all we have so far is paste that sort of looks and tastes like meat if you empty the contents of your spice rack into the pan when cooking it, and a piece of bio-engineering which wouldn’t look out of place in Star Trek, but with which would set you back $332,000 for just one burger, enough to buy the entire population of Greenland a light breakfast. In other words, we don’t have much to show for it and what we do actually have, will pale in comparison to a steak from a real animal cooked by a professional. And as he opined after dining in an LA eatery on slices of cow, a meal I’m positive was expensed as “research,” the best he can see happening over the next decade is synthetics replacing low grade, mass produced meat…

With work on flavor and moisture, Anderson and Geistlinger will be able to get beyond the cooked-dog-food appearance of the Beast. They might even perfect the Salisbury steak, that staple of school cafeterias, [something] Anderson says he can imagine achieving in his lifetime (he doesn’t mention the school-cafeteria part), or the skinless chicken breast that both men think might not be far down the road.

Now, as some of his critics note in the comments, he’s a food critic worried about the palette of those who’ll be eating these meat substitutes so we can take his prognostication with a grain of salt and safely assume that people would opt for a veggie burger that’s indistinguishable from a real burger and has a quarter of the calories and saturated fat. Fast food chains serving patty after patty of something nutritious and meat-like with significant success would have profound positive implication for the nation’s health and waistline. How much farmland could be returned to nature? How many antibiotics put back on the shelves? Farmers raising livestock would find themselves in need of new cash cows, but we’re not talking about this happening overnight so there are chance to adjust to growing the synthetics’ nutritious components.

But these visions of a less meaty utopia assumes that people will really want to put all this not- meat in their mouths, an assumption that should absolutely not be treated as a given. People loathe the idea of eating filler, or something that’s substituting for what they really wanted, and they sure as hell won’t be thrilled putting something called “engineered muscle tissue” on their dinner plates just based on knowing its origin. They may be curious, but their diet won’t change at the drop of a hat. And on top of this, can you imagine the reaction from the dedicated “anti-chemical” foodies out there? I would try and imagine the Food Babe’s take on this technology, but lacking the desire to smash my head into a brick wall enough times to forget middle school chemistry, basic logic, and human decency, I leave that as an exercise to the reader.

Still, despite all that being said, there is a way to make synthetic meat popular and there will be uses for it if we get a little creative. Considering that we still do want to explore space, it would be far more cost effective to grow meat tissue in space, rather than sending it dehydrated at a cost of over $10,000 per pound on a $80 million rocket. Streamlining the current technology to lower costs and increase amount of grown muscle tissue would the the first priority, after which extensive testing on the ISS could tinker with making the results reliable, nutritious, and healthy for humans. Getting the taste right might be tricky since in micro-gravity, everything would be a lot blander than it actually is due to the redistribution of fluids in your body, but since we’re very close to the required meaty taste from bio-engineered muscle tissue already, it shouldn’t be an insurmountable leap. From there, we can bring this manufactured meat back down to Earth for sale with a far more exciting origin story than a sterile private lab. So what do you say, wouldn’t you want to try an astronaut burger? You know, just out of curiosity…

radio telescope

Well, as you were warned, Weird Things is back in action, coming to you from Los Angeles with the latest in high tech, astrobiology, strange, bleeding edge science, and skepticism, and I can’t think of a better way to return than with tackling an alien contact story that spread across much of the web like wildfire, appearing in everything from IBI, university blogs, Forbes, and featured by the usual suspects like New Scientist. According to this story, fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are not actually the bizarre, millisecond-length death cries of distant exotic neutron stars collapsing into black holes, as one of the front-running hypotheses states, but may be aliens trying to ping our radio telescopes to see if we’re out there and listening. Think of them as a Wow! Signal on repeat, something not giving us much to work with, but ultimately fascinating by the possibilities they offer, in one of which, SETI’s Seth Shostack sees the work of his alien colleagues…

These fast radio bursts could conceivably be ‘wake up calls’ from other societies, trying to prompt a response from any intelligent life that’s outfitted with radio technology.

But what exactly makes these FRBs so special that someone would even consider them as the work of an intelligent mind? It all comes down to a number called a dispersion measure in radio astronomy, the density of free electrons affected by the signal on its way to our receivers. This might not tell you exactly how far away a radio source is, you’ll have to do some work to adjust your measurements for what’s known to exist in the direction from which you’re getting a signal to do that, but it does tell you something about the distance and power of the object. And when one cluster of FRBs was recently observed in real time, this measurement consistently came in as some multiple of 187.5 which, according to the experts, has a 1 in 2,000 chance of occurring naturally. This is not a wandering, random signal we happened to pick up. There is a very clear and distinct pattern.

Of course all this doesn’t mean that we have a slam dunk case of alien contact because we’ve already gotten some very steady, regular pulses the distance and location of which we did pin down to fixed points in space, unlike FRBs. We also wondered if these were otherworldly minds trying to see if there was anyone out there because the pings were so regular, predictable, and clear, also unlike these FRBs. Now, when we get such regular signals, we know it’s a neutron star with a powerful magnetic field pointing at us, not a distant alien civilization saying hello. A pattern in a signal doesn’t necessarily mean intelligence, even if the pattern is odd. All that was determined so far is that some pattern exists with significant certainty. What’s actually causing this signal is still a mystery, and the best we can do for now to identify a culprit is to say that the FRBs are most likely coming from our own galaxy. So how did we go from basic signal analysis to a deluge of announcements about the possibility of first contact with extraterrestrials?

You see, when the researchers were speculating about what causes FRBs, they spent the vast majority of their time talking about the relationship between the bursts, the pattern they found in the distribution measure, and the Earth’s integer second, a number used for syncing devices to keep very precise track of time. In fact, the explanation they consider most likely involves some sort of a ping between cell towers bouncing around high in the atmosphere, confusing delicate equipment, and the scatter plot of distribution measures show that the signal coming from deep space would either be on the move, or going through a very irregular cloud of gas and dust. So just for the sake of completeness, they add the the following thought…

A more likely option could be a galactic source producing quantized chirped signals, but this seems most surprising. If both of these options could be excluded, only an artificial source (human or non-human) must be considered, particularly since most bursts have been observed in only one location (Parkes radio telescope). A re-assessment of man-made phenomena, such as perytons, would then be required.

They then go on to say that the strong relationship between the detected FRBs and a common timekeeping standard we use in precision equipment pretty much “clinches” the case for a very straightforward explanation that we’re detecting our own electronic noise. So out of a four page paper talking about how likely it is the FRBs are noise form our devices trying to stay in sync to provide us with reliable communication channels, a single speculative mention of “non-human” sources from space which is dismissed in light of the collected evidence turned a summation of some purely technical analysis of radio noise into “we’re being called by aliens!” splattered on a thousand news sites and pop sci blogs. Did no one read the paper? Looking at some dates, it’s possible to find to at least one of the big culprits of this very inventive take on this research.

Bet you won’t act too shocked when I point the finger to the Daily Mail since they’ve done the same sort of thing before, claiming that an astronomer detected signals he didn’t detect from a planet which never actually observed, and it appears they did it again, to be copied by as many other sources as possible to get the traffic. Considering that their journalistic standards are not so much lax as they are completely non-existent, they’re not going to be above warping what a scientific paper says to manufacture news where there really aren’t any. They’re technically not lying as such; the researchers did say that we could consider a non-human artificial sources of the signals they detected. It’s just that the Mail and those rushing to run with the same story in editorial haste just so happened to omit that the researchers followed this thought up with “but seriously, no, don’t, it’s pretty much certainly our own noise” to draw in a few million clicks…

skylon

This might seem a little odd, but think about it. Single stage to orbit, or SSTO, space flight is the holy grail of aerospace design right now. If you can fly a plane into space, you can easily reduce launch costs by a factor of ten and still build a profitable business. Not only would you make it a lot more tempting for companies and universities to exploit space, but you can also offer shorter commutes between far flung, attractive destinations, and take space tourism to the next level. A big problem with SSTO however, is that it’s been tried before with few positive results because physics tend to get in the way of a smooth ascent to orbit. If you need to drag tons of oxidizer to incredibly high altitudes, you may as well just use a rocket. If you try to gulp down the incoming air, you’ll be dealing with blistering heat that will be monstrously difficult to compress and use to provide thrust. But the brainchild of engineer Alan Bond, Reaction Engines, has recently shown that it has a solution to a viable hybrid engine for the SSTO craft it wants to build.

By cooling the super-heated air coming into the intakes at the speed of sound with liquid helium, the SABRE engine can ignite a rocket motor while traveling at supersonic speed. Now mind you, this was only a test and we’re still a few years away from an engine ready to go to market, but a technical audit by the ESA found no flaws with the design. So while Reaction Engines may seem like it’s pitching something out of a science fiction movie, its technical chops seem to be in order and it’s not hiding behind invocations of or trade secrets when faced with tough questions. This is why they’ve gotten several grants from the ESA to keep working on SABRE. However, the final tally for the Skylon spaceplane fleet is estimated at $14 billion, several orders of magnitude more than government grants being offered and out of reach for the vast majority of private investors. So far, the plan seems to be to solicit another $4 million or so in funding to finish SABRE to then license the engine to other manufacturers and use the proceeds to start building Skylons. It’s certainly an interesting idea, but who exactly would want to license an SSTO engine?

How about SpaceX? Right now, to advance its strategy of licensing SABRE, the company has a derivative design called the Scimitar and bills it as already being 50% funded by the EU to bring intercontinental travel at Mach 5 to the world at large. Now, this would certainly help big airlines make more profits by flying trans-oceanic routes more often in theory, but in practice, the really, really burdensome regulations against supersonic travel thanks to the kind of NIMBYism which played a major role in preventing the supersonic travel revolution predicted by many futirists, as well as the lead time to finish, test, and prove these planes in operation, Reaction Engines may as well forget about Skylon for the next several decades. If it wants to raise money and interest for a spaceplane, it should focus on creating a spaceplane and selling the Scimitar to militaries as the child of the successful SABRE. Yes, SpaceX is working on its Dragon capsule for sending humans to the ISS, and it has rockets capable of getting there, but if it can offer rocket launches to deliver larger spacecraft into orbit, ready for a Skylon to deliver the crew, it can build a major competitive advantage. An extra 20 or 30 tons of cargo capacity can help enable a less spartan mission beyond Earth orbit, and Dragon could be an emergency habitat in deep space.

We should no longer have just one launch stack for sending humans into space, but instead, we need to mix and match our technology for optimal results. Doing heavy lifting with rockets while the orbit is given to SSTO craft and inflatable space stations for staging, assembly, research, or all of the above, is probably our best way to steadily expand upward into space. So maybe Elon Musk should consider working with Reaction Engines in the near future. The investment wouldn’t be small and returns on it won’t be quick, but they’ll not only be an investment in furthering how far SpaceX can go and what it can do for its clients, but also an investment in the infrastructure of the dawning space tourism and exploration industry. And judging from many proposals for the future of NASA and space travel in general, he’s rather likely to find deep-pocketed and willing partners to make it all work. After all, sticking to space capsules and heavy lift rockets for almost everything would be a huge technological step back to doing what we know rather than using all our past skills to build something for the future. Why should we circle back now, especially when there’s promising technology to make it happen just waiting for people with a big vision and the resources to make it come together, especially at a profit when all is said and done?