Archive for June, 2019

Jun 28 2019

Mold In Space

Published by under General Science

There are bacteria and mold aboard the International Space Station (ISS). This should come as no surprise, as these organisms follow humans everywhere we go. In fact it’s claimed that the ISS astronauts spend several hours per week cleaning mold off the ISS and wiping everything down. However, this first hand report by ISS astronaut Clayton C. Anderson says he did his cleaning duty every Saturday, but not as thoroughly as requested.

Still, as we spread into space, we need to carefully consider the microscopic ecosystem we will bring with us. A space ship or station is a self-contained environment, and as we plan trips back to the Moon and on to Mars, there will be longer and longer missions. Something as simple as a fungus may threaten those missions. A recent study of the resilience of mold spores highlights how challenging this may be.

The study looked at the effects of ionizing radiation on mold. They looked at the two most common species of mold aboard the ISS,  Aspergillus and Pennicillium. They found:

The spores survived exposure to X-rays up to 1000 gray, exposure to heavy ions at 500 gray and exposure to ultraviolet light up to 3000 joules per meter squared. Gray is a measure of absorbed dose of ionizing radiation, or joules of radiation energy per kilogram of tissue. Five gray is enough to kill a person. Half a gray is the threshold for radiation sickness.

Those are some hardy fungi. For context a one-way trip to Mars is expected to expose travelers to 0.7 gray. That will be a problem for the humans aboard, not so much the molds.

As an aside, the exposure to radiation is a major limiting factor for space travel. The ISS is still within the Earth’s magnetic field, and so is somewhat protected. But anything beyond low earth orbit will be slowly fried by radiation. We need to figure out how to shield our ships and colonies if we are going to have a prolonged presence outside of low earth orbit. This, by the way, is why lava tubes may be the best location for stations on the Moon or Mars.

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Jun 27 2019

The Bystander Effect

Published by under Neuroscience

Social psychology is the study of how people behave in social situations, so it deals with the complex interactions between personality, culture, and social pressures on how we behave and in turn are affected by each other. I took a social psychology course in college and it really opened my eyes. This was one of the first courses I took that challenged my assumptions in a profound way, because there is a disconnect between our assumptions about how people think and behave and how they actual do when objectively observed. In this way social psychology (and psychology in general) is an important pillar of scientific skepticism.

As an example, there is a recent study that uses CCTV to monitor violent incidents in three cities, Amsterdam, Lancaster, and Cape Town. So these are real-life events, not staged for the study. The researchers counted how many times people intervened in such incidents, such as someone being pummeled on the ground by an attacker. First, think how you would respond in such a situation. Now also think about how the average person would respond. What percentage of the time do you think a bystander intervened? Was it the same or different in the various cities, which differ in terms of their crime and safety? If individuals fail to respond, why?

Your answers to these questions probably say more about you and the culture you live in than reality. This is the meta-finding of social psychology. We often are incorrect in our assumptions about what other people think, how other people behave, and what motivates other people. We also judge ourselves by a different set of rules than we judge others (the fundamental attribution error). Research also finds that understanding this is extremely empowering, and this is also something I found fascinating about social psychology. This was the first time I can remember that a little bit of knowledge empowered me to take greater control of my actions, rather than ride passively down the currents of subconscious psychological forces.

I am deliberately putting the link to the study and the results below the fold. When you’re ready, take a look.

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Jun 25 2019

More Ways to Capture Carbon

Published by under Technology

One of the most frustrating things about the climate change debate is that we already have viable solutions either at hand or nearly so, and we just need the vision and political will to prioritize the changes necessary to decarbonize our civilization. Some of the resistance is pure protectionism for vested interests, like the fossil fuel industry. However, studies find that much of the rank-and-file resistance is due to “solution aversion.” Just read the comments here to any article in which climate change is mentioned, someone will be warning about socialists taking over the economy.

I have often said that the more productive response from the right should not be to deny the science, and make any ridiculous argument that results in the conclusion to do nothing. Rather, they could spend their time proposing solutions they think will work and that are more compatible with their world view. What is particularly frustrating is that I personally think these are the types of solutions that are most likely to work. I don’t think we need governments to institute huge top-down programs that essentially take control of vast sectors of the economy. Adjusting market forces to properly account for the externalized costs of releasing carbon, while subsidizing emerging clean industries (and ending subsidies for fossil fuel) and investing in green research and infrastructure can probably do the job. We certainly are no where near maximizing these free-market approaches.

Coal, for example, is already dying. We should put it in hospice and ease its passing. Use grants and subsidies to bring new industries into coal country and retrain workers. Make their lives better, while easing the transition to cleaner technology. Economists have already figured out that pretty much anything effective we do to mitigate pollution and climate change is a cost-effective investment. Remember – the health care costs of pollution alone are worth the investment, even if you don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. This is an economic no-brainer.

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Jun 24 2019

Study on Visual Framing in the Presidential Debates

This week we will have the first primary debates of the presidential cycle, with two Democratic debates of the top 20 candidates (10 each night). A timely study was just published looking at the coverage of the different candidates in the 2016 primary debates of both parties. The results show a dramatic disparity in how different candidates were covered.

Unfortunately, the headline of the press release is misleading: Study Shows Visual Framing by Media in Debates Affects Public Perception. The study did not measure public perception, and therefore there is no basis to conclude anything about how the framing affected public perception. The study only quantified the coverage. But what they found was interesting.

They went frame by frame through the first two primary debates of both parties and calculated how much coverage each candidate had and what type – solo, split screen, side-by-side, multi-candidate shot, and audience reaction. This is what they found:

We likewise considered how much time the camera spent on a given candidate before cutting away by computing  -scores for each candidate’s mean camera fixation time (see Figure 3). This allowed us to see whether networks were visually priming the audience to differentially perceive the candidates as viable leaders. These data show that across the four debates, only Trump, specifically during CNN’s Republican Party debate, had substantially longer camera fixations (  ) than the other candidates (   to 1.84). During this debate, Bush (  ) was the only candidate besides Trump to have a positive z-score, providing modest support for our visual priming hypotheses concerning fixation time (H2). While for the Fox News debate, Cruz (  ) and Huckabee (  ) had substantially higher  -scores than the rest of the field, including Trump, their scores were well within the bounds of expectations. Likewise, on the Democratic side, neither CNN (   to 1.17) nor CBS (   to 0.89) gave a significant visual priming advantage to any candidate, although there were trends toward front-runners Clinton and Sanders having slightly longer than average fixation times during both debates.

Essentially, there was a lot of noise in the data, but only one significant spike above the noise – during the CNN debate Trump had significantly more camera time than the rest, with Bush also having greater camera time but not nearly as much as Trump. At the time they were the two front-runners in polling. Clinton and Sanders also had a trend towards more camera time in their debates, but not statistically significant.

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Jun 21 2019

People Growing Horns? – More Bad Science Reporting

One type of bad science reporting that is very common is reporting the speculation at the end of a study as if it were the finding of the study. For example, the Washington Post headline was, “Horns are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.” The research, you may be surprised to learn, had nothing to do with phone use. “Horns” is also a stretch.

When I see headlines like that my first questions is always – what did the research actually show? What was the data? In this case the researchers were looking at X-rays of the skull, and particularly at the occipital protuberances. This is a pair of bumps at the back of the head where the posterior neck muscles insert. They found that the risk of having bony spurs or calcifications in the ligaments attaching to the skull (not horns) increased in men, with forward tilt of the head, and in younger subjects. That’s the data. Everything else is the authors speculation about what these results mean.

They argue that the bone spurs are partly a result of the mechanical load on the back of the skull, largely from tilting the head forward. This is reasonable and backed up by some prior research. But the study did not measure phone use. That is pure speculation. It belongs nowhere in the bottom-line headline reporting on the study. Further, a recent systematic review found no clear evidence for increased neck symptoms in mobile phone use. There are many possible factors at work here. Saying that men has slightly more risk than women because men use mobile phones more is a really weak argument. There are many differences that could account for the disparity.

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Jun 20 2019

Possible Universal Memory Reported

Published by under Technology

Universal memory is one of those things you probably didn’t know you wanted (unless you are a computer nerd). However, it is the “holy grail” of computer memory that, if achievable, would revolutionize computers. Now, scientists from Lancaster University in the UK, have claimed to do just that. The practical benefit of this advance, if implemented, would be a significant reduction in the energy consumption of computers. This is significant because by 2025 it is projected that data centers will consume 20% of global electricity.

There are several properties that define theoretical perfect computer memory. Memory exists on a spectrum from volatile to robust. Volatile memory is short lived, needs active power, and needs to be refreshed. Robust memory is long term and does not need active power. Memory should also be stable over long time periods – ideally centuries, if not longer. Computer memory also needs to be fast, so data can be written to and read from the memory quickly. And finally the less energy a memory system uses to do all this the better.

The classic problem is that scientists have been unable to come up with a form of computer memory that is simultaneously robust and fast. This has lead to a hierarchy of memory, with each type of memory being optimized for one specific function. A universal memory, by contrast, would have optimal features for every function.

So, there is processor memory which is very fast but very volatile. Then there is cache, which is local memory that is also volatile and fast. Random access memory, or RAM, is the working memory of a computer, and is also optimized to be fast at the expense of being volatile. These types of memory all require active power and are generally used for computer operation. When you are running a program you are loading it into RAM (as much as will fit, anyway), for example.

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Jun 18 2019

Is Authenticity a Thing?

Authenticity is a tricky concept when it comes to people, and is increasingly being challenged both in psychology and even with regard to physical objects (with regard to objects, the value rather than reality of authenticity is questioned).  Writing for Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman deconstructs the psychological concept of authenticity nicely. But let’s start with a standard psychology definition of what this means:

Authenticity generally reflects the extent to which an individual’s core or true self is operative on a day-to-day basis. Psychologists characterize authenticity as multiple interrelated processes that have important implications for psychological functioning and well-being. Specifically, authenticity is expressed in the dynamic operation of four components: awareness (i.e., self-understanding), unbiased processing (i.e., objective self-evaluation), behavior (i.e., actions congruent with core needs, values, preferences), and relational orientation (i.e., sincerity within close relationships). Research findings indicate that each of these components relates to various aspects of healthy psychological and interpersonal adjustment.

My issue with this definition is that each of those components don’t necessarily add up to something greater than the sum of the parts. I understand the concept of unbiased processing, for example,  but this still tells me nothing about how it leads to authenticity, and by extension what authenticity is. How is it different than just being psychologically healthy, as measured by more specific traits?

Kaufman reviews the research on authenticity and show that really it’s just a rationalization for holding a favorably biased view of ourselves. People tend to think they are being authentic when they are acting on their virtues, being their best self, and also acting in ways that are congruent with societal expectations. The concept of authenticity is, in essence, used to manage one’s reputation. I am being authentic when doing things that other people will view positively, and not being my true self when I do things that will harm my reputation.

But as Kaufman points out – everything we do is a manifestation of some aspect of our true self. If you are acting in a way that is not congruent with your core values, you are still doing it for a reason that is part of your overall personality – that is part of your “true self.” If you are engaging in biased processing, or being insincere, these are part of who you are also – otherwise you wouldn’t be doing them.

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Jun 17 2019

Fake Skepticism About Psychics

Published by under Skepticism

I was recently sent a link to a site purporting to advise – “5 Easy Ways To Tell If Your Psychic Is The Real Deal Or A Fraud.” The title itself is a red flag. A better title might be – 5 ways we can know that all psychics are frauds. So of course I can replace these five ways with one even simpler more surefire way – they are giving you a psychic reading. If they are doing that while taking your money and pretending it’s real, they are a fraud. They may believe it’s real themselves, but that doesn’t make it real.

In reality this is just an advertisement for this specific psychic – they are warning you away from their competition by arguing that they are genuine. This is a age-old advertising technique, to make people feel insecure about your competition, so they will buy your product or service just to be safe.

But let’s take a look at these five ways. The first is: They don’t offer a refund. Offering a refund is a common sales technique in itself, it gives the customer the impression that there is no risk. However, you always have to read the fine print. What are the conditions under which a refund is given, what do you have to do to get your refund, and are there any hidden costs (like – just pay shipping and handling).

They also say, “It’s a fallacy to think that psychic gifts should be given free, they aren’t, because time is still being utilized and spent.” This is true in that anyone is allowed compensation for their time. But the stated assumption is that the person has “psychic gifts.” There are no standards for determining if someone has such actual gifts. Essentially they are saying – if it feels right to you, then its genuine. This just means that this particular psychic is confident in their performance skills.

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Jun 13 2019

There is No One Energy Solution

Published by under Technology

This is part 3 of my informal series about our energy infrastructure. My last post was about addressing concerns about nuclear energy, but really can only be understood in the context of our overall energy plan. The comments have been quite fruitful, and I would like to thank all the commenters who provided useful resources for further information, much of which I will synthesize here. That was exactly what I was hoping for, so again, thanks.

I won’t rehash the assessment of nuclear power, but just summarize my position. I am not saying that nuclear is the answer, only that something like it is necessary, and we should not take it off the table. Nuclear is relatively safe, we have plenty of fuel (enough to last centuries), we can deal with the waste, and the Gen IV reactors are extremely promising. But even for those who acknowledge those points but still reject nuclear, a common theme emerged. That theme is – we don’t need nuclear because X is a better option. This approach, however, is fatally flawed for two important reasons.

The first has to do with the economics of power utilities, which ironically was often raised as a point against nuclear – it’s too expensive. The best reference to address this issue is this lecture by Jesse Jenkins, a Harvard environmental fellow.  He addresses this, plus another common theme that emerged in the comments – we no longer need baseload production; that is an antiquated notion. I encourage you to watch the entire lecture, but here is the quick version.

There are three basic types of energy production and demand that we can use to balance the grid, to match production with demand moment to moment.

1- We have intermittent energy sources, mainly wind and solar. Their advantage is that they are renewable and zero carbon. Their disadvantage is that they are intermittent and cannot be controlled.

2 – There is “firm” energy production (similar concept to baseload). There are sources of power that run at a constant rate and are slow to ramp up or down. This does not mean they cannot be varied at all, just not quickly. We might, for example, plan on turning off a reactor during a time of day when we know solar production will peak. In this category are nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, and natural gas with carbon capture. We might also add to this category strategies for long term, massive, cheap energy storage.

3 – Rapid response strategies. This include sources of energy that can quickly be turned on and off, mostly natural gas. It also includes rapid storage options, like batteries, that can provide instant energy. On the demand side this category would also include strategies like shifting demand, such as charging your electric car overnight during minimal energy demand to smooth out the demand curve.

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Jun 10 2019

Answering Questions About Nuclear Power

Published by under Technology

It seems every time I write even tangentially about nuclear power the same comments crop up, with the same objections. So I want to explore, as best I can, the answers to those objections. First here are a few caveats. On this topic I am acting as a science journalist, not an expert. This is my personal synthesis of publicly available information. I also consider blogs to be as much conversations as essays, so welcome any thoughtful feedback, especially if you include links to back up your assertions, or if you bring genuine expertise to bear. Sometimes, in fact, I specifically choose a topic to blog about because I want to “crowd source” it in the comments.

Overall, while I think that nuclear power is likely to be a critical component of our attempts at minimizing carbon release from energy production, I am not otherwise “pro-nuclear.” I have no dog in that hunt, I simply want the best science-based solutions to our energy infrastructure problems. I also think that no source of energy is perfect. They all have trade-offs. So my approach is – what are all the risks and benefits to nuclear, and are they ultimately worth it in the end, compared to all the alternatives?

I have taken the same approach to this question that I take to all controversial questions – what do all sides say, and who tends to have the better or final arguments? At this point I find the pro-nuclear position to be more compelling than the anti-nuclear position. In fact I haven’t heard any really compelling arguments against using nuclear power. There are some legitimate points against nuclear, they just don’t add up to a reason not to use it, in my opinion. So let me go through them.

Nuclear Energy Safety

Safety is often a keystone to objections about nuclear power. However, it is pretty clear that nuclear power is the safest form of energy production we have. We need to do an entire lifecycle analysis for each type of power – production of resources (usually mining), operation, and environmental effects (including waste and pollution). Every single reference I have found indicates that nuclear power, when we consider deaths per terawatt hour (TWh), is by far the safest form of energy production.  Burning brown coal has 467 times the death rate of nuclear (including accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima).

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