Archive for December, 2010

A Capitalist Approach to Superpowers

Superpowers are undeniably cool. Who wouldn’t want super strength, or the ability to fly? Superpowered characters are popular in science fiction because, among other things, they allow us to explore what life would be like without the physical limitations we experience as humans. But it doesn’t stop there. Energy manipulation, teleportation…some superhumans push past the boundaries of our technological limitations as well, performing with a thought feats that your average physicist can only dream about reproducing someday.

Unfortunately, while we can strive to replicate the effects of some super powers with technology, there aren’t any real superhumans. Well, some people claim to be psychic…but nobody really takes them seriously, right? After all, if they could really predict the future they’d be making a fortune off the stock market and winning the lottery every week.

Which raises an interesting question. If superhuman abilities actually appeared in our modern society, how would they be used? In literature, superhumans generally only have two options: use their enhanced abilities to do good things and become a hero, or do bad things and become a villain. You can try stalling, but sooner or later Uncle Ben is going to die and you have to choose your path. That seems awfully limited, don’t you think? It’s true, someone with super strength and invulnerability would make a good crime fighter. He’d also be really good at demolitions and handy to have at a construction site. An honest-to-goodness telepath would be highly sought after in the business world. The practical applications  for someone capable of teleportation are mind-boggling…just imagine a delivery guy who could arrive with your pizza minutes after you placed your order. Wow.

This concept of extraordinary abilities being used to accomplish ordinary tasks isn’t an original one. Throughout science fiction, superhumans have occasionally used their abilities for mundane purposes. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the Flash was coerced into running on a giant hamster wheel that provided electrical power to a third of the United States. Babylon 5 featured the Psi Corp, a government agency that conscripted psychics and telepaths into civil service. Every once in a while some mutants in the X-men Universe will be enslaved and forced to use their powers to rebuild Genosha for the umpteenth time or something. There always seems to be some form of coercion, though. No one ever thinks of offering them a job with competitive salary and benefits. Is enslavement and conscription really necessary when you can pay people to do what you want?

Now I imagine that it would be more challenging to write an interesting story about a superhuman that worked in construction as opposed to being in the world-saving business, but not everyone has to be a hero! Certainly not all the time, anyway. In a society like ours, it makes more sense that people with enhanced abilities would find ways to put them to more practical, and profitable, uses. Even heroes have to pay the bills, after all. Why not take advantage of their unique abilities to do so?

But wait! ‘With great power there must also come – great responsibility!’ You know, I think that’s part of the problem. Superhumans have been used to tell stories about morality and big ethical questions for as long as they’ve been around. It’s iconic. Good versus evil, and all that jazz. The idea that you must use your abilities in a way that benefits your society is as entrenched as the idea that you must keep the fact that you have special abilities a secret. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love those stories, but as much as I enjoy reading about this Chosen One or that Super Hero, injecting a little more capitalism and practicality into the worlds of the superhumans would make for some really interesting storytelling. It could inspire more relatable characters, and take the super-powered paradigm in new directions. After all, what these stories do best is inspire and comment on society as a whole…and society as a whole is pretty capitalistic. If I woke up with psychic powers, the first thing I would do is buy myself a lottery ticket.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Fiction: “The Trouble With Chips” by C.B. Calsing

God, my head is throbbing. And my guts… Ugh. I must have the flu or something.

Franklin swallowed. Then Franklin realized he had a hangover. He reached for the bottle of government-issue analgesics on his nightstand. He dry-swallowed three without lifting his head from his pillow and then closed his eyes again. Franklin wanted water; the kitchenette in his flat lay mere inches from the edge of the bed, but he didn’t feel like moving.

He reached his arm out, grabbed his Google GOggles off the table and slipped them on. His other hand found the book-sized remote for his Hitachi Integrated Media System. He pressed the ON button. The darkness of the minute lens screens in his GOggles slowly brightened to show his desktop of choice, one of the pictures from the Olson Twins’ 2012 Playboy spread. Relaxing ambient music, meant to optimize human interface performance, drifted through the headphones.

He first checked the news. The newscaster listed off the streets with restricted travel, from such a time to such a time, due to a United Nations conference. Only employees from the neighborhood and attendees with proper clearance could enter those blocks.

That would mean no deliveries to those areas today; carriers wouldn’t get through security. He opened the site and checked his order stats; he exceeded the plan set by last year’s sales for the previous day. He’d get a bonus.

Finally, Franklin opened his email. One was from Elliot. Franklin thought about the night before. Elliot had taken him out. Why did I go out last night? Franklin still couldn’t remember. He clicked on the link, and Elliot’s voice came up over the ambient music.

“Hey, Frank. Hope you made it home all right last night. That was some crazy shit! Anyway, Charley and I are gonna meet up for some racquetball later, maybe around two, then cocktails. You know where we’ll be if you wanna play.” Elliot paused for a moment. “Oh, and congratulations again, man. Joining the club!” Club? That didn’t sound promising…

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The True Nature of Santa

From deviantART

Every December I get this one email. You know the one. It’s supposedly written by a physicist, and states that Santa would have to travel so quickly he’d burn up, no reindeer team could possibly lift a sleigh carrying one doll for every Christian/secular/Christmas-celebrating child in the world, the sleigh would have to be impossibly strong to carry all that weight, etc, etc. I’m always left with a nagging feeling that somebody’s using physics to further their anti-Santa agenda, and that the facts in that email cannot be the whole story.

Fortunately, the internet provides. Here are not one, but two refutations! (You’ll need to scroll down to the second item on that last link.) That’s an awful lot of reading, I agree, so I’ll summarize the key suggestions for you, and explain what they tell us about Santa. Nice of me, no?

• Santa uses an ion shield so he doesn’t burn up. As we currently do not have widely available ion shield technology, this leaves us with four options. 1) Santa has stolen and elaborated on state-of-the-art, possibly classified technology. 2) Santa is secretly a physicist. 3) Santa comes from a civilization that has perfected the ion shield, i.e. Santa is an alien, or 3a) Santa is a time-traveling philanthropist.

• Santa uses the frictionless environment of space to improve his travel time. Santa’s sleigh is equipped with artificial gravity strong enough to maintain an atmosphere, or Santa and his reindeer all wear spacesuits and carry oxygen tanks. If artificial gravity, see the ion shield explanations.

• Santa makes use of more than four dimensions. Again, this suggests Santa is an alien or a time traveller, as we currently have no way of accessing more than four dimensions (consistently, at least. Who knows what the LHC is really capable of?). Alternatively, Santa can do magic, a fact supported by Christmas folklore and literature, and by the fact that he routinely employs elves. The use of 5+ dimensions may also explain why Santa’s workshop is invisible.

• Santa is Einstein. See: time-traveling philanthropist; physicist.

• Santa causes global warming. Unfortunately, this is an argument against Philanthropist Santa. Perhaps he’s trying to make the North Pole warm enough he can save on the heating costs?

• Santa uses wool hats as thought-monitoring devices. This is evidence of a massively advanced technology, as there is nothing about wool that makes it useful for monitoring thoughts. Additionally, there would need to be a way to transmit the information over massive distances (such as radio waves) and again, there’s no evidence of a transmitter in any wool hat I’ve ever seen. Not even the pompoms. See: time traveller; alien.

• Santa’s reindeer use vacuum energy to fly. Further advanced technology. Possibly evidence of a) mutant reindeer or b) alien lifeforms that bear a strong resemblance to Earth reindeer.

• Santa’s reindeer are a new species. This is entirely possible, given that we’re still discovering new species, but is made less plausible by the extent of exploration that’s taken place in the world’s arctic regions, the reindeer’s natural habitat. Perhaps Santa uses the North Pole as a wildlife preserve. These reindeer may have evolved to resemble robots (strong skin, flight, ability to withstand massive heat, weights, and speeds, as well as vacuum). Possibly they are, in fact, robots (or cyborgs).

• Santa’s faster-than-light travel slows down time. This presupposes that Santa can travel faster than light. Since he can’t be teleporting (there’s documented evidence of him and his sleigh flying, landing on roofs, etc.), he must be using advanced technology again.

• There are multiple Santa Clauses. Cloning! Or the theory from the archive, that there’s actually a family of Clauses. This would mean that there are multiple teams of reindeer, which would give support to the wildlife preserve idea.

• Santa realizes all possible quantum states, or exists as one “particle” spread over a great distance. a) alien b) magical c) Schroedinger’s Santa. There’s no other way he’d be able to reestablish himself in one place, at one time, without one of the above. As various people in the archive point out, this also accounts for his invisibility while visiting houses.

• Santa uses guided-missile type technology to drop presents down chimneys without landing. I personally don’t believe this, because there’s too much documented evidence of him going down the chimneys too. However, if you want to go with this idea, think about what parameters Santa would need to key the homing tech to, to land the gifts under the tree without hitting anything? Does the technology lock onto anything green, big, and triangular? Do we even have the ability to guide missiles without using a heat signature as the target? I call advanced technology again.

• Rudolph’s nose is actually red-shifted during flight. Plausible, given the speeds he’d be moving at.

• Santa is dosing his reindeer. Perhaps it’s the hour I’m writing this, but I’d say this is possible. Not particularly nice of Santa in the long run, though. The reindeer would have massive burnout or withdrawal symptoms come Boxing Day. Continuing the routine year after year would also likely shorten their lifespans. This seems to be an argument against the wildlife preserve idea.

• Santa’s reindeer fly in the same way that Arthur Dent flies, i.e., they just forget to hit the ground. This is so silly it has to be true.

• Santa’s workshop is situated at a wormhole nexus. If so, what else is coming through? And how can we make use of this remarkable resource?

I would also like to add that Santa may have a personal cloaking device, a larger one for his sleigh and reindeer, and an even larger one for his workshop, to account of his invisibility. Alternatively, Santa has a TARDIS, which would let him do faster-than-light travel, get into any building, and possibly be in multiple places at once.

Most of these points and suggestions make the case for Santa being either a time-traveller or an alien. However, time travel is pretty much impossible and a civilization that could achieve it on such a scale would be so far in the future I can’t imagine any of their citizens bothering with us folks in our historical backwater. Therefore, Santa must be an alien.

Anyone wishing to track his UFO tonight should go here.

Frickin Laser Beams!

Earlier this year I spent a week out at Los Alamos National Laboratory vaporizing things with a high powered laser. Now, as I drown in data that I collected out there, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about lasers. When I tell people that I zap things with lasers, I can almost see the mental images flickering behind their eyes. They tend to look something like this:

Man, I wish. I hate to burst your bubble, but working with lasers, although very cool, is not as showy as most sci-fi depictions. To help understand why, let’s first talk about how lasers work. The word laser is actually an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, and that actually sums up how they work quite well. There are lots of different types of lasers these days but they all share a few common characteristics. First, you need the “lasing medium” – that is, the stuff that will give off the light. The first lasers used artificial ruby crystals, but now there are lasers that are based on everything from CO2 gas to organic dyes to various semiconductors. The laser I use for my research is a Nd: YAG which stands for Neodymium-doped Yttrium Aluminum Garnet crystal. Ok, so we have a “lasing medium”, now we need to make it shine. Things give off light when they have electrons in high energy levels jumping back down to lower energies and getting rid of the excess energy as photons. In a laser, the goal is to get something called “population inversion”, meaning that there are more electrons in excited energy levels than there are in the ground state. This is typically done with a flash lamp in a process called “pumping“. By shining very intense light on the lasing medium, the electrons all get excited and the laser is ready to, well, lase.

Diagram of a ruby laser from HowStuffWorks.

Of course, the goal of a laser is to have a nice narrow beam, but if you just have a lump of stuff with excited electrons, the light will be given off in all directions. A fluorescent bulb is a good example of this. A lasing medium acts in much the same way, shining a diffuse light in all directions, unless we do something to it. The secret is to place it between two mirrors, one which reflects all light, and one which reflects only some of the light that hits it. Initially, the atoms in the lasing medium give off light in all directions, but some of those photons will end up traveling along the laser, bouncing back and forth between the two mirrors. Here is where the laser really starts working. It turns out that when you have photons of a certain energy traveling along through a bunch of atoms with excited electrons that have the same energy, you get “stimulated emission“. The first photons cause the electrons to jump down and emit identical photons. And I do mean identical. Yes they have the same energy (and therefore the same frequency/wavelength/color), but the new photons also have the same phase, polarization and direction as the initial ones. They are completely indistinguishable at the quantum level. As you might expect, this stimulated emission leads to a chain reaction. Each photon of laser light can stimulate new photons to join it. Since one end of the laser is partially transparent, the result is a narrow beam of light made up of identical photons: a frickin’ laser beam! Wonderful. Now that we understand how they work, I want to address a few misconceptions about lasers in science fiction and popular culture in general.

1. Laser beams are visible.

With a laser, the idea is to have all of the light going in the same direction, right? That means that if you can see the laser beam from the side, as shown in this picture from Star Trek, and in pretty much every depiction of lasers ever, then something isn’t right! The light is being scattered out of the beam. If you’ve ever used a laser pointer you know that even though it gives off visible (usually red or green) light, you just see a dot where it is pointing. Now, if you shine it at someone who is smoking, or if you use it outside in the fog, or in a dusty room, you can see the beam because the light is reflecting off of particles in the air (smoke or water droplets or dust). So, yes sometimes visible lasers in air are plausible because there could be stuff in the way, but visible lasers in space? No way! There are some other caveats to this also. Not all lasers use visible light! The Nd:YAG that I use for my research and the similar laser used by ChemCam emit infrared light. It is completely invisible, no matter what. This makes it incredibly dangerous to work with lasers like this, especially when first lining up the optics, because you can’t tell if the laser is being reflected around the room! Just because these lasers are not visible doesn’t mean they can’t destroy your retina in a millisecond, so we wear special protective goggles designed for the specific wavelength that the laser emits at all times when the laser is on. Also: you can’t see the laser beam traveling from the source to the target. It’s going at the speed of light. So all those sci-fi depictions of laser blasts whizzing by the hero’s head like tracer bullets: wrong.* *Yes, I know, some sci-fi explains this by invoking pulses of plasma and not actual lasers. That’s a whole different can of worms with its own issues. Suffice it to say that most people *think* those blasters, phasers, etc. are supposed to be lasers, so I’m debunking that misconception.

2. Pew pew pew!

That’s not what they sound like. I know. I’m sorry. Low powered lasers don’t really sound like anything. And can you imagine how annoying it would be if they did? At the grocery store checkout: pew pew pew! Using a CD or DVD player: pew pew pew! Laser pointer: pew pew! Yes, but the “pew pew” sound really comes from things like Star Wars, depicting lasers used as weapons. So what about big lasers, capable of vaporizing things? Nope. With higher powered lasers, at least the kind I work with, the main sound comes from the flash lamp. It’s sort of a ticking noise, one tick per flash, one flash per laser pulse. Now, when we crank up the power or use something called a “q-switch” to make each pulse shorter and more intense, you get another noise that comes from the laser actually vaporizing things. That noise is more of a “crack” or “pop” noise. In fact, I once popped some bubble wrap in the laser lab while my collaborators were aligning the laser and totally freaked them out because they thought it was the laser. Oops… The popping noise is essentially the same thing as thunder: a rapidly expanding ball of plasma causes the air to be compressed in a shockwave. Our laser plasmas are tiny, so they just make a little noise. Lightning bolts (plasma formed by electrical discharge) are rather larger, and so is their noise. Many of my experiments are done zapping rocks inside a vacuum chamber, and it’s always fun to hear the noise fade away as we decrease the air pressure in the chamber.

3. Lasers as weapons.

They’re really not that great. There are a lot of issues with using lasers as weapons. First of all: the optics. For a laser to be useful as a weapon, you would have to focus the light as tightly as possible on the target. De-focus at all, and you might still blind them, but there won’t be much vaporization going on. The precision required for the optics to do this makes a hand-held laser really impractical. The slightest bump or wiggle and all of a sudden your gun is a high-powered flashlight. There’s also the issue of air. Anyone who has looked through a telescope or out over a parking lot on a hot day has seen the shimmering mess that the air can make of an otherwise clear image. Now imagine trying to shine a tightly focused beam of light through that mess and hitting a target. Not an easy task. The military has worked on this to some extent with adaptive optics used for giant plane-mounted anti-missile laser, but it is a significant problem. The air poses another problem: it absorbs light. In fact, a high enough powered laser can cause the air itself to break down into a ragged line of plasma. I’ve seen this in the lab and it is awesome. The problem is that plasma is full of free-flying electrons, so it absorbs light. A laser strong enough to use as a weapon would also be strong enough to turn the air to a plasma, which would then block the laser from hitting its target. One way around the plasma problem is to use a pulsed laser. As long as the pulses are timed so that the plasma has dissipated before the next pulse is fired, the plasma is not as much of a problem. I mentioned lightning earlier and that’s relevant here. There is a way to make use of the “plasma issue”, because plasmas conduct electricity. So in theory it would be possible to use a laser as a long-distance taser! The laser would first create a conduit of plasma out of the air, and then with a high enough voltage, an electric shock could be send down the plasma to the target. This would not be a subtle weapon: at this point the lightning analogy is not really an analogy anymore. It would basically be a lightning gun, and would make a noise to match. I thought I was being really clever when I thought of this, but it turns out I’m not the first: the US military has experimented with them. Another problem with lasers as weapons is the power source. It takes quite a lot of power to make a laser capable of doing damage, and it would probably not be practical for a person to carry such a power source around. In the video game “Fallout 3”, the energy weapons use things called “microfusion cells” for ammunition to get around this issue. But right now, we don’t even have power-positive macro-fusion cells, so bullet-sized fusion powerplants are not available yet.

Finally, there is the issue of collateral damage. The thing with light is that it tends to reflect off of things. This means that anyone using a laser weapon better be wearing the appropriate protective eyewear or else their own target is going to blind them. Aside from the practical issues with blindness, the Geneva conventions also specifically forbid laser weapons that cause blindness (in other words, all of them). In my opinion, I highly doubt that lasers will ever be practical as pistols or rifles. Maybe as large mounted guns on tanks or something. But really, the most likely place for lasers as a viable weapon is space. Without air, the difficulties with plasma creation and turbulence are removed. The issue of power and optics remain, but I could plausibly see a satellite or space station with the stability and power to use a laser as a weapon. It might still be difficult to focus on a distant target, just due to the physical limits on the optics, but the advantage of near-instant travel-time might be of benefit when you’re aiming at a target thousands of km away, traveling at thousands of km per hour.

This post reprinted with permission from Ryan Anderson’s blog.

Mind Reading Societies

A common characteristic of “advanced races” in science-fiction is the ability to communicate without using speech, gestures, or writing, but with their brains.  Telepathy can be an inherent ability powered by “magic”, or it can be granted by implanted radios.  Though one has to wonder what kind of effect this has on their society, specifically relating to their ability to keep secrets or to deceive one another.

Some say that relationships, and by extension civilizations, are founded on lies and held together by secrets.  I expect that would be very hard if everyone could read everyone else’s minds.  If such a society existed they would either have to be completely honest and keep no secrets from one another; or they’d make scanning another’s thoughts without permission a serious taboo or crime.  In fact, one might expect a naturally telepathic species to be colonial organisms.

And as for collective consciousnesses, most portrayals involve each member broadcasting their every thought to everyone else in the collective, unless they’re all remotes controlled by the queen of course.  This shouldn’t be a problem if they are all born into the hive like ants are, but if they were individually sapient beings (such as humans) who joined together as adults their individual pasts might come into conflict.  If, for example, a married couple were to join such a group mind would it bring them closer, or tear them apart?

Granted telepathy, being fictional, often varies in its form and capabilities, one of the most common being that neural impulses give off something that certain people/species can sense at a distance.  That particular form would work best with the societal effects listed here but there are other possibilities.  For example a more “realistic” depiction would be a specialized organ or implant in the brain (maybe the corpus callosum or equivalent attached to a electrical organ like those in certain fish) emits radio signals in response to impulses in certain neurons, though it might be possible to learn not to send one’s thoughts through mental disciplines, or just change your settings so that only the thoughts you want others to pick up are sent.

Some possibilities:

  • Humanity encounters a telepathic alien race that can only read each other’s minds, human brains are closed to them except through conventional communication.  They have no concept of deception and cannot tell when humans are lying to them.
  • In the near future brain-computer interfaces are ubiquitous and allow full thought-to-thought communication between two or more people.  Someone develops a program similar to Twitter except that it posts thoughts instead of short texts.
  • Software that allows constant mental communication between multiple people is developed and becomes the next big thing, followed by a surge of divorces and violent crime.

Two Great Things: A Total Lunar Eclipse and the Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Officially, winter begins on December 21, 2010 at 6:38 PM ET. The sun appears in the lowest position in the sky as the North Pole tilts away from it. The incoming solar energy is at its lowest level in the Northern Hemisphere and greatest in the Southern Hemisphere which is experiencing its summer. After the solstice the Northern Hemisphere’s days will grow longer as the nights will lengthen below the Equator.

There will be a total lunar eclipse on Tuesday at 1:33 AM ET and continuing until 5:01 AM ET. The moon will be full as of 3:13 AM ET. Peak viewing time in North America, Central America, and the Central Pacific is expected to occur at 3:15 AM ET. The view from North Africa, Europe, South America, and Australia will not be optimal. More information on viewing times relative to your location can be found here. NASA will be broadcasting a live video.  NASA is also hosting two live chats for the event. The first is scheduled between 3-4 PM ET today. On NASA’s website you can get more information about the eclipse and details pertaining to other activities scheduled.

When the Earth, the sun, and the moon line up directly a lunar eclipse occurs. The Earth blocks the sun’s rays and casts a shadow on the moon. As the moon moves deeper into shadow, it appears to change color. The moon takes on this new color because indirect sunlight is still able to pass through Earth’s atmosphere and cast a glow on the moon. Our atmosphere filters out most of the blue colored light, leaving the red and orange hues that we see during a lunar eclipse. Extra particles in the atmosphere, from say a recent volcanic eruption, will cause the moon to appear a darker shade of red. The time the moon spends covered completely by the Earth’s shadow is totality. During this eclipse it will last 72 minutes beginning at 2:41 AM. 

This is the second lunar eclipse of the year and the first total lunar eclipse since February 2008. There have been three total lunar eclipses in the north during the winter in the last ten years. However, the occurrence of a total lunar eclipse on the Winter Solstice is quite rare. Only one occurred during the Common Era prior to this one. It happened 372 years ago on December 21, 1638. The next time the two events coincide will be December 21, 2094. The 2094 eclipse will not be visible from the Western Hemisphere, but will be able to be seen from Europe, Africa and much of Asia.

Both eclipses and solstices have long held spiritual and cultural meaning beyond the science. For several examples please follow these links: Cultural Aspects, History, and Observances. The two lining up tomorrow has a greater impact for many of my friends that celebrate the Winter Solstice as a holiday. I celebrated my first Winter Solstice last year. I am very excited that the two line up this year and then get chased by a meteor shower. I’ve had discussions with writers in the past that were including an eclipse, either solar or lunar, in their work in progress. I know that Avatar: The Last Airbender the cartoon mentions the winter solstice. Solstice, a thriller appeared in 2008. The solstice was to be the moment when the living world and the other world were closest together.

Per the usual, please recommend some great fiction that includes either eclipses or solstices (in their scientific capacity, cultural impact, or spiritual meaning). Also, if you will be celebrating the Winter Solstice, I bid you merry tidings. Please feel welcome to share how you will be celebrating in a comment below.

For those of you that enjoyed my meteor shower post earlier this fall, I wanted to share this: The next morning (22nd), turn your eyes to Ursa Major (location of the Big Dipper asterism) for the Ursid meteor shower. Unlike the Geminids, the numbers for this shower may be rather disappointing (~10-15 per hour); however, unpredicted outbursts may occur that could be more impressive. Not only that, but the Ursid shower is known for producing some brighter meteors since the debris chunks from its parent comet P8/Tuttle are a bit larger (don’t get freaked out, we are only talking the size of pebbles here!).

The Agency That Cried “Awesome!”

Note: This is the second of two articles in which I discuss the NASA “arsenic bacterium” debacle. The previous one is Arsenic and Odd Lace.

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” – Anonymous ancient proverb

In the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone, Greek resistance fighters and Allied demolition experts set out to destroy a nest of large cannons so that a rescue convoy can go through the straits the guns overlook. A young Greek who’s part of the mission goes after a group of Germans gunslinger-style, jeopardizing the venture. The Germans cut him to ribbons. When the mission members meet at their rendezvous point, his sister María (Iríni Pappás) says to his partner Andréas (Anthony Quinn, obligatory at that time whenever swarthy ethnics were required): “Tell me what happened.” Andréas replies: “He forgot why we came.”

María tries to keep her brother focused on the mission.

Last week, NASA administrators forgot why we came. They forgot the agency’s mission, they forgot science, they forgot their responsibility to their own people and to the public. Instead, they apparently decided that all publicity is good, as long as they don’t misspell your name.

Ever since I became fully conscious, I’ve dreamed of humanity exploring the stars. These dreams were part of the reason I left my culture, my country, my family and came over here, determined to do research. Every launch made my heart leap. I wept when I saw the images sent by the Voyagers, Sojourner negotiating Martian rocks. I kept thinking that perhaps in my lifetime we might find an unambiguous independent life sample. Then, at long last, astrobiology would lift off and whole new scientific domains would unfurl and soar with it.

Instead of that, last week we got bacterial isolate GFAJ-1. We got an agency which appears so desperate that it shoved experiments with inadequate controls into a high profile journal and then shouted from the rooftops that its researchers had discovered a new form of life (de facto false, even if the results of the increasingly beleaguered Science paper stand).

This is not the first or only time NASA administrators have been callously cavalier. Yet even though the latest debacle didn’t claim lives like the Challenger incident did, it was just as damaging in every other way. And whereas the Challenger disaster was partly instigated by pressure from the White House (Reagan needed an exclamation point for his State of the Union address), this time the hole in NASA’s credibility is entirely self-inflicted. Something went wrong in the process, and all the gatekeeping functions failed disastrously.

Let’s investigate a major claim in the Science paper: that GFAJ-1 bacteria incorporate arsenic in their DNA, making them novel, unique, a paradigm shift. Others have discussed the instability of the arsenate intermediates and of any resulting backbone. Three more points are crucial:

1. This uniqueness (not yet proved) has come about by non-stop selection pressure in the laboratory, not by intrinsic biochemistry: the parent bacterium in its normal environment uses garden-variety pathways and reverts to them as soon as the pressure is lifted. This makes the “novel life” claim patently incorrect and the isolate no more exotic than the various metallophores and metallovores that many groups in that domain (Penny Boston, Ken Nealson) have been studying for decades.

2. The arsenic-for-phosphorus substitution in the DNA is circumstantial at best. The paper contained no sequencing, no autoradiography, no cesium chloride density gradients. These are low-tech routine methods that nevertheless would give far more direct support to the authors’ claims. Density gradients are what Meselson and Stahl used in 1958 to demonstrate that DNA replication was semi-conservative. Instead, Wolfe-Simon et al. used highly complex techniques that gave inconclusive answers.

The Meselson and Stahl experiment

The reagents for the methods I just listed would cost less than $1,000 (total, not each). A round of sequencing costs $10 – the price of a Starbucks latte. In a subsequent interview, Oremland (the paper’s senior author) said that they did not have enough money to do more experiments. This is like saying that you hired the Good Year blimp to take you downtown but didn’t have enough money for a taxi back home.

3. Even if some of the bacteria incorporate arsenic in their DNA, it means nothing if they cannot propagate. Essentially, they can linger as poison-filled zombies that will nonetheless register as “alive” through such tests as culture turbidity and even sluggish metabolism.

NASA spokespeople, as well as Wolfe-Simon and Oremland, have stated that the only legitimate and acceptable critiques are those that will appear in peer-reviewed venues – and that others are welcome to do experiments to confirm or disprove their findings.

The former statement is remarkably arrogant and hypocritical, given the NASA publicity hyperdrive around the paper: embargoes, synchronized watches, melodramatic hints of “new life”, of a discovery with “major impact on astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life”. This is called leading with your chin. And if you live by PR, you cannot act shocked and dismayed when you die by PR.

As for duplicating the group’s experiments, the burden of proof lies with the original researchers. This burden increases if their claims are extraordinary. The team that published the paper was being paid to do the work by a grant (or, possibly, by earmarked NASA money, which implies much less competition). For anyone else to confirm or disprove their findings, they will have to carve effort, time and money out of already committed funds — or apply for a grant specifically geared to this, and wait for at least a year (usually more) for the money to be awarded. It’s essentially having to clean up someone else’s mess on your own time and dime.

Peer review is like democracy: it’s the worst method, except for all others. It cannot avoid agendas, vendettas, pet theories or hierarchies. But at least it does attempt judgment by one’s peers. Given the kernel of this paper, its reviewers should have been gathered from several disciplines. I count at least four: a microbiologist with expertise in extremophiles, a molecular biologist specializing in nucleic acids, a biochemist studying protein and/or lipid metabolism and a biophysicist versed in crystallography and spectrometry.

Some journals have started to name reviewers; Science does not, and “astrobiology” is a murky domain. If the scientific community discovers that the reviewers for the GFAJ-1 paper were physicists who write sciency SF and had put on the astrobio hat for amusement and/or convenience, Lake Mono will look mild and hospitable compared to the climate that such news will create.

Because of the way scientific publishing works, a lot of shaky papers appear that never get corrected or retracted. As a dodge, authors routinely state that “more needs to be done to definitively prove X.” Even if later findings of other labs completely contradict their conclusions, they can argue that the experiments were correct, if not their interpretation. Colleagues within each narrow domain know these papers and/or labs – and quietly discount them. But if such results get media attention (which NASA courted for this paper), the damage is irreversible.

People will argue that science is self-correcting. This is true in the long run – and as long as science is given money to conduct research. However, the publication of that paper in Science was a very public slap in the face of scientists who take time and effort to test their theories. NASA’s contempt for the scientific process (and for basic intelligence) during this jaw-dropping spectacle was palpable. It blatantly endorsed perceived “sexiness” and fast returns at the expense of careful experimentation. This is the equivalent of rewarding the mindset and habits of hedge fund managers who walk away with other people’s lifelong savings.

By disbursing hype, NASA administrators handed ready-made ammunition to the already strong and growing anti-intellectual, anti-scientific groups in US society: to creationists and proponents of (un)intelligent design; to climate change denialists and young-earth biblical fundamentalists; to politicians who have been slashing everything “non-essential” (except, of course, war spending and capital gains income). It jeopardized the still-struggling discipline of astrobiology. And it jeopardized the future of a young scientist who is at least enthusiastic about her research even if her critical thinking needs a booster shot – or a more rigorous mentor.

Quiros circus, Spain 2007

Perhaps NASA’s administrators were under pressure to deliver something, anything to stave off further decrease of already tight funds. I understand their position – and even more, that of their scientists. NIH and NSF are in the same tightening vise, and the US has lost several generations of working scientists in the last two decades. Everyone is looking for brass rings because it’s Winner Take All – and “all” is pennies. We have become beggars scrambling for coins tossed out of rich people’s carriages, buskers and dancing bears, lobsters in a slowly heating pot.

NASA should not have to resort to circus acts as the price for doing science. It’s in such circumstances that violence is done to process, to rigor, to integrity. We are human. We have mortgages and doctors’ bills and children to send to college, yes. But we are scientists, first and foremost. We are – must be – more than court jesters or technicians for the powerful. If we don’t hold the line, no one else will.

The paper: Wolfe-Simon F, Blum JS, Kulp TR, Gordon GW, Hoeft SE, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz JF, Webb SM, Weber PK, Davies PCW, Anbar AD, Oremland RS (2010) A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus. DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258.

Quantum Gravity, Part 2: A Thread ( or String) Leading Out of the Maze?

A good public relations campaign can do wonders.

Science is empirical. If there is no experiment, no observation, then an idea is truly relegated to “it’s just a theory.” [1]

Yet, consider string theory, a mathematical exercise so intricate Einstein’s general relativity is easy in comparison, and with no experimental evidence backing it whatsoever.

In the popular imagination, however, string theory dominates modern physics. Popularizations of string theory have topped bestseller charts. Friends and neighbors ask me about string theory. Students tell me they want to be string theorists, even though they, along with most of the public, are unsure what string theory even is.

In this essay I’ll attempt to untangle string theory for you, explain what it’s good for, why there are such devoted proponents, and what the skeptics say. Read the rest of this entry »

Not Such a Gold Standard

I’ve written half of this while traveling, and the rest while sleep-deprived. Science gets way more exciting when one is misreading every other word in a sentence. Apologies if any of that carried over!)

The Gold Standard…or is that the Silver Standard?

From slaying vampires and monsters to holding holy relics, silver has long stood as a sacred metal in religious and mythical lore. In modern times, it has done its fair share too, but, somehow, the credit always goes to gold.

Now, whether cleaning polluted water, or helping us diagnose illness, silver is becoming one of our most important elements.

Holy Water?

“Silver nanowires have been extensively studied and used for a variety of applications, including transparent conductive electrodes for solar cells and optoelectronic devices,” said nanoscientist Yugang Sun of Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials. “By chemically converting them into semiconducting silver chloride nanowires, followed by adding gold nanoparticles, we have created nanowires with a completely new set of properties that are significantly different from the original nanowires.”

“A scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory has created visible-light catalysis, using silver chloride nanowires decorated with gold nanoparticles, that may decompose organic molecules in polluted water.”

While this is still far from advanced enough to deal with wide-spread disasters like the Gulf spill, it may lead us to new methods of cleaning polluted water. As water becomes more scarce and pollution becomes more common, this could be one of our most important lines of research.

The scientists running the study speculate that the nanowires may also be used to split water into hydrogen.

Silver is also the focus of research that may lead to clean water at a fraction of the cost and difficulty of current methods. Utilizing the antibacterial properties of silver, nanowires and electricity work together to clean water.

“The scientists knew that contact with silver and electricity can destroy bacteria, and decided to combine both approaches. They spread sub-microscopic silver nanowires onto cotton, and then added a coating of carbon nanotubes, which give the filter extra electrical conductivity. Tests of the material on E. coli-tainted water showed that the silver/electrified cotton killed up to 98 percent of the bacteria. The filter material never clogged, and the water flowed through it very quickly without any need for a pump.”

Granted, it only takes that pesky 2% of E. Coli to make life pretty miserable, but this is a start, at least. Clean water technology needs to be one of our priorities, right alongside clean fuel.

What do researches get when they add vitamin C, ascorbic acid and an antiseptic (usually found in cosmetics) to silver nitrate and the gold compound chloroauric acid? Nanoparticles, apparently.

No, not little machines running amok through your system, clearing out all of your diseases. We aren’t in *that* future(yet). These are just foundations—or building blocks–for future advances.

But, these little baubles could be a new method of drug-delivery (hello, Big Brother conspiracies!) or the foundation of new technology. (It is worth noting that there is also technology being developed that would tattle if you skip your pills. While this could be of great use , the potential is a bit worrying.)

“The precise structures of the nanoparticles were revealed using a high-resolution elemental mapping technique. The analysis shows the nanoparticles to have multiple layers, shells of gold within silver within gold, in the case of the bimetallic particles and some blending, or alloying, of the metals occurred.”

Silver Bells, Silver Bells
And, finally, in deference to the holidays: jewelry that might just help Alzheimer’s patients hold onto a bit of their past. Using technology in conjunction with beautiful things, researchers are personalizing recorded memories. Citing the impersonal disposability of technology today, researchers have started working to make technology something to hand down and treasure

I’m particularly curious to hear thoughts on this last bit. With technology advancing so quickly—and being so fragile—is it really worth making into heirlooms? Is it even feasible? From an SF point of view, it isn’t that far out there, but for practical use, I’m not so sure.

Life in the dark and deep

There are plenty of places on Earth that seem alien to us, some we don’t even know much about. The deep sea is a perfect example: it’s been said that we know more about Mars than we do about the bottom of the ocean.

Hydrothermal vent communities weren’t discovered until 1977, well after the first landings on Mars. Scientists believed that the deep ocean was cold, dark, and inhospitable to life. But when scientists started studying the areas where hot mineral-heavy water wells up like an underwater geyer in tectonically active-regions (seafloor rifts), they were surprised to discover that deep-sea vents were home to thriving communities, full of life.

Deep sea vent

But they are dark, if not cold. If these deep sea communities had to subsist on detritus falling from the sunlit ocean surface, they would be more like cave organisms, rare, slow and sluggish in a low-energy environment. They weren’t: there were lots of animals, a high biomass, and many were active. Without photosynthesis, where does the energy come from?

The main animals featuring in the above photo are giant rift worms. They grow to be up to 1.5m long, the fastest-growing known marine invertebrate. They have a bright red top part and a whitish shell into which they can withdraw. They were originally put into their own phylum, the Pognophora (one of my favorite animal names ever), but sadly they were reclassified as part of the Siboglinidae, a larger group of worms. (I’m going to keep calling these giant rift worms Pogonophorans, if only because I know how to pronounce it.)

As if it weren’t strange enough to be living deep in the oceanic darkness, here’s the weird part: these critters have no mouth, no gut, and no anus. And what’s the advantage of being red in absolute darkness?

Giant rift worms are packed full of bacteria. Instead of relying on the energy from sunlight as photosynthetic organisms do, these chemosynthetic bacteria use hydrogen sulfide as an energy source for producing carbohydrates. The giant rift worms live off the products of these bacteria, in essence farming their own food inside themselves.

The red color is from hemoglobin, used to absorb hydrogen sulfide from the water and transport it to the bacteria. In mammals, hemoglobin is used to transport oxygen. Hydrogen sulfide is poisonous to us exactly because it bonds to the hemoglobin, blocking the oxygen. The pogonophorans have taken advantage of this transport capability, and have evolved a form of hemoglobin that successfully transports both hydrogen sulfide and oxygen.

Not all of the chemosynthetic bacteria are symbiotic. Free-living mats of bacteria form around the vents. All sorts of creatures live there, dining on bacteria: crabs, snails, fish, shrimp, and more. But most of them don’t dine as directly as the pogonophorans.

Although they don’t rely on the sun for energy, these communities do depend on sunlight in a more subtle way. Most of the organisms here get their oxygen from the surrounding water, and that oxygen comes from photosynthesis at the ocean surface. Still, these deep sea rifts offer science fiction writers a model of an ecosystem that could thrive on a moon of Saturn, or a planet with no life at the surface. The heat and chemical energy both come from geological processes. Pogonophorans also give us a model organism that doesn’t need to eat or excrete.