Category Archives: science

5 or 10 thoughts on the billionaire space race

Image of Jeff Bezos blasting into space

Jeff Bezos blasted into space today with three other people. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has an opinion about it. Even Variety magazine did. (That’s worth a read BTW).  So fwiw, here’s 1o things I thought about it:

  1. It’s good to see more interest in space in general. NASA and other space agencies do plenty in terms of space exploration, but often it is overlooked by people. Suddenly — for better or worse — people are talking about space again.
  2. It’s good to see money being spent on space travel. NASA has suffered for years with cutbacks. Decades. Here’s to more money being effectively used in space.
  3. These flights of Branson and Bezos are small steps in terms of space travel.  They are miles behind SpaceX even, never mind NASA or other space agencies. As we like to say in business: it’s a good start (implying there is a long way to go).
  4. Small steps can lead to big steps if they continue to pursue this and pour money into it. That’s a big if. Like any space exploration, it is hard to continue to make people interested in it after it starts to seem repetitive. They might find it much harder to get space tourists to pay a small fortune their 10th or 15th flight. Never mind after the first person dies (and someone will).
  5. Even if everything goes well, it could still fail  in the longer run. The Concorde failed and it was much simpler technology than this stuff. Not everything that is the best and fastest gets to succeed.
  6. I can’t see the ROI on space travel. Musk and SpaceX can get away with it because they have a client with the money to spend on it (i.e. NASA). Not sure if Bezos can wrestle some of that business away. Then again, perhaps there’s a global market for these services.
  7. I think there would have been a much more positive reaction if it wasn’t Bezos or Branson leading these endeavours. Give Musk credit: he lets the real astronauts do the work. Plus none of these men are inspiring to most people. They aren’t John Glenn or Neil Armstrong: they are billionaires. Bezos was at least smart enough to Wally Funk with him: that was a good distraction from the other members on his team.
  8. It will remain to be seen if they can catch up to Musk, or if they are even interested. Musk can act the fool, but he seems driven to push private space exploration to the limits. I can see Branson dropping out soon once some other thing comes along. Bezos is a bit of a mystery to me.
  9. People are criticizing them for spending money on space rather than here on earth, but Bill Gates spends his fortune on such things and he is criticized mightly for it. It’s a no win in terms of spending your money. They all should pay more taxes. (Although a lot of tax money in the US goes into the military budget. That’s a different but related issue.)
  10. Here’s to more inspiring people going to space soon, and to more inspiring space travel. Let’s hope this leads to that.

(Image: link from the Variety article)

Solutions to the Fermi Paradox?

Fermi’s Paradox in a nutshell:

‘We’d estimate that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.’ So there must be aliens. Why haven’t we heard from them?

If this fascinates you, check out this list of solutions to the Fermi Paradox.

You may not be convinced there is an answer to this problem, but for some, they will be.

(Image of Enrico Fermi from Wikimedia)

Sleep. Not just a brain thing


This is a fascinating article that illustrates that sleeping is a more complex activity than we know: Sleep Evolved Before Brains. Hydras Are Living Proof. | Quanta Magazine

I’ve always associated sleep with something our brains need to have in order to survive. (Sleep deprivation is one proof of that.) But I have been won over to the idea that sleep is a more fundamental property of living things, brain or no brain.

Read the article: I think you’ll find it fascinating too.

(Photo by Florian Olivo on Unsplash )

Three great pieces on Venus, the Milky Way, and black hole visualization

This piece on the Milky Way photographer of the year is filled with amazing photos of…well, you can guess. (One of the photos is above).
This is a good piece on the efforts to study Venus. It won’t be easy to do, but it will be rewarding.
Finally, this piece on how black holes are visualized is excellent.

What I find interesting: physics


Last week I talked about not learning music being a regret of mine. The other regret I have is not learning physics. I dabble in it, but it’s a struggle.

If you are interested in learning physics, read this piece from my friend Susan. I got to know her because of it: So You Want to Learn Physics… — Susan Fowler. She now has a new version of it at a new site! You can find it here.

Other friends I have who do know physics tell me the thing to learn is Lagrangian mechanics. Here’s a good guide to it: Lagrangian Mechanics For Dummies: An Intuitive Introduction – Profound Physics

Another way to learn physics is via Youtube. This guy has an amazing YouTube channel on Physics: DrPhysicsA – YouTube Worthwhile.

Of course you can also read text books on it. I think Dover Books are among the best for this. For example, this: Classical Mechanics: 2nd Edition: Corben, H.C., Stehle, Philip: 9780486680637: Gateway – Amazon.ca

Still another way is via experimentation. For example:  build your own particle detector | symmetry magazine

(Speaking of experimentation, here’s a great piece on how the LIGO Observatory detects gravitational waves)

A problem I have always had with physics is how did physics get to where it got to, and why are certain areas more prominent than others. To better understand that, it’s good to look backwards at how physics was done in previous time. For example, this article on Ole Roemer: Ole Roemer Profile: First to Measure the Speed of Light | AMNH. We all know light has a specific speed but back then some thought light was instantaneous. But Roemer came up with a method to show light had an actual speed and it could be measured. Likewise, here is the great physicist James Maxwell with a book on how scientists developed their idea of what heat is and how it works: Theory of Heat – James Clerk Maxwell – Google Books.

Finally, a good way to learn physics is read good articles on it. Here’s a collection of some:

(Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash)

The worst technology failures of 2020, including one not considered a failure but could be the worst of all

This piece (Worst technology failures of 2020) by MIT Technology Review has a list of the bigger technology failures of 2020. Some of them, like Quibi and facial recognition abuses, are well known.

One listed here may be the greatest technology failure of them all, though for many it is not considered a failure at all. That is the unregulated pollution of space with tiny satellites. As the article states:

Since prehistory, humankind has looked upwards for awe and inspiration, to imagine what forces created the world—and which might end it. But now, that cosmic view is being contaminated with the reflections of thousands of inexpensive commercial satellites put aloft by companies like Amazon, OneWeb, and SpaceX, who want to cover the Earth with internet connections. Sixty satellites can swarm out of a single rocket.

To see what I mean, check out this picture from the article:

Telescope views from earth are being marred with the light of all these satellites. This is today’s problem. Tomorrow’s problem is going to be all the other pollution, light or otherwise, which is going to result from the rush to put things in space. Science is getting wrecked by this.

Already astronomers are thinking of putting telescopes on the dark side of the moon to escape such problems. But without regulation, who knows if even this will be successful? To hear Elon Musk yammer on, he’s just going to be throwing who knows what into space. He’s already launched one of his stupid cars into the atmosphere. Hardly the guy you can trust to be responsible when it comes to deciding what should go into space.

Here’s hoping that in the rush to do more and more space development (a good thing)  there is also an effort to make sure it is well thought and regulated (also a good thing).

How complicated is the brain?

The brain is a complex organ. Even in something as small as a fruit fly (whose brains are mapped in the image above). Yet…

Scientists from Google and the Janelia Research Campus in Virginia have published the largest high-resolution map of brain connectivity in any animal, sharing a 3D model that traces 20 million synapses connecting some 25,000 neurons in the brain of a fruit fly.

The model is a milestone in the field of connectomics, which uses detailed imaging techniques to map the physical pathways of the brain. This map, known as a “connectome,” covers roughly one-third of the fruit fly’s brain. To date, only a single organism, the roundworm C. elegans, has had its brain completely mapped in this way.

It’s a fascinating story of both biology and computer science. (It takes a lot of computing power to do this). For more details, see: Google publishes largest ever high-resolution map of brain connectivity – The Verge

Great insights on mathematics you should read about even if you don’t think you want to


I suspect many people will not want to read this article containing great insights on mathematics by Steve Strogatz. That’s a shame, because it is really approachable by anyone of any mathematical ability. It’s especially good for people with limited math skills, because he does a good job of showing the value and benefits to be gained from thinking mathematically. I highly recommend it if you read it.

For example, one thing I found fascinating is his discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma by comparing it to religion. You should read it, but in short, it’s been shown that one approach to succeeding in playing several rounds of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is to use a Tit-for-Tat strategy. This is highly effective and is similar to Old Testament Eye-for-an-Eye morality. However that can also go wrong on occasion, leading to long lasting feuds that never get resolved. Then he gets into a discussion of New Testament morality and how that can avoid some of the problems of Old Testament morality. It’s a great discussion, and one of the many great discussions in the article.

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

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The race to Mars


In exciting news, the United States, China and the UAE are all sending missions to explore Mars. It’s not the same as the space race: there have been already a number of visits to Mars. But it’s great that the interest is continuing and we will learn more about the mission as a result.

For more on this, see:  ‘We are all Martians!’: space explorers seek to solve the riddle of life on Mars | Mars | The Guardian

Image via the article.

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If you know someone learning about the periodic table, show them this

Not too long ago I was teaching my son about the periodic table and trying to make some of it relevant to him. Something like this would have helped: This Illustrated Periodic Table Shows How We Regularly Interact With Each Element | Mental Floss

It’s a great way of showing that the dozens of elements listed there are things we interact with regularly.

Check out the link for a more detailed version of the chart. (The above image is just an abridged version).

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No, you cannot nuke a hurricane (and the alternatives aren’t great either)

Yes, nuking a hurricane is a bad idea. (duh.) There are better ideas,
but as Vox explains, even those are prone to problems. For example…

In one of the most infamous attempts to slay a hurricane, Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir led a US military experiment in 1947 to seed Hurricane King with ice in hopes of sapping its vigor. The storm at the time was sliding away from the United States and losing strength.

In an excerpt in the Atlantic from his book Caesar’s Last Breath, author Sam Kean explained Langmuir’s idea: Growing ice in the eye of the hurricane would make the eye grow wider and collapse the storm. But Hurricane King didn’t respond as expected. “To everyone’s horror, it then pivoted — taking an impossible 135-degree turn — and began racing into Savannah, Georgia, causing $3 million in damage ($32 million today) and killing one person,” Kean writes.

So yeah, it’s no small thing to stop hurricanes. But given that climate change may make things worse, it could be worth it.

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What goes into a spacesuit?

Quite a lot! And it took quite a lot to figure it out! Did you know part of the mission of the space suit is just to filter out body odor? Or that the spacesuit of one astronaut can be used to help another astronaut with a failing suit? There’s lots of interesting facts about spacesuits, here: Apollo’s PLSS And The Science Of Keeping Humans Alive In Space | Hackaday

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Not all mindfulness is the same


If you think all mindfulness is the same, then read this: Different Types Of Meditation Change Different Areas Of The Brain, Study Finds.

Key quote:

a new study from the Max Planck Institute finds that three different types of meditation training are linked to changes in corresponding brain regions. The results, published in Science Advances, have a lot of relevance to schools, businesses and, of course, the general public.

Mindfulness can be helpful for many reasons. But how you pursue it can yield different results. Something to keep in…mind.

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9 Numbers That Are Cooler Than Pi


Fun! For all you number theory fans out there: 9 Numbers That Are Cooler Than Pi

I still think Pi is pretty cool. But so are these other numbers.

Some thoughts on leftists calling for radical measures on climate change

I see that leftists are calling for radical measures to fight climate change. I have a few issues with this:

  1. You have to be careful for what you wish for. When they talk about radical measures, they are likely thinking that the line of what is radical is where they get to draw it. I don’t think this is true. To me, radical is things like geoengineering. Or nuclear proliferation. Leftists should not assume they get to draw the line as to what radical is. And leftists should not be surprised if they don’t like what they ask for.
  2. Some of this seems to be a way to score points against centrists and rightists. It may be true that centrists and rightists have bad solutions. They are not bad solutions because they are associated with anyone of a certain political stripe. They are bad because they may not be enough.

Everyone involved with dealing with climate change should

  1. work very hard to promote new and better ideas and solutions for climate change
  2. be as persuasive as possible, especially for those more moderate than themselves
  3. be very humble when it comes to thinking you know what is right

Obviously this is not the easy a thing to solve by any stretch, and the tradeoffs are significant. Worse still, the solutions involve humans and all their flaws as well as science and technology still in development.

I personally believe it is too late already and that:

  1. there is going to be global devastation with many coastal cities being destroyed over the next 20 years, despite any advances in policies or technology.
  2. there is going to be such severe weather in the next two decades that global warming and climate change will be the main political topic affecting everything, and there will be a surge in advances in response to this.
  3. there will be feedback in terms of population decreases, new technologies, new policies, and planetary unknowns. This feedback will result in climate change stabilizing.
  4. there will be positive gains to be had from global warming and climate change but that they will not be known for sometime.

Thanks for reading this. Feel free to disagree. Just not on twitter, or I will block you.

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The philosopher Karl Popper in Scientific American

This is one of those things that popped up via Pocket, yesterday: The Paradox of Karl Popper – Scientific American Blog Network

It’s odd, because the interview is old, and Popper has been dead for sometime. Odd or not, it is still a worthwhile interview of the philosopher. The interviewer seems to capture the spirit and the essential ideas of the man in the three hours he spoke with him.

Worthwhile for anyone interested in philosophy or science.

A fine appreciation for Stephen Hawking can be found…


… here: Stephen Hawking Is Still Underrated – The Atlantic. 

I like this piece because it takes you into his science and what makes his work great without having you be an expert in the field yourself. You might still struggle with it, but it is a worthwhile struggle.

Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking. You may be gone, but the work you did lives on and will lead to more great work being done by other scientists that come after you.

It’s Monday. Your brain is barely functioning. Great news! You don’t need it!

Damaged brain due to fluid

You might think I am joking but I am not.

Take a look at the photo above. This is a scan of a living man’s brain: the black part is fluid, while the part around the black part is his remaining brain. Essentially 90% of his brain has been displaced by the fluid. And yet he was considered a functioning person, despite only have 10% of a brain mass most people have.

The story behind the scan and the questions that it raises is in this article: A civil servant missing most of his brain challenges our most basic theories of consciousness.

Fascinating. Perhaps in a few years / centuries we will understand how the brain works. For now we are mostly clueless, much like you are while you wait for your coffee to kick in. 🙂

On Nash equilibrium and game theory

John Nash
I’ve been interested in Game Theory and in particular how to apply the concept of the Nash Equilibrium to work. These were four links I found useful

  1. Examples and exercises on Nash equilibrium in games in which each player has finitely many actions
  2. The Triumph (and Failure) of John Nash’s Game Theory | The New Yorker
  3. Nash equilibrium – Wikipedia
  4. Game theory text (PDF) from UCLA math department.

(Image of the great man himself from Wikipedia)

On the New Yorker’s piece: Why Freud Survives

Freud
This piece, Why Freud Survives, is a great review of not just Freud’s legacy, but some of the people involved with Freud’s legacy since his death. I’ve read about it before: believe it or not, this is the short version of it. While long, the piece is well worth reading.

This section in particular gives some good context with regards to psychoanalysis in the context of psychiatry.

Since the third edition of the DSM, the emphasis has been on biological explanations for mental disorders, and this makes psychoanalysis look like a detour, or, as the historian of psychiatry Edward Shorter called it, a “hiatus.” But it wasn’t as though psychiatry was on solid medical ground when Freud came along. Nineteenth-century science of the mind was a Wild West show. Treatments included hypnosis, electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, full-body massage, painkillers like morphine, rest cures, “fat” cures (excessive feeding), seclusion, “female castration,” and, of course, institutionalization. There was also serious interest in the paranormal. The most prevalent nineteenth-century psychiatric diagnoses, hysteria and neurasthenia, are not even recognized today. That wasn’t “bad” science. It was science. Some of it works; a lot of it does not. Psychoanalysis was not the first talk therapy, but it was the bridge from hypnosis to the kind of talk therapy we have today. It did not abuse the patient’s body, and if it was a quack treatment it was not much worse, and was arguably more humane, than a lot of what was being practiced. Nor did psychoanalysis put a halt to somatic psychiatry. During the first half of the twentieth century, all kinds of medical interventions for mental disorders were devised and put into practice. These included the administration of sedatives, notably chloral, which is addictive, and which was prescribed for Virginia Woolf, who suffered from major depression; insulin-induced comas; electroshock treatments; and lobotomies. Despite its frightful reputation, electroconvulsive therapy is an effective treatment for severe depression, but most of the other treatments in use before the age of psychopharmaceuticals were dead ends. Even today, in many cases, we are basically throwing chemicals at the brain and hoping for the best. Hit or miss is how a lot of progress is made. You can call it science or not.

Psychiatry has a long way to go. It will need better tools and better ways of understanding the brain and the mind. I think over time Freud will be seen the way Galen is: not so much relevant as influential and important in moving medicine forward.

(Image from link to Wikipedia)

Some perspective on the Arctic “doomsday” seed vault threatened with flooding

After reading this, The Arctic “doomsday” seed vault is supposed to ensure the future of humanity. It just flooded, I wondered why there is only one of these?! If this one gets destroyed, are we doomed?!

I should relax, though remain concerned: it turns out there are many seed vaults around the world.  I discovered this after a few minutes on Google. It’s still bad that this one is being threatened. And I can see why so many stories are being written about it. But some context is important.

In addition, the people maintaining this vault have plans to deal with the threat to it. I expect that this one will survive along with all of its seeds.

Yes, global warming is still a major problem and it is threatening our future. The flooding at this seed bank is not.

SpaceX tries to disrupt and partner with NASA at the same time

It’s not explicitly stated, but if you read this: If you think NASA is frustrated with SpaceX, you’re probably right in Ars Technica, then you may draw the same conclusion. It seems SpaceX is taking advantage of its partnership with NASA to position itself to get the point where it can get by without it and eventually compete with the space agency.

If that was not the case, then I would expect SpaceX to stick to missions that were separate from NASA and supportive of NASA. Instead they seem to be trying to compete with NASA for the same missions.

It’s a tricky call for SpaceX: if they are not careful, they could ruin their partnership and find themselves without a steady source of income to fund their ambitions. I’m all for both NASA and SpaceX both being viable for the long term. Let’s hope that happens.

The beauty of when science and poetry intersect

According to a post by Clive Thompson,

Recently, two scientists got interested in the poem, because they realized these two facts could be used to determine precisely what time of year Sappho wrote the poem.

The poem, the post, and the work the scientists did are all great. Highly recommended. (Click on the link to the post for more details.)

At Theranos, things are coming undone

And the journalists at Wall Street Journal have been leading on this story for some time now. Their latest piece, which is a good summary of what has been happening recently with the blood testing company is here:  At Theranos, Many Strategies and Snags – WSJ.

Everything I see leads me to believe this will be a debacle. It’s hard to tell, since Theranos consistently defends themselves against the many charges against them. Perhaps they will come out successful in the end. I think we’ll find out soon enough.

Reasons to be optimistic (and pessimistic) about climate change


As this article shows, The Way Humans Get Electricity Is About to Change Forever – Bloomberg Businessthere are a number of reasons to be optimistic about the way we use energy. Improvements in solar power and energy efficiency are just two reasons to be optimistic.

However, we are still emitting too much CO2 and that is going to cause the temperature of the earth to rise far too high, according to experts. In the long run, we may be ok, but in the next century there are going to be significant consequences.

Read the piece and get a sense of where things are heading.

How long are you going to live? Now you can find out


According to this, you have two very good rules of thumb or models you can use to determine this:

1) The heuristic bi-linear model. We made this by making the best bi-linear model a bit simpler to apply.

It goes:

If you’re under 85, your life expectancy is 72 minus 80% of your age.

Otherwise it’s 22 minus 20% of your age

2) The 50-15-5 model. This one asks you to remember some key values and then to interpolate between those values. It goes:

The life expectancies of 30, 70, 90 and 110 year olds are about 50, 15, 5, and 0.

For more, check out the link.

You too can be like Elon Musk (@elonmusk) and fund a lunar mission

Really. There is a kickstarter going on right now you can contribute to: LUNAR MISSION ONE: A new lunar mission for everyone. by Lunar Missions Ltd 

The team there says….

We plan to send an unmanned robotic landing module to the South Pole of the Moon – an area unexplored by previous missions.

We’re going to use pioneering technology to drill down to a depth of at least 20m – 10 times deeper than has ever been drilled before – and potentially as deep as 100m. By doing this, we will access lunar rock dating back up to 4.5 billion years to discover the geological composition of the Moon, the ancient relationship it shares with our planet and the effects of asteroid bombardment. Ultimately, the project will improve scientific understanding of the early solar system, the formation of our planet and the Moon, and the conditions that initiated life on Earth.

I think this is the most fantastic Internet project I have seen yet. I highly recommend you check it out.

Thanks to Kottke for pointing it out.

More ideas for late afternoon: are midlife crises biological?

Yesterday we considered math and infinity. Today, apes and biology.

If you read this, Even apes have ‘midlife crises,’ study finds – Yahoo News, you might conclude “possibly”. What do you think?

My thoughts: I’d push back and say the notion of a midlife crisis is a complex representation of a lot of different things, and being able to tie that back to biology direct doesn’t make sense. It may be possible to find linkages there, though, and through the discovery of these linkages gain a better understanding of how we relate to life as we mature.

Your thoughts?