Sep 22 2020

GMO Crops and Yield

The issue of genetically modified organisms is interesting from a science communication perspective because it is the one controversy that apparently most follows the old knowledge deficit paradigm. The question is – why do people reject science and accept pseudoscience. The knowledge deficit paradigm states that they reject science in proportion to their lack of knowledge about science, which should therefore be fixable through straight science education. Unfortunately, most pseudoscience and science denial does not follow this paradigm, and are due to other factors such as lack of critical thinking, ideology, tribalism, and conspiracy thinking. But opposition to GMOs does appear to largely result from a knowledge deficit.

A 2019 study, in fact, found that as opposition to GM technology  increased, scientific knowledge about genetics and GMOs decreased, but self-assessment increased. GMO opponents think they know the most, but in fact they know the least.  Other studies show that consumers have generally low scientific knowledge about GMOs. There is also evidence that fixing the knowledge deficit, for some people, can reduce their opposition to GMOs (at least temporarily). We clearly need more research, and also different people oppose GMOs for different reasons, but at least there is a huge knowledge deficit here and reducing it may help.

So in that spirit, let me reduce the general knowledge deficit about GMOs. I have been tackling anti-GMO myths for years, but the same myths keep cropping up (pun intended) in any discussion about GMOs, so there is still a lot of work to do. To briefly review – no farmer has been sued for accidental contamination, farmers don’t generally save seeds anyway, there are patents on non-GMO hybrid seeds, GMOs have been shown to be perfectly safe, GMOs did not increase farmer suicide in India, and use of GMOs generally decreases land use and pesticide use.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Sep 21 2020

The Holocaust and Losing History

In the movie Interstellar, which takes place in a dystopian future where the Earth is challenged by progressive crop failures, children are taught in school that the US never went to the Moon, that it was all a hoax. This is a great thought experiment – could a myth, even a conspiracy theory, rise to the level of accepted knowledge? In the context of religion the answer is, absolutely. We have seen this happen in recent history, such as with Scientology, and going back even a little further with Mormonism and Christian Science. But what is the extent of the potential contexts in which a rewriting of history within a culture can occur? Or, we can frame the question as – are there any limits to such rewriting of history?

I think it is easy to make a case for the conclusion that there are no practical limits. Religion is also not the only context in which myth can become belief. The more totalitarian the government, the more they will be able to rewrite history any way they want (“We’ve always been at war with Eastasia”). It is also standard belief, and I think correctly, that the victors write the history books, implying that they write it from their perspective, with themselves as the heroes and the losers as the villains.

But what about just culture? I think the answer here is an unqualified yes also. In many Asian cultures belief in chi, a mysterious life force, is taken for granted, for example. There are many cultural mythologies, stories we tell ourselves and each other that become accepted knowledge. These can be the hardest false beliefs to challenge in oneself, because they become part of your identity. Doubting these stories is equivalent to tearing out a piece of yourself, questioning your deeper world-view.

These cultural beliefs can also be weaponized, for political purposes, and for just marketing. A century ago Chairman Mao decided to manufacture a new history of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). He took parts of various previous TCM traditions, even ones that were mutually exclusive and at ideological war with each other, and then grafted them into a new TCM, altering basic concepts to make them less barbaric and more palatable to a modern society. Now, less than a century later, nearly everyone believes this manufactured fiction as if it were real history. Only skeptical nerds or certain historians know, for example, that acupuncture as practiced today is less than a century old, and not the thousands of years old that proponents claim. Mao’s propaganda has become history.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Sep 18 2020

Review of The Social Dilemma

I just watched the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, and found it extremely interesting, if flawed. The show is about the inside operation of the big social media tech companies and the impact they are having on society. Like all documentaries – this one has a particular narrative, and that narrative is a choice made by the filmmakers. These narratives never reflect the full complexity of reality, and often drive the viewer to a certain conclusion. In short, you can never take them at face value and should try to understand them in a broader context.

Having said that, there is a lot of useful insight in the film. What it does well is interview tech insiders who expose the thinking on the part of corporations. We already know many of the pitfalls of social media, and I have discussed many of them here. Social media can be addictive, can lead to depression and a low self-esteem, and to FOMO (fear of missing out). We definitely need to explore the psychological aspects of social media, and this is still a new and active area of research.

Also, social media lends itself to information bubbles. When we rely mostly on social media for our news and information, over time that information is increasing curated to cater to a particular point of view. We can go down rabbit holes of subculture, conspiracy theories, and radical political perspectives. Social media algorithsms have essentially convinced people that the Earth is flat, that JFK Jr. is alive and secretly working for Trump, and that the experts are all lying to us.

This is where I think the documentary was very persuasive and the conclusions resonated. They argued that increasingly people of different political identities are literally living in different worlds. They are cocooned in an information ecosystem that not only has its own set of opinions but its own set of facts. This makes a conversation between different camps impossible. There is no common ground of a shared reality. In fact, the idea of facts, truth, and reality fades away and is replaced entirely with opinion and perspective, and a false equivalency that erases expertise, process, and any measure of validity. At least, this is what happens in the extreme (and I think we have all experienced this).

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Sep 17 2020

Ice Age Bear Found in Melting Permafrost

On the surface this is a story of a fantastic paleontological find. Reindeer herders discovered a well-preserved brown bear in the Russian Arctic, released from melting permafrost. The bear is intact, with lots of preserved soft-tissue, and is therefore of extreme scientific value.

But behind the story there is a deeper and concerning one – wait, isn’t “melting permafrost” an oxymoron? Isn’t permafrost supposed to be permanent? Not exactly. The technical definition of permafrost is any ground that is frozen for at least two years straight. Less than that and it is considered seasonally frozen. But much of the permafrost in the world has been frozen for hundreds of thousands of years. The oldest ice is in Antarctica, believed to be 1.5 million years old.

The bear is estimated to be between 22,000 to 39,500 years old. That is also the age of the ice in which it was frozen, and that ice is melting. The bear is also not the first ice-age remains to be discovered in the Arctic permafrost. In recent years scientists have also found dogs and woolly mammoths melting out of the ice. Of course fluctuations in the extent of the permafrost is nothing new, when we consider the a long time frame. But the Arctic permafrost particularly appears to be melting at an alarming rate. And of course, this is thought to be due to global warming.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Sep 15 2020

Life on Venus?

Published by under Astronomy
Comments: 0

This is definitely the big news of the week – scientists have detected phosphine gas in the clouds of Venus. This is a big deal because phosphine gas is a potential marker for life. This adds Venus to the list of worlds in our solar system that are candidate hosts of life, along with Mars, Europa, Enceladus and others. Europa and Enceladus are moons with an icy shell and definitely liquid water underneath. The presence of liquid water is what makes them intriguing candidates for potential life. Mars is currently dry and desolate, but in the past was warmer and wetter. Life could have evolved on Mars, and we may find the fossil evidence of such life. Or, unlikely but possible, life could have barely clung to some ecosystems in the Martian soil.

But Venus was not a serious contender for life, and least not after we sent probes there. Prior to the first probe in 1962 scientists and science-fiction writers fantasized about life on Venus. It is our nearest neighbor, almost the same size as Earth, and all those clouds might contain water vapor. Perhaps Venus was a jungle planet. But now we have sent multiple probes to map the planet, and Soviet probes even landed on Venus (surviving for only a short period of time). Here is NASA’s summary of the planet:

Venus has a thick, toxic atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide and it’s perpetually shrouded in thick, yellowish clouds of mostly sulfuric acid that trap heat, causing a runaway greenhouse effect. It’s the hottest planet in our solar system, even though Mercury is closer to the Sun. Venus has crushing air pressure at its surface – more than 90 times that of Earth – similar to the pressure you’d encounter a mile below the ocean on Earth.

Crushing heat, gravity, and sulfuric acid do not make for a hospitable world. However, hope for life on Venus was never completely abandoned. Optimists pointed out that in the upper atmosphere of Venus there is a sweet spot where the temperatures are warm and comfortable for organic reactions and the pressure would be less. Sure, there would still be an acidic atmosphere, but there are extremophiles on earth that thrive in high acidity (acidophiles). I don’t think this was considered a high probability, more of a footnote on the quest for life in our solar system, but Venus could not be completely ruled out as a host for life.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Sep 14 2020

Who Invented the Lightbulb?

The question of who should get credit for inventing the lightbulb is deceptively complex, and reveals several aspects of the history of science and technology worth revealing. Most people would probably answer the question – Thomas Edison. However, this is more than just overly simplistic. It is arguably wrong. This question has also become political, made so when presidential candidate Joe Biden claims that a black man invented the lightbulb, not Edison. This too is wrong, but is perhaps as correct as the claim that Edison was the inventor.

The question itself betrays an underlying assumption that is flawed, and so there is no one correct answer. Instead, we have to confront the underlying assumption – that one person or entity mostly or entirely invented the lightbulb. Rather, creating the lightbulb was an iterative process with many people involved and no clear objective demarcation line. However, there was a sort-of demarcation line – the first marketable lightbulb. That is really what people are referring to with Edison – not that he invented the lightbulb but that he brought the concept over the finish line to a marketable product.  Edison sort-of did that, and he does deserve credit for the tweak he did develop at Menlo Park.

The real story of the lightbulb begins in 1802 with Humphrey Davy He developed an electric arc lamp by connecting Volta’s electric pile (basically a battery) to charcoal electrodes. The electrodes made a bright arc of light, but it burned too bright for everyday use and burned out too quickly to be practical. But still, Davy gets credit as the first person to use electricity to generate light. Arc lamps of various designs were used for outdoor lighting, such as street light and lighthouses, and for stage lighting until fairly recently.

In 1841 Frederick de Moleyns received the first patent for a light bulb – a glass bulb with a vacuum containing platinum filaments. The bulb worked, but the platinum was expensive. Further, the technology for making vacuums inside bulbs was still not efficient. The glass also had a tendency to blacken, reducing the light emitted over time. So we are not commercially viable yet, but all the elements of a modern incandescent bulb are already there. The technology for evacuating bulbs without disturbing the filaments improved over time. In 1865, German chemist Hermann Sprengel developed the mercury vacuum pump, which was soon adopted by lightbulb inventors.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Sep 11 2020

COVID Vaccine News

By now most people have heard that AstraZeneca, a UK pharmaceutical, working with Oxford University, are one of the major companies developing a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, and also that they have had to pause their Phase 3 clinical trial because a subject came down with an inflammatory disorder. Let’s put this into some important context.

The basic facts are that the AstraZeneca vaccine did very well in Phase 1 and 2 preliminary trials. These are smaller trials mostly about safety, with the Phase 2 trial including some preliminary (usually open label) efficacy data. These trials are basically used to determine if it is safe and worth it to proceed to a huge Phase 3 trial. The Phase 3 trial includes 30,000 subjects. When you increase the number of subjects by orders of magnitude then you are likely to pick up increasingly rare side effects. That is one of the main points of this staged approach to research. Then, of course, a drug or vaccine might be marketed to millions of people, and still more rare side effects will crop up. There is simply no way to avoid this – it’s math. That is why so-called Phase 4 trials follow reported side effects after market.

But also, when you are studying 30,000 subjects all the things that normally happen to people will happen at the background frequency. Some of them will get sick during the trial by chance alone, having nothing to do with the study drug or vaccine. So every potential adverse effect is tracked, determined if it is biologically likely that it is related to the experimental treatment, and then statistically analyzed to see if it is above the background rate.

In this case one subject developed transverse myelitis, which is inflammation in one segment of the spinal cord. This will cause weakness and numbness at that level and below, therefore usually affecting the legs. The background incidence of transverse myelitis is about 1.3-4.6 cases per million people per year (this does not include people known to have an autoimmune disease like MS that causes transverse myelitis). If we take 4 cases per million per year, that translates to 0.033 cases per 33,000 subjects over three months. That is the probability that one of the subjects in that trial would have randomly developed transverse myelitis. That may seem really unlikely, but actually you have to consider the probability of a subject developing any disease, not just transverse myelitis. When you add it all up it’s actually pretty likely that one or several people in the trial would randomly develop a disease not related to the vaccine. In fact, this is the second person in this particular trial to develop a serious potential adverse event resulting in a pause of the trial.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Sep 10 2020

Miscibility Gaps Alloy Thermal Storage

I was recently sent this article about a new miscibility gaps alloy (MGA) thermal storage material. The technology is, perhaps, an incremental advance and may be useful for grid storage, but the article itself represents, in my opinion, horrible science communication. It seems like what you get when a general reporter, not trained in science journalism, reports on a complicated science topic. It didn’t give me any of the information I wanted, didn’t put this new technology into meaningful or accurate context, and didn’t explain some basic concepts involved.

Here is the basic story – a University of Newcastle (in Australia) team has developed an MGA material that could potentially be useful in grid storage by serving as a medium for thermal energy storage.  They also describe what an MGA material is by using an analogy to a chocolate chip cookie, where the chocolate chips melt when heated, storing most of the energy, but the rest of the cookie remains solid. That is about all the information you get from this article, stated in two sentences. The chocolate chip cookie analogy is fair, but following up with a slightly more technical definition would have been nice. MGAs are mixed materials where there is a range of temperatures (more specifically a region of the phase diagram that includes both pressure and temperature) where the different materials are in two or more phases. The rest of the article just states over and over again in different ways, like this is a new idea, why grid storage would be useful.

Why are MGAs particularly useful for thermal energy storage? First, the particles that melt store a lot of energy in the phase change while the particles that don’t melt can maintain the solidity of the overall material. But further, because of the liquid components, these materials have great thermal conductivity, so they don’t need infrastructure just to conduct the heat through the material. The Newcastle MGA is supposed to be an innovation because it is made from readily available material that is non-toxic.

I came away from the article with lots of important questions, all unanswered, and had to research them for myself. I was able to find information about MGAs in general, but not the Newcastle MGA specifically.

My first question, which you should ask about any proposed grid storage option, is – what is the round-trip efficiency? There are lots of grid storage options (which I review here), none of which are perfect. We need to know about each – what is the cost, how scalable are they, are they location-specific, what are the environmental effects, what are the energy losses over time, and what is the round-trip efficiency (the loss of energy from converting grid electricity to storage and then back to grid electricity). The best round trip efficiency is from pumped hydro, about 80-90%, but this is very limited by location and has serious environmental implications. Battery storage is not bad, at 60-70% round trip efficiency, but this is still an expensive option with lots of material waste and a limited lifespan.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Sep 08 2020

QAnon and Other Conspiracies

I previously wrote that the flat Earth movement is the mother of all conspiracies – it essentially is the ultimate conspiracy in that, if you believe that the world is actually flat then you also have to believe that there has been a massive conspiracy involving millions of people all of the world over centuries. If “they” can lie to us about the shape of the world, then they can lie to us about anything. Once you have been convinced that the spherical nature of the Earth is a grand conspiracy, then you can believe anything. Facts, expertise, authority all cease to exist. And that, I think, is the point. That is the appeal of flat Eartherism – it gives you permission to believe anything you want, to reject any claim, any fact, out of hand. You have the freedom to construct reality the way you wish, and can dispense with the tedious part of having to deal with actual reality.

Recently another conspiracy has been getting more attention, and may have eclipsed the flat Earth theory as the most extreme conspiracy. This one is more of a politically-based rather than science-based conspiracy, but that is not as critical as you might think. Phenomenologically they are the same, and the subject matter is actually secondary. But in any case, the Q conspiracy holds that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats are part of a world-wide cabal of Satan-worshiping cannibalistic pedophiles who are trying to secretly take over the world. Further, Trump is actually secretly a genius who is working behind the scenes, with Mueller and in some incarnations with JFK Jr. who is secretly still alive, to uncover this cabal and bring them to justice (an event they call the “Storm”), and when he does he will usher in a golden age.

As with the flat Earth, the first reaction someone might have to hearing these conspiracies is that they are incredibly dumb. They are epically stupid, in a childish way. That may be true, but if you stop there then you miss what is actually going on. Also, it is very tempting to conclude that because the conspiracy theories themselves are mindbogglingly ridiculous, that people who believe them must be themselves “epically stupid”. But I don’t think that’s true, and that conclusion misses the actual phenomenon at work.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Sep 04 2020

Impossible Black Hole Collision Detected

Published by under Astronomy
Comments: 0

Of course “impossible” is a relative term here. What is happening is that our knowledge of black holes is greatly expanding because we have a new tool for observing them – gravitational wave detectors. In fact, gravitational wave astronomy is a new science, and we are still on the very steep part of the learning curve.

But let’s back up and give some background. First – what’s a black hole? These are massive objects, mostly stellar remnants. At the end of a star’s life, when it has consumed all the fuel it is capable of fusing, the outward pressure from the fusion is gone and the inward force of gravity prevails. For small suns, like our own, they simply collapse down to a white dwarf, which has, for example, the mass of our sun but the size of the Earth. What keeps a white dwarf from collapsing even further is called degeneracy pressure. The simple (although not complete) explanation for this is the Pauli Exclusion Principle – particles cannot occupy the same state and location at the same time.

Larger stars with larger remnants collapse down even further, overcoming the degeneracy pressure and collapsing down to a neutron star. Again, the simplified version of this is that the electrons and protons merge to form neutrons, so the entire remnant is like one giant neutron. The mass limit for collapsing into a neutron star is about 1.44 solar masses. But also, stars big enough to leave behind a neutron star are also big enough to go supernova. This means the star itself has to be bigger than three solar masses, because much of the mass will be thrown off during the supernova and a smaller remnant will be left behind. Neutron stars are held up by neutron degeneracy pressure.

Even bigger stars that leave behind a stellar remnant of about 3 solar masses or larger, which means the star itself was about 20 solar masses or larger, result in a black hole. The neutron star of 3 M or greater overcomes even neutron degeneracy pressure – in fact, the gravitational force in this situation is greater than any other force we know of in the universe. Nothing can stop that remnant from continuing to collapse, all the way down to a single point in space – a singularity. That is a black hole.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Next »