Category Archives: General Science

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.

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 🙂

Creationists

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.