reserve note

Now, far be it for a lowly techie to question the work of an economist like Piketty since he’s, well, an economist, with many years of education and research in the discipline, and since I’m not a political pundit, I don’t suffer from the delusion that just being able to read his thesis makes me an expert in economics as well. But at the same time, this is the internet, I have wi-fi and years of professional blogging experience, so I’m going to barrel ahead anyways. Although it’s not so much to say that Piketty is wrong in his conclusions or his views about why economic inequality is a bad thing, as much as, at least in my opinion, his proscription has a hidden danger in it and it covers up the biggest and most problematic issue for workers in the near future, for whom his solutions will fall very, very short.

At the core of Piketty’s findings is the issue that capital gains are outstripping economic growth by comparison, and it’s really difficult to argue with mathematics on this. The compound return on $3 million in investments is going to grow a lot faster than savings from a $45,000 per year salary socked away into secure, slow growing investments. This is especially true because the larger sum lets you better absorb market losses, and gives you leeway to be more aggressive with your investment strategies, whereas smaller investments have to be far safer, since many risks become too expensive. And so, true to the saying, the rich get richer.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Inequality in and of itself is a very normal condition, and even in the most egalitarian community there are those who, to paraphrase an old Soviet quip, are more equal than others. Where the problem lies is in inequality looming so wide that social mobility starts to notably suffer, something that may be starting to happen in the United States. Certainly the capitalist ethos of the U.S. dictates that there will be winners and losers when we talk about money, and that someone who became a millionaire after many years of hard work and smart asset management should be seen as an example, not an exploitative oligarch.

But at the same time, this culture was based on equality of access, i.e. the idea that we should all start with similar opportunities and through hard work, achieve our dreams. When you’re no longer able to do that, the economic game becomes rigged and the consequences to long term stability are dire. Typically, nations with the biggest middle classes and the most social mobility enjoy the most stable and prosperous economies. Those divided primarily into a wealthy elite v. a small middle class and many in poverty, stagnate and suffer from more violence, crime, and political unrest. So Piketty’s point that we shouldn’t stand idly by, concluding that if an oligarchy emerges from a capitalistic economy we should simply accept it, has serious support behind it. But should we start taxing wealth at punitive levels to avoid an authoritarian kleptocracy?

In a short? No. Gains from investments are not certain, and even worse, if you recall the Great Recession’s more boring, but financially crucial lessons, many of today’s massive capital gains were built on the very shaky foundation of financial shenanigans and collaterized obligations by over-leveraged banks. Institutions borrowed so heavily to trade assets which were rotten at the core, boosting value of financial equivalents of badly burnt White Castle sliders to that of a filet mignion made by Gordon Ramsey, and then played a game of musical chairs with them. (That should be enough overlapping metaphors for one sentence, right?) And if you think the banks learned from their mistakes, you are an optimistic soul whose lofty expectations of your fellow humans is endearing, but sadly, misguided. Which is a long-winded way of saying “hell no.”

So do you really want to pump whatever you could recover before it’s squirreled away in some tax haven based on Wall Street voodoo into the economy and then tie government funding and basic social services to the ups and downs of some stock broker snake oil? Wouldn’t it be wiser to regulate financial monstrosities into virtual non-existence and promote investment in lagging and much needed areas of the economy and education? We really want people like Elon Musk and Bill Gates to invest into medicine, science, education, space, and new technology, and we should make it easy and gainful for them to do so with tax incentives. We don’t want billions to be loaned to banks that will use it to gamble on the spreads of some Hungarian foot fetish porn company stocks, or giant squid tentacle futures, we need to identify them as the junk they are, and punish those obfuscating their over-leveraged positions in overly volatile markets. Problem sort of, kind of, maybe solved in an ideal world? Well, not exactly. Stay tuned for the deep dive into how computers and robots play a big part in all this tomorrow…

[ illustration by K. J. Garbutt ]

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lego atheist evolution

Once upon a time, yours truly was walking down the crowded streets of Las Vegas when a man way too enthusiastic about life in general started shouting at those passing by, training his eyes on me as he proceeded with his rehearsed speech. “I used to be like you!” he proclaimed as he tried to channel a televangelist’s spirit, “boozing, gambling my life away, whoring around!” to an otherwise perfect stranger, who by that point was yet to have a drop of alcohol, won a couple of bucks after putting the princely sum of $10 in a video poker machine, and was holding his wife’s hand, wedding bands visible to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. Far from urging the wounded soul of a broken man addicted to life’s vices to examine itself then pledge its future to the forgiving embrace of Jesus, he was trying to “save” a man on his honeymoon with the less than appropriate assumption that him being in Vegas was a sign of a moral failing and ignoring the woman next to him, implying that her presence was either billable by the hour, or the result of some other wayward soul looking for a way to forget her worries and fears in intoxication.

Now, were I posting this in r/atheism, this is the part where you’d get some grand debate on the streets of America’s party town for grownups where I publicly berated this zealot to the cheer of an appreciative crowd. Of course this isn’t what happened; you don’t reason with people on the street yelling things at you and you most certainly don’t start yelling things back because you’re still sane and familiar with the basic rules of public decorum. My significant other and I made a few jokes for each others’ entertainment and went on our merry way without a word to him. But from a standpoint of pure curiosity, why would someone yell at random strangers to fix their sin infested, immoral lives? Certainly all sorts of weird stuff happens behind closed doors in Vegas, as it certainly does everywhere else, but was there a poll or a study after which this man made some rational decision to go our and proselytize to people passing by? Probably not. Then why was he there? Maybe he really was an out of control addict who found religion?

How many times have we seen or heard of someone substituting one addiction for another, go from waking up every morning with a bump of coke and a vodka tonic, to, oh, I don’t know, say, becoming the maniacally smiling right hand of a mindless street preacher, dedicating his life to spreading his now unshakable, absolute, unyielding blind faith exemplified by the intricate and surely, God-ordained magnificence of a banana? Many atheists laugh at this turn of events, but at the same time, in their general state of being human, they do the same exact thing when the decision to publicly call themselves atheists is made. When we make a big change in our lives, it’s only natural to want to share this with a supportive community, especially when you’re living among those who either don’t understand you, or turn malicious and stereotype you as worse than any modern boogeyman. And I would imagine it feels great to finally have your atheism all out in the open instead of pretending to be something you’re not just to avoid drama.

But just like the man who accosted me on the street, no longer able to comprehend that I’m not him and not everyone is either given themselves to Jesus or will be partying Wolf of Wall Street style later in the night, too many eager young atheists who get into skeptical groups also seem unable to tell the difference between a believer wearing faith on a sleeve and curious about all that skeptic stuff and a full-blown theocrat who wants premarital sex punishable by law. This is why some local skeptical groups have pushed back against atheists new to the fold, unsure of how to mediate their meetings being hijacked in a way that terrify believers interested in being more scientific and skeptical about the world. And as their energies are being harvested by the identity politics contingent that has annexed a number of formerly skeptical blogs, they’re being encouraged to see every believer as a raging oppressor, not just the really loud zealots whose antics repulse many of those who they claim to represent.

This is not to say that believers don’t have responsibilities here because that accommodationist attitude gives those foaming at the mouth a free pass to rant and rave, and absolves those less faithful of not standing up to them. One does not have to personally dish out an injustice to find his or her hands sullied by it. To see an asinine abuse to power and idly stand by because the abusers call themselves by the same moniker you do while feeling “really bad about it because that’s not representative of my beliefs” is just cowardice. But yet, it’s not the same as agreeing with the injustice or abuse in question and young, newly minted atheists on the warpath have to recognize that. Giving a believers a stereotypical “angry, bitter atheist” stereotype to hold up in debates does you no favors and helps them sway public opinion. If we have the facts, we have to argue them and expose raving lunatics as such, not become their clones on the other side of the rhetorical isle. Think of being an atheist as becoming a kung-fu student. Yes, you can use a new set of skills to start fights, but that’s not why you should’ve learned them. You learned them to defend yourself and those who can’t when they’re in dire need.

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woman vector

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

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

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

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

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

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humanoid robot

With easy, cheap access to cloud computing, a number of popular artificial intelligence models computer scientists wanted to put to the test for decades, have now finally able to summon the necessary oomph to drive cars and perform sophisticated pattern recognition and classification tasks. With these new probabilistic approaches, we’re on the verge of having robotic assistants, soldiers, and software able to talk to us and help us process mountains of raw data based not on code we enter, but the questions we ask as we play with the output. But with that immense power come potential dangers which alarmed a noteworthy number of engineers and computer scientists, and sending them wondering aloud how to build artificial minds with values similar to ours and can see the world enough like we do to avoid harm us by accident, or even worse, by their own independent decision after seeing us as being “in the way” of their task.

Their ideas on how to do that are quite sound, if exaggerated somewhat to catch the eye of the media and encourage interested non-experts in taking this seriously, and they’re not thinking of some sort of Terminator-style or even Singularitarian scenarios, but how to educate an artificial intelligence on our human habits. But the flaw I see in their plans has nothing to do with how to train computers. Ultimately an AI will do what its creator wills it to do. If its creator is hell bent on wreaking havoc, there’s nothing we can do other than stop him or her from creating it. We can’t assume that everyone wants a docile, friendly, helpful AI system. I’m sure they realize it, but all that I’ve found so far on the subject ignores bad actors. Perhaps it’s because they’re well aware that the technology itself is neutral and the intent of the user is everything. But it’s easier just to focus on technical safeguards than on how to stop criminals and megalomaniacs…

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metal gear solid surgeon

Remember the big news that an Italian surgeon was dead set on performing a head transplant on a human received an enthusiastic volunteer? Well, that story just got really, really weird this week, and yes, there is something more bizarre than an attempt at putting one person’d head on another person’s body. According to a conspiracy theory born on reddit and investigated by several gaming sites, Dr. Canavero might actually be doing this as a marketing stunt for Metal Gear Solid 5 from Konami. Not the surgery of course, but talking about it and getting the press worked up just so game designer Hideo Kojima can unveil his latest game. Some outlets wrote about this story in their usual fashion, omitting the steak for the sizzle, and missing the fact that people actually did ask Canavero head-on — hey, you try to resist when appropriate puns write themselves — about this, and not only did he deny the rumors, but promised to sue Konami for using his likeness without authorization and use the winnings to fund his research.

Of course this lawsuit is unlikely to go anywhere because according to a Belgian site for MGS, the doctor in the game bearing an uncanny resemblance to Canavero is actually Ian Moore, a UK-born actor based in Japan, who was definitely aware of the game, and was more than likely compensated for his appearance. That Moore and Canavero look so similar that they could be mistaken for brothers, surely wouldn’t be Konami’s concern according to the courts. Likewise, according to the gamers who spotted the similarity, MGS features a plot line about a surgeon performing a head transplant on Snake, but there’s no official word on whether this is the case, just a teaser in which some fans concluded this is what they were glimpsing. Kojima, known for teasing his fans, has only doused the flames in kerosine with a tweet of headless Snake bodies widely open to interpretation, and saying that the game deals with “taboo” topics.

Here’s my guess at what may be happening. One scenario is that Kojima was very aware of the controversial surgeon and is basically trolling the living hell out of Metal Gear Solid fans with all this teasing in which he winks, nudges, but never provides any real specifics, and wanted to do that from the start. The other possibility I see is very similar to it, but in which Kojima caught the TED talk by Canavero, made the connection between something important in his game, like say the question of giving Snake a robot body or whatnot, and decided to run with it to get free viral marketing done by game reporters. Finally, he could have changed a plot point in development and if there were no head transplants in MGS, there will be now. It wouldn’t be the first time the web ceased on some coincidence, spun an elaborate conspiracy theory, and inspired some big changes. But the bottom line is that Kojima definitely knows how to market games and if even a little pop sci blog like this is talking about his latest creation, that’s just proof of his talent…

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cape verde

Despite the constant political challenges and bean counting nihilism, human spaceflight is still a routine event and no matter how much some want to relegate space exploration to robots, any way we look at it, the domain of space travel is not a human or robot proposition, but will always need to be a partnership. Ultimately, monetary considerations be damned, we want to explore and discover. It’s what made us who we are today and we’ll do it even if we have to merge with machines to do it, even if those modifications are almost inhumanly extreme, as long as they’re within the realm of plausibility. But as long as human explorers’ bodies will have organic tissues there will always be the specter of medical emergencies and the need for treatments, surgeries in extreme environments, and dealing with damage from radiation. Right now, if an astronaut is in dire need of emergency treatment the plan is to evacuate him or her and perform whatever procedures are necessary on Earth. Beyond our planet’s orbit, this will not be an option.

Considering the current plans to send humans to asteroids, back to the Moon, and eventually, towards Mars, NASA has been hard at work soliciting ideas for how to do everything from robot surgery, harness ultrasonic devices to help with treatment and diagnosis, and extreme ways of approaching treatment of radiation sickness and long term effects of elevated exposure to both cosmic rays and mutagenic solar particles. This is great news not just for space exploration, but for humanity in general, because radically new approaches to medical treatments will let us live longer and healthier lives. With surgery being a last resort replaced by high tech scanners and ultrasonic devices, lasers, and genetically engineered viruses tested through the rigors of life in radioactive vacuum of space, and what surgeries are performed meant for minimum collateral damage and rapid healing, we could treat more issues, and use far fewer antibiotics.

Imagine a world in which superbugs evolve slower, people would live longer and healthier, and we can fix conditions currently treated by a constant dose of doctors gravely nodding and back pats for enduring them. And of course, since many of these treatments would be designed for maximum effect with minimal or even nonexistent infrastructure, we could deploy them to help developed nations. But hold on, you may ask, why not help developed nations first since that’s your goal along with just better medical technology? Because helping developed nations is not the kind of simple proposition it’s often portrayed to be. It’s become a sport to castigate those who spend their wealth on humanity’s distant future instead of its poorest members and it’s an extremely safe bet to do so. But the reality of the situation is that pouring billions of dollars into unstable regimes with no accountability and perverse incentives solves little. Designing for the rigors of space frees us from the political constraints and forces us to be more creative.

When we know no help will come, ever, not just late, there will be no infrastructure other than a spacecraft around us, and failure to meet the challenge is certain death, evolutionary, halfway, compromised designs are not an option. Being able to then package the successful fruits of all that hard work and ship them into even the most remote wilderness would be huge, a massive game changer that could help billions live a better life. As bizarre as it sounds, basic research, driven purely by the need to accomplish something that by definition has to be efficient, quick, and effective in practice, not beholden to profit margins, shareholders, or patent wars may be much cheaper and exactly what we need to finally capitalize on the bleeding edge research we find being nurtured in startup and university labs today. The space program provided the case for integrated electronics and countless materials that make our modern world what it is, and it can also provide the know-how to drastically improve our lives here on Earth and in space.

[ illustration from Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers ]

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supernova flare

FRBs just can’t seem to catch a break this month. First, they were an alien signal. Then just as quickly as they were attributed to aliens because the Daily Fail decided to get creative with two out of context words and no one seemed to bother to fact check them, the bursts were called a false signal caused by microwave interference. Not just any microwave interference mind you, but the kind in which you warm up leftovers according to a widely quoted story for which, again, reporters decided that reading the actual paper is for chumps. Popular Science seems to have been the only mainstream publication to actually read the whole thing and point out that no, it’s not open microwave doors creating FRBs, but an extraterrestrial source. While the bursts seen by Parkes and mislabeled as a potential alien communication may have been coming from the kind of interference generated by a prematurely open microwave door by the media are likely just interference from cell towers or another source emitting as the same frequency, there is a batch of FRBs that came to us from as far away as 3 billion light years.

Hold on though, how are some FRBs a case of mistaken identity and others are coming all the way from intergalactic space all from the same telescope? Well, the first study deliberately took what were thought to be 11 signals deserving extra attention and processed their distribution to see if they could find any patterns that would give us a clue as to their origins. Unlike you were told by just about everyone, it probably was not aliens, or even microwaves, since there was a string correlation between signal distribution and a constant we use to sync equipment placed across the world. What exactly emitted the signals we don’t know, but it’s likely fairly humdrum communications equipment. The second study tried to figure out if they could generate a fake signal with microwave ovens, which they could, and then used the data they collected to ferret out whether the FRBs they tracked matched these control perytons.

This is where the story gets interesting. After the second team found matches between the two in terms of frequency, CNET and most others called it a day and told the world that those goofy scientists think aliens were contacting them because they couldn’t wait for their nachos to warm up, adding their inability to fact check to their inability to read an entire paper. But when taking a close look at the distributions form their perytons and genuine FRBs, the researchers found key differences pointing to the bursts coming to us from deep space. Unlike the perytons, FRBs did not have predictable clustering when all candidate signals were included in the analysis, mostly did not line up with the position of the stars in our own galaxy, and one could not match any of their control signals to such an extent that it would be impossible to mistake it for a peryton. So this means that FRBs are indeed extragalactic signals from violent cosmic events and SURONs along with exotic events like neutron star collisions and quakes, are back on the table.

Now that we have the science sorted out, I’d like to turn back to the media for just a moment to humbly ask what the hell is wrong with those who take anything the Daily Mail says and rush to publish something, anything, no matter how poorly researched, distorted, or outright full of crap it happens to be as long as they can publish it quickly enough to ride the Google Trends waves to some extra views. Yes, the media was always awful at reporting science, but this is a rather remarkable low. As mentioned above, reporters who couldn’t be bothered to read whatever the paper they’re covering said made up some alien contact theories no one entertained, said that experiments to rule out human interference with results was in fact proof that the “aliens” were microwave ovens, and proceeded to cast scientists who were just trying to study an interesting phenomenon as the lab-coat wearing version of the Keystone Kops. Your readers deserve real news, written by people who know how to research stories. They deserve better than what you throw at them without a second thought as you rush to the next SEO-dictated topic.

See: E. Petroff, et. al. (2015). Identifying the source of perytons at the Parkes radio telescope arXiv: 1504.02165v1

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icy void

Remember the anomalous Cold Spot, the bizarre, low temperature area spotted in the maps of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, or CMBR for short, the echo the Big Bang which gives us a very high level overview of the structure of our universe? Cosmologists bristled at an anomaly stretching some 1.8 billion light years and seemingly violating what we thought was a universal rule that our cosmos is isotropic and homogeneous, i.e. expanding similarly in every direction and with roughly the same density of galaxies from end to end. And so they analyzed the map using different means and some were able to rule it out as an artifact in the data. Still, the question of whether it was really there never went away because every time you figure out some way of erasing something from your data set because it seems weird, you haven’t gotten rid of it, and sure enough, it appeared yet again on Planck’s CMBR map and was now stuck for good. This left scientists with a dilemma. Why was there a cold spot so large and so cold?

Well, the answer to that is a distinct lack of galaxies which makes the Cold Spot about 20% less dense than the typical patch of the sky. This has of course given pop sci headline writers cover to call it The Great Void, a grandiose moniker which overstates the shortfalls in density for this area of the universe, and when billed as the answer to why The Cold Spot is so cold, oversells the effect it has on the background temperature in this patch of the sky. In fact, just 10% of the temperature drop can be linked back to the lack of density while the rest is still very much open to debate. To give credit where credit is due, virtually all iterations of this story did mention this somewhere along the line, but since it’s a fact that people usually read just the first half of most articles, I thought I’d put my disclaimers and conditionals in the top half of my post, rather than towards the bottom as the articles in question because my feeling is that a lot of people will be convinced that the Cold Spot mystery is solved when in fact, it actually deepened.

While you can find anything in the CMBR you want if you stare hard enough, seeing the spot in both the WMAP and Planck results shows that it’s a persistent feature, unlike Roger Penrose’s proposed echoes of past Big Bangs, a hypothesis he was never sufficiently able to explain, and evidence for which strongly depends on how you process the data. And while it’s not really the biggest structure in the known cosmos since that title belongs to a group of quasars more than twice as large if we get nitpicky, as much of the media claims, it’s still a really important feature. When combined with some other weird observations, it hints at something under the surface of our cosmological framework. If you take the so-called Dark Flow discovered several years ago, and add it to the Cold Spot, as well as galactic superclusters which challenge the cosmological principle, one of the odd but still plausible explanations that ties all of them together, is that our universe is being bumped by other universes, essentially giving us evidence of a multiverse we think should exist to explain inflation and making the Cold Spot a cosmological bruise.

Of course now the big question is how we can validate that hypothesis because we steer right into the horizon problem, which puts other universes out of our reach and any attempt to even create a census of what occupies the multiverse is fraught with problems for which we have no existing solutions. Frustratingly, if the colliding universe explanation is in fact the right one, we’ll have to hold off on giving out the Nobel Prize for it because it would remain just out of reach to our instruments, tantalizing us through anomalous patterns in the CMBR and mysterious flows hinting at bizarre mechanics just beneath the fabric of space and time we can observe, but not study in enough depth to come to a solid conclusion. Even a few years ago, we would’ve simply defaulted to Occam’s Razor and ruled what we’re seeing as artifacts from data processing, but the fact that the anomalies keep showing up pretty much rules out that explanation. Now some of our more exotic cosmological theories may well have to be put to the test.

See: Szapudi, et. al. (2015). Detection of a supervoid aligned with the cold spot of the cosmic microwave background MNRAS, 450 (1), 288-294 DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stv488

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cosmic mesh

Dark matter is a substance that makes up nearly all mass in the universe, but decades after we discovered it, all we have are indirect measurements which show us that it’s there in very large amounts, forming galactic halos, but ultimately, little else. It doesn’t seem to interact with any of the stuff that makes stars, dust, and planets, it emits or reflects no radiation, and this utter lack of interesting properties we could study leads to much wailing and gnashing of teeth on physics blogs and forums, wondering if it even exists. But there might finally be a glimmer of light in the study of dark matter because there’s now evidence that it can interact with itself and matches at least one theoretical behavior. While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually a pretty big deal because it narrows down the possible culprits and shows that we can design some way to catch particles exhibiting this behavior to figure out this mystery once and for all. Hopefully.

Last year, a team of researchers was examining the Bullet Cluster, which is actually two galaxy clusters undergoing a series of violent collisions, to try and detect dark matter interactions and figure out to what, if anything other than gravity, dark matter responds. The observations were not exactly conclusive, but they didn’t completely rule out dark matter particles colliding, just set a bound in which they can be expected to collide. Armed with this data, the same team tried to catch a glimpse of interacting dark matter particles in a cluster of just four galaxies, Abell 3827, hoping to get more detail how their galactic halos behave during tidal stripping events. Despite sounding like something like something one galaxy does for another to keep things interesting and relieve a little stress, it’s actually when galaxies shed stars, gas, dust, and dark matter to larger galaxies which exert powerful tidal forces on them across millions of light years.

Now, during tidal stripping, there’s a lag between matter being absorbed into a new galaxy and more matter coming in from the old galaxy because as clouds of dust and gas collide, they heat up, producing radiation, and create drag that pushes incoming material back. One inconclusive observation says it may have detected odd gamma ray flares that could be dark matter colliding during this phenomenon, but since no others have, some cosmologists concluded that it means that dark matter doesn’t interact with itself. But the team observing Abell 3827 found the tell tale signs of a significant lag in dark matter halos with a rate of interaction which fell neatly into their previous results. This means that dark matter particles are colliding, creating shockwaves and a detectable lag between absorbed and incoming clouds. In fact this lag can be up to 5,000 light years which isn’t much on a galactic scale, but definitely big enough that it’s unlikely to be just a fluke, or a random artifact in the data. Finally, we know something new about dark matter!

Of course we still don’t know what it really is, but we can now rule out a whole host of extremely exotic candidates which can’t interact with each other, and start designing detectors to seek out even more such events to confirm the observation and gather more data. With each new piece of information we tease out, we can eliminate more and more culprits until can actually design a way to capture dark matter itself. It may take decades more until we get to that point, but like a punishing, extremely difficult game can give you immense satisfaction when you finally manage to figure out the rules and advance, so can a profound and difficult to solve mystery like finding out what dark matter really is. Maybe it will be nothing groundbreaking in the end, and maybe it won’t change anything we think we know about the universe, but just the fact that we persisted, observed, experimented, theorized, and then observed some more to figure it out should make us a little more proud of our species in general for not giving up on a very difficult question.

See: Harvey, D., et al (2015). The nongravitational interactions of dark matter in colliding galaxy clusters Science, 347 (6229), 1462-1465 DOI: 10.1126/science.1261381

Massey, R., et al. (2015). The behavior of dark matter associated with bright cluster galaxies in the core of Abell 3827 MNRA, 449 (4), 3393-3406 DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stv467

[ illustration by AYM Creations / Ali Yaser ]

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ufo vector

Different people who want Hillary Clinton to win the presidency in 2016 want her to win for many different reasons. Some believe that a female president is long overdue. Others, believe that of all the presidential contenders, she is the most electable. Yet others dislike her greatly, but with some complicated political calculus arrived at the conclusion that her ability to nominate four of the future Supreme Court justices makes her the only choice that won’t plunge the country into despotic arch-conservatism. But others still couldn’t care less about any of that because such, can we say, earthly, concerns are trivial to them. You see, to them, the most important part of a potential second Clinton administration is that they’ll finally get access to all the top secret files detailing our ongoing contact with alien civilizations. You know, after the last great reveal of our apparent alien alliances failed to materialize in 2012 as predicted, I started losing hope that an alien that’s been taken to our leaders will address the world, but hot damn! Another chance!

As said many times before and will say again, there’s absolutely nothing in the laws of biology that prevents an alien species on another planet from becoming intelligent, building spacecraft when their civilization is advanced enough, and exploring the cosmos, eventually making it to a little blue planet around an otherwise unremarkable yellow sun in the galactic suburbs. In fact, if we run the numbers, it’s almost a certainty. But the odds of this happening with a species close enough to detect us over the last century or so are astronomical. Think of meeting aliens a little like winning the lottery. Someone is going to hit that jackpot, but the chances of it being you just as you really need the money are basically nonexistent. Still, our dedicated ufologists are totally and irreversibly convinced that aliens are among us, whether we’re secretly waging war with an extraterrestrial army on the dark side of the moon, exploring their artifacts on and around Mars, meeting in secret with their representatives, or some combination of the above, and nothing will possibly change their minds, nor will any disclosure be adequate enough.

Again, the government could tell the ufologists everything it knows and even admit to every top secret drone and stealth aircraft test it may have chosen to cover up as a UFO, which would be fascinating for aviation buffs and historians. But that’s not the narrative that ufologists on whose behalf organizations like the Paradigm Research Group advocates, want to hear. Nothing short of the plot of Stargate SG-1 or Doctor Who turning out to be a documentary will do. For them, speculative astrobiology has reinforced a faith instead of acting as a fact check and they’re just hoping for a confirmation that an alien empire doing business with humans in every government report with enough reactions, like Evangelical Christians patiently await The Rapture and take every war or earthquake as a sign of the impending end of time. Although I would argue that the former is much more plausible than the latter in the grand scheme of things, either is so unlikely that it’s probably a bad idea to base our lives on either belief. If you really want to find alien life and get full disclosure about alien contact, I’d point you to SETI rather than any politician…

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