Archive for the 'Science' Category

Phoenix leaves me yearning for more

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

As I watched the successful landing of Phoenix on Mars tonight on NASA TV, as the scientists spontaneously broke out in applause and cheers of joy after each successful stage of the insertion, I shared in their joy. But I also couldn’t help but feel sorrow that I missed a much more momentous space exploration moment decades earlier: the original Moon landing. Of course, there’s not much I could’ve done about that, having not been born yet at the time and all, but I still envy my parents’ generation immensely just because they were there to experience it. We haven’t had any similar kind of joyous humanity-unifying event since.

That’s why I’m so eagerly awaiting the first manned mission to Mars (and yes, I even fantasize about it). Forget all of the arguments about the amount of science that can be accomplished for a given cost by a manned mission versus robotic missions; a robotic mission can’t possibly have the same emotional oomph, and that feeling it inspires in humans across the globe is incredibly important. The Moon shots did more for NASA than a hundred robotic missions ever could have. There’s just no replacement for sending people. So I can’t wait for the day when humankind goes to Mars, and when that day finally arrives, you will know it, because I will be making a hell of a lot of noise.

Human 2.0: The coming age of upgrading minds

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Earlier this year I wrote about mental performance enhancing drugs, an area of interest and research that is exploding like plastics a few decades prior. The allure of it is simply too great; who wouldn’t want to be smarter, more able to focus, more efficient at getting things done? A significant fraction of each day is completely wasted for me; imagine if I was able to use all of that time solely for productive endeavors like writing and programming?

Back in high school and early college I was on ADD drugs (with a doctor’s supervision, of course). I can definitely say that they worked, but they also had rather unpleasant side effects. It felt like I was barreling through each day at an uncomfortably rapid pace. In the end, I decided I’d rather just be myself. I made it through college with a respectable GPA, having survived some severe procrastination crises that I’m sure the drugs would’ve helped. Even now at my job I get the haunting suspicion that I could be a lot more focused, and thus get things done more quickly, with ADD medication. Luckily caffeine is a decent substitute. And I do think most humans have some “form” of ADD; our brains simply weren’t wired by evolution for the kinds of things we use them for in every day working life, and there is so much room for improvement.

So imagine my fascination when I read about one man’s experimental usage of Provigil, an anti-narcolepsy medication that also has the amazing effect of making people smarter (and without any speedy side-effects). Go read about his experiences and ask yourself if it doesn’t sound appealing. If someone handed you a bottle of Provigil, could you resist the urge to try it out? I know I would try it, but I’m kind of afraid of finding out how productive I can really be.

The first stage of humanity, what really separated us from the rest of the animals, was when we developed the ability to hack our environment. Then, through science, medicine, and good-old fashioned body body modification, we started hacking our bodies. The next stage in human-lead human evolution will be hacking our minds. We’re just on the cusp of a revolutionary break-through in this area. Imagine how society will change when the average person will be able to afford mind upgrades to Einstein-levels of genius! The pills we have now are but a first step.

And don’t say we shouldn’t do it. Our present human society is built on a sturdy foundation of violating as many natural constraints as possible (think surgery, medicine, air conditioning, and laws). Surpassing the constraints on the mind is just the next step.

The folly of envying excess in times of scarcity

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

It’s a poor showing for humanity that our natural response to scarcity is to feel envious of those who can afford excesses. When a resource is scarce, the rational response should be to use it sparingly and only when necessary. But humans are hardly rational creatures, and scarce resources are thus afforded a certain cachet. “Wow!”, the thinking goes, “Look at that huge Hummer that guy’s driving! He must pay a lot of money in gas just to keep it running!” It’s thought processes like these that make me not so optimistic as others that we can solve the global climate crisis in a decent time frame.

I recently sojourned to Phoenix, Arizona on a business trip. In case you aren’t familiar with the area, let me start off by saying that it’s in the middle of a desert. A real desert. It frequently goes months without any rainfall. It is hot there. The only native plants that would grow in the absence of human activity are cacti. Alas, many humans do live there, and they aren’t content with just cacti; hence the problem.

I was struck by the number of aqueducts I saw. The city is flat, but every so often you drive over a bridge above an aqueduct. Don’t go thinking Roman-style raised masonry aqueducts; thanks to the wonders of electricity and machinery, modern aqueducts are little more than deep artificial rivers, with pump houses wherever a gain in elevation is needed. They’re a lot easier to build than the aqueducts of old and they carry a lot more water. And they need to carry a lot of water in Phoenix, because they use so very much of it.

Never before in my life have I seen so many outdoor fountains. I hail from Maryland, land of the 100% summer humidity, where fountains are few and far between. There isn’t anything particularly impressive about a fountain in an area where water is bountiful. But I saw them everywhere in Phoenix: in front of restaurants, our hotel, even the office park of the company we were there doing work for. In the middle of the desert, with no natural water anywhere in sight, having a fountain is a good way of showing off wealth. “We can afford to waste this water!” they scream. And waste it they do, because when the temperature is above 40 degrees Celcius and the humidity is hovering in the single digits, a lot of water is lost to evaporation.

And then there are the artificial lakes. It seems like every golf course out there (and there are lots of them) has huge artificial lakes to go along with it. The idea of having lakes in the middle of a desert is preposterous, yet there they are, evaporating however many untold gallons of water into the atmosphere each day. They just scream wealth.

Yet I haven’t even covered the single most wasteful use of water yet. Remember how I said that the only native things that grow in the desert are cacti? Yet when you’re traveling through Phoenix, you see luscious greenery everywhere. All of it has to be watered constantly, because otherwise it will die. Keep your eyes on the look-out for sprinkler pipes and irrigation pumping stations. You’ll see them everywhere in Phoenix, literally on every block in most affluent neighborhoods and business districts. As I saw all of the flowers and palm trees and neatly manicured golf greens, all I could think of was a twist on a classic saying: Water, water, everywhere, and all of it to waste.

A big status symbol in Phoenix is simply having a green lawn around your house. And they pay thousands of dollars a year in water for the privilege. It’s ridiculous that so much water is wasted in a place that has so little of it, but that’s human nature for you. When a resource is scarce, using a lot of it is frequently a status symbol. Rather than simply adapt to the desert life, humans pump water from hundreds of miles away at huge cost and from places that cannot really spare it.

Just how do we think we’re going to lower atmospheric carbon emissions when we build a freaking mega-oasis in the middle of the desert?!

Finally, a good History Channel show

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

The History Channel has been disappointing me lately. I used to watch it regularly, trusting it because, after all, they’re talking about history; how could they get it wrong?! And their programs on actual history are still good. But they’ve aired a whole flood of pseudoscientific bullcrap recently. For instance, one of their new shows is devoted to ‘examining the wonders of ancient ages’.

In one episode I watched, they credulously reported on people firmly in woo-woo territory speaking about a full-sized glider that the Egyptians could’ve used to fly high above the pyramids. All of this speculation was based on a little children’s toy. Oh, and then there was the broach they said looked like a space shuttle and it had to have an aeronautical inspiration because the wings attached at the bottom, not at the top like with birds or insects. Hello?! Whatever happened to Occam’s razor? Isn’t artistic license a lot more likely than those ancient indigenous South Americans being visited by aliens (or time-traveling US astronauts?).

And I’m not even going to talk about “Ghost Hunters” or that show about alien encounters. That crap makes my blood absolutely boil. So the History Channel has been pissing me off a lot recently, and I’ve been wondering how it’s fallen so far from not that long ago when it used to actually, you know, talk about true things.

Well, here’s a redeeming moment for them. They’re making a new show about Evolution, and by all accounts it looks good. Evolution is one of my favorite scientific subjects. I wrote countless thousands of posts on debating it, and just recently I’ve been reading Stephen Jay Gould’s essay books (again). There’s a gaping dearth of coverage of evolution in American popular media, probably because of the many vocal idiots that inhabit the inland and southern areas of the United States, and I admire History Channel to have the courage to go ahead with this show. It’s going to be awesome, and it really could educate a lot of people.

Now if they’d just have the courage to not air all of that other crap.

One helluva ad for Seagate

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

A Seagate hard drive survives the Columbia re-entry
This is one helluva ad for Seagate. What you are looking at is a 400 MB Seagate hard drive that survived the Space Shuttle Columbia’s break-up upon re-entry. Not only that, the data, which was for a microgravity xenon shear thinning experiment, was recovered and has yielded an important scientific research paper.

If I was Seagate, I would make this story into a magazine ad yesterday. It would also make a good ad for Ontrack Data Recovery, the folks who salvaged the data off the disk.

Biofuels: not just a bad idea, but pure evil

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

When I last tackled biofuels, my opinion of them was pretty much uniformly negative. So, what’s changed in the interim? Not much, just even more evidence that biofuels are evil (and I don’t use that word lightly). The New Statesman published an article on Thursday titled How the rich starved the world, and as soon as I read it I knew I had to discuss it here.

The article contains some pretty stunning statistics that I didn’t have in my previous post. Between 2004 and 2007, global corn production increased by 51 million tonnes, while the consumption of corn-based biofuel increased by 50 million tonnes in the United States alone. Add to that all of the corn used for biofuels in other countries and you can plainly see that, in the past three years, the amount of corn available for consumption worldwide has actually decreased. No wonder food prices are rocketing, and no wonder starvation is becoming a bigger problem worldwide.

If that were the sole extent of the problem, though, it wouldn’t be terrible. But it’s not. Next year the US consumption of corn for biofuels will rocket up to a ridiculous 114 million tonnes, which is one third of the entire production of the US. Using corn for biofuel doesn’t even save money and it doesn’t help fight climate change either — the only reason for it is the criminally myopic laws recently enacted by Congress. And hope isn’t on the horizon either, as all of the current presidential candidates are paying lip service to Big Agribusiness. This issue represents too much Midwest money and too many Midwest votes to pass up, even though burning food to power SUVs while millions starve verges on a stereotypical mad scientist level of evil.

So here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to continue burning our food for use as fuel in what is easily the worst decision in decades. Food prices will get more expensive here, but we’ll mainly just hear lots of grumbling from the lower class who don’t really get much political representation anyway. But these effects will pale in comparison to what will happen in developing nations. Millions of people will starve to death as food prices continue to rise. Can any politician who’s voted in favor of biofuel subsidies and mandates really live with the knowledge that they’ve caused the deaths of millions of people? Is securing Midwest influence more important than doing what is right?

The sensible side of the barefoot walking movement

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Last year, I read a bizarre article (sorry, I don’t remember where) that ridiculed modern man for wearing shoes when millions of years of natural selection have designed us to walk best on our bare feet. I will admit I saw some appeal to that argument, but the article was written by a complete loony who recommended barefooted “fox walking” as the correct alternative to the “cow walking” he chides the rest of us shoed folk for employing. Fox walking involves landing on the balls of your feet, which just looks ludicrous and is also energy inefficient to boot.

But the article “You Walk Wrong” by Adam Sternbergh, published in New York Magazine, outlines a vision of barefoot walking that I can definitely get behind. The people he talked to aren’t advocating anything nearly so silly as fox walking. They don’t even advocate barefoot walking in many circumstances, because while not wearing shoes may lead to a more natural stride, they recognize that shoes provide vital protection in many urban environments. So by not being wacko, I find myself actually agreeing with most of the things they’re saying.

The article also talks about the Vivo Barefoot shoe, which sounds like such a neat shoe I think I may have to get a pair. The shoe provides a thin layer of outsole as foot protection, but is otherwise very flexible and provides no support or padding. It’s supposed to be almost like walking barefoot, except the added protection from sharp or abrasive surfaces, hot asphalt, etc., means you can wear them in many situations you wouldn’t even consider going barefoot. Also, they look for the most part like normal shoes, while going barefoot has all sorts of social stigmas attached to it.

Skeptically thinking about neat weather phenomena

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

Take a gander at this list of neat weather phenomena (and while you’re there, leave a comment expressing your disgust at all of the images they’ve ripped off from other people). I especially like the Moon bow (hadn’t ever heard of it before, but it makes perfect sense), mammatus clouds (amazing!), and the fire raindbow (now that would make an excellent desktop picture). Admire this for the pictures, but don’t take it too seriously, as it was compiled by someone who doesn’t seem to have scientific training. There’s some conflation between “colored Moons” and Lunar eclipses going on, and a lack of an adequate description for either of the two.

And I’m still skeptical about non-aqueous rain and ball lightning. Ball lightning is well-known like most good urban legends, but it isn’t scientifically documented to the extent that you would expect if it was actually real (along the lines of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster). Likewise, everyone’s heard stories about “that time it rained frogs in France”, but where is the scientific proof?

I can see frogs, fish, and other creatures being lifted into the air during weather phenomena with high wind speeds such as tornadoes and hurricanes, but normal rain is created by the slow evaporation of water from the surface which then forms in clouds and falls to Earth in tiny droplets. And the process of evaporation can’t even carry something as small as a molecule of salt up into the air to fall as rain, let alone whole animals. So I might believe that it could rain frogs because of a large storm, but then it wouldn’t just be raining frogs, but also all other sorts of debris picked up from the frogs’ habitat. It would mainly be raining branches, I would suspect.

Help expose Expelled

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

You too can do your part in fighting for science by linking to the Expelled Exposed website on whatever blog or personal site you happen to run. Expelled is a dishonest intelligent design creationism propaganda film, and Expelled Exposed is a site that gives the viewpoints of actual scientists (you know, the people you should look to for answers when it comes to biology). The idea, obviously, is to increase exposure to a great source debunking that film, and also to get the counter website more highly ranked in Google.

And if you don’t quite know what I’m talking about, reading up on some more background information might be in order.

A space debris heads up

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

For whatever reason, space debris is consistently the number one topic searched on my blog (as for why, I haven’t the foggiest). Thus, I feel compelled to share with all of the space debris fanatics out there a most excellent article on the topic over at Universe Today. It has some great pictures and diagrams. Too bad it doesn’t address the Kessler Syndrome.