November 19, 2008

What Really Happened?

Alan Boyle has a piece on what looks to be an interesting PBS series on biblical archaeology. I agree that it is not the archaeologist's job to either prove, or disprove creation myths. His job is to, as best as can be done, utilize the scientific method to figure out what the past really was.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:39 AM

November 14, 2008

The Big Chill?

So, are we heading for rising sea levels, or a return of the glaciers? A roundup of the debate.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:54 AM

November 03, 2008

Blood Suckers

No, this isn't a political post, despite the potential upcoming ascendancy of the leech class in DC. Alan Boyle has an interesting article about them in nature, and why human vampires don't work.

Well, that's a relief. But then, the author in question probably never spent much time in DC.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:09 AM

October 29, 2008

A Beautiful Math

John Tierney writes about an interesting television special on fractals.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:39 AM

October 22, 2008

Due For Disaster

This article is about the potential for a great quake in San Francisco, but the problem is actually much more widespread. LA is vulnerable as well, though not, as popular imagination has it, from the San Andreas fault, which is quite a distance away. Of much more concern (particularly to me, as a property owner in the South Bay) is the Newport-Inglewood fault, which comes within a few miles of my house. That's the fault that ruptured in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, and a seven on it would be much worse than an eight on the San Andreas, because it runs right through the LA metro area.

The Northwest is also in danger--there could be a magnitude nine in the Seattle area at almost any time. Of course, the greatest danger is in those areas that get quakes so rarely that they're in no way prepared for them, such as the east coast. There's still a lot of unreinforced masonry there that will come tumbling down in the event of a significant temblor, and they're not unheard of.

Of course, in Florida, I live in one of the most seismically inactive places in the country. I can put all kinds of things on top of other things here that I'd never consider doing in California. Instead, we have to watch the weather for hurricanes half the year.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:49 AM

October 07, 2008


Alan Boyle has a story on the latest thinking about Lucy, with a cool artist's rendering. And of course, no post like this is complete without the usual clueless comments by the creationists.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:06 AM

September 21, 2008

The Last Of The Neanderthals

Here's an interesting piece on the latest research, at National Geographic:

"Most Neanderthals and modern humans probably lived most of their lives without seeing each other," he said, carefully choosing his words. "The way I imagine it is that occasionally in these border areas, some of these guys would see each other at a distance...but I think the most likely thing is that they excluded each other from the landscape. Not just avoided, but excluded. We know from recent research on hunter-gatherers that they are much less peaceful than generally believed."

"Sometimes I just turn out the lights in here and think what it must have been like for them."

Nasty, brutish, short.

And many people have no idea how close we are to returning to those days, should things take a wrong turn.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:07 PM

September 04, 2008

Worth Its Weight In Gold

A list of items that have a higher value density than gold. This is a characteristic of any viable product of space manufacturing, at least one that will have a market on earth, because transportation costs are so high.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:34 AM

August 22, 2008

Nurture, Not Nature

Wild dolphins learning to tail walk. It would be fascinating to finally break the code to their language, and find out just how much culture they have. We can't replicate their sounds, but synthesizers should be able to.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:42 AM

August 11, 2008


It's that time of year again. They peak tonight (or rather, early tomorrow morning). Be sure to get out of town, though. You won't see any but the very brightest with city lights around.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:47 AM

August 02, 2008

Big Deal

I have a new piece up on this week's non-discovery of water on Mars.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:15 AM

July 21, 2008

Fraud Detection

The (modern) difference between science and the humanities.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:25 AM

July 13, 2008

You Want Transitional Fossils?

Carl Zimmer has the story.

A graduate student at the University of Chicago named Matt Friedman was starting to research his dissertation on the diversity of teleosts. While paging through a book on fish fossils, he noticed a 50-million year old specimen called Amphistium. Like many fish fossils, this one only showed the bones from one side of the animal. It was generally agreed that Amphistium belonged to some ordinary group of teleosts, although biologists argued over which one. But Friedman saw something different. To him it looked like a flounder.

[Via LGF]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:59 PM

July 03, 2008

LHC Safety And Promise

Alan Boyle has a great interview on the upcoming research to be performed on the Large Hadron Collider.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:39 AM

July 02, 2008


It's been a hundred and fifty years since Darwin first presented his thesis. Charles Johnson has some thoughts. I may have some as well, later. Or not.

[A minute or so later]

Well, actually, I do now, in light of Lileks' comments this morning, in which he pointed out the simplistic, stilted views of many across the political spectrum. I'll repeat:

Really, if one wants to cling, bitterly, to the notion that a believe [sic] in lower taxes and strong foreign policy and greater individual freedom re: speech and property automatically translates to a crimpled, reductive, censorious view of pop culture, go right ahead.

Similarly, if one wants to cling, bitterly, to the notion that a concern about Islamism, and an inability to realize what an evil stupid fascist criminal George Bush is translates to a belief that the world was created by Jehovah six thousand some years ago, complete with dinosaur bones, go right ahead.

Before 911, Charles Johnson was a Democrat, and a jazz musician. Almost seven years ago, he got mugged by reality. That, combined with some scary things that were happening at a mosque near his home in Culver City resulted in a change in emphasis at his web site. Now many of the left wingnuts who read LGF stupidly assume that he's a "right" wingnut. Yet here he is, defending science from places like the Discovery Institute, on a semi-daily basis.

I get the same idiotic treatment, much of the time. I've often had discussions on Usenet whereupon, when I argue that maybe it wasn't necessarily a bad idea to remove Saddam Hussein's boot from the neck of the Iraqi people, and that I don't believe that George Bush personally planted the charges in the Twin Towers, I am told to go back to whatever holler I came from and play with my snakes, and am informed that my belief in a Christian God, and my lack of belief in evolution is just more evidence of my irredeemable stupidity, despite the fact neither religion or science had been on the discussion table.

I then take pleasure in informing them that I am an agnostic and for practical purposes an atheist, and that I am a firm believer in evolutionary theory, it being the best one available to explain the existing body of evidence. Whereupon, I am sometimes called a liar. Really. It's projection, I think.

Same thing often happens here, in fact. I tell people that I'm not a Republican, and have never been, nor am I a conservative, and I'm accused of lying about my true beliefs and political affiliation.

C'est la vie. There's no reasoning with some folks.

In any event, happy birthday to a controversial but powerful (as Dennett says, absolutely corrosive, cutting through centuries of ignorance) scientific theory. Expect me to continue to defend it here, and Charles to defend it there.

[Late evening update]

Well, Iowahawk has the comment du jour:

I'm a dope-smoking atheist writer for a San Francisco lowbrow culture mag; I also enjoy seeing 7th century genocidal terrorist shitbags getting waterboarded. I really don't see the contradiction.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:09 AM

July 01, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different

Behold: subatomic particle plush toys. Hey, it's less than six months until Christmas.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:43 AM

June 30, 2008

Better Diagnostics

...through metabolites:

Douglas Kell, a researcher at the University of Manchester in Britain, has already created a computer model based on metabolite profiles in blood plasma that can single out pregnant women who are developing pre-eclampsia, or dangerously high blood pressure. Research published last year by Rima Kaddurah-Daouk, a psychiatrist at the Duke University Medical Centre in America, may not only provide a test for schizophrenia, but also help with its treatment. She found a pattern of metabolites present only in the blood of people who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The patterns change according to the antipsychotic drugs patients take and this may throw light on why some respond well to certain drugs, but others suffer severe side-effects.

This seems very promising, and near term. This part is a little misleading, though:

Studying genes alone does not provide such detail. Genes are similar to the plans for a house; they show what it looks like, but not what people are getting up to inside.

This implies that the genome is a blueprint--that the body is built by following a plan. But that's a bad analogy. A much better one is a recipe. First do this, then do that. If it were a blueprint, identical twins would be truly identical, and indistinguishable. But because it's a recipe, there are subtle differences (e.g., fingerprints) because the genome doesn't specify the body design to that high a level of detail, and much can depend on womb environment (one reason to think that this could be a strong factor in the creation of homosexuals, in addition to genetic predisposition).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:43 AM

June 19, 2008

Made Of Math?

An interesting theory of life, the universe and everything. How would one test it, though?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:50 AM
"Slo Mo" Disaster

Alan Boyle has an interesting story on flood prediction. Well it is to me, anyway.

Robert Criss, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed that the forecasts have been "remarkably accurate" - within the limits of the system, that is. He noted that the flood wave is working its way down the Mississippi River at about walking speed, giving the forecasters time to analyze the water's course, and giviing emergency officials time to react.

"It's like a traffic jam. The cars move slowly through the jam, and this big stuff is coming our way slowly and inexorably," Criss said.

The damage will be in the billions. And of course, some will say that this is a sign of climate change. But the real reason that the cost of these disasters is increasing is not because the weather is any different than it has been in the past but rather because people foolishly build in flood plains, because they don't understand the nature of statistics. There is no such thing as a "hundred year flood," at least in the sense that you can expect that there will be one per century, and after you've had one, you're safe for another hundred years. All it means is that statistically, one would expect one to occur that often, on average. Having one does not inoculate you from having another the next year (or even the next month), any more than chances that the next coin flip will be heads is increased by a previous tail. It's fifty-fifty every flip, and it's one in a hundred every year (assuming that the estimate is correct). This is the same kind of thinking as the guy who always carried a bomb on the plane with him, on the logic that the chances that there would be an airplane with two bombs on it were minuscule.

A perfect example is the 2004 hurricane season, which I drove over from California in early September to enjoy. I arrived in Florida just in time to put up shutters and batten down the hatches in our new house, when Frances hit us.

It was the first time a major storm had hit the area in many years, and most of the people who had lived here, even long-time residents, had gotten complacent. In fact, I recall sitting next to someone on a plane to LA earlier that summer, shortly after we'd bought the house, but before the storms. He was a real estate agent in Palm Beach County, and I mentioned that one of the things I didn't like about moving to south Florida was the hurricanes. He waved it aside, saying, "we don't get hurricanes here." I just shook my head.

Anyway, three weeks later, just as we were getting power back on and cleaned up from Frances, we got hit by Jeanne, which made landfall in almost exactly the same place (up around Fort Pierce). So this was not only a "hundred year" (or perhaps a "thirty year") hurricane, but we had two of them within a month. And of course, the cost of hurricanes will continue to grow, not because hurricanes are getting worse, but because, as in the midwest, and partly out of statistical ignorance, we continue to provide them with ever more, and ever more expensive targets.

[Update a couple hours later]

Jeff Masters thinks that climate change is causing 500-year floods to become more frequent. I don't think we have enough data to know that for sure (particularly since things have actually been cooling down in the last few years), but as he points out, another anthropogenic effect is the draining of wetlands for farming and building of levees to protect them. Levees work fine (until they suddenly don't) but they intensify effects down stream.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:00 AM
Evolution In Action

And not just in the Pournelle/Niven sense--literally:

...sometime around the 31,500th generation, something dramatic happened in just one of the populations - the bacteria suddenly acquired the ability to metabolise citrate, a second nutrient in their culture medium that E. coli normally cannot use.

Indeed, the inability to use citrate is one of the traits by which bacteriologists distinguish E. coli from other species. The citrate-using mutants increased in population size and diversity.

"It's the most profound change we have seen during the experiment. This was clearly something quite different for them, and it's outside what was normally considered the bounds of E. coli as a species, which makes it especially interesting," says Lenski.

But a dog didn't turn into a cat, so no big deal.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:47 AM

June 01, 2008

Cold Fusion Breakthrough?

Probably not, but it's such a high-payoff concept that it's worthwhile to keep on eye on those few who continue to chase that particular grail. Here's the latest one from Japan, with a report that the experiment seems to be repeatable.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:30 PM

May 27, 2008

Phoenix Descending

I have some thoughts on this weekend's successful arean invasion, over at PJ Media.

[Update at 7:40 AM EDT]

Some less lofty thoughts over at Althouse's place, particularly in comments.

[Mid-morning update]

Jeff Foust writes about a second chance for an underdog, over at The Space Review.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:16 AM

May 16, 2008

Science News You Can Use

The neurology of org@sms. Mostly safe for work.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:59 AM

May 14, 2008

Happy Blogiversary

Congratulations to Alan Boyle for six years of Cosmic Log.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:02 AM

May 09, 2008

Expelled Exposed

SciAm has an article on the six things that Ben Stein doesn't want you to know about the movie. Just the first one is sufficient to me to think the whole thing a contemptible fraud.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:49 AM

May 02, 2008

Show Me The Science

Jim Manzi reviews Expelled. He's not impressed.

And John Derbyshire is appropriately dismayed by Jews like David Klinghoffer and Ben Stein latching on to this anti-science schtick:

One of the best reasons to be a philosemite in our time is sheer gratitude at the disproportionate contribution Jews have made to the advance of Western civilization, and to our understanding of the world, this past two hundred years. The U.S.A. dominated the 20th century in culture and technology, to the great benefit of all mankind, in part because of the work done in math and science by the great tranche of pre-WW2 immigrant Jews from Europe.

Now you have joined up with people who want to trash the scientific enterprise and heap insults on one of the greatest names in intellectual history. For reasons unfathomable to me, you and Ben Stein want to sneer and scoff at our understandings, hard-won over centuries of arduous intellectual effort. Don't the two of you know, don't Jews of all people know, where this anti-intellectual agitation, this pandering to a superstitious mob, will lead at last? If you truly don't, I refer you to the fate of Hypatia, which you can read about in my last book (Chapter 3), or in Gibbon (Chapter XLVII). Your new pals at the Discovery Institute no doubt think Hypatia got what she deserved.

Civilization is a thin veneer, David. Reason and science are bulwarks against the dark.

The mistake that these people make is to equate science with atheism. It is true that, as science advances, and more scientific explanations are put forth, much of the need for God, at least insofar as an explanation for natural phenomena, is removed. But then, that's the nature of natural phenomena--if they require the supernatural, they are by definition not natural.

But it doesn't follow that a belief in science in general, or evolution in particular, requires atheism. Many (including Manzi in the link above) have pointed out numerous examples, going back to Aquinas, of the compatibility of rationality and reason, and theism. Stein and Klinghoffer would return us to the dark ages, even if they don't realize it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:20 AM

April 30, 2008

Et Tu, Alan?

Alan Boyle has a long review of the movie Expelled. While I largely agree with it (and it has reduced my estimation of Ben Stein, who seems to have gone completely off the deep end, tremendously), it is marred, severely in my opinion, by the use of the politically loaded word, "swiftboating," not just in the text, but in the title itself.

He seems, from context, to be using the word in its popular, but grossly mistaken and (Democrat) partisan sense, as in "spreading malicious lies about something or someone." But for those of us actually paying attention at the time, and using more enlightened sources than Lawrence O'Donnell screaming "Liar! Liar! Liar!" at John O'Neill, the word means "revealing inconvenient truths about a political candidate who is a Democrat." Most of the charges of the Swift Boaters were in fact validated--on the subject of Christmas in Cambodia, despite it being "seared, seared into his memory," John Kerry was either lying or fantasizing, and his campaign essentially was forced to admit that. And the video of his Senate testimony in which he slandered his fellow sailors, airmen, marines and soldiers, calling them war criminals, was indisputable.

So it would be far better to simply avoid the word, given the fact that it has almost exactly the opposite meaning to two different sets of readerships, and is bound to raise hackles, regardless of the context. I expect it from political polemicists, but I expect (and almost always get) much better from Alan.

I'll have more thoughts on the movie itself (which I haven't seen, and have no plans to), but will save them for another post.

[Thursday morning update]

Alan responds, but seems to miss the point that I was making. Apparently, to him, the term "swiftboat" as a verb simply means "negative campaigning," something that he doesn't like. But I don't think that's what it means to most people, on either side of the partisan divide. As I describe above, Democrat partisans have come to use it to mean not just negative campaigning, but lying about their candidate, whereas those of us who were opposed to John Kerry (for reasons that the Swift Boat Vets stated, and many others) view it as telling inconvenient truths that didn't reflect well on him. Both of those fall under the rubric of "negative campaigning," if by that one means saying things about a candidate (or a concept) with the intent of making people think less of them.

Now, in light of what I think is my understanding of Alan's point, I disagree. I actually have no problem at all with negative campaigning per se, if the campaign is truthful. I think that in order to make a judgment about a candidate or an issue, the more information the better, both pro and con. If a candidate happens to be an ax murderer, would there be something reprehensible about pointing this out? I think that it would be information that the voting public would have a right to know, despite the fact that it's (sigh) "negative."

Likewise, I have no problem with movies that oppose evolution, per se, as long as they're honest, and I would not characterize such movies as "Swift Boating" (particularly since I think that the Swift Boat Vets, in pointing out facts about John Kerry of which the voting public was largely unaware, performed a public service). From what I've heard about Expelled, however, it's scurrilous, and to associate the tactics used there with John O'Neill and his cohorts is slanderous, if not libelous, to them. There's been a lot of discussion about the movie in the last couple days, and the war on science in general (a war that, by the way, contra Chris Mooney's flawed, or at least limited, thesis, is thoroughly bi-partisan). I hope to provide a link roundup and some thoughts of my own shortly, if I can find the time.

In any event, I continue to find Alan's usage of the new (and ambiguous) verb "swiftboating" problematic, for reasons stated above. As I already noted, I expect to hear that word from "political consultants" on partisan talkfests on the cable news channels, but not in a reasoned discussion about science and society.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:18 PM

April 25, 2008

Tastes Like Chicken?

New (and apparently controversial) genetic evidence that dinosaurs (and particularly T. Rex) were closely related to birds.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:25 AM
A Brief Tutorial

...on centrifugal force.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:34 AM

April 24, 2008

Are We Real?

Phil Bowermaster (along with Jerry Pournelle) has some thoughts about Intelligent Design, panspermia and simulated universes. How would one go about looking for the easter eggs, if they exist? Sagan had an interesting one, in Contact.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:39 AM

April 23, 2008

A Potential Breakthrough?

A new class of high-temperature superconductors:

According to Steven Kivelson, a theoretical physicist at Stanford, "[there exist] enough similarities that it's a good working hypothesis that they're parts of the same thing." However, not everyone hopes the mechanism is the same. Philip Anderson, a Nobel Laureate and theoretical physicist at Princeton, says that an entirely new mechanism of superconductivity would be far more important than if they mimicked the current understanding of superconductivity. "If it's really a new mechanism, God knows where it will go," says Anderson.

Let's hope.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:04 AM
Caught In The Act?

Some rapidly evolving lizards have been discovered on an Adriatic island:

The transplanted lizards adapted to their new environment in ways that expedited their evolution physically, Irschick explained.

Pod Mrcaru, for example, had an abundance of plants for the primarily insect-eating lizards to munch on. Physically, however, the lizards were not built to digest a vegetarian diet.

Researchers found that the lizards developed cecal valves--muscles between the large and small intestine--that slowed down food digestion in fermenting chambers, which allowed their bodies to process the vegetation's cellulose into volatile fatty acids.

"They evolved an expanded gut to allow them to process these leaves," Irschick said, adding it was something that had not been documented before. "This was a brand-new structure."

Along with the ability to digest plants came the ability to bite harder, powered by a head that had grown longer and wider.

It will be interesting to see not only if there is a genetic basis for this change, but if they can still interbreed with the original species. If not, that's called a "new species," folks.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:14 AM

April 21, 2008


[Update a few minutes later]

Alan Boyle has a link roundup of commentary on the movie.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:31 AM

April 18, 2008

Darwin And Hitler

Derb has some thoughts:

As so often with creationist material, I'm not sure what the point is. Darwin's great contribution to human knowledge, his theory of the origin of species, is either true, or it's not. Is David saying: "When taken up by evil people, the theory had evil consequences. Therefore the theory must be false"? Is he asserting, in other words, that a true theory about the world could not possibly have evil consequence, no matter who picked it up and played with it, with no matter how little real understanding? Does David think that true facts cannot possibly be used for malign purposes? If that is what David is asserting, it seems to me an awfully hard proposition to defend. It is a true fact that E = mc2, and the Iranians are right at this moment using that true fact to construct nuclear weapons. If they succeed, and use their weapons for horrible purposes, will that invalidate the Special Theory of Relativity?

If David does not think that Darwin's explanation for the origin of species is correct, let him give us his reasons; or better yet, an alternative explanation that we can test by observation. That a wicked man invoked Darwin's name as an excuse to do wicked things tells us nothing, nada, zero, zippo, zilch about the truth content of Darwin's ideas.

I always have to scratch my head at conservatives who are perfectly comfortable with Adam Smith's invisible hand when it comes to markets, but can't get their heads around the concept of emergent properties in the development of life. And of course, the opposite is true for liberalsfascists.

[Evening update]

Jonah Goldberg has more defense of Darwin (and Einstein). Bottom line, with which I agree:

Nazism was reactionary in that it sought to repackage tribal values under the guise of modern concepts. So was Communism. So are all the statist and collectivism isms. The only truly new and radical political revolution is the Lockean one. But, hey, I've got a book on all this stuff.

He does indeed.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:57 PM

April 14, 2008

He's Beyond The Event Horizon

John Wheeler has died:

Unlike some colleagues who regretted their roles after bombs were dropped on Japan, Wheeler regretted that the bomb had not been made ready in time to hasten the end of the war in Europe. His brother, Joe, had been killed in combat in Italy in 1944.

Wheeler later helped Edward Teller develop the even more powerful hydrogen bomb.

The name "black hole" -- for a collapsed star so dense that even light could not escape -- came out of a conference in 1967. Wheeler made the name stick after someone else had suggested it as a replacement for the cumbersome "gravitationally completely collapsed star," he recalled.

"After you get around to saying that about 10 times, you look desperately for something better," he told the Times.

He was a giant in physics, and inspired a lot of great science fiction. RIP.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:09 PM

April 04, 2008

Getting Better All The Time

Men no longer have go through the drudgery of determining whether or not chix are hawt. We can now have the computers do it for us:

"The computer produced impressive results -- its rankings were very similar to the rankings people gave." This is considered a remarkable achievement, believes Kagian, because it's as though the computer "learned" implicitly how to interpret beauty through processing previous data it had received.

I wonder what units it used to judge? Millihelens (that amount of female beauty required to launch a single ship)?

Of course, that was the easy part:

Kagian, who studied under the Adi Lautman multidisciplinary program for outstanding students at Tel Aviv University, says that a possible next step is to teach computers how to recognize "beauty" in men. This may be more difficult. Psychological research has shown that there is less agreement as to what defines "male beauty" among human subjects.

No kidding. I've sure never been able to figure it out. Maybe it can just check his bank balance.

Which brings up an interesting (and potentially politically incorrect) point. I think that women are clearly much better at determining whether other women are attractive to men than men are at figuring out whether or not other men are attractive to women (at least physically). I suspect that this is because physical attributes are (for evolutionary reasons, unfortunately) where women primarily compete, so they have to be more attuned to it. I also think that this is why women tend to be more receptive to same-sex relations than men, even nominally heterosexual women (hence the concept of the LUG--lesbian until graduation). In order to be a judge of feminine pulchritude, it helps a lot to appreciate it, and it's a shorter step from there to wanting to experience it up closer and personal than it is for a guy. Particularly a guy like me, who finds men disgusting, and is eternally grateful that not all women do.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:02 PM
Can Animals Think?

It's always been obvious to me that they do, at various levels. I've always found bizarre the notion of some scientists that only humans are capable of cognition. As this long but interesting article points out, it makes no sense in evolutionary terms. The cognitive traits that we have had to have their origins somewhere, though what's even more interesting is that it seems to be a parallel development (that is, like the eye, intelligence has evolved more than once). And it's not anthropomorphizing to recognize clear thoughtful and volitional behavior in cats and dogs. I don't understand the thinking of these modern-day Descartes (he didn't believe that animals were capable of feeling pain) who believe that animals are simply automatons. But then, some of these loons didn't believe that newborns were capable of feeling pain, either, and used to (and perhaps still do) perform major surgery sans anesthesia, ignoring the screaming.

[Via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:35 AM

March 19, 2008

Do They Come In Peppermint?

Striped icebergs. Must be global warming.

I don't think they have them in Lake Michigan, though.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:59 AM

March 15, 2008

Very Cool

Literally. There are icebergs in Lake Michigan. Must be global warming.

Hope they aren't a problem for the whales.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:43 PM

March 08, 2008

First Poppy

With all the rain they've had in southern California this winter, I would expect the poppy season to be gorgeous up in Lancaster. This is a good harbinger of that:

Overlooking the first poppy at the reserve would have been easy. The stem was only a couple of inches high and wind gusts bent the young flower almost sideways. The flower was just off the exit road beyond the park's kiosk.

"I hope it's a sign of a good bloom that's coming," Scott said after she learned of the sighting.

Elgin said she hopes to pass on poppy updates to enthusiasts who phone the information center.

"I figure in the next couple of days there will be five or six more poppies show up, and each day a few more until the full bloom," Elgin said.

"There's indications we'll have a decent season, but I can't really predict one that will be exceptionally good because Mother Nature can turn right around and prove me wrong."

Elgin said the only thing predictable about poppies at the reserve is that they're unpredictable.

I'm going to Space Access in about three weeks, in Phoenix. When I was looking for tickets, it turned out to make a lot more sense to fly into LA, for schedule and ticket price, and I have other business there anyway, so I'm going to fly out, drive to Phoenix and back, and then fly back to Florida. But I'll probably be going up to Mojave, so I think I'll take a still and videocam with me, and make the little side trip in Lancaster to the preserve. And hope that it's both sunny and not windy (an intersection of conditions that's unfortunately rare that time of year), because that's the only time that the flowers are really open and in full bloom.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:15 PM

March 05, 2008

Two Top Tens

First, amazing chemistry videos, and then check out the worst captchas.

Both via Geekpress.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:58 AM

March 04, 2008

Don't Know Much About Gravity

...or at least as much as we think we do. Does the gravity model need to be adjusted?

In the one probe the researchers did not confirm a noticeable anomaly with, MESSENGER, the spacecraft approached the Earth at about latitude 31 degrees north and receded from the Earth at about latitude 32 degrees south. "This near-perfect symmetry about the equator seemed to result in a very small velocity change, in contrast to the five other flybys," Anderson explained -- so small no anomaly could be confirmed.

The five other flybys involved flights whose incoming and outgoing trajectories were asymmetrical with each other in terms of their orientation with Earth's equator.

For instance, the NEAR mission approached Earth at about latitude 20 south and receded from the planet at about latitude 72 south. The spacecraft then seemed to fly 13 millimeters per second faster than expected. While this is just one-millionth of that probe's total velocity, the precision of the velocity measurements was 0.1 millimeters per second, carried out as they were using radio waves bounced off the craft. This suggests the anomaly seen is real -- and one needing an explanation.

Well, gravity just like evolution, is (in the words of anti-evolutionists) only a theory. It's not reality--it's simply an attempt to model it. And for most purposes, it does a pretty good job. But one of the reasons to do space, I think, is that it gives us new laboratories to make new discoveries about basic physics, the potential of which is unforeseeable.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:39 AM

February 28, 2008

Eating Themselves To Death

A new theory about the end of the Neanderthals:

"TSE's could have thinned the population, reducing numbers and contributing to their extinction in combination with other factors (such as climate change and the emergence of modern humans)," he said.

Such diseases have very long incubation periods, he further explained, so affected individuals may not show symptoms for a very long time. Similarly, people who consume TSE victims may not exhibit signs of illness immediately after eating.

"Neanderthals would have been unlikely to spot any causal relationship between cannibalism and TSE symptoms," Underdown said.

No kidding.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:08 PM

February 25, 2008

Is The Leopard Still There?

The snows of Kilimanjaro are back.

Not to mention that the arctic icepack is growing.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:06 PM
Not So Identical

Apparently "identical" twins don't even have identical genetics:

Identical twins emerge when a zygote -- the fertilized egg that develops into an embryo -- splits into two embryos. As such, they should have the same genomes. The researchers speculate that as the cells making up each embryo divide over and over again during development in the womb, mistakes occur as dividing cells shuffle copies of their DNA into daughter cells.

But genetic differences between identical twins might also accumulate after development over a twin's life as well. "I think all our genomes are under constant change," Bruder told LiveScience.

I think that this has implications for cloning as well. It may not be possible to exactly clone an individual, and the differences could turn out to be quite noticeable.

[Update in the evening]

Per some comments, the key point in this story is that it has long been known that there are differences in twins (personality, eyesight, fingerprints, etc.). But those are things that can arise even from an identical genome. The genes are not a blueprint, but rather a recipe, and even if a recipe is followed carefully, the results are not always guaranteed to be the same. The point of the article is that, contrary to previous theories that obvious differences in twins could be attributed solely to different environments, that the genome itself wasn't necessarily the same. That is new.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:22 PM
The Quality Of Quantity

Via Geek Press, we have some interesting audio illusions over at The New Scientist. I found this one particularly so:

Some pieces of music consist of high-speed arpeggios or other repeating patterns, which change only subtly. If they're played fast enough, the brain picks up on the occasional notes that change, and links them together to form a melody. The melody disappears if the piece is played slowly.

This is called an emergent property, and while many emergent properties arise from a critical mass (say, of the number of ants in a colony), they can also do so as a result of speed. Some AI researchers argue that human intelligence (and non-human as well) is in fact a result of simply having enough neurons (and at a higher level) various cognitive functions in one place to a degree that consciousness emerges. Others (such as Searle) scoff at the notion, arguing that gathering a large number of entities together isn't going to change their properties in a qualitative way, and that's simply common sense. You can't combine a lot of dumb things and somehow get something smart. The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but not (so to speak) the sum of its (not so) smarts.

The argument against this is to point out another non-intuitive result. Prior to Maxwell, who would have imagined that you could wave a magnet back and forth and create color? Well, if you just wave it slowly, you won't--all you'll see is someone waving a magnet. But wiggle it half a quadrillion times per second, and suddenly there's a electromagnetic wave that, when captured by the eye, causes one to (literally) see red. The auditory phenomenon described above is similar--play it too slowly and the music disappears, but speed it up, and a melody emerges.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:10 AM

February 22, 2008

Mystery "Solved"

Scientists now have a plausible, and likely theory for what created the Burgess Shale:

By looking over hundreds of micro-thin slices of rock taken from the famous shales, the researchers have reconstructed the series of catastrophic underwater landslides of "mud-rich slurry" that killed tens of thousands of marine animals representing hundreds of species, then sealed them instantly - and enduringly - in a deep-sea tomb.

The mass death was "not a nice way to go, perhaps, but a swift one - and one that guaranteed immortality (of a sort) for these strange creatures," said University of Leicester geochemist Sarah Gabbott, lead author of a study published in the U.K.-based Journal of the Geological Society.

I use the scare quote because that's the word used in the headline. This kind of language, I think, is (at least partly) what bothers people who continue to rebel against evolution, and science. It is a certainty of language (like "fact," rather than "theory") that they consider hubristic, and arrogant. After all, when Sherlock Holmes "solved" a case, it generally was the last word, case closed.

In this case, what the word means is that scientists have come up with a plausible explanation for an event for which they'd been struggling to come up with one for a long time, and it is sufficiently plausible that there are few scientists who argue against it, thus presenting a consensus. Does it mean that they have "proven" that this is what happened? No. As I've written many times, science is not about proving things--scientists leave that to the mathematicians. What scientists do (ideally) is to posit theories that are both reasonable and disprovable, yet remain undisproved.

There may be some other explanation for what happened up in what is now Yoho National Park that corresponds better to what really happened, but until someone comes up with one that makes more sense, or comes up with some inconvenient indisputable fact that knocks this one down, it (like evolution itself) is what most scientists, particularly the ones who study such things for a living, will believe.

And of course, I won't even get started on how upset some anti-science (and yes, that's what they are, even if they don't recognize it) types will get over the statement that one of the ancestors of humans is in that shale.

[Update a few minutes later]

Oh, the main point about which I put up this post. This is an excellent illustration of how rare are the circumstances in which we find the keys to our biological past. Those that demand that we cannot know the history of life until every creature has died on the body of its parents, perfectly preserved, are being unreasonable. To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, we do science with the (rare) evidence that we have, not the evidence we'd like to have. There will always be many huge holes in the fabric of the evidence, barring the development of a time machine to the past. We simply do the best we can with what we have, and put together theories that best conform to it. To say that God (or whoever) did it isn't science--it's just a cop out. And that is true completely independently from the existence (or not) of God (or whoever).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:11 PM
Space Carnival

Chris Lintot has the forty-second edition.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:22 AM
A New Take On An Old Subject

Jason Bellows muses on life without the moon. Asimov had a much longer essay on this topic, decades ago, in which he speculated not only about its impact on the development of life, but on the development of intelligence, science and civilization.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:41 AM

February 21, 2008

An Evolutionary Golden Oldie

In light of the decision of my current home state, Florida, to teach evolution as "only a theory" (as though there's something wrong with that), I thought that I'd repost a post from early on in the blog. You can no longer comment on it there, but you can here, if anyone is inclined. Here is the repost:


The Jury Is In

In a post last week, amidst a lot of discussion of evolution, Orrin Judd made the mistaken claim that evolution is not a falsifiable theory (in the Popperian sense), and that (even more bizarrely and egregiously) defenders of it thought that this strengthened it.

On a related note, he also added to his list of questions about evolution a twelfth one: What would it take to persuade me that evolution was not the best theory to explain life? What evidence, to me, would disprove it? I told him that it was a good question, and that I'd ponder it.

Well, I did ponder it, and here is my response.

First of all, the theory is certainly falsifiable (again, in the theoretical Popperian formulation). If I were coming to the problem fresh, with no data, and someone proposed the theory of evolution to me, I would ask things like:

Does all life seem to be related at some level?

Is there a mechanism by which small changes can occur in reproduction?

Does this mechanism allow beneficial changes?

Can these changes in turn be passed on to the offspring?

Is there sufficient time for such changes to result in the variety of phenotypes that we see today?

There are other questions that could be asked as well, but a "No" answer to any of the above would constitute a falsification of the theory. Thus the theory is indeed falsifiable, as any useful scientific theory must be.

The problem is not that the theory isn't falsifiable, but that people opposed to evolution imagine that the answer to some or all of the above questions is "No," and that the theory is indeed false.

But to answer Orrin's question, at this point, knowing the overwhelming nature of the existing evidentiary record, no, I can't imagine any new evidence that would change my mind at this point. Any anomalies are viewed as that, and an explanation for them is to be looked for within the prevailing theory.

And lest you think me close minded, consider an analogy. An ex-football player's wife is brutally murdered, with a friend. All of the evidence points to his guilt, including the DNA evidence. There is little/no evidence that points to anyone else's guilt. Had I been on the jury that decided that case, it would have at least hung. I might have even persuaded a different verdict, but that's unlikely, because I'm sure that the jury had members who were a) predisposed to acquit regardless of the evidence and/or b) incapable of critical thinking and logic, as evidenced by post-trial interviews with them.

But for me to believe that ex-football player innocent, I would have to accept the following (which was in fact the defense strategy):

"I know that some of the evidence looks bad for my client, but he was framed. And I can show that some of the evidence is faulty, therefore you should throw all of it out as suspect. I don't have an alternate theory as to who did the murders, but that's not my job--I'm just showing that there's insufficient evidence to prove that my client did it. Someone else did it--no one knows who--it doesn't matter. And that someone else, or some other someone else, also planted evidence to make it look like my client did it. It might be the most logical conclusion to believe that my client did it, but that would be wrong--the real conclusion is that it is a plot to confuse, and it just looks like he did it. Therefore you shouldn't believe the evidence."

Is this a compelling argument? It was to some of the jury members. And it apparently is to people who don't want to believe that life could evolve as a random, undirected process.

The only way that I could believe that OJ Simpson is innocent at this point would be for someone else to come forward, admit to the crime, and explain how he planted all of the abundant evidence that indicated Orenthal's guilt.

The equivalent for evolution, I guess, would be for God (or whoever) to reveal himself to me in some clear, unambiguous, and convincing fashion, and to tell me that he planted the evidence. At which point, of course, science goes right out the window.

But absent that, the evidence compels me to believe that OJ Simpson murdered his wife (as it did a later jury in the civil suit), and the evidence compels me to believe that evolution is as valid a theory as is universal gravitation.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:40 PM
Jabba The Hut Really Lived

They've discovered fossils of a giant carnivorous pre-historic frog. I wouldn't want to run into him on a dark lily pad.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:23 AM

February 20, 2008

Lunar Eclipse Tonight

There may be an opportunity for a red moon. Last chance in the US for almost three years. I think it's going to be cloudy here, though.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:01 PM
Taking On McGyver

Here's a fun interview with the Mythbusters. I don't get this, though:

My favorite episode, that I think the science is the most right, is ''Bullets Fired Up'': Will a bullet that you fire directly into the air kill you when it comes back down? We tried it in several different ways, and every single way we tried it -- from a shop experiment, to a scaled outdoor experiment, to a full-size outdoor experiment where we fired a full clip of 9mm rounds into the air out in the desert -- confirmed the same results. If it's coming straight down, it won't kill you. But if you fire it on an angle of even two degrees, it stays on a ballistic trajectory and it will kill you. So when you see someone in a movie fire their automatic rifle on kind of a spray up into the sky, probably all of those bullets are actually deadly. The amount of data we collected on it was more than anybody up to that point had ever achieved on firing bullets into the air.

I don't get what they're saying here. Why would it come down any harder if it's at a slight angle? How did they determine whether or not "it would kill you"? If it's in a vacuum, it should come down with exactly the same vertical velocity component it had when it left the gun (except reversed), but the atmosphere complicates things. It seems to me that any bullet fired in the air is going to be coming down at terminal velocity, unless the potential energy is so high that it doesn't have time to get to terminal velocity before it hits the ground, but that's pretty hard to believe. When it leaves the muzzle of the gun, it's supersonic, but I would think that it won't be able to be going that fast when it falls back down, because of air drag. This seems like something that should be simulatable with CFD (it might even be possible to do it analytically, if the bullet was round).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:48 AM
Democrat Science Policy

Alan Boyle has a comprehensive write up of the "debate" between the Clinton and Obama science advisors at the AAAS meeting. I can't say that I'm thrilled about either of their proposed policies. But I don't expect much better from McCain, particularly given that he's drunk deeply of the global warming koolaid.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:56 AM

February 19, 2008

Sagan Memories

I was never a big fan of Cosmos, though I think that it did a lot of good in interesting people in space. I'm listening to a rerun on the SCIHD channel, and I recall why.

Sagan's voice is too pompous, too arrogant, and the ubiquitous sonorous tone, and pauses, which lent themselves to parody ("billions and billions") are really arrogant. I wish that he had written it, and someone else narrated.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:06 PM

February 14, 2008

Did The Missionaries Finally Get Through To Them?

Gorillas have been photographed in the wild copulating face to face.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:06 PM

February 12, 2008

Losing His Marbles

I have to agree with Derb:

I've always liked Ben's stuff -- used to read his diary in The American Spectator way back in the 1970s. Smart, funny, worldly guy, with just that endearing streak of eccentricity. I'm sorry to see he's lost his marbles.

Me, too. Some conservatives have this very strange blind spot when it comes to evolution.

[Update a few minutes later]

Derb eviscerates Stein's thesis. As is usually the case, his attack on evolution (or as he calls it, "Darwinism") is founded on a profound ignorance of the subject.

[Late afternoon update]

Well, this is a heck of a way to celebrate the old man's 199th birthday:

Florida's department of education will vote next week on a new science curriculum that could be in jeopardy, because some conservative counties oppose it.

Nine of Florida's 64 counties have passed resolutions over the last two months condemning the new curriculum that explicitly calls for teaching evolution. The resolutions, passed in heavily Christian counties in the state's northern reaches, demand that evolution be "balanced" with alternative theories, mainly creationist.

That's not really Florida. It's more like deep southern Georgia, culturally...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:01 AM

February 08, 2008

Progress In Longevity

I don't know if there's much point to living ten times as long if you're a nematode, but if it works for us, too, Methuselah, here we come.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:33 PM
Amazing Photo

A dew-covered dragon fly.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:04 AM

February 05, 2008

Humans, Chimps...

...and property rights. Some thoughts on the beginning of commerce and trade from Donald Sensing.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:51 AM

January 24, 2008

No Comment

Apparently, women have thicker skulls than men.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:57 PM

December 19, 2007

Give It To Me, Baby!

Why monkeys shout during s3x:

To investigate the purpose behind these calls, scientists at the German Primate Center in Göttingen focused on Barbary macaques for two years in a nature reserve in Gibraltar.

The researchers found that females yelled during 86 percent of all sexual encounters. When females shouted, males ejaculated 59 percent of the time. However, when females did not holler, males ejaculated less than 2 percent of the time.

To see if yelling resulted from how vigorous the sex was, the scientists counted the number of pelvic thrusts males gave and timed when they happened. They found when shouting occurred, thrusting increased. In other words, hollering led to more vigorous sex.

What a job. Counting pelvic thrusts in macaques. Is this a top-ten, or bottom-ten science-related occupation?

And of course, no article would be complete without an accompanying thread at Free Republic, complete with pics:

Next study: 45% of Monkeys Who Scream During Sex, Faking It.


The thread is quite tame.

I suspect that everyone fears the mods for all the great posts that we know can be made.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:47 AM

December 07, 2007

Before Marco Polo

Was there trade between China and the west five millennia ago?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:54 PM

November 14, 2007

A New Unified Theory?

And from an unlikely source:

Although the work of 39 year old Garrett Lisi still has a way to go to convince the establishment, let alone match the achievements of Albert Einstein, the two do have one thing in common: Einstein also began his great adventure in theoretical physics while outside the mainstream scientific establishment, working as a patent officer, though failed to achieve the Holy Grail, an overarching explanation to unite all the particles and forces of the cosmos.

Now Lisi, currently in Nevada, has come up with a proposal to do this. Lee Smolin at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, describes Lisi's work as "fabulous". "It is one of the most compelling unification models I've seen in many, many years," he says.

"Although he cultivates a bit of a surfer-guy image its clear he has put enormous effort and time into working the complexities of this structure out over several years," Prof Smolin tells The Telegraph.

Not just unusual because he's a surfer, but also because he seems a little old to do something like this, which is supposedly more likely from a younger mind.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:26 PM

November 07, 2007

Lumpy Planet

Everyone (well, OK, not everyone, but most people interested in this kind of stuff) is familiar with "mascons" (mass concentrations) on the moon, that cause perturbations and instability in the orbits of objects around it. Interestingly, though, the earth's gravitational field isn't all that symmetric, either, based on results from the GRACE satellites. I think that it's kind of amazing how sensitive these detectors are:

The concept is simple. The two satellites, each about three metres long, follow each other in identical orbits roughly 400 kilometres above the Earth and 210 kilometres apart. Microwave instruments measure the distance between them, precisely enough to detect variations smaller than one percent of the width of a human hair.

"[It's as though] you have two automobile-sized things, one in Los Angeles and one in San Diego, and you're measuring the distance between them to the size of a red blood cell," says Watkins.

As one satellite and then the other passes through wrinkles in the Earth's gravity field, they speed up or slow down slightly, shifting the distance between them. By measuring these tiny yo-yos, scientists can calculate the gravity field that produced them, mapping the entire Earth about once a month.

But the dispersions are much smaller, relative to the size of the body, so it doesn't create the same levels of perturbations that can result in instability. Pretty cool graphic.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:49 AM

October 15, 2007

FL Stands For Flatland

This is kind of an interesting bit of data. I moved from the state with the second greatest disparity between high and low points (between Mount Whitney and Badwater in Death Valley--only Alaska is higher, because of Denali) to the one with the least.

But I was surprised to see that several states rival it, including Delaware and DC (which isn't really a state--I also have a little trouble believing that the elevation of the Potomac in the district is only one foot above sea level). Louisiana is pretty flat as well. But Florida is striking to me because it's so big, so the fact that it has so little variation in altitude is all the more remarkable. And depressing, to someone for whom (like me) mountains almost define scenery.

[Update a few minutes later]

As someone in comments notes, there are some people (like those wheelchair bound) who prefer it flat for obvious reasons. I had never considered this before, but Patricia mentioned to me that she knew people who had been brought up in New York who were actually afraid to drive on hills (a concept totally bizarre to me, but then, I have my own phobias). So I guess that a place like Florida would actually appeal to them. But I suspect that most people who like Florida don't do so for its flatness, but because there are a lot of other things they like about it (year-round warm weather, golfing, boating) and are simply indifferent to whether or not the terrain has any relief.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:03 AM

October 11, 2007

Does This Really Work?

I've always thought of myself as more left than right brained, but according to this, I'm definitely right brained (assuming that "clockwise" means the direction when viewed from above). I can't see it going the other way. Which makes me question the validity of the test.

[Update at 10 AM EDT]

Funny, I just went back and looked at it again, and this time it was spinning the other way, but then it stopped, and reversed direction and went clockwise again. Weird.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:36 AM

October 01, 2007

Is There A Meteorologist In The House?

One of the things that I hate about living in Florida is the fact that it's the Sunshine State. I actually am not a big fan of ol' Sol, and would probably be happier in Seattle. Accordingly, one of the few things that I like about Florida in the summer (and late fall) are thunderstorms and frequent showers. Unlike many here, who apparently watch the Doppler radar with trepidation, over fears of a missed golf game, or boat outing, I watch it with hope. Hope that is often dashed, because often, one will see a huge storm heading one's way, only to watch it fizzle out as it approaches.

This happened all afternoon yesterday, in which I could see a vast amount of heavy rainfall over the Bahamas, but as it approached the Palm Beach County coast, the reds would turn to yellows would turn to greens, and then entirely disappear, all the while it continue to storm fifty miles off shore. It's doing exactly the same thing today. I've never heard anyone on the local weather discuss this phenomenon. Is there something about the difference between the land (even as low as the land is here) and the sea that dries out the air as the storm approaches? I'm guessing that it's being fueled by the humid ocean waters below, but I still don't understand why it dies before it even gets here, when it's still ten or twenty miles from the coast.

[Update at 1 PM]

It's continuing to threaten us ineffectually, though a few showers are starting to pop up along the coast. Patricia suggested that we go for a walk. "Maybe it will make it rain," she joked.

You guessed it. Just after we turned around and started to head back home, it started to sprinkle. Then it started to come down harder.

"You know," I said, as we walked/trotted, dripping, "it will quit just as soon as we get back to the house."

And that's exactly what it did.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:15 AM

September 11, 2007

Apparently, I Take After My Ancestors

Ancient man walked, but struggled to run.

The studies show that "whilst these very early fossils could walk well, our initial findings suggest that efficient running came about quite a bit later in the fossil record," he said, adding "we have only just started to look at running and so there are still plenty of questions to answer."

Funny, I wouldn't think that a fossil could walk at all...

"The next really interesting question is to look in more detail at running. It has been suggested that our ability to run for long distances took a lot longer to evolve than our ability to walk. Our techniques should let us get to the bottom of this question because it will let us measure the running abilities of our fossil ancestors directly."

"What we need to discover now is when in our evolution did we develop an Achilles tendon as knowing this will help unravel the mystery of our origins."

Well, at least I do have an Achilles tendon.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:49 AM

September 07, 2007

Bee Mystery Solved?

It wasn't the cell phone theory--it seems to have been a virus. I never bought that one, anyway.

Though it would be a good deal for a bee. I mean, a twelve-month plan is like a lifetime.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:22 AM

September 06, 2007

The Miracle Of The Internet

Want to take a ride through a Cat 5 hurricane? Here you go.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:38 PM

August 28, 2007

A Bobcat Of Color

This is kind of cool news from my current neck of the woods. A black Florida panther. Except it's not--it's a bobcat. Is it a species, or a mutation? One suspects the latter or there'd be a lot more of them.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:49 PM

August 24, 2007

Was Einstein Wrong?

A potential problem with special relativity? I do think that people are too quick to say "never" to things like FTL travel. There's still a lot we don't understand about the universe. Probably much more than we do, in fact.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:15 AM

August 08, 2007

Guess That's Why We're Caucasians

The first Europeans came from Asia (actually Russia), not directly from Africa.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:39 PM

July 26, 2007


A man with no brain is a successful French civil servant. Color me shocked. The jokes pretty much write themselves. I expect George Bush to appoint him to something or other any moment.

Seriously, I do think this reveals how much about the human mind that we still don't understand (and once again gives pause about subjects like Terri Schiavo).

[Afternoon update]

And of course, what would a topic like this be without a Free Republic thread, complete with several examples of the concept.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:09 AM

July 25, 2007

Things I Don't Want To Encounter While Diving

I had no idea there were so many weird and/or ugly and/or scary things living under the ocean surface.

I'd previously heard of very few of these.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:40 AM

July 17, 2007

Did Dogs Domesticate Man?

An interesting way of looking at it. But if so, they're pikers compared to grass. Grass has bred us over thousands of years to help it spread in all sorts of places where it never would be able to grow otherwise. We grow it for our bread, for our beer and whiskey and sake, for our cereal, and purely for aesthetics. It has us trained well to do its bidding.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:59 PM

July 06, 2007

An Octosquid

This is pretty cool:

While the smallest of the rat-tail fish was still alive -- until the octosquid made a meal of it -- the other creatures were dead. War said the fish that come up the NELHA pipeline quickly die or are already dead because the change in atmospheric pressure expands and eventually ruptures a fish's swim bladders.

But invertebrates -- animals with no backbones -- are seemingly unaffected by the pressure change. The light may have bothered the octosquid, though, since it is pitch black at the 3,000-foot depth. War said the exceptionally clear waters off Keahole Point allow light from the sun to penetrate to about 500 and 600 feet.

When we were diving in Kona last fall, we went down to the top of the pipeline, which is at a depth of about sixty feet. It's kind of eerie to look down it, and then look at the outside of it, as it descends almost half a mile into the depths, down the undersea slope of Mauna Kea.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:04 AM

June 29, 2007

They Came To Us

Here's an interesting story about how cats became domesticated. Apparently it only happened once.

Our current feline companion, Jessica, is less cat-like than many others I've known. She's very affectionate, and even though she has a door, she rarely goes out, and never leaves the yard. She does, though, as the article points out, have the standard feeling of ambiguity about which side of the door she wants to be on.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:08 AM

June 26, 2007

Body Snatchers

An interesting (albeit slightly disgusting) article on parasites. And no, we're not talking about trial lawyers.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:24 AM

June 12, 2007

Death Of A Science Teacher

"Mr. Wizard" is no more.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:23 PM

April 17, 2007

Leaping Lizards!

Well, actually leaping shampoo. Cool physics, via Geek Press.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:26 AM

April 09, 2007

Location, Location...

Few real estate agents would be surprised at how cave people chose their caves.

Hey, picking a home is so easy, a cave man can do it!

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:10 PM

March 09, 2007


Giant calamari:

If cut up for calamari, the stories said, the squid would produce rings the size of tractor tires. As word got out that the catch had actually been recorded on video, Bennett found himself in the middle of an international bidding war.

Boy, you'd need a pretty big bowl for the dipping sauce.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:55 PM

March 07, 2007

How Humans Got The Crabs

...from gorillas. Eeeeeuuuuuuuwwww...

Let the japery in the comments section commence.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:47 AM

February 21, 2007

They Should Have Driven SUVs

Were the Neanderthals wiped out by global cooling?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:58 AM

January 17, 2007

Escaping The Times Select Firewall

John Tierney is blogging on science.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:23 AM

December 22, 2006

Why The Asymmetry?

I'd never really given this much thought, but how come plants can contain proteins, but animals are a hundred percent noncarbohydrates?

[Update a while later]

A commenter points out I'm mistaken. OK, but that still seems like trace amounts, relative to how much protein that you can get from, say, soy. And when I look at any package of dead animal in the supermarket, it always has zero grams of carbs. So even if it's not a hundred percent, there still seems to be a big disparity. Also, the example given, blood sugar, really part of the animal? I mean, yes, it can't function without it, but it's produced by absorbing food and has to be continually replenished. I was thinking about the animal itself. It seem like, for the most part, structurally, we're meat, fat and bone, not sugar and spice and everything nice. (And does that mean that little girls contain more carbs than little boys, what with the snips and snails and puppy dog tails?)

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:59 PM
That's Some Calamari

Some Japanese marine biologists claim to have gotten video of the elusive giant squid at depth.

I had no idea there were so many sperm whales in the western Pacific. Two hundred thousand. That's a lot of cetacean.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:49 AM

December 19, 2006

Stop The Smear Campaign

John Miller reveals the truth about the slandered lemmings.

Several websites do a good job of debunking the myth. Take your pick among, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the San Francisco Chronicle, etc. Although lemmings migrate due to population pressures and are known to fall from heights and drown in water, they don’t fling themselves off ledges in stampeding hordes, as “Winter Wonderland” leads its viewers to believe.

Blame the Mouse. And yes, I remember seeing that movie as a kid as well.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:34 PM

December 17, 2006

Yes, It's Right

Phil Bowermaster is wondering if there's something dodgy about the math here.

No, this is in fact a standard technique for determining the sum of an infinite series, which is in fact what 0.999... is (it could be expressed as the sum, from n=0 to infinity, of the expression 9 times 10 to the minus n). Perhaps, as one commenter notes, it's the word "precisely" that's hanging people up, but certainly that number is equal to one, whatever modifier you want to put on it or leave off.

[Update in the afternoon]

I'm not sure I follow the commenter's objection. He claims that no matter what you start out with as "a" you get a=1. I don't see that.

Try it with two, as suggested.

a = 2
10a = 20
10a - a = 20 - 2
9a = 18

Ergo, a = 2.

In fact, do it with 1.999...

10a = 19.999...
9a = 18
a = 2

As I said, it's a standard technique for expressing repitends as whole numbers or fractions.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:43 AM

December 05, 2006

I'll Bet They Didn't Watch Oprah

Ann Althouse wonders what Neanderthal women did all day.

Maybe they made roast duck. With mango salsa.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:44 PM

December 01, 2006

And Now For Something Completely Different


Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:39 AM

November 28, 2006

A Lot Of Folks Could Use This

This looks like an interesting book--how to think like a rocket scientist.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:41 AM

September 14, 2006


But pretty cool. Behold, metallic oxygen. It's red.

And I wouldn't bet against someone coming up with a use for it. Or something like it:

...high-pressure techniques have already been used to create ultrahard materials such as diamond. Other chemicals, such as nitrogen and carbon monoxide, form solid polymers under pressure that store a lot of energy. If similar structures could be retained at atmospheric pressure, they might make excellent rocket fuel, suggests McMahon.

[Via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:41 AM

August 24, 2006

I Blame George Bush

Polar bear genitals are shrinking.

Are they sure it isn't just the cold water? I always have that problem. At least that's the excuse I use.

Oh, and speaking of sucky science jobs, measuring polar bear privates has to be right up there.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:15 AM

August 13, 2006

Coyote Ugly

Faye Flam wonders if we really got it on with Neanderthals. But what's really funny is the Freeper thread about the story (warning--not work safe--Helen Thomas photoshops involved).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:32 PM

July 07, 2006

More Waking Hours

There is more than one way to extend the total work and leisure enjoyed during one's life. In addition to living longer, one can sleep less if it doesn't degrade the rest of the hours. Not too much research on the latter. Here's a gem in this week's Economist; the good news:

With the help of Chiara Cirelli, who also works at the University of Wisconsin, Dr Tononi has created a mutant fruit fly that sleeps only two or three hours a night. (A normal fly sleeps between eight and 14 hours.)

The bad news:
...though the mutant fly is capable of learning things, it forgets them within minutes. Healthy flies retain learned information for hours or even days.

Would you trade your memory like in Johnny Mnemonic, Memento or Paycheck for an extra six hours every day? It's like living an extra 25 years.

Posted by Sam Dinkin at 12:58 PM

July 03, 2006

Evolving Cooperation a cheater's world. And here's a related essay by Arnold Kling on scientific statements and empiricism versus group trust cues.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:48 PM

June 02, 2006

"I Brought You Into This World...

...and I can take you out of it." Remember that old parent's words of...well, if not wisdom, certainly effectiveness? Well, it may turn out that an asteroid brought dinosaurs into being. Guess it just shows that, either way, you shouldn't mess with Ma Nature.

I've observed before how insular paleontology and geology can be, and how hard it was for Alvarez to get his theory accepted, because earth scientists couldn't (or didn't want to) imagine extraterrestrial events having such an impact (literally) on the evolution of the planet and his life. The fact that this theory seems to be taken seriously shows that we've started to get over that.

Oh, and because I'm reading an interesting book on the subject, extra points to anyone who knows who Wilkes Land is named after, without looking it up (and no, "Wilkes" is not a sufficient answer).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:12 PM

May 30, 2006

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Apparently, our ancestors and chimps just couldn't keep their hands off each other:

The researchers, from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, propose that humans and chimpanzees first split up about 10 million years ago. Then, after evolving in different directions for about 4 million years, they got back together for a brief fling that produced a third, hybrid population with characteristics of both lines.

That genetic collaboration then gave rise to two separate branches, one leading to humans and the other to chimps.

This will no doubt drive the creationists ape.

[Via The Speculist]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:21 AM

April 12, 2006

Learn Something New Every Day

I did not know this. There is a breeding population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

[Thursday morning follow up]

Here's more on the story from AP:

Overwhelmed with pets that eat more than they do, python owners decide to release their snakes into the wild. It's so common in the Everglades, Snow's had to start a python hot line.

And there the Asian natives breed and find a comfortable home in the Everglades' water, heat and vegetation. They have no predators.

Pythons have also discovered suburbia, said Capt. Ernie Jillson, who helps run the Miami-Dade County fire department's snake squad. They catch around 20 pythons a year.

Three years ago, a 15-footer stopped traffic when he spread himself across a four-lane road. Last year, another 15-footer gave a 60-year-old woman quite the jolt when she walked outside to find the snake sunbathing on her patio. And rescue workers had to save a cat from the 10-foot python that was chasing it around the backyard pool.

Lawmaker Poppell says he's no snake lover and doesn't understand people's fascination with the slithery creatures.

"How can you want something for a pet that looks at you when it's hungry?" he said. "I don't want something to look at me as food, I'd rather they (pets) come to me for food."

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:14 PM
Broken Drain

Don't you just hate it when your planet leaks?

Researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology have calculated that about 1.12 billion tonnes of water leaks into the Earth each year. Although a lot of water also moves in the other direction, not enough comes to the surface to balance what is lost.

Eventually, lead researcher Shigenori Maruyama and his colleagues believe, all of it will disappear.

A billion years, eh? Better hurry and pass a treaty against it or something.

Let me be the first, if not the last, to blame George Bush.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:49 AM

March 31, 2006

I'm With Paul

"If I get sick, please don't pray for me." Or, as he says, at least don't tell me about it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:16 AM

March 30, 2006

Are We Gods To Them?

I've never heard of this, but apparently others have: I was about to step out the door, I looked down and there was a dead baby kitten on our mat. The mama cat is wild and has never let us anywhere near her. A couple of hours later my hubby went to take out the trash and there was another dead kitten in the same place. He buried them out in the field. I just went outside for a smoke, and there is another one, that makes three.

My question is, since the mama cat is wild, why would she keep bringing her dead babies and putting them on our doorstep? Is that normal for cats?

So one commenter had a thought, which occurred to me as well:

Mother cats can be clearly seen to actually *care* (emotionally) for their kittens, and will fight to the death to protect them, and will risk death to save them - anybody remember "Scarlet" the fire-cat?

Why this mom-cat would bring her dead kittens to your door... hard to tell. Possibly she thinks that you might be able to bring them back.

Wow. Just realized what a heartbreaking thought *that* is.

Yes. Our cat treats us as her bed and her slaves, but she also knows that ultimately, we have a lot of power over her. So one wonders what they think of us, and just how much power they think we have, should we, in our beneficence, choose to wield it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:18 AM

March 22, 2006

A New Theory About Dinosaurs

...which is not mine. I still have to go with the "very large in the middle, and tapering off to be much smaller at each end" theory myself. No, this is a new theory about why they went extinct. They were sleep deprived.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:05 PM

March 09, 2006

How Did That Happen?

Jonah has a good point:

I don't like it when we create conditions hotter than the interior of the sun without knowing how we did it. What if I'm in the kitchen and I accidentally put the wrong stuff together and it happens? That'd be so not cool, literally.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:50 AM

March 08, 2006

Welcome To The Family

Well, actually, it's a whole new family. Of crustacean:

The animal is white and 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) long -- about the size of a salad plate.

In what Segonzac described as a "surprising characteristic," the animal's pincers are covered with sinuous, hair-like strands.

Wonder what it tastes like?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:29 AM

February 24, 2006

Groundbreaking Research

Researchers have discovered that s3x with a partner is much better than m@sturb@tion. What would we do without researchers?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:55 AM

February 01, 2006

How Do You Enforce It?

I agree with Ron Bailey's column on Bush's health-care proposals, until I get to his proposed solution:

My advice to President Bush on how really to jumpstart consumer-driven health care: mandatory private health insurance. Poor Americans would be offered a voucher with which they would buy private health coverage. Such vouchers could be paid for by abolishing Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Programs....Mandatory private health insurance would avoid the problem of adverse selection, provide insurance for the currently uninsured and make consumer-driven health care work for every American.

While this would be (in theory) a vast improvement over the current employer-driven mess, there's one problem, which is why I say "in theory": How is it enforced? What happens to people who don't do it? With mandatory auto insurance, one in theory revokes the privilege of driving if one doesn't obey the law, but what's the equivalent for health insurance?

I suppose the libertarian response is, "their tough luck." It's mine, too, but it doesn't seem very politically correct, or from a policy standpoint, politically palatable.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:59 PM

January 13, 2006

Alfred Hitchcock, Call Your Office

Apparently our ancestors had more to worry about than bears, snakes and sabre tooths:

...small human ancestors known as hominids had to survive being hunted not only by large predators on the ground but by fearsome raptors that swooped from the sky, said Lee Berger, a senior paleoanthropologist at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.

Apparently the Taung Baby was snatched and killed by an eagle.

I hate when that happens.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:16 PM

December 17, 2005

The Physics Of King Kong

I already gave my opinion. Now Forbes weighs in.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:37 AM

December 15, 2005

That's The Least Of His Problems

Robert Bakker says that King Kong wouldn't be able to get enough to eat.

There are more serious issues than that. Even if he could get enough to eat, for a body with that much mass to move that fast, the heat generated would be much greater than could be radiated out through the skin (mass goes up as the cube of the major dimension, whereas surface area only goes up as the square), particularly through that fur coat, so he'd cook from the inside if he maintained the kind of activity levels presumably depicted. Also, he wouldn't be able to maintain his own weight on those (relatively) spindly legs, once scaled up to that size--they'd splinter like toothpicks.

No point in seeing the movie, folks--it's just not realistic...

[Via Mark Whittington]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:34 AM

December 09, 2005

That Which Does Not Kill Us

Makes us stronger, so said Nietzsche. Ancient man may have been forced out of Africa by a prolonged drought.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:31 PM

November 29, 2005

A Fungus Amongus

Anybody know what this thing is? I saw it in the back yard while fertilizing the ixora.

It's hollow, and those are holes in it, like a whiffle ball. I thought that it was some kind of toy at first.


At Michael Mealing's suggestion in comments, I did a search on "stinkhorn," and it does indeed resemble this. There wasn't any noticeable stink to it, though (I got right down on it to smell it). Then again, I don't have the most sensitive schnoz in the world.

[Another update]

Yes, it does look exactly like a clathrus crispus. It makes geographical sense, too, since the climate on the Virgin Islands is not dissimilar to that of south Florida. And this site says that it's common in the Caribbean and Florida.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:13 AM

November 28, 2005

Science At Work

How hard is it to shoot off a lock? A lot harder than it looks in the movies.

[via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:36 AM

November 20, 2005

Losing Face

Anthropologists say that our faces are shrinking. Well, OK, not everyone's.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:18 PM

November 11, 2005

Another View Of Newton

Nova is doing a special on Isaac Newton on Tuesday, and they've set up an interesting web site to promote it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:39 AM

October 06, 2005

Tough Singles Scene

If you're put off by dating, just be glad you're not a male nursery spider:

Some male spiders pay the ultimate price for a few moments of pleasure when the female devours them after mating. Even worse, some males are eaten before they have the chance to mate.

To overcome this problem the nursery spider has devised a strategy of offering his thumbnail-sized mate a love-token, such as a dead insect.

But after presenting the gift the male immediately feigns death and collapses at her feet.

And as she becomes preoccupied with sinking her jaws into the insect treat, the male revives, creeps under her and begins copulating.

I think I'll stick with flowers. Most of the women I know hate bugs.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:51 PM

October 05, 2005

I Blame George Bush

Here's an interesting new theory--the large mammals of America may have been wiped out by a storm from a supernova:

Richard Firestone, a nuclear scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who formulated the theory with geologist Allen West, told Discovery News that a key piece of evidence for the supernova is a set of 34,000-year-old mammoth tusks riddled with tiny craters.

The researchers believe that in the sequence of events following the supernova, first, the iron-rich grains emitted from the explosion shot into the tusks. Whatever caused the craters had to have been traveling around 6,214 miles per second, and no other natural phenomenon explains the damage, they said.

Interesting, and as the article says, it's testable. If it's true, it's a new kind of threat to worry about. I wonder if there would be any warning?

I don't think that the precision in that paragraph makes sense, though--"around 6,214 miles per second"?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:56 AM

September 30, 2005

Pretty Smart

A fascinating disquisition on stupidity:

We all recollect occasions in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his gain and our loss: we had to deal with a bandit. We also recollect cases in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his loss and our gain: we had to deal with a helpless person. We can recollect cases in which a fellow took an action by which both parties gained: he was intelligent. Such cases do indeed occur. But upon thoughtful reflection you must admit that these are not the events which punctuate most frequently our daily life. Our daily life is mostly, made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation - or better there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.

[Via Geekpress]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:59 AM
Holy Flipper, Batman!

Dophins are singing the Batman theme song. I am not making this up.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:42 AM

September 28, 2005

Caught In The Act

Some Japanese marine biologists have taken video, for the first time ever, of a giant squid in its natural habitat:

The team led by Tsunemi Kubodera, from the National Science Museum in Tokyo, tracked the 26-foot long Architeuthis as it attacked prey nearly 3,000 feet deep off the coast of Japan's Bonin islands...

...Mori said the giant squid, purplish red like its smaller brethren, attacked its quarry aggressively, calling into question the image of the animal as lethargic and slow moving.

"Contrary to belief that the giant squid is relatively inactive, the squid we captured on film actively used its enormous tentacles to go after prey," Mori said.

"It went after some bait that we had on the end of the camera and became stuck, and left behind a tentacle" about six yards long, Mori said.

As a diver, I'm glad that they don't often come near the surface.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:29 AM

September 24, 2005

Odyssey Ending?

Archaeologists may have discovered the tomb of Odysseus.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:40 PM

September 21, 2005

I Bet They Wished They Had Global Warming

Were the Neanderthals wiped out by the cold?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:25 PM

September 18, 2005

A New Trig?

A math professor claims that he's got a simplified way of analyzing triangles. I'd like to see more about this.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:50 AM

September 06, 2005

A Bumper Crop Of Named Storms

We're already up to Tropical Storm Ophelia, which is dumping a lot of rain on my house in Boca Raton, and it's just the beginning of September. There are only six names left to use as we move into the heaviest part of hurricane season.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:53 PM
The Past Ain't What It Used To Be

Another childhood myth demolished. Dinosaurs had feathers. This lends even more credence to the theory that they still walk (or, rather, for the most part, fly) among us. But unlike the case that would be if their ancestors still lived, we're above them in the food chain.

[Via Alan Boyle]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:36 AM

July 22, 2005

Still Getting It Wrong

I hate to keep beating on this drum, but it's an error that many defenders of evolution make. Frederick Turner says:

...I did state flatly that the theory of evolution had been proved. I wanted it to be clear where I stood. Much of the mail I received protested about that statement. I hold to it, and hold to it not as my own opinion, but as a fact, like the existence of Australia, which is not my opinion but a fact. But I do know that there are many who sincerely, and given their range of knowledge, rationally, do not believe in the theory of evolution.

This ignores the (in my opinion, correct) position of one who believes in evolution, but doesn't believe that it has been "proved." This is because no scientific theory is ever "proved." Proofs are for mathematics and the courtroom, not science. Scientific theories are useful in that they can be disproved, something that Creationism cannot.

I discussed this at length several months ago.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:03 AM

June 24, 2005

How Would A Biologist Fix A Radio?

An interesting, and amusing, disquisition on different scientific approaches:

I started to contemplate how biologists would determine why my radio does not work and how they would attempt to repair it. Because a majority of biologists pay little attention to physics, I had to assume that all we would know about the radio is that it is a box that is supposed to play music.

How would we begin? First, we would secure funds to obtain a large supply of identical functioning radios in order to dissect and compare them to the one that is broken. We would eventually find how to open the radios and will find objects of various shape, color, and size (Fig. 2, see color insert). We would describe and classify them into families according to their appearance. We would describe a family of square metal objects, a family of round brightly colored objects with two legs, round-shaped objects with three legs and so on. Because the objects would vary in color, we will investigate whether changing the colors affects the radio’s performance. Although changing the colors would have only attenuating effects (the music is still playing but a trained ear of some people can discern some distortion), this approach will produce many publications and result in a lively debate.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:52 AM

June 04, 2005

Reviving The Past

This is pretty cool. Researchers have sequenced the DNA of an extinct cave bear. They seem to be overly pessimistic about the implications of this, though, at least in my opinion:

"In hundreds or thousands of years from now, we may have advanced our technology so we can create creatures from DNA sequence information," Dr Eddy Rubin, director of the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California, told the BBC News website.

I think that "decades" is the appropriate timeframe here. And this is the most interesting part, to me:

the scientists hope to be able to sequence the DNA of ancient humans, which lived at the same time as cave bears, raising the prospect of perhaps one day being able to "build" a Neanderthal from their genetic blueprint.

This would raise some interesting ethical issues. Would a Neanderthal be considered fully human, with standard-issue human rights? Or would he or she be kept in a glorified zoo? It might be dangerous to let them run loose, because we would have no idea what the temperament would be, and the fossil evidence of their musculature indicates that they could probably wrestle cave bears for recreation.

Just making one wouldn't necessarily give us insight into the subspecies as a whole, in terms of its mental capacity, temperament, etc. But it would be fascinating to find out just how smart a modern Neanderthal, raised in a modern technological environment, would be.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:08 PM

May 26, 2005

Unnatural Selection

Stephen Gordon has a couple tales of evolution.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:13 AM

May 24, 2005

Back To The Drawing Board

It looks like wormholes aren't all they're cracked up to be, when it comes to time travel. I'm kind of shocked. Does that mean they're implying that Star Gate SG-1 and Deep Space Nine were fictional?

I guess that explains the low attendance by backward time travelers.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:18 AM

May 18, 2005

"Vancouver, Vancouver, This Is It!"

Speaking of natural disasters, it's been a quarter of a century since Mount St. Helens blew. Just a little reminder that our single homeworld isn't always the safest place to be, and a drop in the bucket compared to what would happen if Yellowstone explodes again.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:22 AM

April 20, 2005

I Hate When That Happens

A rogue iceberg broke Antarctica. Way to go, H2O.

I guess it's just one more deadly hazard to add to the long list.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:44 AM

April 08, 2005

There Goes The Sun

Partial solar eclipse this afternoon. I'll have one of the best views in the US, if the weather clears. It should be about 45% occlusion in Palm Beach County.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 07:17 AM

March 26, 2005

Must Have Been All The Big Macs

Some researchers are theorizing that the Neanderthals were wiped out by free trade. As John Miller points out:

What does this tell us about anti-globalization protestors?
Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:33 AM

March 24, 2005

Rich Not-So-Little

And now for something completely different: elephant impressionists.

Researchers have recorded two African elephants (Loxodonta africana) that are adept mimics. One does a decent impression of an Asian elephant, and another is, remarkably, a dead ringer for a passing truck. The skilful impressions are far from the traditional grunts of an average African elephant.

Look for them to headline at the Sahara next year.

[Via Geek Press]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:44 AM

March 16, 2005

Don't Tell Nancy Hopkins

She might black out or throw up.

Scientists have discovered that there are differences between men and women. In their genes, no less. Imagine that.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:51 AM

March 14, 2005

Good Old Al

Alan Boyles has a tribute to Professor Einstein on what would be (were he still alive) his 126th birthday.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:18 PM

March 07, 2005

Death Of A Physicist

Hans Bethe has died.

He managed to live almost a century, almost exactly the same as Bill Quick's father.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:24 AM

February 10, 2005

Building A Better Mousetrap

Through evolution. This is an excellent illustration of the flaws in Behe's arguments.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:34 AM

January 27, 2005

Look Ma! No Muscles

Scientists have figured out how a Venus flytrap (a plant) can shut quickly enough to trap insects.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:45 PM

December 17, 2004

Physics Reminder

Alan Boyle has a little piece today about the elevators in the tallest building in the world. But this bit is misleading:

Imagine riding in a car going almost 40 mph (60.6 kilometers per hour). Not that impressive, right? But now imagine going that same 40 mph ... straight up.

That gives you some idea how elevator riders must feel in the world's tallest building, Taipei 101.

Actually, you can't feel speed at all. There is no difference in sensation between a twenty mph elevator and a forty mph elevator, other than perhaps vibrations transmitted through the cables and contact with the shaft. Acceleration is what you feel, so the difference is how long it takes you to get up to speed (and back down from it), not what the top speed is.

Similarly, he writes:

The cars go faster on the way up than on the way down — perhaps to counteract that free-fall feeling you could get during a rapid descent.

I'm not sure why they go faster up than down, but it can't be for that reason. Again, the "free-fall feeling" arises from the change in speed, not the steady-state.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:45 AM

November 20, 2004

Will They Switch To Sangria In The Pubs?

Some researchers are saying that Irish, Scots and Welsh aren't Celtic. They're Spanish.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 06:28 AM

November 03, 2004

Cracking A Puzzle

Some scientists are nailing down how the eye evolved.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:29 PM

September 26, 2004

Is There A Mycologist In The House?

One familiar with the southeastern Florida ecology?

Sorry, I'm still too discombobulated to be able to post pics, but I noticed when I went out to survey hurricane damage this morning that one of the changes overnight was a lawnful of mushrooms. There seem to be two varieties (I'm assuming that they aren't variations on the same species). One is flat and gilled, and the other has a circular head. Both are white, and as the day progressed, they developed brown areas on top.

Anyone know what they are, and if having them for dinner would result in delicious nutrition, or a trip to the emergency ward?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 05:30 PM

August 23, 2004


Via comments on a post at Crooked Timber, an article in the Globe and Mail about a tribe in the Amazon that not only doesn't have a numbering system, they also don't have clearly defined words for colors. Adding weirdness to weirdness, they also change their names on a regular basis. The thrust of the article is that the lack of number names interferes with their ability to count. There's a whole literature in linguistics about this and the larger issue of how language influences thinking, though the subject has fallen into disfavor. I suspect that the truth of the matter is that language severely constrains thought, in that it's easier to conceptualize things for which you have a word, but does not completely limit it (or where would new words come from? - the concept has to precede the word).

Incidentally, if you're interested in this question, check out the logical langauge group. They are developing and promoting a language based on formal logic with the explicit intention of exploring the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Posted by Andrew Case at 07:13 AM

August 20, 2004

Dynamic lab notebook

I've been mulling the idea of keeping my lab notes on my Mac for a while, and I've started moving in that direction. The problem with keeping notes on a computer rather than on paper is that the computer is far less flexible. It's much more powerful, but it's quite constrained by the need for exactly the right software. The major advantage of a computer over a lab notebook is that you can put in a whole lot more data, and interlink the data in ways that you just can't with paper.

The ideal lab notebook software would combine some of the functionality of a blog with some of the functionality of a wiki. The blog function would be to simply keep a log of all entries, with timestamps. The entries would consist of text, images, and tables of data. The wiki function would integrate the linear collection of entries from the blog to build up a coherent time-independent picture of the object under study. The wiki would include both information about the current state of the experiment and a set of tentative conclusions about the phenomenon under study, along with things like lists of references with comments.

As an example of how such a system might work, let me use my recent lab work. We blew up a voltage divider used to measure high voltages last week. In the blog notes I would note that the voltage divider is kaput and how it got that way, and crosslink to the wiki entry showing the current status of the machine, updating it to show that the voltage divider is now gone, with a linkback to the blog entry. Now I need to design a new voltage divider, so I go to the blog function and lay out a list of requirements for the new voltage divider, and begin designing. Right there in the blog I carry out the calculations using a calculator plugin which logs the calculations with annotations. Having picked resistor values I now go build the thing, based on rough sketches done directly in the dynamic lab notebook. When the new divider is finished I take a picture and upload it to the blog, with markups and annotations as needed. Then I install the divider in its new location, take another picture and upload it. The final step is to update the wiki section to reflect the new voltage divider parameters and link to the blog entries describing the design and installation process.

Following the procedure above it's relatively straightforward to keep an up to date set of documentation on the machine, and if there is a problem the blog entries can help unravel it. The big issue is keeping the overhead low. If it's a PITA to use the system it won't get used. Right now the long pole in the tent seems to me to be loading pictures, which currently takes about 15-30 seconds all told (including going to the machine, plugging in, downloading and dropping into place). Doing that 10 - 15 times a day adds enough overhead to be a problem. It would be nice if there was a way to simply fire the pictures wirelessly to the blog in real time so they are saved, with timestamps. The other problems are software (and the picture problem might be software fixable, given the right camera).

I've installed Twiki on my machine and I'm starting to figure out how to configure it to do what I want. I chose Twiki because it's widely deployed and has a lot of plugins, with more in development. The ideal plugins for my purpose don't yet exist, but it looks like they might be adapted from some of the existing Twiki plugins. In particular the really important ones are something to do simple photo markup (crop, add arrows, add text, perhaps draw freehand), a calculator (perhaps something derived from Frink), a simple sketch program with enhancements for including measurements (IOW, no need for any color effects, gradients, etc. just easy line drawings), and a way to directly edit pages in a semi WYSIWYG fashion (this is in development for Twiki). I think most of the rest of the functionality needed either already exists or is relatively easy to implement.

The ideal longer term plan would be to implement a system where LabView can be set up to automatically generate a link on the blog to data as it is taken, so that the blog tracks absolutely everything.

Anyway, I'm still in the early stages of exploring this idea and trying to see if I can actually implement it and make it useful. I figured I'd blog it to see if anyone has interesting comments or insights that might make it a little easier.

Posted by Andrew Case at 11:47 AM

August 16, 2004

How science works

Over on Technology Review there's a good article by Richard Muller on the discovery of the K-T impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, and the history of the science behind its discovery. He makes the point that science is inherently a process of asking ever more questions, each concrete answer generating a host of new questions.

The article is worth a read on its own merits, but as soon as I read it I immediately thought of this article on global warming, written by people who claim to be conducting scientific inquiry, but then end with this astonishingly dishonest statement:

The science is settled. The "skeptics" -- the strange name applied to those whose work shows the planet isn't coming to an end -- have won.

I'll usually give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to what they believe about global warming, since the science is complex and information is still coming in. The state of the field is rapidly evolving, so disagreement is not just reasonable, it's mandatory for the health of the science. However here we have three people claiming scientific credibility while making utterly inane statements which to a layman might seem like solid proof, but which don't pass even the most basic scientific smell test. Let's take a look at the quote above in detail:

The science is settled.

Bullshit. Simple, barefaced bullshit. The science is not settled until a model exists which is consistent with all the observations. The fact that there are difficulties with a certain subset of observations (atmospheric temperature data for example) does not mean that the null hypothesis (no warming) is true: in fact, if there is other reliable data that is inconsistent with the null hypothesis, the question is very much not settled. There is ocean surface temperature data, for example, which cannot easily be reconciled with the null hypothesis.

The "skeptics" -- the strange name ...

Apparently the authors are unfamiliar with the meaning of the word "skeptic" - it is entirely appropriate to apply it to people who doubt, who question, who disbelieve orthodox views. To be a skeptic in science is a good thing - it's what the whole enterprise is about.

...applied to those whose work shows the planet isn't coming to an end ...

Ah yes, the signature of scientific integrity: distorting the view of your opponents beyond all recognition. The generally accepted view within the climate research community is that the world is warming and that there will be negative consequences. The difference between that and "the planet coming to an end" is the difference between a hangnail and death.

... have won.

Riiiiiiight. Questions about consistency of a subset of data completely overwhelm all of the data in favor of the hypothesis.

As I've said before, there's a lot to be done before we'll have a clear picture of what is up with global warming. There are entirely reasonable arguments that the warming is primarily natural rather than caused by humans, there's plenty of reasonable doubt about the magnitude of the warming, there's reasonable questions about wether the net long term effect might in fact be beneficial, and there are reasonable grounds to argue against any given policy regarding climate change. There is not even a slight amount of reasonableness to claims that the science of global warming is even close to settled, let alone settled in favor of the theory that there is no warming.

The authors of the TCS piece might have a defensible position if they were engaging is strictly political polemic, but they are not: they are brandishing scientific credentials on the one hand, and making blatantly false statements on the other. They are using scientific credentials to bolster claims which any credible scientist simply would not make. If you want to use scientific credentials to establish credibility, you have an obligation to meet a certain standard of integrity. Saying things which any scientist would know to be false, but which a member of the general public might believe, violates the most basic standards of personal and professional integrity. These guys are liars, and should be treated as such.

Posted by Andrew Case at 08:22 AM

August 07, 2004

Alvin to be Retired

Via a story on NPR's All Things Considered (last story on the page: audio link) the intrepid research submarine Alvin is going to be replaced with a larger sub capable of deeper dives and longer stays at depth.

Alvin is a truly storied scientific instrument, one of those few machines that almost singlehandedly revolutionize a scientific field. I'm looking forward to seeing what her successor will do.

This post isn't entirely about the excellence of Alvin - I also have a little bit of an axe to grind. Let me point out that, in this day of submarine ROVs with ever increasing capabilities, the thing that oceanographers and deep ocean biologists want is a machine that will enable them to go in person into the depths. A dive in the new sub will take up to ten hours, cramped up in a space about the size of the interior of a VW beetle, with all manner of projections and angles to increase the discomfort. Internal temperatures during a dive hover in the neighborhood of zero celsius, and if something goes seriously wrong, you die. Much better to send a machine, don't you think? But no: the people best equipped to make the judgement, the people who will be trading sitting in front of a computer in a climate controlled room, sipping fresh brewed coffee for a cramped, cold, dangerous machine that will put them right next to what they want to study - they choose the sub. Why? because you simply do better science on site than you can remotely, and it's going to be that way for the foreseeable future. The lessons for space exploration should be obvious. I'm looking at you, Bob Park.

Dismounting my hobbyhorse and returning to Alvin, there's an interesting story in the book Water Baby. When Alvin was under construction three pressure spheres were made and tested. The best (no. 2) was used on the sub, and sphere no. 1 was to be tested to destruction. The test vessel was a large oil filled tank which could be pressurized to simulate dives to various depths. The 40,000 pound lid of the vessel screwed into place on top. The crush test of sphere no. 1 was also going to be the first test of the pressure tank above 4000 psi. From the book:

At 4300 psi there was an explosion. In the next second the engineers calculated the probable trajectory of the tank's lid, concluding that 40,000 pounds of steel were headed for the tin roof above them. They ran, all of them headed at once to the only other door at the far end of the building. "I remember the instantaneous transport of myself, like a Tibetan monk using the mind to will myself out of that building" Walsh said.
The super tank looked oddly untouched and its 40,000 pound lid, undamaged, was in place. The deadman was broken and its 40 foot cable was gone. When they removed the cover, they saw that the shrapnel had come from the upper threaded portion of the tank. The lid had shot up at least 40 feet and dropped back onto the tank, driving it about three feet deeper into the ground.

In the tank sat sacrificial sphere no. 1 undamaged.

The test tank failed at a pressure equivalent to 9600 feet, testing the sphere judged to be of the lowest quality.

Posted by Andrew Case at 08:44 AM

July 30, 2004

Too cheap to meter

DOE has decided to scrap plans for FIRE, which was originally intended to serve as an alternative to the International Thermonuclear Energy Experiment (ITER, later changed to 'Iter'). This is a bad thing for reasons too numerous to list. For one thing, it puts all the fusion eggs in one basket. For another, that basket is internationalized, so that every election, every economic shift, every change of national priorities, in every one of the major participating nations will threaten the experiment.

The original recommendation from the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee was that if there had not been a decision to proceed with Iter by the end of July 2004, then work should move ahead on FIRE. Unfortunately the Bush administration decided that Iter was a good idea, for reasons which are still not clear to me - I suspect the desire to do a little international fence-mending had something to do with it. Anyway, with Iter rejoined (the US had dropped out in 1998), FIRE is superfluous, at least if you assume Iter is going to meet its program goals, which I seriously doubt (at least, assuming that staying under budget is one of them). FIRE has been criticized for relying on pedestrian technologies like copper magnets instead of superconductors, but that's a feature, not a bug. FIRE is a much smaller and less ambitious experiment than Iter, and it's firmly in the hands of the US. Both things increase the prospects of success - the lower ambition makes the technical aspects more likely to succeed, and the single government funding source makes the political aspects less likely to force major redesigns partway through.

Given my druthers I wouldn't fund either Iter or FIRE, preferring to put money into a basket of alternative confinement concepts, and try novel things like prizes. Kerry has made energy independence a major platform plank, so if he wins there may be additional funding for fusion, but Iter is going to suck up a lot of that, and any project which runs alongside Iter will almost certainly get killed as soon as there is a funding crunch. I like the energy independence platform plank: it seems obvious to me that reducing our dependence on oil from the mideast increases the range of options for dealing with militant Islam. In particular, getting to the point where the Saudis no longer have any ability to affect the US economy seems quite desirable, since their official national religion is extremist Islam - how anyone could possibly consider them to be our allies is beyond me, but that's a post for another day.

The upshot of this latest development is that commercially viable fusion energy has receded still further into the future. Under a Kerry administration it would most likely get a little closer, but not by much, and not cheaply.

Posted by Andrew Case at 01:50 PM

July 29, 2004

His Helices Unwind

Francis Crick has died. Sadly, this event wasn't prevented by being a discoverer of the secret of life.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:36 AM

July 13, 2004

A Fowl Fate

I couldn't quite figure out how to categorize this one. There are stories of children being raised by wolves, but here's the first case, at least of which I'm aware, of a man being raised by chickens.

It will be certain to be the butt of jokes, but of course it's a tragic situation. I really mean it--once you get past the absurdity of it, it really was catastrophic for the poor guy.

But it could have been worse--he was fortunate that it happened after he had at least developed the ability to speak. Children raised without human contact from birth never develop the ability to do so--there's a certain critical point in development and the wiring of the brain during which speech is acquired, and if you miss it, you've apparently missed it forever. The story claims that he is learning (or relearning) how to speak, and presumably to eat with utensils instead of pecking.

Of course, as the old joke in the Woody Allen movie (Annie Hall?) went, they may not want to go too far in rehabilitating him. They won't get any more eggs. Besides, he may have a thrilling career ahead of him as a sports team mascot.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:35 PM

July 02, 2004

That's So September 10th

So anyway, it turns out that Wood's Hole, being one of the nations finer scientific establishments, actually has internet access. Who'd a thunk it? A technological widget developed for the transmission of porn, spam, and offers from deposed Nigerian dictators, being used by scientists as a means of remote collaboration. Just goes to show the innovative and unexpected uses to which researchers can turn everyday objects.

Obviously I'm being a little ironic above. More seriously, my wife just showed me a really cool little trick that allows a >$10,000 piece of scientific equipment to be replaced by common items costing under $100. It's a neat little illustration of nonlinear thinking and creative problem solving on the part of a graduate student who simply did not have enough money to buy the high end gear, so she tried to figure out a way to do it on the cheap. Nobody told her it wouldn't work, and she was really keen on getting the work done, so she kept trying until she made it work. It's a very cool little application, so why am I being evasive about details? Well, it involves a basic technique for genetic engineering. If this was September 10th 2001, I'd blissfully blog away. In the current environment I think dropping the cost of making genetically modified organisms by over $10,000 is not necessarily in the best interest of anyone. I had a nice little post all lined up to talk about technology and creativity and the importance of persistence, but I think I'll just leave well enough alone.

It's only a matter of time before genetic engineering techniques come within reach of basically anyone with a couple million dollars. The long pole in the tent right now is just the sheer amount of time it takes to carry out all the work, and the scattershot nature of the results. Given time, and especially given volunteers willing to die, a terrorist attack using GMOs is a real possibility. Technology is advancing rapidly, and established technologies are becoming cheaper and more accessible. The only effective way of reducing the risk of a mass casualty attack is to undermine the ideas behind the ideologies that drive the attackers. There will always be people who want to cause destruction, but the fewer collaborators they have the lower their chances of success.

Posted by Andrew Case at 09:06 AM

June 29, 2004

Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion

The reason I've been a little quiet these past few days is that I've been preparing a talk for presentation at the IEEE International Conference on Plasma Science, held in Baltimore this year. I presented yesterday, and it was generally well received. The topic was technical and boring, so I won't gn into details here. The talk that ended the session I was at was particularly interesting, though, so I thought I'd blog about it.

The talk in question was presented by J. E. Brandenburg of the Florida Space Institute, titled Microwave Enhancement of Inertial Electrostatic Confinement of Plasma for Fusion: Theory and Experiment. Inertial Electrostatic Confinement (IEC) uses two (or more) nested spherical grids charged to a high relative voltage to accelerate ions towards the common center of the grids, where they collide and fuse. Philo Farnsworth patented an IEC concept he called the Fusor, and there are all the usual conspiracy theories about suppression of his research surrounding the history of the Fusor, though I suspect the truth of the matter has a lot to do with the fact that it didn't really work very well, at least for power generation.

Anyway, back to the point. IEC has seen a resurgence of interest lately (for an overview of what people are up to check out the presentations at the 2002 US-Japan workshop on IEC). Various problems are slowly being worked out and the prospects for IEC for power generation are improving. I talked to Brandenburg after his presentation and he claimed that some experiments were getting within (relative) spitting distance of break-even, bearing in mind that for fusion spitting distance is about a factor of ten or so away.

From a purely technological standpoint IEC is attractive because it does not use magnets, so the power requirements are a lot lower than many other fusion schemes. IEC de-vices are also compact (grid sizes are 1 to 15 cm in radius), which makes experiments much easier to perform. More interesting to me is that IEC de-vices are evolvable along an economically viable path. IEC de-vices are already being sold commercially as neutron sources (see the overview pdf from the US-Japan conference I linked to above for one example). If the market for neutron sources expands (which it may well, since neutron assay is a very convenient way of remotely detecting the elemental composition of things, particularly convenient if you are looking for nuclear contraband), then companies doing IEC can have a near-term revenue stream to fund further development.

Another nice feature of IEC is that the startup costs are relatively small, so that even amateurs can build primitive IEC de-vices. There is a site devoted to exactly that here. It's not necessarily a great idea to build neutron sources at home, but intelligent people tinkering with IEC in their spare time may help move the ball down the field. There are important safety precautions that need to be taken, both for high voltage and for radiation, which drive the costs up. Those who take shortcuts with safety will earn their just darwinian reward - I'm not encouraging anyone to try this at home, but if you do, consider yourself warned.

The point of Brandenburg's talk was that he'd tried using ponderomotive forces (see below) to improve confinement in an IEC de-vice, with apparent success. The results were preliminary, but it certainly looked like there was an improvement in the focus of the ions. The experiment was conducted in Argon, so there was no fusion, but the bright spot at the center of the grids got smaller with the application of microwaves. This is a good thing, because IEC depends on having all the ions coming in to a single high density focal point.

The ponderomotive effect is a neat little nonlinear plasma phenomenon that arises when an electromagnetic wave interacts with a charged particle. The EM wave consists of electric and magnetic fields oscillating in synchrony. The electric field accelerates the particle at right angles to the wave, and the magnetic field deflects the accelerated particle orbit. Half a cycle later, the electric field has flipped direction but: so has the magnetic field. The upshot is that the particle is deflected in the same direction during the second half of the cycle as during the first half. The electric field slams the particle from side to side, and the magnetic field distorts the sideways oscillation into a slight motion in the direction in which the EM wave is propagating. This is true regardless of the charge of the particle because the electric field effect flips sign with the change in particle charge, but so does the effect of the magnetic field, so the two sign changes cancel. The upshot is that electromagnetic waves push charged particles along their path.

The innovation that Brandenburg applied to IEC was to use this ponderomotive effect to enhance the confinement of the steady state IEC discharge. He injected 2.45 GHz microwaves into an IEC de-vice, where the ponderomotive force acted to shove the plasma in further towards the core, driving the density up. Obviously there's a lot more that needs to be done to see if this will actually drive up fusion yields, but it's an interesting development. I've always been kind of fond of the ponderomotive effect, in part because it's such a neat nonlinear effect with all these minus signs cancelling out just right to give a net force, and in part because as soon as I saw it I started trying to figure out how to use it in a confinement scheme. It's nice to see an application, and I'll keep tuned for further developments.

Posted by Andrew Case at 10:57 AM

June 05, 2004

Fusion funding: A Proposal

I'm a member of a group of young fusion researchers who are trying to figure out how to make fusion happen in our lifetimes. This is nontrivial because 'young' in this case means under 40, and current plans from DOE don't put fusion power on the grid for another 35+ years. Given the accuracy of government forecasts a whole year down the line, I'm not holding my breath.

I think that the single largest factor holding up the development of commercial fusion is not physics, its program structure. We need to revolutionize the way fusion research is structured, and the best way to do that is to bring the power of the market to bear. Prizes have been suggested (notably by Bob Bussard). I offer here an alternative proposal, seeking your feedback.

The goal is to encourage private funding. This means finding a way to reduce the risk to investors in potential fusion schemes. If a given idea can pass a basic peer reviewed sanity check (doesn't violate any laws of physics), DOE should offer to insulate investors from some measure of risk. As a concrete proposal, say DOE will purchase all the intellectual property assets of any innovative energy company which closes down after raising private venture funding. There would be some limit, indexed to the amount of money raised, say 1/2 the total venture funds raised, up to a limit of $50 million expended by DOE per company. The physical plant would remain property of the investors or creditors. DOE would pay an external auditor to catalog and organize the intellectual property assets, and would make them freely available to interested parties.

There would have to be sensible mechanisms for peer review and for deciding when to shut down (presumably the investors would make that call), but I don't see showstoppers there. I think the idea would work, but getting congress to agree is likely to be hard. There's a real danger of the money disappearing after a venture is funded, thanks to diversion to some more worthy cause, like rainforests in Iowa.

Anyway please comment, kvetch, suggest, advise, discuss, either in comments here or in email to me.

Posted by Andrew Case at 10:14 AM

June 03, 2004

How Many Of Them Are About Climate Change?

Ian Murray (who seems to be having spam problems) should find this one fascinating. There's a brief, but interesting article in this week's Economist about the disturbing prevalance of shaky statistics in peer-reviewed scientific papers.

...If a set of data are “unedited”, the last digits in the numbers recorded will tend to have the values 0-9 at random, since these digits represent small values, and are thus the ones that are hardest to measure. If those numbers are rounded carelessly, however, 4s and 9s (which tend to get rounded up to the nearest half or whole number) will be rarer than they should be. The two researchers duly discovered that 4s and 9s were, indeed, rarer than chance would predict in many of the papers under scrutiny.

False data, false results. Though it was difficult to show whether, in any given case, this falsity led to a result being proclaimed statistically significant when it was not, it was possible to estimate how much error there was likely to be. In one case, however, there was no doubt. A number supposed to be statistically significant was explicitly mis-stated, and a false inference drawn in the paper's conclusion.

Peer review is highly overrated, in my opinion. I hope that specialty blogs can start to address some of the deficiencies of that process. It's not just media types that need fact checking. Sometimes scientists (and NASA officials) need it as well, and we'd be better off if more people realized this rather than relying on arguments from false authority.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:02 PM

June 01, 2004

Culture and games

I firmly believe that the single most important area of scientific research is cognitive psychology (the rigorous branch of psych, not the motherlovin' it's-just-a-cigar-to-me-but-you're-a-pervert freudian crap). There's an interesting article on the results of a cross cultural comparison of behavior in some simple games here. This sort of thing helps get at what human nature really is and what's just cultural overlay. The results are interesting, and generate more questions than answers, but at least the questions are well posed.

btw, welcome back, Rand. I hope the moving problems resolve painlessly.

Posted by Andrew Case at 06:37 PM

May 30, 2004

Nice Introduction To Airfoils

I came across a rather nice little page on aerodynamics for nonspecialists today. I've been slowly teaching myself the basics needed to understand the design of aircraft, and this page provided some good simple background. Plenty of pictures, and clear text.

Posted by Andrew Case at 04:39 PM

May 27, 2004

ICC conference, day 3

This was the last day of scientific presentations, and it ended on a high note with a banquet, about which more later. L. J. Perkins did an excellent overview of fusion physics, and mentioned a couple of things in passing that caught my attention. The most significant is that p-B11 is viable as a fuel in fast ignition ICF. In ICF a fuel pellet is compressed by depositing energy symmetrically on a spherical capsule, blowing off the outer layer. The resulting reaction force collapses the pellet to fusion relevant densities, heating in the process. Fast ignition is a scheme where you hit the compressed pellet at or just before the moment of maximum compression with an additional energy source (ion beam or laser) focused on a small spot. Ignition of the fusion fuel is initiated at the spot, and this serves as a spark plug which sends a shock front through the high density fuel, triggering fusion throughout the volume. The nice thing about ICF is that the fuel density is really high, so the mean free path for photons is really short, smaller than the size of the pellet. This means that bremstrahlung, the traditional enemy of p-B11, is less of a problem, since bremstrahlung photons are captured within the pellet, rather than escaping as they do with the lower density plasmas used in magnetic confinement.

There was a talk on Deuterium-Helium 3 fusion, coming out in favor of it as a power production scheme. I remain skeptical, but I'd love to be proved wrong. There was the usual invocation of lunar He3 production, and a mention of the possibility of obtaining He3 from the gas giants. It'd be interesting to see if the energy cost of extracting the He3 from the gravity well is worth it.

In comments to my previous post Phil Fraering asked about electrostatic confinement. I had a chat with Greg Piefer, who is working on the UW IEC device. The upshot is that inertial electrostatic confinement cannot scale to a commercial reactor, even in theory, unless there are major breakthroughs in grid materials or a way to get rid of the grid altogether. The problem is that the grid simply erodes iunder ion bombardment. There are people working on dealing with these issues, but limited success so far. The major item of good news from IEC is that there is commercial interest in it as a neutron source or a proton source (using Deuterium-Helium3).

The highlight of the conference for me was the banquet, where I got to hang out with some people who've forgotten more than I'll ever know about fusion. One of my tablemates is a senior scientist at a national lab, and he was able to name $750 million worth of fusion experiments where significant hardware was built but zero data produced before the plug was pulled. I'm not sure he'd want his name widely associated with this number, which is why I'm leaving it out. Anyway, the experiments in question weren't over budget, just killed because DOE decided to change the direction of the program, often as a result of lobbying by people hoping to switch the funding over to their pet projects. This sort of crap is why large scale government funded research has to be approached very carefully. Without hawk-like oversight politics ends up beating both good science and good sense. The analogies in the space program are left as an excercise for the reader.

Posted by Andrew Case at 07:38 PM

May 26, 2004

ICC highlights, day 2

Today had some fairly cool space related stuff, starting with the first talk of the day, by Alan Hoffman of RPPL. His topic was Field Reversed Configurations, and he mentioned space propulsion as one of the applications. The nice thing about FRCs is that they include open field lines, which means the field lines are not circling the plasma, but exit the fusion device - all magnetic field lines are topologically circles, but there is an important distinction between lines that enclose plasma and ones that do not. Open field lines allow plasma to be expelled, providing propulsion. Obviously this is utterly useless if you don't have net power gain in the reactor, but hey... Anyway, FRCs are a good candidate for the fusion power core in fusion powered spacecraft, if they ever materialize.

Another spacecraft relevant talk was Tom Intrator's talk on Magnetized Target Fusion, which involves compressing a target plasma inside a conductive shell. MTF is something of a hybrid between traditional magnetic confinement and inertial confinement. Interestingly the current favored plasma configuration for the MTF target plasma is a field reversed configuration. The reason that MTF is spaceflight relevant is that it holds the promise of delivering the hoped-for pure fusion thermonuclear explosive that Dyson and collaborators anticipated when they began work on Orion.

I had a chance to talk to Artan Qerushi, who is working for TriAlpha Energy (sorry, no link). The big deal here is that TriAlpha has venture funding and is building a research reactor to explore their concept, which uses an FRC and ion beams to fuse protons with Boron-11. It's widely believed in the fusion community that bremsstrahlung losses (basically electromagnetic radiation emitted due to collisions) kill the possibility of doing p-B11 fusion, but after considerable discussion with Artan I've come to believe that the Colliding Beam Fusion Reactor violates the assumptions which go into the bremstrahlung loss analysis without violating any laws of physics. There's plenty of room for the idea to be tripped up, but nothing obvious that threatens to kill it - this is not cold fusion. The outstanding news is that there is someone credible building a fusion machine with venture capital funding.

One last thing - I blithely blew off heavy ion fusion earlier. It turns out I was wrong, and there are people working seriously on it, though not as many as are working on laser ICF. Based on talks today it looks like ICF will break even in the next 15 years or so. Still lots of problems to work out before it can be commecialized, though.

Posted by Andrew Case at 04:01 PM

May 25, 2004

ICC highlights, Day 1

The first day of the ICC conference was pretty much as expected. A bit of schmoozing, renewing contacts, that sort of thing. Today's sessions were on Magnetic relaxation and confinement, and plasma flow and shear. The overall focus of the conference has shifted slightly since the last one I was at, in 2002. This year is much more science focused, and that's a good thing. It's always tempting to focus talks on your own machine and where you want to take it, but in order to move the whole enterprise down the road there has to be communication across groups working on different machines, and there has to be crossfertilization. This means that the focus needs to be on the underlying physics, not the engineering details.

Adil Hassam (one of our Principal Investigators) presented the results from MCX, and there was a fair amount of interest. It's only been a year and a half since we started getting real results, but already we have enough under our belts to generate a fair amount of interest. It's becoming increasingly clear that velocity shear stabilizes a wide range of instabilities, and there are now results from machines as diverse as Z-Pinches, Tokamaks, and Mirror Machines all of which show improved stability in the presence of velocity shear.

Eventually the PowerPoints from the talks and posters will be put up on the ICC2004 website, but I just checked and there's nothing there yet. When they are put up I'll try to remember to post a pointer - Paul Bellan of Caltech had a really cool movie in his presentation showing plasma current filaments merging, kinking, and pinching off to form a spheromak (essentially a plasma "smoke ring").

Posted by Andrew Case at 05:01 PM

May 24, 2004

More Fusion Thoughts

Obviously I have net access here in Madison, though it's excruciatingly slow.

Rand's post below reminds me of an idea I had a while back, and which has a little bit of traction in the fusion community (though I think it's had multiple independent inventors). The basic idea is to make a virtue of the neutrons produced in D-T or D-D fusion by using them to transmute nuclear waste into short lived (high radioactivity) isotopes. The isotopes could then be stored while they decay into something (relatively) stable. The benefits are many. First of all it deals with fission waste, helping to remove one of the obstacles to widespread deployment of fission power. Secondly, it doesn't require break-even from the fusion reactor, which makes everything a heck of a lot easier. The net transmutation plant power balance is now the sum of the fusion power and the power produced by the decay of the transmuted isotopes. A transmutation plant might plausibly be fully self sustaining. Once fusion reactors are in the hands of capitalist captains of industry, they will get better, cheaper, and more reliable.

A more exciting option is a mature fission-fusion hybrid cycle in which there are multiple passes of fission fuel through the reactor wall, to generate power using a set of reactions which spits out very low activity waste, cutting the initial fission reactor part entirely out of the cycle. This, it seems to me, is the logical long-term consequence of getting the evolutionary driving force of the markeplace to bear on the problem of commercial fusion. In the very long term, of course, we will likely see pure fusion power plants, but the path there must be along a sequence of evolvable reactor designs, each of which is at least marginally profitable.

More tomorrow, when the conference proper starts.

Posted by Andrew Case at 04:20 PM

May 22, 2004

Incremental progress in cryonics

Via SciTech Daily, a company called BioTime is making progress in freezing tissues and restoring them to life. They've taken tissue to below freezing and restored it to vitality for implantation, and revived whole animals after two hours of clinical death at 35 degrees Fahrenheit. I think that if cryosuspension ever becomes really practical it will emerge out of research like that conducted by BioTime. They are working on extending time under the knife for surgery, but the limiting case of that is days, and perhaps eventually weeks under the knife as the surgical team hunts down and fixes problems, perhaps maintaining different parts of the body at different temperatures so that some organs can heal after surgery while other areas are kept cryosuspended while being operated on. For pursuing really aggressive cancers this might be the way to ferret out the last little metastases.

I'm a little bit of a cryonics skeptic, but open minded to the possibility that revival of people from a natural death might be possible. Much more probable is that people near death can be cryosuspended while alive, and kept on ice until either a cure is found or some contractual criterion requires their revival. The obstacles to freezing a person while alive are currently regulatory (since the cryonicist would be charged with murder, even if it's a whole-body thing as opposed to just the head). If it becomes clear that people can be frozen and then revived the legal obstacles to preemptive cryopreservation will be much lower. Sadly, there will always be busybodies who will try to interfere, but chances are good that they will be a minority once enough of the population are only a couple degrees of separation from someone who has had surgery while chilled to the point of (what we now call) clinical death. I just hope it happens before I catch anything really nasty :-)

Posted by Andrew Case at 08:26 PM

May 14, 2004


My wife's boss (a biologist) got a book in her inbox a couple of days ago put out by the North Dakota Bible Society - the grandiosely titled Evolution Cruncher. Apparently someone mailed these to all the biology faculty at the university of Maryland. I had a brief look through last night. I've been exposed to creationist literature before, so I sort of knew what to expect. I was nonetheless surprised by how blatantly dishonest this book is. I guess it's been a while since I read anything by young earth creationists, so my memory had faded somewhat. Take a look at the site. It's scary that these guys are a significant political constituency in some parts of the country.

I should clarify that I'm not hostile to all creationists - there are sincere and honest people who are creationists. I am, however, extremely hostile to blatant manipulative liars, which the North Dakota Bible Society apparently are.

Posted by Andrew Case at 08:58 AM

May 12, 2004

Too Cool for Words

High amplitude waves in shear thickening liquids have very cool effects. Watch the video.

Posted by Andrew Case at 05:18 PM

May 11, 2004

A Warrior For Human Nature

Now here's a poor guy who couldn't catch a break.

First, he's gelded in a circumcision accident, then he's raised as a girl at the instigation of a psychologist who believes that gender is a social construct, then after rebelling against this forced gender swap at the age of fifteen, he has to undergo reconstructive surgery and remove the breasts that grew as a result of the hormone treatments, and last week, as a result of a financial fraud that impoverished him, he committed suicide.

As the article says, he made a valuable contribution to science, providing major evidence against the Blank Slate hypothesis, and showing the folks who think that gender is infinitely malleable to be terminally deluded. Thanks to him, perhaps no other little boys will have to go through what he went through.

RIP, David Reimer.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:31 PM

May 08, 2004

A Paradise For Atkins Lovers

The locust infestation we're about to have is low fat, zero carbs, and high in protein.

Get ready to put on the feed bag and dig in.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 04:28 PM

April 27, 2004

A Long And Full Life

Yoda has died. May he be the first of many four-year olds, and lead the way to two-hundred year old people.

[Via Phil Bowermaster]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:10 AM

April 26, 2004

Traveling To Phoenix

I've always been fascinated by how quickly the flora can change in just a short distance. Driving to Phoenix from LA on Thursday, I shot this picture of a saguaro--the first one I saw on the trip (forgive the quality--I shot it from a moving car, and cropped it from a much larger photo). It was just a few miles east of the California/Arizona border (and accordingly just a few miles east of the Colorado River). I've never seen a saguaro in California--they seem to know where the state border is, at least at this latitude.

This is the transition region from the desolate Colorado Desert (the low desert south of the Mojave that encompasses much of non-coastal non-mountainous southern California) and the beautiful and cactus-filled Sonoran Desert, of which the saguaro cactus is emblematic. It doesn't seem to be the river itself that demarks it--you don't see the cactus until you start to climb up into the hills just east of it, out of Blythe. Apparently it's a combination of longitude and altitude, though as you get farther east and south, toward Tucson where the national monuments are, the suitable altitude can vary considerably.

I'm still going to post on the conference itself, but this is the only picture that came out well, other than one of Jim Muncy. I didn't have enough light from the distance I was at with my little two megapixel Nikon.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:39 PM

April 21, 2004

Making Males Superfluous

I don't know whether or not Heather does, but apparently Mickey has two mommies.

Kono, in an email, said the procedure might be useful with animals for agricultural and scientific purposes. When asked if he saw any reason to produce human babies this way, he dismissed the question as "senseless."

Some lizards and many other animals reproduce with only maternal genes, but mammals do not. Lab experiments in mice had produced embryos and fetuses, but no successful births.

Actually, for reasons stated in the article, this doesn't mean that human parthenogenesis is just around the corner, but I suspect that it is inevitable. At some point, we're going to have to work out the sociological implications.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:55 AM

April 16, 2004

More Than Skin Deep

Here's some research that confirms my own empirical experience--that people become more (or less) physically attractive to you the better you get to know them, depending on other aspects. I've noticed that women to whom I woudn't necessarily have given a second glance upon first exposure become quite physically appealing over time and repeated exposure, if they have other desirable characteristics--they "grow on you," as the old expression goes (for me, intelligence is a key enhancer).

This is probably a useful evolutionary trait, assuming that monogamy is a useful evolutionary trait.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:46 AM

April 07, 2004

Mystery Solved

Well, not completely. They still don't know why Saint-Exupery's plane went down, but now they know where.

Which reminds me. I thought that there had been an expedition launched a couple years ago to go look for Amelia Earhart's Electra, after seeing what may have been wreckage offshore from a satellite image. Does anyone know the status?

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:22 AM

April 05, 2004

Creative Destruction

Now this is fun engineering.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 12:01 PM

April 03, 2004

A "Transitional" Species

Despite the date, I suspect that this is on the level. They've apparently discovered a link between fish and amphibians.

The fossil, a 365-million-year-old arm bone, or humerus, shares features with primitive fish fins but also has characteristics of a true limb bone. Discovered near a highway roadside in north-central Penn., the bone is the earliest of its kind from any limbed animal.

"It has long been understood that the first four-legged creatures on land arose from the lobed-finned fishes in the Devonian Period," said Rich Lane, director of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) geology and paleontology program. "Through this work, we've learned that fish developed the ability to prop their bodies through modification of their fins, leading to the emergence of tetrapod limbs."

I have the word "transitional" in quotes in the post title because it's a meaningless, superfluous adjective. All species are transitional species, in the sense that they evolved from one and are likely (assuming they don't go extinct) to evolve into yet others in the future. Or at least that was the case until we came along.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 01:05 PM

April 01, 2004

No Double Standard

In a most disingenuous column, John West claims to be upset because federal funding is being used to "insert religion into biology classrooms."

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is on the front lines of the battle to keep religion out of the nation's science classrooms. A group whose self-described mission is "Defending the Teaching of Evolution in the Public Schools," the NCSE routinely condemns anyone who wants to teach faith-based criticisms of evolutionary theory for trying to unconstitutionally mix church and state.

But in an ironic twist, it now turns out that the NCSE itself is using federal tax dollars to insert religion into biology classrooms. Earlier this year, the NCSE and the University of California Museum of Paleontology unveiled a website for teachers entitled "Understanding Evolution." Funded in part by a nearly half-million-dollar federal grant, the website encourages teachers to use religion to promote evolution. Apparently the NCSE thinks mixing science and religion is okay after all — as long as religion is used to support evolution.

The purpose of the "Understanding Evolution" website is to instruct teachers in how they should teach evolution, and the federal government (through the National Science Foundation) came up with $450,000 for the project. As might be expected, the science presented on the website is rather lopsided. Although there are vigorous arguments among biologists about many aspects of neo-Darwinism, teachers aren't informed about those scientific debates, ignoring guidance from the U.S. Congress in 2001 that "where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist."

But the strangest part of the website, by far, is the section that encourages educators to use religion to endorse evolution. Teachers are told that nearly all religious people, theologians, and scientists who hold religious beliefs endorse modern evolutionary theory, and that indeed such a view "actually enriches their faith." In fact, teachers are directed to statements by a variety of religious groups giving their theological endorsement of evolution.

I say it's disingenuous because I doubt if Professor West truly objects to federal funding of religious ideas--he just doesn't like this instance of it. And of course, the idea here is not to "insert religion into biology classrooms." That's already happening, thanks to the unending efforts of people like (presumably, based on this column) Professor West. All that the site is doing is providing science teachers some rhetorical ammunition for those lamentable occasions when they get drawn unwillingly into religious discussions, allowing them to point out that a belief in Darwinian evolution is not necessarily incompatible with faith.

Equally disingenuous is the clearly implied notion that, because "there are vigorous arguments among biologists about many aspects of neo-Darwinism," the theory of evolution itself is shaky and not fully accepted by the scientific community, when in fact such arguments are arguments over details, and they are in fact allowed within the classrooms of any competent science teacher.

Hey, I'm all for pulling the federal funding for this site (because I oppose federal funding for education in general), but to think that it should be done because it somehow breaches the separation of church and state is laughable.

By the way, I pointed this site out the other day, and lauded its intent, if not its funding source (of which I was unaware at the time).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:47 AM
Building Your Own House

Stephen Gordon has an interesting post about progress in nanofactories (except they aren't nano yet).

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:32 AM

March 29, 2004

A Useful Tool

Some folks at Berkeley have put together a web site on teaching evolution as a resource for science teachers under creationist assault in the classroom.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 02:39 PM
How Does This Account For Paris Hilton?

A German researcher says that s3x makes you smart.

He added that the added injection of endorphins and serotonin that resulted from an org@sm strengthened self-confidence - giving the body a mental as well as physical work out.
Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:04 AM

March 26, 2004

A Dinosaur Butt Print


They found one in Utah.

And here's the obligatory entertaining freeper thread about it, complete with a pic of Helen Thomas.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 03:27 PM
Weird Weather

There's a hurricane in the south Atlantic ocean. This is extremely unusual.

I blame George Bush.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:47 AM

March 25, 2004

New Evolution Blog

Go check out The Panda's Thumb (no doubt inspired by Gould's book of the same title). It's a group blog.

[Via Carl Zimmer]

Posted by Rand Simberg at 08:07 AM

September 23, 2003

Loosening The Shackles

I used to have a tee shirt, that had a picture of a garden mole and exterminator. The caption was "Mole problems? Call Avogadro 6.022 x 10^23."

It's a chemistry joke.

[rim shot]

OK, it's geeky. Avogadro's number is the number of atoms in a mole, which allows us to convert the unit of mass to number of atoms, and vice versa, by converting the atomic number to grams. Carbon 12 (the most common carbon isotope) is the reference--a mole of carbon 12 atoms will, in theory, mass exactly twelve grams. Similarly, a mole of hydrogen atoms will mass one gram.

Obviously, for this to work, we have to know pretty accurately just how many atoms there are in a mole. In fact, if we knew it accurately, and precisely enough, we could use it as an atomic basis for mass (just as the meter was defined in terms of wavelengths of a specific chemical laser, and more recently as the distance light goes in a certain time interval measured by a cesium clock). The current (crude) standard for mass is a lump of metal, a kilogram by definition, kept in a bell jar in Paris.

Recent research indicates that the traditional number, first identified by Avogadro, may be a little off. If they can refine the number sufficiently, it can be established as the basis for mass, and we can free ourselves of one of the few areas in which we're dependent on the duplicitous French...

Posted by Rand Simberg at 09:43 AM

September 16, 2003

Sniff Any Good F@rts Lately?

Hey, you think you've got it bad?

Go hence and read about the worst jobs in science.

[Update at 12:40 PM PDT]

Here's a blog-relevant one:


Yes, astronaut. By many lights, being an astronaut is the best job in the solar system, though one that carries with it the ultimate risk. But set aside the mortal danger and it's still a job of great frustration, self- sacrifice, even debasement. Astronauts are subjected to the most arduous of tasks: sitting in high-G centrifuges so that doctors can study motion sickness, deliberately enduring hypothermia for hours on end, wearing rectal probes and central IV lines in all forms of stress training like so many guinea pigs (though?mitigating factor?no shaved bellies). Shuttle and Mir veteran Norm Thagard once objected to a study designed to make him wretchedly sick. NASA's response? "They said I could be fired for good cause, bad cause or no cause," says Thagard, "but I was required to participate as a condition of employment." Thagard also had the distinction of being the first person ever to clean out animal cages in orbit, on the Spacelab 3 in 1985. Engineers promised him that the cages would be at negative pressure, so none of the weightless waste of 24 rats and 2 squirrel monkeys would escape. But when Thagard opened the cages, air rushed outward, leading to a frantic floating-feces chase scene. A day later, at the other end of the craft, commander Bob Overmeyer was accosted by a truant turd.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 11:43 AM

July 31, 2003

Just An Oversized Buzzard

Some of the latest thinking about T. Rex was that it was a scavenger of carrion, rather than a predator.

"I believe it was a scavenger pure and simple because I can't find any evidence to support the theory that it was a predator," paleontologist Jack Horner said at the opening on Thursday of "T-Rex -- the killer question."

Horner, the inspiration for scientist Alan Grant -- played by Sam Neill -- in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park," said the lumbering giant was too slow, its arms too small and its sight too poor to catch anything moving.

Another fact from childhood down the drain. Fantasia will never be the same.

[Update on Friday at 4 PM PDT]

Reader (and Transterrestrial site designer) Bill Simon points out this discussion on the subject raging in the comments section.

Posted by Rand Simberg at 10:31 AM