Dec 04 2023

Living Under the Sea

One of my favorite recent video games is Subnautica, in which you have to survive almost entirely under a vast alien ocean. You have the advantage of advanced technology, but even then you are under constant threat of running out of oxygen, or having your habitat implode because it was not sufficiently reinforced. You are mostly working in brief increments and shallow depths.

That is similar to reality. Underwater is an extremely challenging environment, and human researchers do most of their work in brief increments and shallow depths. It says something that we have a continuous human presence in space, but not underwater. Some of the challenges are similar. You need a protected environment that is largely self-sufficient, at least for long periods of time. You need to provide heat and oxygen, and deal with changes in pressure. Of course, in space the problem is the lack of pressure outside the space station, while under water the challenge is increased pressure. This is actually far more of a challenge underwater, as the deeper you go the pressure difference from inside to out can be far greater than in space. Underwater you also have to deal with the corrosive effects of salt water.

A company, Deep, plans to have long term continuous human habitation under the ocean for the first time, with their Sentinel habitat. This will allow up to six people to live at 200 meters under the ocean for up to 28 days at a time. They plan on deploying the crew in November 2026. The Sentinel will be 400 cubic meters in size, with modules 6.2 meters in diameter – that is about the same diameter as a 777 fuselage. Imagine living in a space the size of a large jet for 28 days. By all accounts the space will be nice, but that is still cramped an isolating.

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Dec 01 2023

Do We Have Free Will?

Let’s dive head first into one of the internet’s most contentious questions – do we have true free will? This comes up not infrequently whenever I write here about neuroscience, most recently when I wrote about hunger circuitry, because the notion of the brain as a physical machine tends to challenge our illusion of complete free will. Debates tend to become heated, because it is truly challenging to wrap our meat brains around such an abstract question.

I always find the discussion to be enlightening, however. In the most recent discussion I detect that some commenters are using the term “free will” differently than others. Precisely (operationally) defining terms is always critical in such discussions, so I wanted to break down what I feel are the three definitions or levels of free will that we are dealing with. It seems to me that there is a superficial level, a neurological level, and a metaphysical level to free will. Language fails us here because we have only one term to refer to these very different things (at least colloquially – philosophers probably have lots of highly precise technical terms).

At the most superficial level we do make decisions, and some people consider this free will. To be clear, I am not aware of any serious thinker or philosopher who holds that we do not make decisions. There is a deeper discussion about the mechanisms of those decisions, but we do make them, we are consciously aware of them, and we can act on them. From this perspective, people are agents, and are accountable to the choices they make.

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Nov 30 2023

Eating Methane

Methane is the forgotten greenhouse gas (sort of). Often, when discussing how best to reduce anthropogenic climate change, we talk about decarbonizing our electrical and transport sectors, and carbon removal. But methane is also a greenhouse gas, contributing to global warming, and we cannot afford to ignore it. As I discussed recently, methane traps more heat than CO2 but survives for a shorter amount of time in the atmosphere (about 12 years vs hundreds for CO2). Over 20 years it is 80 times worse than CO2, over 100 years it is 28 times worse.

The world releases 580 million tons of methane each year, compared to 37 billion tons for CO2 (about two orders of magnitude more). That means over a 20 year timespan, methane has the equivalent greenhouse gas effect as 46 billion tons of CO2 (570 million x 80). In the short term methane is driving global warming a little more than CO2. Perhaps this is an opportunity. CO2 release is essentially the unavoidable consequence of burning fossil fuel. We can mitigate it with carbon capture, but this so far is minimally effective. I only real option is to reduce and then stop the burning of fossil fuel. We are in a race to do this, but it will take decades because the world is dependent on fossil fuel as an energy source.

Methane leaking into the atmosphere, however, is not a completely unavoidable consequence of industry. The largest source of methane emissions is natural, from wetlands (195 million tons). Next is agriculture (142 million) followed closely by the energy sector (135 million).  Waste is another 73 million tons, followed by another 45 million from everything else (mostly natural). How can we mitigate this?

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Nov 28 2023

The Threat of Technology

In my second book (shameless plug alert) – The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future – my coauthors and I try to imagine both the utopian and dystopian versions of the future, brought about by technology, either individually or collectively. This topic has come up multiple times recently on this blog when discussing technology and trust in science and scientists, so I thought it deserved its own discussion.

The overarching point is that science and technology should not be thought of as pure objective good, but rather they are tools, and tools can be used for good or evil. I admit I am a science enthusiast and a technophile, also a bit of an optimist, so when I hear about a new discovery or technology my first thoughts go to all the ways that it might make life better, or at least cooler. I have to remember to consider all the ways in which the technology can also be abused or exploited, which is why we explicitly did this in our futurism book.

So far, on the balance I think science and technology has been an incredible plus to humanity. For most of human existence life was “short, nasty, and brutish.” Science has given us a greater perspective on ourselves and the universe, freeing us from ignorance and superstition. And technology has given us the power to extend our lives, improve our health, and control our environment. It enables us to peer deep into the universe, and see for the first time a microscopic world that was always there but we had no idea existed. It enables us to travel beyond the confines of our planet, and eventually (if we survive) will enable us to be a multi-world, and even multi-system, species.

I do think we have lost touch with how bad life was prior to modern technology. Our period movies, for example, are highly romanticized. A brutally accurate portrayal of life prior to the industrial revolution would show people with horrible dentition ravaged by diseases and living mostly in drudgery. Most people never saw the world beyond their small village.  We get a hint of this sometimes, but never the reality.

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Nov 27 2023

Hybrid Biopolymer Transistors – Implications for Brain Machine Interface

There are several technologies which seem likely to be transformative in the coming decades. Genetic bioengineering gives us the ability to control the basic machinery of life, including ourselves. Artificial intelligence is a suite of active, learning, information tools. Robotics continues its steady advance, and is increasingly reaching into the micro-scale. The world is becoming more and more digital, based upon information, and our ability to translate that information into physical reality is also increasing.

Finally, we are increasingly able to interface ourselves with this digital technology, through brain machine interfaces, and hybrid biological technology. This is the piece I want to discuss today, because of a recent paper detailing a hybrid biopolymer transistor. This is one of the goals of computer technology going forward – to make biological, or at least biocompatible, computers. The more biocompatible our digital technology, the better we will be able to interface that technology with biology, especially the human brain.

This begins with the transistor, the centerpiece of modern computing technology. A transistor is basically a switch that has two states, which can be used to store binary information (1s and 0s). If the switch in on, current flows through the semiconductor, and that indicates a 1, if it is off, current does not flow, indicating a zero. The switch is also controlled by a gate separated by an insulator. These switches can turn on and off 100 billion times a second. Circuits of these switches are designed to process information – to do the operations that form the basis of computing. (This is an oversimplification, but this is the basic idea.)\

This new hybrid transistor uses silk proteins as the insulator around the gates of the transistor. The innovation is the ability to control these proteins at the nano-scale necessary to make a modern transistor. Using silk proteins rather than an inorganic substance allows the transistor to react to its environment in a way that purely inorganic transistors cannot. For example, the ambient moisture will affect the insulating properties of these proteins, changing the operation of the gates.

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Nov 20 2023

Hunger Circuitry

One of the organizing principles that govern living organisms is homeostasis. This is a key feature of being alive – maintaining homeostatic equilibrium both internally and externally. Homeostatic systems usually involve multiple feedback loops that maintain some physiological parameter within an acceptable range. For example, our bodies maintain a very narrow temperature range, our blood has a very narrow range for pH, salt content, CO2 concentration, oxygen levels, and many other parameters. Each cell maintains specific concentrations of many electrolytes across their membranes. Organisms maintain the proper amount of total fluid – too much and their tissue becomes edematous and the heart is overworked, too little and they cannot maintain blood pressure or tissue function.

Some of these homeostatic feedback loops are purely physiological, happening at a cellular, tissue, or organ level. You don’t have to think about the pH of your blood. It can manage itself. But many involve behavior as part of the homeostatic system. If you are dehydrated you get thirsty and seek out water. If you are cold you bundle up and seek warmth. If your body requires nutrients you get hungry and eat.

That last one, hunger and eating, turns out to be very tricky. First, this is mostly a behaviorally driven homeostatic system – how much do we eat, what do we eat, when do we eat, and how physically active are we (combined with many metabolic factors). Second, this behavioral homeostatic system is very context dependent. The system anticipates future needs and future conditions, not just our body’s needs in the moment. It also appears that behavior driven by a homeostatic imperative can be extremely powerful. Think about how motivated you get to find water when you are extremely thirsty.

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Nov 16 2023

Trust in Science

How much does the public trust in science and scientists? Well, there’s some good news and some bad news. Let’s start with the bad news – a recent Pew survey finds that trust in scientist has been in decline for the last few years. From its recent peak in 2019, those who answered that science has a mostly positive effect on society decreased from 73% to 57%. Those who say it has a mostly negative effect increased from 3 to 8%. Those who trust in scientists a fair amount or a great deal decreased from 86 to 73%. Those who think that scientific investments are worthwhile remain strong at 78%.

The good news is that these numbers are relatively high compared to other institutions and professions. Science and scientists still remain among the most respected professions, behind the military, teachers, and medical doctors, and way above journalists, clergy, business executives, and lawyers. So overall a majority of Americans feel that science and scientists are trustworthy, valuable, and a worthwhile investment.

But we need to pay attention to early warning signs that this respect may be in jeopardy. If we get to the point that a majority of the public do not feel that investment in research is worthwhile, or that the findings of science can be trusted, that is a recipe for disaster. In the modern world, such a society is likely not sustainable, certainly not as a stable democracy and economic leader. It’s worthwhile, therefore, to dig deeper on what might be behind the recent dip in numbers.

It’s worth pointing out some caveats. Surveys are always tricky, and the results depend heavily on how questions are asked. For example, if you ask people if they trust “doctors” in the abstract the number is typically lower than if you ask them if they trust their doctor. People tend to separate their personal experience from what they think is going on generally in society, and are perhaps too willing to dismiss their own evidence as “exceptions”. If they were favoring data over personal anecdote, that would be fine. But they are often favoring rumor, fearmongering, and sensationalism. Surveys like this, therefore, often reflect the public mood, rather than deeply held beliefs.

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Nov 14 2023

Hunter-Gatherers and Childcare

What is “natural” for humans? It’s often hard to say, and in my opinion this is a highly overused concept. Primarily this is because humans are adaptable – we adapt to our environment, our situation, and our culture. So it is “natural” for us not to have a natural state.

But this does not mean there are no insights to be gained by considering the evolutionary milieu in which our ancestors spent the vast majority of their existence. By rapidly changing our environment we may be pushing the limits of our adaptability. We also need to consider the difference between surviving and thriving. We may survive in the world we have created for ourselves, but pay some price. For those of us living in industrialized societies, it’s also difficult to appreciate how different our lives are from the vast majority of human history and societies. What is now “normal” for us is a recent anomaly.

We can apply this line of thinking to many aspects of our lives, but I want to consider childcare. A recent study looking at Mbendjele BaYaka Hunter-Gatherers in the Republic of Congo found a number of interesting thing regarding childcare. Young children received physical contact for the majority of their day. Overall they had near constant attention from a caretaker. About half of this attention came from someone other than the child’s mother or parents. Children benefitted form a network of caregivers of 10 or more people, and occasionally as many as 20 or more. Older children, teenagers, and adult relatives all contributed to childcare. These networks potentially have a number of implications.

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Nov 13 2023

Artificial Diamond Boom

The history of aluminum, and what is now happening in the artificial diamond market, may tell us something about a post-scarcity world. Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust. However, it like to form with other elements and therefore it was very difficulty to purify the metal. In the 1800s methods were discovered for purifying aluminum, but they were slow and expensive, and hence aluminum was scarce and expensive – $16 per pound ($419 in today’s dollars), more expensive than gold at the time. Famously, Napoleon set before his most prestigious guests aluminum cutlery, instead of the less exciting gold cutlery. But then, in 1887, two men (both in their 20s), American Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult independently discovered the same method for purifying aluminum from ore (usually bauxite). Within two years aluminum fell to $2 per pound, then pennies per pound. Now we make cans and foil out of it.

Will a similar thing happen to the diamond market? Diamonds, despite common belief, are not made from coal. They are created deep underground, 177-241 km, where pressures and temperatures are high. They are brought to the surface through volcanic eruptions, embedded in a mineral known as kimberlite. While natural diamonds are highly valued for their beauty and strength, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the mining of diamonds. The mining process is disruptive to the environment, and tends to involve a great deal of conflict and exploitation.

Further, the pricing of diamonds has been a bit controversial. Natural diamonds are generally considered to be overpriced by marketing and market manipulation. They are marketed as rare and valuable gems, but in reality they are quite plentiful. Marketing of diamonds as a “girls best friend” and for engagement rings also fed this image. Like everything, prices are generally about supply and demand, but demand is kept high through marketing while supply is generally kept secret in order to keep the price elevated. Gem-quality diamonds are also a luxury item, so their value is inherently subjective.

The first artificial diamond was created in 1954, using a method that involves high pressure and temperature. There is now also a newer method called chemical vapor deposition (CVD), which is cheaper and becoming more popular. India in particular has a booming industry in synthetic diamonds, and first to decrease the need for import, but now increasingly for export. The CVD method uses a gas chamber containing carbon, and may also contain other elements that affect the color of the diamond. The temperature and pressure are manipulated to cause the carbon to precipitate out of the gas, forming onto a seed diamond which can grow to large size. Many diamonds can be made at the same time using this method, which takes 1-2 weeks. Periodically graphite needs to be cleaned from the growing diamond.

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Nov 09 2023

Fossil Fuels – Reduce Demand or Supply?

This is a bit of a false choice – we can do both, or neither – but it is an important question and a somewhat of a dilemma. Is the optimal path to reductions and eventual elimination of fossil fuel burning through reduced demand or supply? There are some interesting tradeoffs either way, and no perfect answer.

To focus the question, it’s clear that we need to reduce demand as quickly as possible. This is not a question, and there is no dilemma here. Reducing demand is a win-win. We can do this in a number of ways. Switching from internal combustion to battery-electric vehicles is one way. Changing coal and gas power plants to wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, and geothermal is another. Increasing energy efficiency is also important – in homes, cars, and industry. Longer term we can also shift some of our societal patterns of behavior, creating more walkable cities, expanding public transport, and reducing waste.

Basically we need to electrify our technology, switch to green energy, and maximize efficiency. All of these are good things that will reduce pollution, create jobs, foster energy independence, and improve prosperity. Even if you are a climate change denier, you should still favor the green energy revolution (don’t let political propaganda dissuade you). If we were having this conversation in the 1990s, this would be all we need to talk about. How do we accelerate the switch over from fossil fuels by investing in R&D and providing strategic tax incentives? But it’s 2023, and time is basically up.

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