Archives For science

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?

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mystery astronaut

As long time readers know, I’m a sucker for a good counter-intuitive think piece and pretty much every professional blogger knows that to start a big debate and draw a crowd, you need a view way out of left field once in a while to mix things up. But the really big catch for posts like these, especially in science and tech, is that they need to be based on sound criticism and have logical consistency and flow. This is why Morozov’s rebellion against TED was spot on while the attempt at a shot across the bow of human spaceflight programs by Srikanth Saripalli in Future Tense is basically a train wreck of an argument. Unlike Morozov, Saripalli isn’t willing or able to explore or engage with the issues he brings up, and his grasp of some very basic technological concepts comes off as shoddy at best. He even veers off into Singularity territory to argue for that future robotic probes will be smarter and uses transhumanism as an excuse to ground astronauts. The whole thing was so badly written that I was dead sure Saripalli must have been a journalist with exactly zero STEM credentials, but shockingly, he’s actually a robotics researcher at ASU.

Maybe he’s a terrific robotics person, but it certainly doesn’t get conveyed in his piece because much of it is spent on rehashing the very same claims from Kurzweil and his disciples that I have debated time and time again on this blog. From promises of digital immortality to artificial minds that can out-think all of humanity, Saripalli parrots it all with zero caveats or skepticism and then barrels right ahead to transhumanist effots in life extension to declare the future of our bodies to be very much uncertain, and thus reason enough to replace astronauts with robots. Then, after seemingly providing for cyborg space exploration he never returns to the topic again, wandering off to the current buzzword in bleeding edge robotics, evolving robot networks. Yes, they’re very awesome and their potential is mind-blowing. But put light years between them and you’re going to have to radically rethink how they could be deployed and used. Though you know what, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s come back to his sneaky misuse of transhumanism…

Given that the future of our bodies is uncertain, it makes more sense to send robots with intelligence to other planets and galaxies. Nature has built us a certain way—we are best-suited for our planet "Earth." Future space explorers will quickly realize that the human body is not the perfect machine for these environments. We will also want to explore other planets such as Venus and maybe even think about living on those planets. Rather than make those planets habitable, does it not make sense to purposefully evolve ourselves such that we are habitable in those worlds?

You know, this attitude is surprisingly common in Singularitarian and transhumanist circles, and there’s a widespread disdain for human spaceflight as simulations and beaming one’s mind in a laser beam across the universe in a hypothetical future are praised as the solutions to the issue of our biology’s limitations in space. The problem is that beaming yourself around the cosmos is not only biologically implausible, but the physics and orbital mechanics don’t work out either. So while it’s true that we actually should send cyborgs into space, something for which I argued in a few articles on Discovery News, we’re not going to send human minds to ready made bodies, or disembodied brains ala Project Kronos to wander through space. Even less desirable is trying to evolve to live on an alien world as if evolution can be directed on cue and we aren’t better off as the generalists we currently are. We want to upgrade our bodies to survive alien environments, but we don’t want to do it just so we get stuck on another planet all over again, which is what the question seems to propose. Ignoring this line of debate, Saripalli then lunges into robotics.

Several articles in popular press have argued that humans on the moon have produced far more scientific data than the robots on Mars. While this is true, the robots that have been used till now are not at all "autonomous" or "intelligent" in any sense. […] Indeed, we are very far from having autonomous robots on planetary missions, but such machines are being built in university labs every day. Robot Magellans (with scientific skills to boot) could be here long before colonists take off for Mars.

There are two problems with this train of thought. Powerful, intelligent robots are extremely hard to build when you’re going to send them to other planets because physics is the universe’s Buzz Killington when it comes to boldly going into the final frontier. It comes down primarily to weight and power placing some very harsh limitations on how smart our machines can be. I can think of ways to make them much smarter, hypothetically speaking, but all of them involve humans and a lunar or orbital base with giant clean rooms and heavily shielded supercomputers. And while I’m not a gambling man beyond playing with a few bucks in Vegas between shows or attractions, I’d be willing to bet that even the smarter machines we’ll build in the next half century will not totally eliminate the need for human guidance, strategy, and corrections. Our robots will be our trusted help and we’ll use them to do jobs we can’t, but they’ll in no way replace astronauts, just make a very tough job easier and allow us to cram even more science into a mission. But Saripalli plays dirty when it comes to astronauts, summoning politics to rid the space program of humans…

Contrary to popular belief, there never has been a groundswell of popular support from the general public for the space program. Even during the Apollo era, more people were against the space program than for it. Getting robots into space costs a lot less than humans and is safer —so we can keep the space program going without creating budgetary battles.

Yes, it’s true that despite today’s near sacred status of the Apollo missions, people just wanted the government to beat those commie bastards and go home at the time you could turn on your TV and see humans walking on another world. This is what killed the lunar program and future plans for the launch stack, and arguably, what ails NASA to this day. However, you can’t argue that space probes don’t face the scorn of politicians when budgets are being decided since they pretty much loathe all science spending as wasteful, and despite singing praises to science and technology, much of the public doesn’t understand the people who do science or engineering in any way, shape, or form, and really don’t care to. Take quick a look at all the snide dismissals of Curiosity as a colossal waste of $2.5 billion and tell me with a straight face that you’re not going to get budgetary battles by sending robots instead of humans. Of course none of this can get in the way of Saripalli’s rosy view of a galaxy buzzing with our networked robotics along with a huge flop that makes me wonder if he actually understands distributed computing.

While NASA is interested in sending big missions with large robots to accomplish tasks, I believe future robots will be smaller, “distributed,” and much cheaper. To understand this, let us look at the current computing environment: We have moved from supercomputers to using distributed computing; from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud; from using laptops to tablets and our smartphones.

All right, let’s stop right there for a minute. We did not go from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud. We went from large monolithic data warehouses to even larger data warehouses that are basically a modern riff on mainframes. As explained before, the cloud isn’t magic, it’s just a huge set of hard drives in enormous buildings housing the modern equivalents of what mainframes were originally developed to do at a much higher level of complexity. To say that the cloud is different from a data warehouse is like saying that we moved from penicillin to antibiotics. Maybe he means something completely different than what came out, but since this isn’t a piece from a professional blogger trying to submit five articles a day, he probably wrote it, proofread it, and reviewed it multiple times before submitting it, and had plenty of chances to fix this sort of major error. Unfortunately, the continuation of his thought uses this factually incorrect assertion as the linchpin for his vision of robotic space exploration, which just makes it worse.

The future of space exploration is going to be the same—we will transition from large, heavy robots and satellites to “nanosats” and small, networked robots. We will use hundreds or thousands of cheap, small "sensor networks" that can be deployed on planetary bodies. These will form a self-organizing network that can quickly explore areas of interest and also organize themselves into larger machines that can mine metals or develop new vehicles for future exploration.

Let’s get something straight here, people at NASA are pretty damn smart. They prefer fairly big missions because they’re easier to power, easier to coordinate than many small ones, and can do more science when they reach their destinations. Thousands of tiny bots means very limited power supplies to instruments and many expensive pings between them. Factor in the distances involved in space travel and you’ll spend most of your time waiting to hear back from other bots, while a large, integrated system already got the job done. These are not things that will improve with new technology. There are hard limits on how small logic gates can be and how fast lasers and radio signals can travel, and changing these limits would require a different universe rather than a different manufacturing process or communication technique. It only really makes sense to distribute these robot networks across a single planetary body overseen by humans who had a number of modifications to their bodies to help deal with the alien environment. And there are reasons beyond efficiency for sending humans into space on a regular basis.

Humans are natural explorers, our minds are wired to wonder from birth. If we’re going to try and explore the universe, we need to do more than send our robotic proxies and stay on Earth. And as was mentioned a few times in the comments to Saripalli’s post, there’s a huge psychological effect of going into space. Seeing the entire Earth as a blue marble floating in the void makes a lot of astronauts extremely aware of just how mindlessly, ignorantly petty some 95% of the stuff that we bicker about with no end in sight, really is. We can’t expect to end political battles about things that seem huge to us here but mean nothing in the grand scheme of things when we take into account where and who we actually are just by flying politicians to space. But if we are more and more involved in space travel, we’ll get a much broader perspective. We’re one species, on one planet, wasting lifetimes arguing about magic sky people and their wishes for us, and on all sorts of petty spats about what is and isn’t ours on a tiny blue ball spinning in space. And when we finally let that sink in, maybe, we’ll devote a little more time to something far more important, like advancing ourselves. Sending robots to take our place in space only delays that.

[ illustration by Ian Wilding ]

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plaything

A while ago, I wrote about some futurists’ ideas of robot brothels and conscious, self-aware sex bots capable of entering a relationship with a human, and why marriage to an android is unlikely to become legal. Short version? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are sex bots for rent in a wealthy first world country’s red light district, but robot-human marriages are a legal dead end. Basically, it comes down to two factors. First, a robot, no matter how self-aware or seemingly intelligent, is not a living things capable of giving consent. It could easily be programmed to do what its owner wants it to do, and in fact this seems to be the primary draw for those who consider themselves technosexuals. Unlike another human, robots are not looking for companionship, they were built to be companions. Second, and perhaps most important, is that anatomically correct robots are often used as surrogates for contact with humans and are being imparted human features by an owner who is either intimidated or easily hurt by the complexities of typical human interaction.

You don’t have to take my word on the latter. Just consider this interview with an iDollator — the term sometimes used by technosexuals to identify for themselves — in which he more or less just confirms everything I said word for word. He buys and has relationships with sex dolls because a relationship with a woman just doesn’t really work out for him. He’s too shy to make a move, gets hurt when he makes what many of us consider classic dating mistakes, and rather than trying to navigate the emotional landscape of a relationship, he simply avoids trying to build one. It’s little wonder he’s so attached to his dolls. He projected all his fantasies and desires to a pair of pliant objects that can provide him with some sexual satisfaction and will never say no, or demand any kind of compromise or emotional concern from him rather than for their upkeep. Using them, he went from a perpetual third wheel in relationships, to having a bisexual wife and girlfriend, a very common fantasy that has a very mixed track record with flesh and blood humans because those pesky emotions get in the way as boundaries and rules have to be firmly established.

Now, I understand this might come across as judgmental, although it’s really not meant to be an indictment against iDollators, and it’s entirely possible that my biases are in play here. After all, who am I to potentially pathologize the decisions of iDollator as a married man who never even considered the idea of synthetic companionship as an option, much less a viable one at that? At the same time, I think we could objectively argue that the benefits of marriage wouldn’t work for relationships between humans and robots. One of the main benefits of marriage is the transfers of property between spouses. Robots would be property, virtual extensions of the will of humans who bought and programmed them. They would be useful in making the wishes of the human on his or her deathbed known but that’s about it. Inheriting the humans’ other property would be an equivalent of a house getting to keep a car, a bank account, and the insurance payout as far as laws would be concerned. More than likely, the robot would be auctioned off or be transferred to the next of kin as a belonging of the deceased, and very likely re-programmed.

And here’s another caveat. All of this is based on the idea of advancements in AI we aren’t even sure will be made, applied to sex bots. We know that their makers want to give them some basic semblance of a personality, but how successful they’ll be is a very open question. Being able to change the robot’s mood and general personality on a whim would still be a requirement for any potential buyer as we see with iDollators, and without autonomy, we can’t even think of granting any legal person-hood to even a very sophisticated synthetic intelligence. That would leave sex bots as objects of pleasure and relationship surrogates, perhaps useful in therapy or to replace human sex workers and combat human trafficking. Personally, considering the cost of upkeep of a high end sex bot and the level of expertise and infrastructure required, I’m still not seeing sex bots as solving the ethical and criminal issues involved with semi-legal or illegalized prostitution, especially in the developing world. To human traffickers, their victims’ lives are cheap and those being exploited are just useful commodities for paying clients, especially wealthy ones.

So while we could safely predict they they will emerge and become quite complex and engaging over the coming decades, they’re unlikely to anything more than a niche product. They won’t be legally viable spouses and very seldom the first choice of companion. They won’t help stem the horrors of human trafficking until they become extremely cheap and convenient. They might be a useful therapy tool where human sexual surrogates can’t do their work or a way for some tech-savvy entrepreneurs sitting on a small pile of cash to make some quick money. But they will not change human relationships in profound ways as some futurists like to predict, and there might well be a limit to how well they can interact with us. Considering our history and biology, it a safe bet that our partners will almost always be other humans and robots will almost always be things we own. Oh they could be wonderful, helpful things to which we’ll have emotional attachments in the same way we’d be emotionally attached to a favorite pet, but ultimately, just our property.

[ illustration by Michael O ]

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calvin superhero

Apologies for the lengthy pauses between posts but with Project X in full swing and long days at the office, there’s only so much time to write, and the more gets written the more problems there are for the aforementioned project. But more on that in due time. For now, I decided to take the occasional detour into the realm of meta-debates and talk about news stories documenting the growing pains of the skeptical movement. Their common theme is that there are people under a banner called skepticism who want to confront pseudoscience while at the same time arguing a great deal about how to do it, and with certain influential skeptics trying impose their politics on the entire movement. Does a skeptic need only to worry about debunking Bigfoot, UFOs, quack remedies, and ghosts? Does a skeptic need to be atheist? Are skeptics allowed to shelter hope that a belief for which there’s little to no evidence might still somehow end up being true? And in the grand scheme of things, what do the skeptics really want to accomplish in the end and who gets to be invited to join them in their campaigns? In short, what exactly makes one a skeptic?

But hold on, you might object, why does arriving at a concrete definition matter? Aren’t skeptics just scientifically literate folks applying basic scientific methodology to bullshit claims made by all sorts of profit-minded shysters and by well-meaning but potentially dangerously ignorant people who pass them on or weave them into their personal brands of cargo cult science? Well, yes, in the broadest way that’s correct, and it’s what let me to start forging ties with organized skeptical organizations when their blog was in its prime skeptical phase. However just because you called yourself a skeptic for denouncing pseudoscience and were recognized for it by JREF or another skeptical group, doesn’t mean the topic you’re best equipped to address will ever get any major boost, even within the group. For example, I’m most often cited for Singularity skepticism, mostly because I’m a techie by profession and education, and have the experience and tools to put the wild claims of our impending immortality through technology under very tight scrutiny. Good for me, right? A new branch of skepticism can be added to the collective’s efforts, right?

Sorry but no dice. In fact, a certain very popular 2012 skeptic once told me that until he started reading my dissections of Kurzweil & Co., he thought that their ideas were a lot more plausible than they actually were, and the Skepchicks hosted a very sympathetic take on the claims and predictions being made by the attendees of a Singularity Summit. After talking to those involved on the subject, I was told that while my take was appreciated in the form of links, what I wrote on the subject was "sort of advanced skepticism" and they wanted to focus on something that was more common, the old school skeptics-as-common-sense-debunkers approach. Pretty much the only recognizable skeptics not only interested, but willing to give transhumanist and AI skeptics a real platform was the team at Skeptically Speaking, for which I ended up doing half an episode, and a two-hour debate with a prominent transhumanist. That’s right, we were so popular and the audience was so receptive, I had to come back twice. But to the old school skeptics, it’s really all about debunking common myths and popular quacks. It needs to be done but for those of us no longer interested in that, there doesn’t seem to be much room in organized skepticism.

And this is one of the biggest sources of friction that I’m seeing right now. Those of us who are technical experts in one subject or another interested in applying our specialized knowledge to a possibly arcane but still popular topic, are sick and tired of the umpteenth dissection of Dr. Oz and a UFO sighting now decades old, but we’re not really being included or asked to bring light to a new topic or two because that puts the old school skeptics out of their comfort zone. Now, I won’t be surprised if by now you’re tempted to dismiss this grievance by pointing out that it come from personal experience and makes for only one data point. But if you go back to the Atheism+ fight for just a bit, you’ll hear an undertone of the same exact issues from a completely different group of people with completely different goals. They wanted to turn organized skepticism into a left wing political movement rather than broaden its primary topics, but their reason for trying to create a new offshoot was due to a) feeling that the skeptical old school is not interested in new ideas for the future, and b) their avoidance of the skepticism vs. atheism question based mostly on marketing considerations, to make the religious feel more welcome at skeptic meetups.

Today’s big, organized skeptical groups don’t seem to be evolving or really expanding past the few topics that bound them together. More and more skeptical meetups seem to be preaching to the choir rather than exposing skeptics to new topics. The whole movement just seems stuck in place, retracing the same fake Bigfoot steps and analyzing the same flying saucer on a wire for the hundredth time. And as if that wasn’t enough, we get drama and gender wars on an endless loop for publicity and stats instead of guidance and fresh ideas. Wasn’t the point of well-funded, organized skepticism to spread education and combat the popularization of pseudoscience in all of its forms rather than spending a lot of time with people who agree with what you say? Where are the skeptical conferences that invite expert speakers to expose skeptics to big, cutting edge scientific ideas to peak their interest in broadening their horizons and taking on new topics? Is a skeptical equivalent of TED without the buzzwords out of the question? No wonder reporters on missions to write about organized skepticism all end up asking where would the movement go in the next few years and fail to prove an answer. They can’t. There’s no future game plan…

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When an expansive article on GMOs became the lead story in Elle Magazine, it wasn’t exactly a shocker that the story got its science wrong and horribly abused quotes to create a controversy where one didn’t exist. In fact, it’s par for the course when GMOs are mentioned in publications not known for their scientific reporting. Just like conservative political outlets go out of their way to deny global warming and denigrate the scientists involved in climate modeling, generally left-leaning lifestyle magazines do whatever they can to cast some doubt on the viability of GMOs in a noxious mix of conspiracy-mongering and double standards. No matter how many tests looking for potential allergens or toxins are done over decades, the anti-GMO pundits declare that there aren’t enough studies of the modified crops’ safety and surely this means that Monsanto turned millions of people into their unwitting guinea pigs for the sake of profit.

Meanwhile, even a single experiment which claims to find some sort of a problem with GMOs, no matter how horribly done and how much the researchers conduct it threaten reporters who want a second opinion or ask questions, has to be held up as the definitive proof that we’re all being slowly poisoned by greedy tycoons. The reality is quite different, of course. GMOs are actually strictly regulated, unlike organic food, since each new protein or genetic modification is treated as a food additive and has to be cleared by an independent panel of experts and by the FDA to ever hit the market. By contrast, anything described as "natural" and used in organic food does not have to be subject to any studies thanks to the codification of the naturalistic fallacy into law and despite the fact that nature can be very, very deadly. However, it’s not all regulations, good science, and securing the food supply. GMO makers use and abuse the patent system to milk a hefty profit from every stage of their products’ lifecycles and bilk farmers.

But don’t expect a discussion about the patent system and biology in Elle because the story isn’t so much about GMOs as about the author and her quest to rid herself of allergies, transitioning into a standard storyline of a woman in search of truth. Though by truth what I really mean is an exploratory trip into the land of conspiracy theories because that’s what the readers want. It’s a story written for the magazine’s target demographic, which is why it’s first person and focuses on vague, scary-sounding concerns to keep readers hooked. And this is why the admonition given to this article after a fact check sounds a bit silly to put it mildly, as it laments the science abuse and rampant misquotes to create a controversy for the sake of eyeballs…

It represents a major setback for science journalism, and for consumers who rely on hugely popular lifestyle publications to make their way through complicated issues. Is GMO corn causing allergies or other disorders? Are GMOs a threat? Elle perpetuates a “controversy” that just doesn’t exist in the mainstream science or medical communities. Worse, it fans the flames of doubt and distrust that fuel unilateral opposition to a sophisticated technology that could improve global food security.

Here’s the thing. If people are getting their science information from the same magazines which tell them what shoes are in this season, or what celebrity is working on what new movie, we have much bigger problems than are being highlighted here. Why would anyone think that relying on the latest edition of Vanity Fair, or Esquire, or, yes, Elle, for the latest and greatest in important, everyday science is a good idea? Certainly, one doesn’t expect fashion tips and celebrity gossip in their edition of National Geographic. Likewise, why would people rely on fashion magazines to navigate important policy debates? The really scary thing is that despite most people singing all manner of praises to science and a STEM education in popular surveys, they by in large do not care about the science that actually gets done or why, and even worse, don’t want to care. And considering that, is it any wonder that publications that cater to people who only say they care to be scientifically literate focus on creating controversy, peddling conspiracies, and moving copies to charge advertisers more? The Elle story is just one symptom of a much bigger issue…

[ photo illustration of news kiosk in Zurich via Wikimedia Commons ]

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While we’re talking about chemophobia, here’s another area where a selective focus on health isn’t helping in the big picture: food. The cover story for the current edition of The Atlantic is an expansive, New Yorker style, 10,500 word case against chemophobic foodism that’s currently in vogue in many metropolitan cities. David Freedman’s thesis basically boils down to calling out foodies on their caloric hypocrisy while noting that the companies they demonize are working to cut down on calories in their most popular offerings, which could have huge downstream effects for tens of millions of people. And with obesity arguably being America’s biggest health problem, combating it could shave trillions off our healthcare expenditures. That’s a big deal, so focusing on only "wholesome, natural, farm-to-table" fare while relegating food conglomerates to the role of the foodie movement’s sworn enemies is shortsighted and naive. As you can imagine, there’s no shortage of detractors to Freedman’s indictment and many of them base their opposition on the very chemophobia he sites, recycling the same arguments he tries to dispel.

Of course the article itself isn’t without flaws, but arguing with its focus on noting out how foodie idols aren’t helping to reduce caloric intake, but instead jack up the price in the name of style or ideology misses an important point. You see, the foodies aren’t actually helping people lose any heft by substituting fast, cheap, fattening food with wholesome, fresh, simple dishes that are so aesthetically pleasing they’re bordering on gastronomic pornography, yet every bit as bad as all those Big Macs and fries. Their excuse? It’s better for you because it’s all wholesome! Disregard the terrifying amount of flour, butter, bacon, and sugar going into these recipes. They’re labeled organic and they’re not — gasp! — processed with chemicals. Oh and if you want to lose weight, don’t eat this often and stay active; because all this stuff is natural and organic it will burn off all the faster. But the fact of the matter is that it won’t. Remember the craze about the high fructose corn syrup and the call to replace it with natural sugar? There’s a reason why it died down. The science says that sugar is sugar and both HFCS and cane sugar are equally dangerous.

Couple this almost religious faith in the power of "wholesome and natural food" with a big dollop of affluence and advice like "don’t eat something with more than five ingredients or containing chemicals you don’t immediately recognize," and you get a classic situation in which a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Not only are foodies disregarding food that’s more immune to being left out unrefrigerated for a few hours and safer from germs and spoilage (that’s what the vast majority of those strange sounding chemicals in processed food do by the way), but they’re also paying premiums for what they do find acceptable. This is great for Whole Foods, or as it’s known in some places Whole Paycheck, but not so great for John and Jane Public who are now thinking that they’re priced out of eating healthy. Fresh, more local food that travels from farms to supermarkets and forks faster is actually a good thing. It’s less resource intensive and helps the food stay edible longer. But it’s also being sold at a premium instead of being the default for markets. Why? Because foodies are willing to pay extra and margins in the grocery business are slim to put it mildly. Like many "green, eco-friendly" products, food is being upmarketed.

Worst of all, a great deal of the foodie motivation behind spending more money and avoiding a gret swath of basic chemistry to keep food fresh and safe longer is useless when it comes to the big goal of fighting obesity. The chemicals are not making people fat. The tomato from a frozen warehouse and the tomato from a local farm won’t break down differently in someone’s stomach and fuel the body with different calories. Obesity is so much more complex than that. When you want to tackle the question of why people gain weight you have to also look past exercise and a sum total of calories. You also have to consider that Americans work too much, sit too much for their jobs, don’t get exercise breaks in their routine, try to cram some 20 hours of tasks into a 16 or an 18 hour day, have to drive everywhere, some have genetic predispositions for weight gain, and others have emotional problems that drive them to food, etc. If you want to tackle the country’s weight problem holistically, you don’t do it with bad science, throw money at it, or try to shame people who can’t afford to eat like a foodie to do so. You have to do a lot more.

People eat fast food because it’s convenient and yes, cooking it with higher quality ingredients while cutting out calories and improving flavor with judicious use of benign and helpful chemicals would go a long way. But we also need to encourage more mass transit, more urban lifestyles in growing cities to get more people walking, jobs that allow for more flexible schedules to get a bit of exercise into the day and break up the monotony of being chained to desks and office chairs, and teach coping strategies for an insane workload both at the office and at home. Fighting the scourge of obesity and its attendant health problems requires many years of work and we have good studies showing us how we can start doing it. Demonizing processed foods with naturalism and pseudoscience with an irrational fear of chemistry isn’t going to help. It’s just going to make some foodies feel like they’re doing good things for their health. A number of whom, I might add, flip out in terror if their food contains half a gram of aspartame, but think nothing of having botox injections. You know, injections of the deadliest toxin know to humans to paralyze their faces so they look younger by poisoning their muscles into submission until their crow’s feet are gone…

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t. rex fossil

Last time we tackled the question of whether the mighty T-Rex was a predator or a scavenger, the math seemed to point to a mix at the very least. There was no way a creature that large had enough to eat just by moving from carcass to carcass and picking off the scraps left by the apex predators of its day if we take into account the average distances between the kills, decay, and the need to compete with smaller, faster scavengers. But on the other hand, there was the issue of not finding any clear signs of T-Rex predation. Sure there have been some teeth marks on a couple of fossilized bones but all of them could be equally explained by both scavenging and by hunting, with a few specimens having teeth marks in such awkward places that they were hard to explain in the first place. Now, however, there’s proof that the Tyrant Lizard King was indeed the fierce predator we always imagined. One of its fangs was found buried in the hip bone of a duck bill dinosaur, exactly where one would expect a predator to bit to take out the hind legs of a prey animal, and it shows signs of infection and two months of healing after the attack.

Well that’s pretty definitive then. The fossil record has given us a little forensic puzzle that points to a moment in time when a T-Rex tried to chase down a duck bill and the herbivore escaped to live for another two months or so with a terrifying souvenir in its body. Alternatively, we can try and imagine other scenarios during which the T-Rex didn’t have to chase it down. Maybe it was sleeping and attacked by surprise. Maybe it fell and managed to defend itself from a huge beast that came to gnaw on it. But either way, we have pretty clear signs of predation that can put the debate to rest. Now, of course T-Rex would’ve also scavenged because all predators do it as an occasional supplement to their diet. If someone else already took the risk and did the work that goes into a big kill and can be scared off, why not simply take the carcass like lions and hyenas often do from each other? But with predation now verified, little kids can keep on safely thinking of these enormous creatures as intimidating hunters stalking the plains, looking for a chance to strike quickly and violently with enough force to chew through a car…

And of course there’s another interesting fact that this debate about the nature of T-Rex’s diet and predatory habits reveals about science. Because there are always questions to answer in the process of learning more about our past, scientists really are comfortable going after even the most sacred cows. Since the first fossil of this creature was discovered and erected into the towering, fierce stance that was its trademark for almost a century afterwards, paleontologists have been figuring out how it really looked, how it really stood, and how it really moved, which raised questions about what and how it really ate. In the process they lowered its body, raised the giant, muscular tail, leveled its enormous head to its now horizontal spine, and found out it moved faster that first thought, as did its prey. Now we know it really was the terrifying beast we always thought it was, but we know this based on concrete, well, fossilized evidence, not just the popular imagination of what it might have done with its banana-sized chompers. And that’s the beauty of science. It gives us the tools not just to imagine, but to really know.

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sara jean underwood

The city where I live, the college town/aspiring big city of Columbus, OH, the weather isn’t really known for being nice. And we’ll tell you how much the weather sucks when you ask what it’s like to live here. It will be either our opening line or the caveat we sneak in at the end. Right now, it’s hot and incredibly humid, which makes walking outside feel like stepping into a blast furnace that cooks you in your own juices. This means that if you want to work out, it’s best to get indoors to the treadmill. Unfortunately, some of my wife’s and my mutual friends seem to disagree because lately, they’ve gone granola on us and ascribe to the trend that exercising in hot, humid weather is perfect to sweat out toxins. Ah, yes, the t-word, used as the magical justification for just about every New Age lifestyle trend, much like the word quantum is used as an automatic free pass for them to say whatever they want about science. Now, trust me, I know it sounds compelling to go out there and sweat out all your toxins, but what you’ll really be doing is getting heat stroke and putting your body in danger so for the love of all things cute and fluffy, don’t do it.

Here are the two big problems with this idea. First and foremost, there’s a reason why it feels so miserable to run around in 90+ degree weather and high humidity. Your body needs to transfer heat to the outside environment to cool down and if the temperature is close to, or exceeds your body heat, that transfer is very much inhibited. Sweat doesn’t evaporate cooling you off, it’s just stuck to you and your clothing, keeping you uncomfortably warm. According to research by the people who created the mantra "pain is weakness leaving your body," the U.S. Army, — probably the absolute last institution you could accuse of not knowing enough about fitness and physical training — the optimal ambient temperature during your workout should be about 65° F. It’s not so cold that your body tries to hold on to heat and interferes with your muscles, and not nearly hot enough to get in the way of sweat giving off excess heat efficiently so you could work much harder and train a lot longer than you would otherwise. This is why many gyms have thermostats set to the mid to low 60s, we know it’s good for your body as you’re exercising.

The second big problem is this. What toxins are you trying to sweat out? Chemophobes can get tests to determine what sort of residue can linger in their tissues and hyperventilate about every chemical under the sun on the basis of the results. Whatever chemical name they don’t readily recognize or the nature of which they don’t understand, they call a toxin and proceed to spend a good deal of time and effort "detoxing." For example, formaldehyde is a commonly cited toxin but it actually occurs naturally as a byproduct of your metabolism and is used to help chain together amino acids into proteins. The problem is that if you’re exposed to industrial quantities of it, the excess formaldehyde is converted into formic acid which could cause nerve and kidney damage in sufficient quantities. So where do our New Agey chemophobes go wrong? Well, they assume having a few parts per million of it in our bodies is dangerous and must be the result of pollution, despite the fact that it naturally occurs in our tissues and their concentrations of it are orders of magnitude lower than what it would take to even raise a yellow flag. Dose makes the poison, but the granola crowd assumes that if it can be a poison, it’s just a matter of time before it is.

And so they go out in the blazing heat to sweat out chemicals that aren’t going to harm them just to overheat their bodies to the point of exhaustion, and take how miserable they feel as a detox regimen working as designed. In reality, however, the headaches, weakness, and nausea aren’t toxins leaving the body. They’re your body’s way of telling you "don’t pull this shit on me again, I mean it!" Having less and less discomfort after working out in the heat for a while isn’t a coup for the detox protocol either, it’s your body begrudgingly accepting its fate and getting used to the stress at the expense of overworking the heart and the kidneys. While heat stroke and its milder precursors will generally go away after a brief rest without doing permanent damage, repeated exertions can take their toll in the form of cramps and muscle pain. Really, if the workout in the air-conditioned gym and the miserable routine in the sticky heat won’t actually rid your of all the chemicals that are actually not harmful to you in the amounts everyone carries, why run the risk of heat exhaustion? Why not just keep yourself in shape safely and using real science?

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exposed brain

If you recall the last post about those who mew that science just cheapens the world around us with its math and experiments, you may remember the book used as a prime example of these attitudes, Curtis White’s The Science Delusion. I know, a sardonic riff on Dawkins, how original, right? Well, over the last month or so, White has been taking plenty of heat for his work and its thinly veiled disgust and contempt for the process of inquiry and trial and error which has taken humans to the Moon, doubled our average lifespan, and is now exploring the far reaches of the cosmos and the physical makeup of our minds. His reply so far? His critics just don’t get him or the reasons why he wrote what he wrote, claiming that pretty much everyone got everything he said so wrong, they might as well be reading a different book. That wouldn’t stick, so in his latest defensive missive to detractors, he trots out a new excuse for his nastiness; he was just kidding when he was making up nicknames for atheists and outspoken scientists of note. So come on, have a sense of humor and laugh with him as he descends into inanity. Or as he says…

But I don’t fault Feynman for playing the bongos [by referring to him as Bongoman]. I’d happily join him on rhythm guitar, and we’d snap fingers with the hepcats. I merely suggest that it is disappointing that someone who played the bongos also thought that everything about creation is explained by the spinning of atoms. I’m laughing at the incongruity.

What incongruity might that be? A scientist who understands a fundamental parts of how matter as we know it comes together and apart also likes music. So what? He should be entranced by the beat of his bongos so much so that he has an epiphany and declares that his work on how subatomic particles behave was all rubbish because, dude, this universe is like totally way too complex to really understand? Because that is what White is very strongly implying. His inability to realize that being able to explain how something works doesn’t rule out being inspired by it, or outright awed, makes his main thesis a worthless non sequtur. I understand how his browser will render a web page and can walk him though the mathematical tree of bytes that is the DOM (or Document Object Model) as it’s going to be rendered. Should I never tell him about this if I get a chance so he can just be ignorantly happy that some magic brings him web sites and refuse to believe that knowing how the web works lets you admire what it can be made to do?

Since White doesn’t understand that science is much more than providing technical notes on a natural phenomenon, he ends up arguing against learning past a point with which he’s at ease because he wants to have the freedom to wax poetic on life’s mysteries, and he’s incensed that an awful lot of people want to keep pushing past his point of willful ignorance. This is really what his message boils down to: "stop learning so much!" He’s so appalled by the notion that creative thought can be studied as a set of chemical reactions in the brain that he refuses to consider it as a viable area of research. Where the curious and the scientific ask what these chemicals are, how they react, and how did they come to be what they are and function the way the do, he just wants to run away and pretend that there’s no way those rotten eggheads can make him feel a little bit less special by figuring out how his brain works. Thankfully, few people seem interested in his love note to proud, glib obliviousness by choice, and that’s why White is so wound up. His call to discard facts and curiosity is going unanswered by far too many people for his liking…

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black hole accretion disk

Apologies for the sudden hiatus everyone. In the last several weeks, life has interfered with any possibility of writing and when there has been time for anything, it’s been occupied by Project X which actually does concern this blog and will be detailed in the future. But I’m finally back, and back with an astronomical bang, or FRBs to be exact. You see, recently astronomers have been puzzled by extremely energetic bursts that last for fractions of a second and vanish forever. It’s like a GRB, the birth cry of a newly born black hole, but it all happens in less than the blink of an eye rather than depending on the size of the cataclysm. These bursts are currently called FRBs and no one is really sure what they are, where they generally originate in the night sky, and how much energy they’re really emitting, repeating the original dilemma with GRBs when they were first discovered. Now we have our first theoretical contender called SURONs, or Supramassive Rotating Neutron Stars, the end result of supernovae that should have created black holes but didn’t, not yet at least. They’re essentially ticking black hole time bombs floating in space.

When our sun will die, it will slowly pulsate and cool into a white dwarf because its mass is below the Chandrashekhar limit, the point at which a star becomes too heavy not to collapse on itself as a supernova. There are some objects that challenge exactly where this limit comes into play, but it seems to be about 1.44 solar masses. Stars heavier than that produce iron in their cores during the last stages of their lives and the unique thing about iron is that fusing it produces no net energy output. Bascially, the strong nuclear force’s interactions with iron’s nucleons create a point of diminishing returns on the nuclear binding energy and the tightly wound nuclei of iron is the first element from which a nuclear reaction can’t extract anything worthwhile. No matter how much iron is being fused, there’s just not enough energy to keep its outer layers from collapsing inward and detonating as a supernova. This is when another important astronomical limit comes into play, the Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit. (Yes, that Oppenheimer.) If a neutron star left after a supernova is about two solar masses, it will collapse on itself as a black hole.

Although "will" is kind of a strong word really, a better one would be "should." And this is exactly where the SURONs come into play. Neutron stars are made of degenerate matter, or particles in such a high density environment that the only thing keeping them from falling into each other is, well, each other. Compressing them any more shatters matter as we know it and creates chaotic maelstroms of energy that flow into each other. Degenerate matter at the core of neutron stars can be so hot and dense that it’s basically a weird quantum fluid with no viscosity already, so it’s not going to take all that much to turn it into a black hole. In fact, SURONs are just over the limit and the pressure of its outer layers should’ve triggered a collapse but the particles in their cores were given a brief reprieve. Stars spin and whatever momentum is left after their fiery death has to transfer to the pulsar left behind. Because the star was well over a million miles across and a typical pulsar is tens of miles across, that energy sends the little pulsar spinning wildly arouns its axis, sometimes as fast as 1,122 times per second. This releaves just enough pressure to keep the core from imploding and leave the SURON a neutron star spinning wildly through space.

But there’s a catch. SURONs have extremely strong magnetic fields and those fields will interact with the nebula left behind as will the interactions between its radioactive death beams and gas and dust. Over thousands of years, this will all put a brake on how quickly the neutron star spins which means that at a certain point, the pressure on its core will start building back up until the inevitable happens and the degenerate matter swallows itself and becomes a black hole. Since the SURONs is relatively puny, this collapse happens in a fraction of a second. Its fearsome and powerful magnetic fields will be severed from the just formed event horizon and re-connect very, very violently just outside of it, generating a potent and very short radio pulse. An FRB. This is a nice and tidy explanation because SURONs would be roughly the same size and the event would be pretty much uniform, almost like a Type Ia supernova used as a standard unit for measuring the rate of the universe’s expansion. We don’t know if these neutron stars ticking away into new black holes really do dot the sky and this is not the only possible explanation of FRBs, but it is a pretty good one and it seems quite solid. And that’s often as good as it gets in astronomy…

See: Falcke, H., Rezzolla, L. (2013). Fast radio bursts: the last sign of supramassive neutron stars. Astronomy & Astrophysics arXiv: 1307.1409v1

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