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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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model with glasses

When last we left Pat Fagan, he was aghast that premarital sex was legal and demanding that a country in which more than nine in ten adults had sex before marriage punish all the fornicating sinners lest society fail. As you probably won’t be surprised to find out, his delusion is so strong that he’s proclaiming momogamous, one-partner fundamentalist Christian couples to be masters of all things sexual in the same manner as a certain Fox New contributor decided that losing his virginity in a honeymoon suite made him a sexual and relationship black belt. Now, unlike almost every argument in his verbal assault on premarital sex, Fagan actually managed to cobble what seem like real numbers and real data to add an undertone of possible sanity under his claims of fundamentalist couples getting the best of porn stars in bed. You see, according to a survey of adult sexual habits, some 88% of married couples say they enjoy their sex lives, which is a 22% gain over divorced couples and a 14% advantage over singles. Unfortunately for Fagan though, these numbers are exceedingly unlikely to mean what he thinks they mean.

Basically, his thesis is that couples who had no other partners besides each other to compare a sexual relationship’s overall quality, are happy because they can’t make those comparisons. But that’s kind of like saying that Weird Things is the best blog on the web because Weird Things is the only blog you’ve ever read. Or that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food in the world because that’s the only Mexican food you’ve ever tried. How do you explain how ridiculous this is to a man who says this out loud and actually means it? At least we could take a crack on why he says this based on the horror-fantasies religious fundamentalists have about sex in the secular world. You see, they seem to assume that secularists have sex all the time. Life, outside of work and family, is just a big orgy for us with no complications, feelings, or attachments because we don’t care to emotionally support each other and if something goes wrong, we can just turn to antibiotics and have an abortion since the evils of modern science have enabled this kind of terrifying life away from Godly consequences to exist, and we secularists bask in the resultant debauchery.

Of course when you think that non-fundamentalists are living a life somewhat along these lines you’re going to assume that they spend every other sexual experience comparing it to the last, and rating partners on some sort of complicated scale. In reality, premarital sex is kind of a test drive for many couples, and after establishing general compatibility and tying the knot, of course they’ll report being happier than singles or divorcees. They’re having sex with someone able to satisfy them and had time to learn what they want and what they need. By contrast, singles are just trying to find the person to push all their buttons and divorcees are still dealing with a fallout from their last marriage and getting back into the game. This explains Fagan’s numbers far, far more plausibly than first-timers in sex and marriage being zapped with divine prowess in bed, so much so that they can give adults with many years of relationship and sexual experience under their belts a run for their money. I still have no explanation for what compels Fagan to open his mouth and say the things he does, but then again, I think I never will…

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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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Yes, Pacific Rim is a loud popcorn movie best viewed with your brain operating at half capacity, just enjoying the show without asking any questions. And that’s exactly what makes it fun. This may shock film snobs and critics who review Oscar bait, but not every movie in theaters needs to be an epic character drama that explores the fundamental issues with existence and the human condition, or brutally cataloging a bloody genocide while repeatedly beating its viewers over the head with heavy-handed questions about morals, ethics, free will, and what lurks within us all. At the same time though, big budget Hollywood spectacles with thin plots are usually outsourced to Michael Bay, or directors who emulate his style, who latch on to formulas that even the writers of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller movies would find too flimsy and groan-inducing, then proceed to viciously drill them into your eyes to a soundtrack of explosions. Pacific Rim was thankfully made by Guillermo del Toro and easily avoids this trap by being a simple and very straightforward little tribute to giant robot vs. giant monster anime many twenty-somethings watched as kids.

But that said, there’s something just not right about humanoid robots brawling with giant beasts sent from another world through an undersea portal called The Breach. Jaegers might deliver a knockout punch to a 30 story Kaiju or pound one over the head with a container ship to give the monster a hell of a concussion, but the mechanics just don’t quite work. Kaijus are fleshy, which means they’re more flexible and heal minor cuts and scrapes quickly. By comparison, a Jaeger would be made of comparatively brittle metal alloys and have to be refurbished after every fight, making it extremely expensive and labor-intensive to operate. When the Kaijus appear every six months or so as they did at the beginning of the war, the cost can be managed. But as the giant brutes keep getting bigger and bigger, and start appearing as often as once a week, resources are quickly going to start running dry, so building ever more Jaegers would quickly become very difficult. No wonder that the bureaucrats who run the world in Pacific Rim want to shut down this once promising program for a wall to keep the Kaijus out. They can’t afford it anymore.

Of course one also wonders how they got the Jaegers to be bipedal at such a scale. Walking on two legs is very computationally expensive for a machine that’s as big as a high rise, and even a small bump in the road could send these robots falling, and falling badly. Not only that, but they give the Kaijus excellent points of attack: the ankles and the knees. To truly make their punches count, the Jaeger pilots have to get their robots to behave just like a human fighter and put the core and hips into the blow. Punching in a basic one-two sequence, the weight would swing from leg to leg, so a counter-attack from a Kaiju aimed at the thigh or the side of the knee could send a million tons of robot down hard with its head lined up for a finishing blow from above. You can see the same idea in mixed martial art disciplines which use stomps and side-knees in a clinch to shift an opponent’s weight so you can topple him and get full mount for a well placed elbow, or a swift hammer fist to the side of the head. Jaegers would simply not be flexible enough to survive this sort of assault in the real world. Many much less brittle and more coordinated humans aren’t without at least a little training or a whole lot of mass to counteract the impacts.

For better fight mechanics, I would have designed Jaegers to look more like sumo wrestlers. An extremely wide base either on tracks or hovering with the aid of nuclear powered jet engines, no legs, and stuffed with ranged weaponry to soften up the Kaiju as it charges. Large, thick, heavy arms with huge claws would pummel the monsters at close range and its barrel-like core would spin naturally, so tipping it over or even getting it off-balance would be a Herculean task, even for the fat Category 4 Kaiju which attacks Hong Kong in the movie’s second act. Its hull could be made of something flexible like kevlar to make it tougher for a Kaiju to bite through and diffuse a good deal of the force that would be generated by a direct hit. One could even imagine it pulling off a complicated sequence just by rotating around its axis. For example, it could hit a Kaiju with an enormous left hook starting about 30 degrees left off center, keep spinning until it can follow the punch with a right elbow at between 60 and 120 degrees right off center, and returning back with a left hammer fist and a right hook, using the hits on the Kaiju to redirect its momentum.

And while we’re redesigning the Jaegers, we should ask why they can’t be piloted remotely. We can control drones halfway across the world in real time and all of the infrastructure to pull off a similar feat with a giant robot seems to be in place in the film. To minimize lag, the pilots should be in the base from which their Jaegers would be launched, but they wouldn’t have to be in their robot. Their brain-machine interfaces with their co-pilots and with their machine are going to be implemented as an abstraction over the kernel of the Jaeger’s operating system anyway so the pilots could fight, lose, and be ready to fight again as soon as a new machine is ready to go. It’s actually kind of a no-brainer that allows them to switch tactics, pushing the Jaegers further and taking risks that could kill them if they were in the actual robot but win the day in the end. There would be a huge psychological boost from seeing a Kaiju on a big screen in a bunker instead of up close and personal, its fangs tearing through the cockpit and rattling the robot around. Yes, it’s not as heroic or dangerous, but much more militarily effective and politically beneficial.

But then again, all of this is based on the idea that Jaegers make for the best front-line defense when a Kaiju attacks. That’s not necessarily true. We know they can be killed by nukes, but the proposition of turning the world’s most populated coastlines into radioactive deserts is a tough sell and actually doing that will kill food production and give the Kaijus a beachhead from which they can mount assaults further and further inland. However, launching a very large kinetic kill vehicle from orbit, basically a huge spike dropped from a satellite, could hit a Kaiju with roughly the same yield as a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead without all the radiation. Currenly we can’t build and launch wepaons like this because they violate the Outer Space Treaty, but when there’s an angry horde of aliens that can flatten a city block with each step rampaging on Earth and all of the nations unite in building and deploying Jaegers, I’m sure exceptions could be made and the current space faring powers can launch a system of satellites ready to drive a super-heated alloy slug into a Kaiju at hypersonic speeds at a moment’s notice. Should that somehow fail and some time needs to be bought for another shot, Jaegers can coral the beast into the kill zone.

This is how you would fight a Kaiju in the real world. Orbiting KKV launchers that can fire off an exceptionally engineered slug at the planet below at a moment’s notice, drone bomber swarms, and giant mobile weapon platforms known as Jaegers, remotely piloted as a last line of defense against the nightmarish beasts. Pacific Rim’s spectacle is great for a live action anime movie, a solid tribute to the genre, and it creates tension by putting the main characters in real danger in the maws of the Kaiju, but if we were to translate any of it to the real world, it would be a militarily unsustainable strategy with little chance of actually working. The only worse strategy would be a giant wall to keep the monsters out, i.e. the Wall of Life being built in the movie, but it seems like the competent commanders in the Pacific Rim universe were all on leave throughout the war and this is why the world has been stuck with worse and worse ideas for fighting the alien titans. But hey, how mad can you be at a movie’s plot holes if it lets you mentally design giant robots and a swarm of global space-based defenses to fight aliens the size of an office block?

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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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quantum chip

Quantum computers are slowly but surely arriving, and while they won’t be able to create brand new synthetic intelligences where modern computers have failed, or will even be faster for most tasks typical users will need to execute, they’ll be very useful in certain key areas of computing as we know it today. These machines aren’t being created as a permanent replacement to your laptop but to solve what are known as BPQ problems which will help your existing devices and their direct descendants run more securely and efficiently route torrents of data from the digital clouds. In computational complexity theory, BPQ problems are decision problems that could be performed in polynomial time when using superposition and quantum entanglement is an option for the device. Or to translate that to English, binary, yes/no problems that we could solve pretty efficiently if we could use quantum phenomena. The increase in speed comes not from making faster CPUs or GPUs, or creating ever larger clusters of them, but from implementing brand new logical paradigms into your programs. And to make that easier, a new language was created.

In classical computing, if we wanted to do factorization, we would create our algorithms then call on them with an input, or a range of inputs if we wanted to parallelize the calculations. So in high level languages you’d create a function or a method using the inputs as arguments, then call it when you need it. But in a quantum computer, you’d be building a circuit made of qubits to read your input and make a decision, then collect the output of the circuit and carry on. If you wanted to do your factorization on a quantum computer — and trust me, you really, really do — then you would be using Shor’s algorithm which gets a quantum circuit to run through countless possible results and pick out the answer you wanted to get with a specialized function for this task. How should you best set up a quantum circuit so you can treat it like any other method or function in your programs? It’s a pretty low level task that can get really hairy. That’s where Quipper comes in handy by helping you build a quantum circuit and know what to expect from it, abstracting just enough of the nitty-gritty to keep you focused on the big picture logic of what you’re doing.

It’s an embedded language, meaning that the implementations of what it does is handled with an interpreter that translates the scripts into its own code before turning into bytecode the machine that it runs on can understand. In Quipper’s case the underlying host language is Haskell, which explains why so much of its syntax is a lot like Haskell with the exception of types that define the quantum circuits you’re trying to build. Although Haskell never really got that much traction in a lot of applications and the developer community is not exactly vast, I can certainly see Quipper being used to create cryptographic systems or quantum routing protocols for huge data centers kind of like Erlang is used by many telecommunications companies to route call and texting data around their networks. It also begs the idea that one could envision creating quantum circuitry in other languages, like a QuantumCircuit class in C#, Python, or Java, or maybe a quantum_ajax() function call in PHP along with a QuantumSession object. And that is the real importance of the initiative by Quipper’s creators. It’s taking that step to add quantum logic to our computing.

Maybe, one day quantum computers will direct secure traffic between vast data centers, giving programmers an API adopted as a common library in the languages they use, so it’s easy for a powerful web application to securely process large amounts of data obtained through only a few lines of code calling on a quantum algorithm to scramble passwords and session data, or query far off servers will less lag — if those servers don’t implement that functionality on lower layers of the OSI Model already. It could train and run vast convolutional neural networks for OCR, swiftly digitizing entire libraries worth of books, notes, and handwritten documents with far fewer errors than modern systems, and help you manage unruly terabytes of photos spread across a social networking site or a home network by identifying similar images for tagging and organization. If we kept going, we could probably think of a thousand more uses for injecting quantum logic into our digital lives. And in this process, Quipper would be our jump-off point, a project which shows how easily we could wrap the weird world of quantum mechanics into a classical program to reap the benefits from the results. It’s a great idea and, hopefully, a sign of big things to come.

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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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Project Kronos, the short fake documentary by visual effects artist Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull about first contact and the possible origins of interplanetary travel by humans in the relatively near future, recently got plenty of attention on the web. And it should have. It’s a well done piece of work, its premise is developed enough to keep you glued to the screen, and its pacing and storyline are open ended and somewhat disturbing enough to provoke a lot of speculation. As a piece of art, this is really, really good. But before anyone gets ideas about sending our artificially reanimated brains in spherical vessels to roam the cosmos in a dream-like state, I’m afraid that a skeptic will need to step in to do some fact checking on the science regardless of how well Project Kronos was put together. Considering that I’m in one of the key fields involved, it may as well be me, so let’s unpickle some flying cosmic brains and figure out whether you really want to analyze fuzzy dreams on your way to meet an alien intelligence trying to summon you to the stars.

Believe it or not, mapping the neurons responsible in remembering what someone saw could be done, and there’s been some success in trying to see what another person has seen by looking through his memories. With enough time and more accurate devices, it’s not implausible to get much better resolution, maybe even as good as some of the fuzzy images of the brain implanted into the Kronos probe. But then again, you’re spending hundreds of millions, if not billions to get to interstellar space. Don’t you want extremely powerful high resolution images taken with crystal clarity so scientists can study what the probe gleams on flyby? Don’t you want a sensor array to measure everything from the solar wind to atmosphere of the gas giants’ moons? The film’s very ambitious space agency basically decided to take a shortcut to nearly human equivalent AI with an actual human brain, then launched it into deep space bereft of the tools to make the probe a source of good data for planetary scientists, focusing instead of establishing first contact based on the idea that a human brain would handle aliens better than a recording. But would it?

One of the more disconcerting things for me in the documentary is the notion of the brain kept alive after the person using is has presumably died of natural causes. Now, as someone who’d happily donate his body to science after I’m done using it, on the one hand, I would welcome the opportunity of being essentially resurrected as a space probe. In fact, on the surface, it sounds like one of my wildest dreams come true. To be brought back to life in some form and launched to travel the stars for eons on end. The concept is poetic, really. But the reality? Not so much. It would be the most extreme kind of sensory deprivation you could imagine. Yes, you could travel the cosmos and see planets no one has even seen before, but for the vast majority of the trip, you’d be surrounded by silent blackness. No friends, no family, very little interaction from Earth, and most of said interaction would be one way. Your thoughts and memories would be decoded and played back like a movie, complete with images of the life you once lead. What you have to look forward to is eons of solitary confinement in a completely alien environment.

Of course this is presuming that your brain will still be usable after death. Unlike the machine, it will deteriorate. Over time its functions will degrade, memories would be difficult to keep, and the probe will grow less and less reliable. Add this to the isolation it will experience and any aliens in range of a Kronos orb will more than likely be trying to make contact with an entity suffering from mental illness and with rapidly deteriorating cognitive abilities. At this point, a recording would be much more preferable. Now, you might wonder if the brain in a Kronos probe would actually live in any real sense. After all, it is just being zapped with a little electricity and given some nutrients so it can function but it’s not really embodied anymore and kept in a dream-like state. The film is not really clear on this point, oscillating between the scientists treating the brain as a substrate, and indicating that it would be capable of an emotional response, meaning that it may be sort of alive in a conventional sense. Maybe this is why the Human 2.0 project meant to respond to the alien attempt at first contact uses a fleet of probes. Maybe they’ll keep each other sane.

Still, note that first contact happens after aliens hack a human brain in robot form. That’s a very disconcerting feat. It means that the extraterrestrial life form either managed to figure out binary protocols for our electronics and how they map to analog buzz produced by our neurons, or had a machine capable of doing that. More than likely, they’ve either done it before or developed an absolutely amazing grasp on how to decipher brain machine interfaces in other species. They’d have to basically torture the brain in Kronos to figure this out from scratch, not on purpose, but they would more or less have to wire into the orb and zap the brain to see what happens so the inference map for how it works could be built. Does sending a hundred more Kronos probes to the coordinates they provided seem like a good idea in this light? Certainly not to me. Seems a tad dangerous to put it mildly. Sure it’s first contact, but with what and why? I could imagine this encounter suddenly diverting trillions around the world into building a heavily armed space fleet just in case, should the memories of the Kronos brain give the aliens too much information.

But all this aside, I can understand what Project Kronos was trying to show. Humans, as we are today, are more or less marooned on Earth. We’re not ready to live in deep space until we start to change ourselves through genetic engineering and significant augmentation, until we defeat aging as we know it and learn how to encase our bodies in materials that will keep us save from radiation and let us stand on other worlds without worrying about toxic chemicals, radiation, and the bone, joint, and muscle damage from changing gravities. The odds of us being brains in tiny orbs floating through the vastness of space are non-zero, especially if bean counters have their way with the future of space travel, but it’s not the best way to explore the final frontier. No, the best way forward for us is roaming space stations, vast interstellar ships, and cyborg bodies. It’s our need to be social, our embodiment, and our sense of community and adventure that define us, and if we want to boldly go into interstellar space, we need to carry them with us. That and a lot of weapons in case random aliens start giving us trouble by trying to hack into our brains…

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primordial black hole

At two events of the Wolrd Science Festival in early June,  a group of five theoretical physicists debated whether we’re living in a multiverse, and more surprisingly, if our current understanding of the cosmos all but mandates that multiple universes exist. It all goes back to the instant of the Big Bang, the femtosecond that set the rules for all reality as we know it in scientific terms. Each tiny little quantum instability and flux was stretched and projected across billions of light years to influence the shape of galaxy clusters and the tiny filaments what underpin our mostly isotropic, homogeneous universe. It’s kind of like the chaos theory saying about a flap of a butterfly’s wings eventually causing a tsunami halfway across the world, but taken to incredible extremes. We’re talking about a change in point particles becoming an archipelago a million galaxies across. So, why wouldn’t some of these instabilities become their own universes, sealed off from each other by the fabric of space and time? The inflation we just described should make this inevitable.

Here’s the issue. As our infant universe was inflating, it shouldn’t have spun off uniformly since that would make the fluctuations in early matter impossible and prevented the formation of stars and galaxies. It would’ve had to have large enough disruptions to kick-start other universes, or even itself be a product of another universe undergoing rapid inflation. And if one universe can inflate, so too must the rest because otherwise, inflation becomes a unique event and science is not happy with a one-off event as an explanation. Every significant process we know of happens more than once and on universal time scales of countless trillions of years, the possibilities are pretty much infinite. We should be able to see new universes bubbling up from dark voids in the fabric of space-time, over time. There might even be room to imagine a bizarre, hyper-advanced species of the far future crossing into a brand new universe as theirs dies in a void ship isolated from reality as we know it, Doctor Who-style, hopefully one that’s nothing like the Daleks.

Problem is, how do we prove that inflation works in more than one universe when we can’t see into the multiverse? One suggestion is that inflation basically wraps the universe into a sphere, an unbreachable, self-contained environment that seems flat to us and where trying to travel to the edge of the cosmos will result in the spaceship ending up back where it started as if it were on a Mobius strip. Simple, elegant, and convenient as far as solutions to cosmological problems go, don’t you think? And that’s precisely what’s so bothersome about it. Nothing in cosmology is that simple, even inflation itself. Instead of slowing down, it’s accelerating. Instead of flying apart into clouds of stars and gas under their own momentum, galaxies are keeping their shapes until a collision distorts them thanks to invisible dark matter. Hell, some 96% of the universe isn’t even matter and almost three quarters of it is some mysterious energy feeding its expansion. Does it really make sense that in a universe like that simple, convenient explanations will fly?

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