Archive for March, 2017

Mar 10 2017

Fast Radio Bursts and Alien Life

Published by under Astronomy

frb-alienFast radio bursts (FRBs) are brief, bright, and distant bursts of radio emissions that are of unknown origin. Recently they have been in the news because of a paper which explores the feasibility that FRBs have an alien origin.

“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence,” said theorist Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”

Let me first give a little more background on FRBs and then we can discuss the alien hypothesis.

Fast Radio Bursts

The first thing to know about FRBs is that they are, indeed, fast. They typically last only a few milliseconds (thousandths of a second). Recorded FRBs range from 0.05 ms to 9.4 ms. That is extremely brief.

They are broadband radio bursts, meaning that they cover a broad frequency range.

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Mar 09 2017

Alzheimer’s and Stem Cells

Published by under Neuroscience

ADA recent article in The Mercury News reports on the work of a neurosurgeon who is injecting fat-derived stem cells into the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The reports is, unfortunately, typical. It revolves around a heart-wrenching anecdote, while giving the facts with the usual false balance.

This is the perfect storm for dubious treatments – Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive dementia that causes sufferers to slowly lose their memories and ability to think. It is a growing problem with our aging population. There are some modest symptomatic treatments for AD but nothing which alters the course of the disease, or can stop or reverse it.

There is no doubt that the need for an effective treatment is great, but that does not justify lower the standards of science in medicine. If anything it means we have to be more careful.

Added to this is the hype and allure of stem cells, which are progenitor cells that can turn into specific cell types. The general idea with stem cell therapy is that the stem cells will replace damaged or dying cells, repair organs, and reverse disease. This is tricky technology, however, and as is common the hype is running ahead of the science. That is a recipe for exploitation and quackery. Fake stem cell clinics have popped up around the world, promising cures but just robbing the desperate of their remaining health and large amounts of money.

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Mar 07 2017

Phasing Out Coal

Published by under Technology

coal_waterIt seems clear that if we are going to make significant progress in reducing global CO2 emissions, we are going to need to phase out the burning of coal to generate electricity. The UK may serve as a demonstration of this fact.

In recent years UK coal burning has plummeted – in 2016 the UK burned 18 million Metric Tonnes (Mt) of coal, which is less than it has burned since before 1860. At its peak in 1956 the UK burned 221 Mt of coal.

As a result, overall carbon emissions from the UK have also dropped, from its peak of 685 Mt of carbon in 1970 to 281 in 2016. That is the lowest annual carbon emission from the UK since 1894 (not counting two years in the 1920’s during massive strikes).

Power from coal is being replaced by power from gas, oil, and renewables. Last year the UK generated more power from wind than from coal. Some are crediting the precipitous drop in coal burning to a doubling of the carbon tax in the UK in 2015.

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Mar 06 2017

Terraforming Mars

Published by under Astronomy

MarsTransitionVHow high a priority should we have for sending people to Mars? This seems to be a big question these days. NASA is developing the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule specifically to have the capacity to send people to Mars. Elon Musk has stated that the real purpose of SpaceX is to colonize Mars.

The public imagination has also been sparked by movies such as The Martian (which was excellent). I also recommend National Geographics’ series “Mars” which is a combination of interviews with current scientists and engineers about the problems that a Mars colony would face, with a narrative about a future colonization mission.

The one fact that everyone agrees on is that colonizing Mars will be extremely difficult. Mars has an atmosphere about 1% that of Earth. This makes it just thick enough to be a problem but not thick enough to help with breaking while landing on Mars, and not thick enough to make the surface any more livable. A 1% atmosphere is effectively a vacuum, but it is enough to cause planet-wide dust storms that would make life on Mars challenging.

Transfer to Mars would take about 8 months with current rocket technology. Depending on the relative position of the planets and the transfer speed, 130-260 days are the figures most often cited. That means supply lines would be very difficult, and don’t expect any rescue missions.

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Mar 03 2017

Trump’s Dangerous Plan to Deregulate Pharmaceuticals

Trump-FDADuring Trump’s recent address to Congress he referred to 20 year-old Megan Crowley who has Pompe’s disease.

“Megan’s story is about the unbounded power of a father’s love for a daughter,” Trump said. “But our slow and burdensome approval process at the Food and Drug Administration keeps too many advances, like the one that saved Megan’s life, from reaching those in need.”

This statement, an unwarranted and factually-challenged attack on the FDA is all the more frightening when put into context. He has appointed to the FDA Jim O’Neill, who said in 2014:

“We should reform FDA so there is approving drugs after their sponsors have demonstrated safety—and let people start using them, at their own risk, but not much risk of safety. Let’s prove efficacy after they’ve been legalized.”

Not requiring evidence for efficacy for drugs would be an unmitigated disaster. It also makes not sense – the concept of “safety” cannot be entirely separated from efficacy. Drugs are evaluated and their use determined by risk vs benefit. You cannot do a risk vs benefit assessment if there is no data on benefit.

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Mar 02 2017

Tucker Carlson vs Bill Nye on Climate Change

Published by under General Science

Nye vs CarlsonTucker Carlson of Fox News recently had Bill Nye on as a guest to discuss climate change. The entire interview is worth a listen because it nicely illustrates the strategies employed by denialists.

Here are some highlights:

Carlson pushes what is a very common denialist narrative, that they are skeptics who are just asking honest questions. Meanwhile the proponents of global warming are trying to shout them down, call them names, and are doing a disservice to science by trying to shut down debate.

The problem with this narrative (other than not being true) is that you can apply it to any position that denies established science. Flat-Earthers are just skeptics, stop shouting them down. Answer their honest questions.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Are climate change denier just asking honest questions? Ironically, Carlson himself demonstrates in the interview that he isn’t. He is playing rhetorical games to cast doubt on climate science.

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