little smartphone

Every few years, we seem to get paroxysms of warnings about how our smartphones are going to give us cancer one day. Despite being grounded in junk science, they cause a stir because a few people with the right credentials claiming that something they we every day is killing us is a good way to get a lot of attention very quickly. And with large contingents of people all too ready and willing to believe that a few cells in a lab are a good proxy for the human body, and that Big TelCo is just the next Big Tobacco in waiting, the City of Berkley accomplished a feat of quixotic justice that San Francisco and the state of Maine once failed to secure, and is trying to force all stores that sell phones within the city’s limits to carry a vague, scary warning about cell phones emitting radiation and implying that users may be at risk of something malignant if they don’t go through their phone’s manual to find a safe way to use it while shielding their fragile bodies. No scientific work dealing with in vivo studies says this, but hey, there’s pandering to be done so a little something like, say, the medical community disagreeing with you should’t get in the way.

Really, it’s not often that siding with a large industry trade group, such as CTIA, which fought in court to stop the mandate, is the scientifically correct thing to do. Usually trade groups will jump on a junk science bandwagon if it benefits them in a heartbeat and twist facts to suit the desires for higher profit, as in the case of the anti-GMO lobby for example. But in this rare case, CITA’s objections really did have the science on their side and it would’ve been a way more interesting case if science was actually invoked. Despite having the ability to prove that the City of Berkley was simply ascribing to Luddism and anti-scientific fallacies to cast cell phones as evil, cancer-emitting boxes of death, the modern equivalents to a pack of cigarettes in the 1950s, it decided to argue that the mandate just violated their members’ free speech rights. Please join me for a minute of facepalming at this legal equivalent of snatching a defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s yet another example why court decisions should be inadmissible in debates about science.

But hold on, you might say, what’s so bad about the City of Berkley only giving its citizens what they wanted? After all, shouldn’t people be free to make their own informed decisions and this disclaimer only gives them the tools to make up their minds after considering both sides? Well, yes, that would be the case in a scientifically hyperliterate utopia, or when there’s a real debate about an issue in the scientific community. But there’s a reason why we don’t slap labels on the astronomy books sold at Barnes and Noble warning readers that it contains descriptions of the theory of heliocentrism and features multiple references to the Big Bang, or on a medical book to warn readers that it does not consider the theory of the four humors and miasmas alongside germ theory. There are no current scientific debates about whether the universe is static, or the Earth orbits the sun, or that microorganisms invading our bodies are the origin of disease. Why would we want to give the public erroneous information because a special interest group really, really wanted to shout its ill-informed ideas no matter what the experts actually told them?

Make no mistake, this is not about a really lefty anti-establishment city defying corporate villains in court as a victory for the little guy, as the Luddite lobby spins it. It’s not about helping a public at risk make up its own mind on a case by case basis. This is about promoting misinformation a small but vocal group of technophobes believes to be true in order to similarly scare others and using the city to do the dirty legal work. This time they managed to get lucky because the trade group defending the science abdicated its responsibility to wander off into the tenuous lands of free speech where factual standards are non-existent unless you’re lying to damage careers or imply that someone innocent committed a crime while obviously knowing he or she didn’t. All of the labeling and warning the anti-science activists really want aren’t giving people some sort of valuable information they desperately need, but about putting their propaganda right in front of their faces through court-assisted arm twisting, which is why we shouldn’t so much be laughing and joking about them, but actively pointing out what they are and publicly opposing them.

[ illustration by Eric Motang ]

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When you’re in business for yourself, or are a part owner of a venture, nothing sounds sweeter than being told that your business is profitable. What you don’t want to hear is that your artificial manipulation of supply for short term gain is actually profiteering, because people who relied on your product get angry. And if you’re a small pharmaceutical company, you wouldn’t like it when those people get angry. This is currently the case with Turin Pharmaceuticals, which owns what was once an accessible treatment for a dangerous parasitic infection in developing nations. Not content with selling it for a mere $13.50 per pill, its new owner, a hedge fund manager who has been investigated for campaigning the FDA to stymie companies whose stocks he was shorting, and fired from another drug maker for borderline embezzlement, jacked the price up by 5,500% to an absurd $750 per pill. Bizarrely though, reports from the field say that he’s not getting that kind of money and is delivering a lot of doses at no charge and at close to original prices.

But he’s not the only one that’s trying to profiteer from relatively rarely used drugs. Other small pharma companies like Rodelis, Valeant, and CorePharma have drastically increased prices for their old, but in demand medications. It’s become an entirely new business model. Instead of a new treatment superior to older drugs, their companies are being bought, prices for medication long paid off and covered by insurance plans are being doubled, tripled, and more, and when a reporter, customer, or a government agency asks why the sudden rate hike, they’re told it’s for funding R&D without anything in the pipeline to show as benefiting form the new cash. Yes, the process of making a new drug is very complex and expensive, which is why many companies in need of a steady pipeline of them to survive will do all sorts of unethical and questionable things to get them approved and sold; testing against placebos rather than a current standard, paying for fake journal articles, and even promoting off label uses for them, even though it’s illegal. But at least for all their glaring flaws in generating sales, these companies do have new drugs.

We should encourage competition among businesses to develop new ideas in medical care, it’s better for us as both customers and patients when we have choices and companies have really strong incentives to innovate. But the key word here is innovation, and just jacking up the prices of old drugs to bring in more cash is not innovating in any other way than sarcastically when we try to inject a little gallows humor into the conversation. And this isn’t even a good strategy. The PR is awful and the companies either look like Dickensian villains, or cave and ship the drugs to where they’re needed free of charge or for the typical rate. Competitors can easily undercut the newly overpriced drugs with something generic or better. Doctors balk and either negotiate new discounts to knock the price back down to what it was, or refuse to buy and go to competitors to make sure the treatment is covered. On top of that, with no new drugs and existing ones sold at the same price or given away to the needy, investors don’t get their money’s worth anyway. It’s just another example of how trying to hold medicine hostage in an advanced economy with very string regulations is a game one can’t win. And for their own good, really shouldn’t want to…

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thieving ufo

Over the weekend, my post about Nick Redfern’s theory of alien genetic engineering was given an unflattering write-up by news editors for The Anomalist, an alt-media franchise which, not all that surprisingly, published five of Redfern’s books. Like most unflattering write-ups of this kind, he centered on two of the standard cliches of paranormal writers defending themselves from a scientific criticism. The first is that their critic, whoever it is, didn’t engage with the arguments so there’s really no need to counter-argue. The second, is that whatever criticism was gives was a mere “copypasta” from derisively mocked and official sources in scare quotes, because science is apparently only interesting, relevant, or reliable when it provides an exploitable mystery for a paranormal outlet to explore. What annoys me isn’t so much being disagreed with — in pop sci blogging — it’s par for the course, but the lazy, snide, protecting-our-investment derision.

Really, when someone tells you that you didn’t engage with unnamed points, accuses of giving out your own theories when you’ve introduced none, and being a mouthpiece of some sort of a disinformation campaign for merely using detailed scientific sources, the only conclusion you’re going to make is that you hit a nerve and someone wants to preemptively dismiss you. Writing any real counterpoints would’ve just given me more targets and treating me with any respect is going to give their readers the impression that my criticism may be legitimate. That’s a textbook strategy pseudoscientists and paranormalists employ in self-defense against all skeptics: deride and evade. Like some fish puff out their chests to make themselves look bigger, those affected by a skeptical missive act as if defending their ideas to doubters is somehow beneath them and hide behind a wall of sound bites from eager followers who want their worldviews affirmed…

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android mind

For those who are convinced that one day we can upload our minds to a computer and emulate the artificial immortality of Ultron in the finest traditions of comic book science, there’s a number of planned experiments which claim to have the potential to digitally reanimate brains from very thorough maps of neuron connections. They’re based on Ray Kurzweil’s theory of the mind; we are simply the sum total of our neural network in the brain and if we can capture it, we can build a viable digital analog that should think, act, and sound like us. Basically, the general plot of last year’s Johnny Depp flop Transcendence wasn’t built around something a room of studio writers dreamed up over a very productive lunch, but on a very real idea which some people are taking seriously enough to use it to plan the fate of their bodies and minds after death. Those who are dying are now finding some comfort in the idea that they can be brought back to life should any of these experiments succeed, and reunite with the loved ones who they’re leaving behind.

In both industry and academia, it can be really easy to forget that the bleeding edge technology you study and promote can have a very real effect on very real people’s lives. Cancer patients, those with debilitating injuries that will drastically shorten their lives, and people whose genetics conspired to make their bodies fail them, are starting to make decisions based on the promises spread by the media on behalf of self-styled tech prophets. For years, I’ve been writing a lot of posts and articles explaining exactly why many of these promises are poorly formed ideas that lack the requisite understand of the problem they claim they understand how to solve. And it is still very much the case, as neuroscientist Michael Hendricks felt compelled to detail for MIT in response to the New York Times feature on whole brain emulation. His argument is a solid one, based on an actual attempt to emulate a brain we understand inside and out in an organism we have mapped from its skin down to the individual codon, the humble nematode worm.

Essentially, Hendricks says that to digitally emulate the brain of a nematode, we need to realize that its mind still has thousands of constant, ongoing chemical reactions in addition to the flows of electrical pulses through its neurons. We don’t know how to model them and the exact effect they have on the worm’s cognition, and even with the entire immaculately accurate connectome at hand, he’s still missing a great deal of information on how to start emulating its brain. But why should we have all the information, you ask, can’t we just build a proper artificial neural network reflecting the nematode connectome and fire it up? After all, if we know how the information will navigate its brain and what all the neurons do, couldn’t we have something up and running? To add on to Hendricks’ argument that the structure of the brain itself is only a part of what makes individuals who they are and how they work, allow me to add that this is simply not how a digital neural network is supposed to function, despite being constantly compared to our neurons.

Artificial neural networks are mechanisms to implement a mathematical formula for learning an unfamiliar task in the language of propositional logic. In essence, you define the problem space and the expected outcomes, then allow the network to weigh the inputs and guess its way to an acceptable solution. You can say that’s how our brains work too, but you’d be wrong. There are parts of our brain that deal with high level logic, like the prefrontal cortex which helps you make decisions about what to do in certain situations, that is, deal with executive functions. But unlike artificial neural networks, there are countless chemical reactions involved, reactions which warp how the information is being processed. Being hungry, sleepy, tired, aroused, sick, happy, and so on, and so forth, can make the same set of connections produce different outputs from very similar inputs. Ever had an experience of being asked to help a friend with something until one day, you got fed up that you were being constantly pestered for help, started a fight, and ended the friendship? Humans do that. Social animals can do that. Computers never could.

You see, your connectome doesn’t implement propositional calculus, it’s a constantly changing infrastructure for exchanging basic functionality, deeply affected by training, injury, your overall health, your memories, and the complex flow of neurotransmitters floating between neurons. If you bring me a connectome, even for a tiny nematode, and told me to set up an artificial neural network that captures these relationships, I’m sure it would be possible to draw up something in a bit of custom code, but what exactly would the result be? How do I encode plasticity? How do we define each neuron’s statistical weight if we’re missing the chemical reactions affecting it? Is there a variation in the neurotransmitters we’d have to simulate as well, and if so, what would it be and to which neurotransmitters will it apply? It’s like trying to rebuild a city with only the road map, no buildings, people, cars, trucks, and businesses included, then expecting artificial traffic patterns to recreate all the dynamics of the city the road map of which you digitized, with pretty much no room for entropy because it could easily break down the simulation over time. You will both be running the neural network and training it, something it’s really not meant to do.

The bottom line here is that synthetic minds, even once capable of hot-swapping newly trained networks in place of existing ones, are not going to be the same as organic ones. What a great deal of transhumanists refuse to accept is that the substrate in which computing — and they will define what the mind does as computing — is being done, is actually quite important because it allows the information to flow at different rates and in different ways than another substrate. We can put something from a connectome into a computer, but what comes out will not be what we put into it, it will be something new, something different because we put in just a part of it into a machine and naively expected the code to make up for all the gaps. And that’s for a best case scenario with a nematode and 302 neurons. Humans have 86 billion. Even if we don’t need the majority of these neurons to be emulated, the point is that whatever problems you’ll have with a virtual nematode brain, they will be more than nine orders of magnitude worse in virtual human ones, as added size and complexity create new problems. In short, whole brain emulation as a means for digital immortality may work in comic books, but definitely not in the real world.

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roaring hulk

Since the dawn of the web, there have been shock jocks and people on a quest to see who can post the most extreme content without crossing the line into depraved criminality. Then, with an enormous wave of social media companies, and our ever-expanding access to broadband and fast mobile networks, the distance between saying and doing something very regrettable, and a massive backlash that can go global, has never been shorter. An ill-thought out tweet could be devastating to one’s life and career, and we’re still all getting used to this scary reality, making a lot of mistakes along the way. Every bad decision, questionable blog post, and tone-deaf article zooms around the world within minutes to one of the online media’s most reliable sources of all those sweet, juicy, ad price hiking page views: the outraged response. Just consider last year’s meteoric rise of the outrage click, with a fresh, new scandal for each and every day, and should we consider non-celebrities and the world outside current events, many more beyond that.

This year, the outrage machine isn’t slowing down one bit. If anything, it’s picked up steam as a vast array of popular blogs and news sites are ready to pounce on every Twitter war and every botched interview and social media post. But as the rage keeps on coming, there’s a slow, sure trickle of think pieces asking if we’re ever going to get tired of it and if it’s the result of opening a digital Pandora’s Box. After all, once you give people a diet of nothing but outrage, they should, in theory, become largely immune to it, right? We have the same issue when it comes to caring and empathizing with something that leaves a large number of victims in its wake, a well known and thoroughly studied phenomenon known as the scope-severity paradox. It comes down to a limit on how many things we can process at once and how much emotion we can invest in each and every case brought to our attention. Our empathetic and and cognitive abilities start fading quickly when we’re overwhelmed, so logically, someday, we’ll get completely outraged out.

In fact, it would really be interesting to see and compare the traffic from popular outrage articles and social media posts over the last few years to chart the duration and size of each fury spike. There are publicly available tools for researchers regarding Twitter and Facebook activity, but a glimpse at that data alone wouldn’t tell the full story. We’d need closely kept traffic data from all the major media sources with more than a million views a day, including comment counts, likes, shares, and links, as well as additional controls for small cliques in debates inflating comments, regular outrageaholics, and whether the pieces are one-offs, or the entire outlet traffics in solely outrage and scandal. Only then will we actually have a clue as to whether the internet will in fact get sick of the steady drumbeat of the outrage machine. At the same time, I think we can make several predictions as to what we’re likely to find because while the speed and medium are new to us, how we collect and sometimes manufacture outrage for the public is rather old hat.

First off, it’s unlikely that internet outrage will ever be dethroned as a key in building traffic since we sure love to form angry mobs and it’s simply too easy to throw some red meat to such mobs just waiting to form. Likewise, it should be noted that among this outrage, there are instances of actual, brutal, noteworthy injustice that must be swiftly, vocally, and publicly addressed to make things right again. As bizarre as it sounds, sometimes an angry mob can actually do some good and contribute to fixing a problem. If anything, we do want the Outrage Machine around for the instances where we can use its power for good rather than evil, chaos, and PC wars. Secondly, people are going to participate in whipping up media outrage and escalating it it because they’ll want to be part of an angry mob, and nowadays, they don’t even have to physically grab nearby torches and pitchforks. Tweets and Facebook posts will more than suffice. With this barrier to a virtual riot as low as a click, many will find it hard to resist from basking in moral superiority.

Finally, let’s just admit that there are writers whose very bread and butter now relies on getting involved in some sort of scandal, so their outrage will get posted and promoted day in, day out, hoping that one or two of their pieces of outrage clickbait go viral and get them the page views, attention, and vitriolic feedback they need to keep their careers going. If online outrage starts to die down as a genre, it’s going to be a very slow death with periodic spasms that make it seem as if it had risen from death once again. It’s too easy to generate it, too easy to escalate it, way too easy to let it consume you, and it feeds the urge of many to seeing others in a situation that gives them a chance to gloat and compare themselves favorably to the disgraced schmucks. At the same time, there is a very real danger that constant outrage will ruin our connection to how our much less dramatic world really works, and lose incidents where public outrage is almost a required civic duty among the trivial and inconsequential. And that would be sad indeed.

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saturn and enceladus

We’ve known for a while that Saturn’s moon Enceladus should have a huge ocean under all the thick surface ice thanks to the plumes of water it regularly ejects into space. These jets couldn’t have come from melting ice because they were salty, the kind of salty only possible with ocean water being heated by active geology. Given the amount of work that went into analyzing them, yesterday’s official confirmation from NASA, which looked at the moon’s wobble and found clear and obvious signs of a global ocean, was actually kind of expected. Enceladus’ wobble is simply too significant for a world made entirely of ice and rock, and requires a massive volume of liquid water to explain. Locked under 19 to 25 miles of ice, this ocean is estimated to be 6 miles deep and has a volume of approximately 8 million cubic kilometers. It’s less than a hundredth of what we have there on Earth, but Enceladus is 25 times smaller, so relative it its size, that is a huge amount of liquid, salty, real estate for life to flourish. And not just life, but life as we know it.

That’s actually the real reason to get excited about going alien hunting on Enceladus. Normally, when talking about living things in the outer solar system, we need to start considering all sorts of exotic chemistry we don’t yet fully understand. This means finding life on say, Titan, could be a much more ambiguous endeavor and there will always be room to doubt what we discovered due to some quirk of the local environment. Enceladus, on the other hand, has oceans warmed by tidal churn, much like Europa, and with extremely strong hints of hydrothermal activity not at all dissimilar from the bottom of the oceans right here at home. The same chemistry that made life on Earth possible is more than likely taking place under the moon’s ice shell. When we start diving into its ocean, we could very well encounter organisms we’d instantly recognize as living beings; alien arthropods, worms, and plants converting volcanic gases into rich nutrients.

When next month’s close fly-by by Cassini happens, we will get much better close-up images of the ice shell, but I wouldn’t expect anything too groundbreaking. At this point, with the evidence at hand, we should start dusting off the plans to explore this frozen ocean, although melting the many miles of ice on Enceladus would be much, much harder than the alternative of finding the rifts in Europa’s ice sheets and scurrying to dive in. It would be a difficult mission because there are pretty much no shortcuts to the nuclear-powered drills and heaters required for Enceladus. Even trying to break up the ice with kinetic impacts from orbit wouldn’t really do much because at -292° F, the ice is more like rock than just frozen water, and the impactors would just bounce off after a glancing blow. So when the time finally comes to dive into the dark, hidden oceans of the outer solar system’s moons, expect Europa to be first on the list thanks to its proximity, and the dynamics of its ice sheets. After that, however, Enceladus is bound to be the next stop…

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egyptian wall

Sometimes, you have to go out of your way to look for post material. Sometimes, ideas brew in the back of your head until you have a complete thought that works. And sometimes, the exact blog fodder you didn’t even know you sought until you saw it arrives in your inbox on its own. In the years this blog has been up and running, the number and the frequency of posts while I am actively writing, gave plenty of journalists and PR agents the idea that this is my full time job. It’s not, as should be clear from my short bio, but nevertheless, unsolicited press releases, offers to do interviews, and review copies of books get sent to me on a regular basis. Most of the books in question won’t be blockbusters flying off the shelves at your local bookstore, or on back order from your favorite online retailer, i.e. Amazon, so I seldom mention them. But this one, while not destined for the bestseller list as well, is actually noteworthy in its own, very bizarre way.

Across the ufology and ancient alien theory community, there’s a pervasive idea of human-alien hybrids either living among us, or being with us in the past. When the whole idea was just being distilled into von Daniken’s books, the most popular alternative history of humanity held that we were all of alien origin, engineered to be slaves to an extraterrestrial civilization known to us as the Anunnaki. Compared to other species on this planet, the theorists argued, we were way too smart for our own good and biology alone can’t explain the sudden leap in intelligence. Until the alien part would’ve come up, you could’ve sworn you were reading a creationist tract. But as of late, there’s been a bit of a refinement along the lines of David Icke’s ideas. Humans evolved on their own, just as we were taught in a proper science class. It’s just that some humans had very unconventional families in which mom or dad was an alien from the otherwordly ruling caste. I’d like to think of it as a classic fairy tale but the prince or princess is a lizard from Tau Ceti.

Problem is that the original theory makes more sense than the emerging one because we can’t possibly hybridize with an alien life form, even if we consider the implications of panspermia for some sort of common origin for our species. No matter how closely the organic compounds that gave rise to human and any hypothetical alien life would match, the entire hereditary machinery would depend on the chemistry of their home star system. Even something as basic as DNA on another world could look familiar, but have radically different fundamental elements. Usually, an evolutionary path which took place on the same planet, forking fewer than a million years ago is a requirement for even the idea of successful hybridization, though the degree of success could vary wildly, and most offspring would end up sterile a few thousand generations into it. Should a spacecraft in our far future ever land on a planet around another star where other humans with whom we’d successfully procreate live, a lot of very interesting questions will need answers, but that’s pretty much the only way we could reproduce with any functionally alien species.

But you see, the theorists have thought of that. No matter how radical the differences in DNA or underlying physiology are, a sufficiently advanced civilization could manipulate it to produce the desired effect. We’re already starting to get a good handle on genetic engineering, so shouldn’t star-traversing aliens be even more adept at the technology? And that’s pretty much the vein in which ufologist and cryptozoologist Nick Redfern argues in the aforementioned book, that rare, complex human blood types called Rh negative are the result of Annunaki genetic engineering, and that pregnancies in which the mother is Rh+ and the fetus is Rh- are a telltale sign that the incompatibility isn’t a quirk of biology, but of alien tinkering. He goes even further to attribute the blood group to Rhesus monkeys and posit that by the theory of evolution, an Rh- human would have had to deviate from our normal evolutionary past. After all, how would you possibly argue with the forces of evolution and genetics without denying a century of scientific progress?

Well, you do it by pointing out that pretty much everything underpinning Redfern’s idea is a very drastic oversimplification strapped to the Hyperbole Rocket™, and blasted into space, fueled by a pseudoscientific word salad on its way into orbit. There is nothing so terribly mysterious about the Rh blood group that any deviation from norm could only be alien in origin, the Rh+ and Rh- designation is actually just a flag as to whether the blood cell proteins have something typically known as the D antigen, one of some 50 other antigens in the Rh group. The group was named after the Rhesus monkey because chemical reactions with its blood were used to help scientists study the group and find out how to treat Rh factor incompatibilities during pregnancy. It’s really kind of a misnomer to bring up these monkeys, according to the NIH. To say that about 10% of humanity lacking a single antigen in about 50 during a single test can only come about through alien intervention sounds somewhat absurd in this light. While we’re at it, what about the CCR5 mutation which renders less than 1% of us immune to HIV? Is this proof of aliens as well?

Rather than only being logical that every human should share the same evolved traits, that can only happen through cloning. Should you look hard enough at the 0.5% of the genes making us unique individuals created by sexual reproduction rather than budding or self-fertilization, and a whole lot of differences emerge. For example, those living in the Andes and Himalayas evolved completely different ways to cope with living at extreme altitudes. Native Africans seem to have less in common with each other than with Eurasians, genetically speaking. And one in as many as 8 million children may suffer from progeria, a genetic mutation that accelerates aging. Using the same logic as Redfern, we could point to any rare or peculiar fact in human genes and then claim them to be a side-effect of alien genetic engineering because they’re rare or peculiar. But that would make just as little sense. So should you ever find out that you’re Rh-, don’t worry, an investigation into your genetic lineage won’t uncover a great-to-the-500th-degree-grandma who came to Earth in a flying saucer. Chances are that every ancestor you had was very human.

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dingy lab

About a month ago, health and science journalist Christie Aschwanden took on the tough job of explaining why, despite a recent rash of peer review scandals, science isn’t broken by showing how media hype and researchers’ need to keep on publishing make it seem as if today’s study investigating something of general interest will be contradicted by tomorrow’s, if not shown as a complete and utter fraud. It’s nothing you really haven’t heard before if you follow a steady diet of popular science and tech blogs, although her prescription for dealing with whiplash inducing headlines from the world of science is very different from that of most science bloggers. As she puts it, we should simply expect that what we see isn’t necessarily the whole story and carefully consider that the scientists who found a positive result were out to prove something and might be wrong not because they’re clueless or manipulative, but because they’re only human.

Now, while this is all true, it’s extremely difficult not to notice that in today’s academic climate of obscenely overpaid college bureaucrats publishing scientists to publish countless papers just to be considered for a chance to keep working in their scientific fields after their early 40s, there’s incessant pressure to churn out a lot of low quality papers, then promote them as significant for anyone to cite them. Even if you published a very vague, tenuous hypothesis-fishing expedition just to pad your CV and hit the right number to keep the funding to your lab going, there’s plenty of pressure to drum up media attention by writers guaranteed to oversell it because if you don’t promote it, it will get lost among a flood of similar papers and no one will cite it, meaning that an extra publication won’t help you as much when the tenure committee decides your fate because its low quality will be evident by the complete lack of attention and citations. Long gone are days of scientists routinely taking time to let ideas mature into significant papers, and that’s awful.

Instead of realizing that science is a creative process which needs time and plenty of slack as it often bumps into dead ends in search of important knowledge, colleges have commoditized the whole endeavor into a publication factory and judge researchers on how they’re meeting quotas rather than the overall impact their ideas have on the world around them. Sure, they measure if the papers have been cited, but as we’ve seen, it’s an easily gamed metric. In fact, every single measure of a scientist’s success today can be manipulated so good scientists have to publish a lot of junk just to stay employed, and bad scientists can churn out fraudulent, meaningless work to remain budgetary parasites on their institutions. Quantity has won over quality, and being the generally very intelligent people that they are, scientists have adapted. Science is not broken in the sense that we can no longer trust it to correct itself and discover new things. But it has been broken the way it’s practiced day to day, and it will not be fixed until we go back to the day when the scope and ambition of the research is what mattered, rather than the number of papers.

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terraformed mars

Mars has been calling humans for centuries and with every year we seem more eager to come and set up the groundwork for a lasting presence, so much so, there’s someone very seriously thinking about making the planet its own nation state. But living on Mars is far easier said than done because it’s atmosphere is a ghostly shell, it’s cold, dry, and barren, its magnetic field will offer so little protection from cosmic radiation that its surface can even kill bacteria that happily live inside nuclear reactors, and there are serious question about whether its soil will grow food and plants necessary for long term survival. And that’s not to mention the challenges of getting there safely, and the astronauts’ mental health tens of millions of miles from home. Now, when we do solve the problem of actually getting there comfortably, intact, and quickly, we could deal with the problems of living in a frigid alien desert by building vast, complex, expensive habitats, and hope for the best. Or we could get really ambitious and turn Mars into a livable world.

Plans for terraforming Mars have been around in both science and science fiction for decades, calculated to take several hundred years, cost trillions, and start out by pumping a noxious mix of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to build it up and melt the polar icecaps. The process should essentially allow for a similar runaway greenhouse effect as Venus’, but keeping Mars at very warm and comfortable temperatures for us. Solar panels the size of Texas hovering over a few strategic points near the poles to redirect sunlight and melt the ice faster, have also been a periodic part of the plan. After the planet starts to warm up, hearty algae can be planted to feed on the toxic gasses and start replacing them with oxygen, much like on primeval Earth on a fast forward setting. If everything goes well, some 125 years after we begin, trees could grow in the Martian soil to speed the process up even more and stabilize the oxygen levels for humans.

Of course, those very interested in terraforming Mars do not want to wait over a century before genetically engineered super trees create the first forests on their chosen planet. They’d like to speed things up a bit using nuclear weapons. That’s right, under one terraforming scenario that Elon Musk explained to Colbert a few night ago, the process of making Earth 2.0 starts with the apocalyptic nuclear bombardment of the Martian poles. Once you’ve basically converted much of the dry ice to vapor after 500 to 800 mushroom clouds finally dissipate, the hot steam could, in theory, start the runaway feedback loop that would puff up the atmosphere and trap enough sunlight to raise the planet’s average temperature to a toasty 15° C or 60° F, although there will be so much fallout that the plants needed to convert much of that to oxygen and nitrogen would have to wait at least a few centuries. And that’s the downside of this plan, really. It is a cheaper, easier way to start terraforming, but over the long term it would really slow things down.

In general, since Mars is already a radioactive desert, there isn’t much that nuclear fallout could do to it that the sun isn’t already doing on a daily basis on the surface. But the surface is not an issue here, it’s the soil underneath. Radioactive elements like cesium will leach into it, poisoning the plant life we’ll ultimately need to sustain. You can see a similar problem in the Bikini Atoll as nuclear tests have rendered growing food there dangerous when cesium-137 mimicked the role of potassium and was absorbed into the local flora. It would take massive remediation efforts to prepare Mars for its greening, something which would run up the budget significantly, or we can just wait for the century or two it would take for the soil to be safe enough for the algae. And for my money, no one is going to choose the far more expensive and resource-consuming process when just waiting would do the job. But that means that we paid for cheapening out on starting the greenhouse effect we needed with an additional century, in the best case scenario.

However, thinking about this game me an idea. We do know of a way to get the oomph of huge nukes and create the same kind of damage without any of the complicated weapons we’d have to somehow convince nuclear powers to give up after modifying complex treaties that are taken so seriously that violating them could open the way to turning Mad Max into a preview of much of our world’s future. Large kinetic missiles dropped from satellites could easily kick start a huge polar melt and our terraforming factories could immediately get to work on making sure that the feedback loop does begin by surgically adding extra greenhouse gasses when needed. And as the kinetic impactors would be just solid spikes of hardened alloys, manufacturing thousands of them should actually be orders of magnitude cheaper than getting nuclear warheads ready and secure enough to be launched into space. This way, we could get the benefit of a nuclear-scale bombardment for a tiny fraction of the price, none of the radiation, and none of the delays. The only things that would be left in the aftermath are craters that we’d help erode away.

So the process sounds good so far, once again. There’s just the small question of whether the hard work of terraforming the red planet will actually stick, which is still a matter of debate. You see, the problem is that Mars may be too small to hold on to a large, thick atmosphere like ours and its lack of volcanic activity and weak magnetic field would only make it worse. Technically, a planet capable of holding on at an adequate atmosphere for 10 billion years can be as small as just 5,690 km across while Mars is almost 6,800 km in diameter, so you’d think there’s a rather comfortable 12% margin above the minimum. But this is a spherical chicken in a vacuum figure which isn’t capturing the complexity of chemical reaction between the sun, surface, and air, and don’t take the solar wind into account. We could invest 250 years into creating a thick, luxurious atmosphere only to see it scoured away to barely breathable in less than twice that time as the planet’s weak magnetic field can’t protect it. We’d have to add 70,000 tons of gas to the Martian atmosphere every year to offset the loss. Hey, no one said terraforming a world will be easy.

Ultimately there will be many challenges to creating Earth 2.0 and the end product might never resemble our home world. Costs will mount, political and legal questions will have to be tackled, and the project could only be accomplished if every advanced economy works together to keep it moving along for longer than something close to two thirds of the nations we recognize today existed. It would be the biggest mega-engineering project ever undertaken, which is why it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future to be blunt. But it seems that we understand much of the underlying science and have a good idea how to actually make it happen, so if money could one day cease to be a hindrance to this idea, or it suddenly became a top priority after a major catastrophe loomed on Earth and millions needed an escape route within a few hundred years, we may just turn Mars into our second home world with kinetic missiles and a greenhouse gas spewing network of factories. Should you ever be legally able to buy land on Mars, maybe you should shell out for a hundred acres. Your great-great-grandchildren might thank you…

[ illustration by Marcel Labbé-Laurent ]

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icelandic lake

As the jokes about global warming go, since humans like warm weather, what’s so bad about a little melting permafrost and new beachfront properties after the seas rise? Well, aside from the aftermath of ocean acidification and its impact on marine life we eat, as well as the rising costs of adapting to the swelling tides, and replacing the infrastructure that will be damaged by thaws in the previously solid permafrost layers, there’s also the threat of disease. And not just any old chest cold or flu we’re used to, but viruses tens of thousands of years old which were menacing our cave-dwelling ancestors before ending up in suspended animation. While so far only mild or benign viruses have been found in permafrost samples, the researchers are worried that there are good reasons to suspect various strains of plague or even smallpox are hiding under snow and ice, and will thaw back to life to infect a population which considers them long gone, with a bare minimum of natural immunity to their full ravages, and plenty of perfectly viable hosts.

Now, I know, this sounds like the opening act of a low budget sci-fi movie where some terrifying ancient virus shown in the prologue as annihilating an entire civilization, Atlantis perhaps, thaws as permafrost since the last Ice Age is disturbed by a construction crew with dire consequences and it’s up to an aspiring underwear model of a scientist called by a chiseled president who may be the scientist’s old friend to hunt down the anti-body producing McGuffin in some exotic parts of the world which fails to work, and then improvise a cure at the last possible minute as his kid or love interest is about to die of the disease. If you’re reading this post from a Hollywood studio office, drop me a line, let’s do lunch. But I digress. As unlikely as this scenario is, the odds of an old human-infecting bugaboo for which we may not have effective medication on hand stirred to life as the world warms is not zero, and we may want to start looking back into the viruses’ past to identify and design possible treatments ahead of time. If we don’t, millions might suffer.

Just consider what would happen should an ancient strain of smallpox return. Before worldwide vaccination campaigns, it was the greatest killer of our humble little species for 10,000 years, a culprit behind a third of all blindness, the main contributor to child mortality, and while we fought it off over the last century, it still managed to kill as many as 300 million of us. Before vaccines, the virus traveled across the Atlantic with Europeans, wiping out 90% of Native Americans while the first New World colonies were being established. Today we do have antiviral treatments we think should be able to subdue advanced cases, and post-infection vaccinations would help the patients recover, but this assumes that we’d be fighting the product of trillions of generations of coexistence with humans. A thawed strain could be so radically different by comparison, it may as well be from another planet, which could make it benign to us, or even deadlier. And as we’ll continue warming the planet with wild abandon, we might live to experience this in real life…

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