Archive for July, 2023

Jul 11 2023

Quiet Supersonic Aircraft Ready for Testing

Published by under Technology

It was six years ago that I first wrote about NASA’s X-59 QueSST project, contracted to Lockheed Martin. Now the plane has finally been built and is ready for testing. At the time it was reported that NASA “had a design” for a quiet supersonic jet, one that would not create a sonic boom, just more of a “thump”. But having a design is not the same thing as having an actual jet – and it took six years of further research and development for Lockheed Martin to produce a prototype. Now we enter the testing phase, and it will likely be years more before there is any jet produced from this design.

One ultimate goal of NASA’s project is to develop the technology for quiet commercial supersonic passenger jets. The idea is that the knowledge gained from testing the X-59 will lead to designs for such commercial aircraft. Why is this a big deal?

As I wrote in that 2017 article, commercial flight times have been relatively flat for the last 50 years. There are several reasons for this, but the bottom line is that fuel efficiency, and therefore cost-effectiveness, is optimal around Mach 0.85, so that is the speed that commercial jets fly. The only practical way to make jet travel significantly faster is to develop supersonic technology. We had this, with the Concorde, but that jet service was ended in 2003. There is debate over exactly why this happened, which I won’t get into, but one factor was that the potential flight paths for the Concorde were limited, because it is generally illegal to fly greater than Mach 1 over land. The Concorde was a New York to Paris flight, mostly over water.

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Jul 10 2023

Apologizing for Uri Geller

Published by under Paranormal

A recent New York Times article tries to rehabilitate the reputation of Uri Geller, famed spoon-bending magician, by simply telling a one-sided narrative. From my perspective as a skeptic, this was a terrible article that missed the real issue, glossed over glaring defects in Geller’s behavior, and essentially just apologized for fraud. I know my perspective is not always mainstream, at least when it comes to popular culture, but shouldn’t good journalism at least represent all sides fairly? This piece was the equivalent of covering a contentious political topic only from the perspective of one political party.

Uri Geller is a magician who came to fame in the 1970s as a spoon-bender. He became what all entertainers hope to become – a pop-culture figure that is larger than life. I would argue that it was partly spoon-bending as a phenomenon (the idea of bending cutlery with one’s mind alone) that became a true pop-culture icon, but Geller was the face of spoon-bending. Geller, no doubt, became famous and wealthy off his schtick. He sold it well, and successfully.

But here is the controversy surrounding Geller – was he being unethical in terms of the degree to which he presented himself, not as a magician, but as a true psychic? It is pretty clear (in my opinion – don’t sue me, Geller), that Geller is nothing but a stage magician. He is using tricks that any skilled magician can do. As James Randi was fond of saying, if Geller is using real magic to achieve his results, then he’s doing it the hard way. Randi stated it this way, because Geller sued him for defamation (three times) when Randi said that Geller was using magic tricks.

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Jul 07 2023

GMOs and Butterflies

Published by under General Science

Are attitudes towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our agriculture softening? Back in 2015 a Pew survey found that the gap between public opinion and that of scientists was greatest on acceptance of GMOs (more than any other topic surveyed), with a 51% gap. But more recent data shows declining opposition. Regulators are also softening their stance, with Mexico walking back a ban on GMO corn from the US, and the EU considering softer rules on GMOs. Some countries, like the US, have also adopted new terminology, such as bioengineered, and carved out separate rules for crops made with altered genes but not with transgene insertions.

We still have a way to go, and there is still enough opposition to slow adoption of useful agricultural technology. I like to think this is because the science is slowly winning the day. I do think many environmentalists have their heart in the right place, but sometimes get distracted by ideological positions, such as an aversion to anything “unnatural” or high tech. But if the stakes get high enough, the more moderate environmentalists can change their position. I think we are seeing this with nuclear power and the need to combat global warming. And I think we are seeing this with GMOs and the need to feed the world without destroying the environment. The benefits of GMOs are ultimately just too great to ignore.

But there is a lot of inertia in the anti-GMO propaganda that Greenpeace, the organic lobby, and others have been spreading for two decades. I was just recently asked about one specific claim that reflects the nature of this propaganda and how sticky it can be – aren’t GMOs killing the butterflies? The short answer is no, but as always the full story has lots of details. Here is a typical headline from the Environmental Working Group (who I personally find to be more ideological than science-based) – GMO-Linked Herbicide May Doom Monarch Butterflies. This framing was lazily reproduced by most mainstream reporting, but it is nothing but anti-GMO propaganda.

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Jul 06 2023

3D Printing With Metallic Gel

Published by under Technology

One of the futuristic technologies that I find most promising is 3D printing (additive manufacturing). 3D printing has already created a revolution in manufacturing, but I think the general public does not have a high awareness of this technology because it is not yet at the point where it is ready to be a routine in-home appliance. It probably seems like an expensive toy. But in reality it is a key and rapidly growing prototyping and manufacturing technology. Importantly, there is tremendous potential for the technology to advance, and we are far away from a fully mature manifestation of 3D printing.

The basic technology connected the virtual world with the physical analog world. You start with a digital design for an object, which can be created using software or by scanning an existing physical object. The 3D printer then prints the object from the digital design, with a print head laying down the material layer by layer, building up the three dimensional object. Sometimes supports need to be added so that the resulting object can stand upright while printing. One limitation of 3D printers is their dimensions – thy can only build object as large as their print area. However, some newer printers have a conveyor belt for a platform which allows for one dimension to be virtually unlimited.

One of the challenges of 3D printing technology has been printing with metals. Dealing with plastics and resins were the low hanging fruit because they can be extruded by the print head and rapidly cool at room temperature to a solid object, maintaining their structure. Hard plastic parts are great for many applications, but not all. The wider a range of material that 3D printers can use the better, and metal 3D printing has been the holy grail.

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