Jan 27 2023

Electricity from Rocks?

There are several viral videos spreading claiming to demonstrate a large electric charge stored in certain kinds of rocks in Africa. The most popular is this one which alleges to show electrically charged rocks from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When touched together the rocks give off large sparks which leave burn marks on the stones. The comments are mostly amusing and sad, reflecting the cultural turmoil of the region. A few figured out what is happening here.

We can start by evaluating the plausibility of the claim. The sparking is not a single event, as if there were static electricity in the rocks that discharged. They continue to discharge without diminishing. It is implausible that a natural ore (i.e. not a battery) would contain so much electricity. Also, where would the electricity come from? Some commenters through out the piezoelectric effect, the transformation of mechanical stress to current, but this only produces a tiny amount of electricity. Even if there were some small amount of static electricity in the material, this would not be a source of power, as some seem to believe.

What about the video itself? There are countless deceptive and fake videos on social media, so it’s good to have some basic idea how to recognize deception. I recommend Captain Disillusion’s Youtube channel – he is a digital effects expert who examines dubious videos and reveals their deception. On this video there are some immediately suspicious features. First, the video is very close-up. We are seeing just the rocks with little space around them. Close-cropping like this is a standard technique for hiding things out of view of the lens. An honest video documenting a phenomenon would show the environment and the setup, and show multiple angles and perspectives. It may zoom in at some point, but if all you see if a super close-up, be suspicious.

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Jan 26 2023

Which Conspiracies Spread Most

Grand conspiracy theories are a curious thing. What would lead someone to readily believe that the world is secretly run by evil supervillains? Belief in conspiracies correlates with feelings of helplessness, which suggests that some people would rather believe that an evil villain is secretly in control than the more prosaic reality that no one is in control and we live in a complex and chaotic universe.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a natural experiment to see how conspiracy belief reacted and spread. A recent study examines this phenomenon by tracking tweets and other social media posts relating to COVID conspiracy theories. Their primary method was to identify specific content type within the tweets and correlate that with how quickly and how far those tweets were shared across the network.

The researchers identified nine features of COVID-related conspiracy tweets: malicious purposes, secretive action, statement of belief, attempt at authentication (such as linking to a source), directive (asking the reader to take action), rhetorical question, who are the conspirators, methods of secrecy, and conditions under which the conspiracy theory is proposed (I got COVID from that 5G tower near my home). They also propose a breakdown of different types of conspiracies: conspiracy sub-narrative, issue specific, villain-based, and mega-conspiracy.

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Jan 24 2023

Bacteria That Eat Plastic

The world produces about 380 million tons of plastic every year, and half of that is single use plastic. This figure is projected to increase by 70% by 2050. A 2017 study found that of all the plastic produced, “9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.” Current practices are unsustainable, as a lot of this plastic ends up in the oceans and elsewhere in the environment. Researchers are increasing looking to bacteria as one potential solution to this problem.

Recycling alone is not a viable solution. Currently, the main effect of recycling plastic is to create a false sense that the problem is being addressed. Plastic is not really recycled in a full circular process. A relatively small portion of plastic is broken down and then remanufactured into lower quality plastics that cannot be recycled. The ultimate fate of all plastics is still the incinerator (not good for the environment), landfills, or the oceans and other environmental locations. What are the potential solutions to this situation?

One solution is to use less plastic. But this is a complex suggestion. Single use plastic is the most common target, and there is a lot of wasteful use that certainly can be reduced. But half of plastic produced is not single use, and a lot of plastic is necessary for certain applications (such as sterile medical use). As always, you also have to consider the alternatives – what will replace this plastic? Sometimes there is an obvious and good solution. In many beverage applications, aluminum can replace plastic and is more recyclable.  Glass is another alternative material. But this approach will only get us so far.

Part of the problem is that plastic is cheap to mass produce, and it works very well for the intended applications. It’s cheaper to make virgin plastic than to recycle old plastic. This reality feeds the problem.

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Jan 23 2023

Less vs Fewer

After publishing thousands of blog posts I have found that sometimes the most trivial topics garner the most debate, both in amount and intensity. I wouldn’t call it a rule, just a casual observation, likely rife with confirmation bias. But at the very least I am surprised sometimes by how vehemently people will argue about points that are ultimately subjective and of little importance.

Grammatical and semantic arguments tend to fall into that category. My speculation is that this is partly due to the fact that people’s brains literally get wired from exposure to language so that words and phrases just sound right or sound wrong. When someone else says or writes something that just feels wrong it can be extremely irritating. This feeling, in turn, leads us to act as if certain ways of saying things are inherently correct or incorrect, or at least “proper”. As might be expected, the internet is fertile ground for people to vent their grammatical peeves. This has also lead to a backlash against the “grammar nazis”, often in the context that whatever their linguistic peeve, it is not actually “correct” by any objective criteria.

I find this topic fascinating, primarily because it challenges the logic and reasoning we use to determine which linguistic forms are “proper and correct”. Language is endlessly complex and fascinating. It is an organic evolving thing, and we have a history of how it has changed over thousands of years.

The latest example I encountered of the “grammar wars” is the question of when it is proper to use “less” vs “fewer”. It came up because on the latest SGU episode Jay said “less hours of sleep” and I corrected him to say “fewer hours of sleep”. I did this mainly for the entertainment value, but I think the point is valid. My correction sparked some e-mail backlash, often pointing to references arguing that “less” is just fine in such usage. However I found some of the arguments used to be unsatisfying, and even hypocritical. Here is a quick overview of the discussion.

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Jan 20 2023

Dark Skies – A Vanishing Resource

Published by under Astronomy
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When I was a child I loved looking up at the night sky and seeing thousands of stars. I especially loved seeing the disc of the Milky Way spreading across the sky. I can’t remember when this first dawned on me, but as an adult I can no longer do this. When I look up into the sky, even on a clear night, I can still see lots of stars, although not as many, and I can’t make out the Milky Way. It’s simply not visible.

The problem of light pollution was also brought home to me when I visited Australia. Seeing the southern sky was always an item on my bucket list – to see the Southern Cross, the Magellanic clouds, and Alpha Centauri. I have been in the southern hemisphere three times. The first two times I never got a look at the night sky. So on the third trip I made it a point to go somewhere where I would get a good view of the night sky. I had to drive over an hour from Christchurch to get that view. It was magical, and definitely worth the effort, but it really demonstrated for me the extent of light pollution.

A recent study published in Science found that:

Trends in the data showed that the average night sky got brighter by 9.6% per year from 2011 to 2022, which is equivalent to doubling the sky brightness every 8 years.

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Jan 19 2023

Virulent: The Vaccine War – Viewing and Q&A

SBM will be hosting a viewing of a new documentary – Virulent: The Vaccine War. This will be followed by a Q&A with me, David Gorski, and the film producers. This is a virtual screening so you can watch it anytime between now and January 29th. The Q&A will start on Sunday, 1/29, at 7 pm.

Here is a link to the event page. We are asking for a donation of $12.50. This is an “early bird” rate, as on Tuesday, January 24, the price will increase to $15. Your donation will support grassroots screenings like this one to build awareness and demonstrate to public TV & educational distributors that there is an audience for the film.

For more more information, you can read the announcement on SBM.

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Jan 17 2023

Living Solar Cell

I file this one under – an interesting technology that will probably never have any significant application. I could be wrong, but see what you think. Researchers have created a “Self-Enclosed Bio-Photoelectrochemical Cell in Succulent Plants.” Essentially they made a plant into a solar cell that can generate a small amount of electricity, with the source of electrons being photosynthesis. From the press release:

The researchers created a living solar cell using the succulent Corpuscularia lehmannii, also called the “ice plant.” They inserted an iron anode and platinum cathode into one of the plant’s leaves and found that its voltage was 0.28V. When connected into a circuit, it produced up to 20 µA/cm2 of photocurrent density, when exposed to light and could continue producing current for over a day. Though these numbers are less than that of a traditional alkaline battery, they are representative of just a single leaf.

That is certainly a tiny amount of current, but the idea, obviously, is to wire in thousands of leaves, and have a field with thousands of plants. The potential advantage of this approach is that you can essentially grow your solar cell. Most of the work is done by the plant itself. This could potentially reduce manufacturing costs in both money and carbon. In addition the researchers were able to harvest a small amount of free hydrogen from the process. That is potentially more useful – if this could be optimized to produce green hydrogen, there are many possible advantages for a green economy.

But there are some significant down sides as well. First, the use of platinum cathodes is a non-starter. Whenever the word “platinum” appears in reporting about a new battery or solar technology, I know that is not going anywhere. NASA may be interested in use in satellites and probes, but they are not going to be mass produced for general use, and will not contribute significantly to changing our economy over to near-zero carbon.

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Jan 12 2023

Earth-Like Planets

Published by under Astronomy
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I’m still waiting. Since we developed the technology to detect exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars – I have been tracking those exoplanets that are the most Earth-like. That term, “Earth-like”, is used quite a bit in science news reporting about exoplanets, but very loosely, in my opinion. I’m still waiting for an exoplanet discovery that is fully Earth-like.

This happened again just recently with the discovery of a second planet in the TOI 700 system that is “Earth-sized” (that’s more accurate than saying “Earth-like”). Unfortunately, TOI 700 is a red dwarf, which means the two Earth-sized planets technically in their habitable zone are also likely tidally locked. Further, red dwarfs are unstable compared to orange or yellow stars and may strip the atmospheres from any planets close enough to be in the habitable zone.

Before I review the best candidates – what makes an exoplanet “Earth-like”. The two criteria that seemed to be used by most reporting is that they are small rocky planets in their generously defined habitable zone. Often the term is applied to so-called “super-Earths” which are more massive than Earth but less massive than ice giants – basically anywhere between Earth and Neptune. It seems astronomers agree on an upper limit of mass of 10 Earth masses, but disagree on the lower limit (anywhere from >1 to 5). They should just pick a number. I think something like 2 Earth masses is reasonable, but perhaps it’s better to use surface gravity. We can use the formula a=GM/R^2 to determine surface gravity. So, for example (if I did the math right) a planet with 2 times Earth’s mass and 1.2 times the radius would have a surface gravity of 1.38 G. What about the lower limit? I would suggest somewhat larger than Mars – we could make an arbitrary cutoff of 0.5 G surface gravity.

The habitable zone is the distance from the parent star where it is possible to have liquid water on the surface. But there are lots of other variables here as well, mainly relating to the atmosphere. Venus, for example, is technically in our sun’s habitable zone, as is Mars, but neither are habitable. If Mars had more atmosphere and Venus less, however, they could have a survivable environment.

I think exoplanets around red dwarfs at this point need to not count as “Earth-like” even if size and temperature are in the range. They would have to be very close to their parent star, which means they are likely tidally locked (in itself not a deal-killer) and likely don’t have much of an atmosphere. There may be exceptions to this, and there are lots of red dwarfs so we may ultimately find some special planets around red dwarfs with life, but for now it is so unlikely they should simply not be on the list. Orange and yellow suns are the best candidates. Larger and brighter than yellow and the lifespan of the star becomes too short, but still may be a candidate with the right conditions for people to settle. Moons of gas giants are another possibility, but the variables get more complicated.

So to be truly Earth-like we would want a planet with a surface gravity somewhere between 0.5 and 1.3 that of Earth, that is small and rocky, and that orbits an orange to yellow star in the habitable zone. But there are other things that can go wrong with any candidate world. We also need to consider what question, exactly, we are asking. Are we interested in worlds we could one day settle? That would mean they also need to be very close, within 20 light years or so. Are we looking for a world that is already harboring life, and how much time would we want for that life to have had to evolve? This is important if we are looking for technological civilizations.

Here is a list of the ten most Earth-like exoplanets discovered so far. None really meet my criteria. Most orbit red dwarfs.  Some are super-Earths.

It’s too early to be discouraged, however. Some of our planet-finding techniques favor larger planets, or ones very close to their host stars. It is therefore harder and takes longer to discover small rocky worlds at Earth like distance from their stars. Astronomers estimate there are 300 million to 40 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky way. That is still a huge variance, but taking an average figure, that’s a lot. That number will be refined as we search more stellar systems for their planets. There are about 100 billion stars in the Milky way, but many of them are in multi-star systems. Astronomers estimate that 1 in 5 systems have at least one “Earth-like” planet, but again, I wonder what definition they are using. Most of these are likely red dwarfs (because most stars are red dwarfs).

Hopefully they will nail down these numbers with higher confidence in the near future. It would also be nice to complete a survey of all the closest stars to our system. Meanwhile I will keep tracking new discoveries.

 

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Jan 10 2023

AI Drug Development

As a science communicator with a skeptical brand, I often have to walk a fine line. New scientific and technological developments can be amazing, but they are often surrounded by hype. I want to encourage enthusiasm for science, and I want to share the amazement and joy I experience following the latest discoveries. But it is very important to separate hype from reality, to temper our enthusiasm with realism, and to not get ahead of the science. It can be a very narrowly calibrated sweet-spot, one I have to consciously pay attention to.

I have found it particularly challenging to hit this sweet spot with artificial intelligence (AI), especially recently. The past few years in particular have seen some amazing advances in AI applications, and in 2022, applications like DALLE-2, Midjourney, and ChatGPT showcased the power and disruptive potential of AI to the public. It’s hard to oversell how powerful these narrow AI applications can be, but at the same time it is easy to overhype them in other ways. I think it often comes down to this – people generally (even experts, historically) underestimate the potential of narrow AI (AI applications that have a specific function and are not conscious or have general intelligence). At the same time they tend to overestimate how soon we will see general AI, or they extrapolate linearly current AI advances into the future.

For example, with applications like Midjourney and ChatGPT, how far will applications like these go with extrapolations of current technology? They certainly will be better in 5 and 10 years, but will they transform into something truly creative? And does that even matter? Will these applications run into limits, or will they advance to be indistinguishable from human creators?

Meanwhile, programmers continue to show off the power and potential of current narrow AI technology, fueled by massive data sets and ever more powerful computers. Perhaps the most transformational applications are those running in the background of public consciousness, working to accelerate research and technological development. One area where AI is becoming particularly powerful is drug development.

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Jan 09 2023

Avatar Tropes

The original Avatar movie came out in 2009, 13 years ago. Its budget was 240 million and it grossed nearly 3 billion dollars. So of course there was going to be a sequel. It’s just surprising that it took 13 years.

Also a little surprising, and disappointing, is how poorly written Avatar: The Way of the Water was. The movie was visually stunning, as expected, and some aspects of watching the movie were enjoyable. Most of the future technology was also pretty good. I loved the spaceships the humans used to get to Pandora, the robots and exoskeletons were also impressive. The cloning technology was an obvious follow up to the Avatar technology of the first movie, and also a clever plot device, allowing the return of previously killed antagonists.

But the writing was just horrific. It’s not as if Cameron did not have 13 years to hire the best writers and tweak the hell out of the script. It’s not as if he did not have a virtually unlimited budget given the profitability of the franchise. I have two major hypotheses as to why the writing was so bad, and they are not mutually exclusive.

The first is simply a lack of imagination. We are living, in many ways, during the golden age of television and cinema, and not just because of big budgets and advanced technology. We have lots of choices, and some of those choices are stellar. There are plenty of examples of excellent writing, and they have set the bar extremely high. I definitely think this has lowered my tolerance for mediocre writing. Formulaic scripts, predictable plots, and sluggish pacing are just not acceptable anymore. The art of great storytelling has evolved to a high level, and to some extent the industry is now a victim of its own success.

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