Archive for August, 2022

Aug 11 2022

Moving Through Curved Space

Published by under General Science

I have to be honest, I don’t believe it. Whenever research seems to show a phenomenon that defies the known laws of physics, that is my initial reaction. It’s a good default approach, and so far it has proven correct. I didn’t believe it when researchers claimed they found neutrinos traveling faster than light. It turns out, it was a flaw in the equipment. In fact, I have not believed the many claims over the years of faster than light phenomena, all of which have fallen away. I did not believe the countless claims of free energy or perpetual motion, all of which have failed. I did not believe claims of cold fusion, and still don’t. I did not believe it when engineers claimed to have produced propellantless acceleration (the EM drive). That one crashed and burned as well.

These claims typically have two features in common. They are based on an observed anomaly, and that anomaly is very tiny. It’s just more likely that a tiny anomaly that appears to break the laws of physics is the result of a tiny error, not that the laws of physics as we currently know them are wrong. This is especially true when talking about conservation laws, which are so well established that we can treat them as – laws.

I always acknowledge that our understanding of the laws of physics is incomplete, and there could be some phenomenon hiding in the parts we have not figured out yet (quantum gravity is a good example) that could allow for these apparent anomalies. I’m just not holding my breath. Also, the bar we set for the threshold of evidence before accepting the anomaly as real should be incredibly high. Again, history has proven countless times that this is a good approach.

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Aug 09 2022

A Good Start on Climate Change

Published by under General Science

The US is about to pass into law the first real action on climate change in decades. Obviously there is a lot of politics involved, and I don’t want to get sucked into that, but rather I want to discuss the strategy of this approach to mitigating climate change. Here is a summary of the climate-related provisions in the bill. The bill provides tax incentive and grants for states, industry, and individuals to purchase electric vehicles, install green energy, make buildings energy efficient, convert cement, steel, and agricultural industries to more green methods, reduce leaks from methane pipes, and accelerate research in green technologies and manufacturing. Proponents estimate these measures will reduce US carbon emissions by 40% by 2030.

This projected reduction, however, is not compared to zero reduction, but rather what would happen without the bill:

Recent modeling by Rhodium Group highlights the substantial emissions reduction impact of these provisions. Under a business-as-usual scenario, the United States is on track to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by between 24% to 35% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. Should the IRA become law, this would increase to between 31% to 44% by 2030.

So it looks like the provision will produce an additional 10% reduction. Critics would also argue that this is only for the US and therefore as a percental of global GHG emissions, this is small potatoes. In a tradeoff to get support, the bill also would increase leasing for more oil and gas drilling:

“…it requires the U.S. Department of the Interior to lease 2 million acres in federal lands onshore and 60 million acres offshore each year for oil and gas development (or whatever acreage the industry requests, whichever is smaller).”

This has some environmentalists upset (aren’t we supposed to be reducing fossil fuel production). I don’t think they should be. There is a very deliberate strategy to this bill, and I think it is the correct one. At the top level, strategically there are two basic approaches to reducing GHG emissions, or specifically the burning of fossil fuels (which is the major contributor) – either we reduce supply of fossil fuels or we reduce demand. These, of course, are not mutually exclusive, we can do both, but specific measures usually fall into one or the other category.

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Aug 08 2022

The Psychology of FOMO

Published by under Neuroscience

One of the many unintended consequences of social media is what is popularly referred to as FOMO – fear of missing out. People see all the wonderful things people are doing and buying in their social media profiles, and fear that they are missing out on the good life, or the latest trend, or perhaps some investment opportunity. This is the social media equivalent of “keeping up with the Joneses”. FOMO results from a basic human psychological tendency, to determine our own happiness by comparing ourselves to some relative standard, whether that’s our neighbors, our social group, or what we see on TV or on people’s Facebook pages.

This phenomenon also interacts with another, that we determine our happiness relative to our own current state, meaning that we habituate to our current situation. Functionally what this means is that if we want to remain happy we constantly need more – more than we have now, and more that other people have. The habituation phenomenon was humorously depicted in the video game, Portal 2 (an excellent game, highly recommended if you like video games). The main antagonist is an AI that is programmed to run the player through various testing scenarios. Each time the player completes a test the AI gets the silicon version of a dose of dopamine, but the digital Nirvana is short-lived and it has to run another test to maintain the good feeling. But it rapidly habituates to this feedback, with shorter and less intense reward meaning it has to test faster and harder.

This is essentially how humans function as well. We are never content. We cannot remain happy by standing still. We need whatever other people have, and we need more than we currently have. This lines up with research into happiness. Making more money does make people happier, up to the level where basic needs and security are met (in the US this is now about 75k per year). Some researchers frame this not as money making people happy, but rather not having enough money to meet basic needs is stressful and makes people unhappy. Beyond this basic level, increasing income does not correlate with happiness. Whether you make 75 thousand a year or 75 million a year does not matter. Further, everyone thinks that they would be happy if they just made 20% more than they currently make – regardless of how much that is. We habituate to our current situation and then think we need a little more to be happy.

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Aug 04 2022

NIH To Fund Scientific Rigor Initiative

Published by under General Science

This is a great idea, and in fact is long overdue. The NIH is awarding various grants to establish educational materials and centers to teach principles of scientific rigor to researchers. This may seem redundant, but it absolutely isn’t.

At present principles of research are taught in basic form during scientific courses, but advanced principles are largely left to individual mentorship. This creates a great deal of variability in how well researchers really understand the principles of scientific rigor. As a result, a lot of research falls short of scientific ideals. This creates a great deal of waste in the system. NIH, as a funding institution, has a great deal of incentive to reduce this waste.

The primary mechanism will be to create teaching modules that then can be made freely available to educational and research institutions. These modules would cover:

biases in research; logical fallacies around causality; how to develop hypotheses; designing literature searches; identifying experimental variables; and reducing confounding variables in research.

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Aug 02 2022

Political Ideology and the Brain

Published by under Neuroscience

Political neuroscientists are trying to answer a basic question – what is the relationship between political ideology and brain function? Actually this is a horrifically complex question, but we are making some incremental progress, and a recent study adds a new layer of information. But let me first back up and give some thoughts on the entire enterprise.

Obviously political ideology is a brain phenomenon, in the way that all cognitive function is a brain phenomenon. But there are interesting deeper questions. How much of political ideology is learned or absorbed from the environment, and how much is a function of our genetic neurological predisposition (nature vs nurture)? The number one predictor of political ideology is the ideology of one’s parents. But this, of course, cuts both ways – we inherit genes from our parents, but they also dominantly affect the environment of our childhood. Twin studies (looking at the political ideology of twins separated at birth) suggest that political ideology is at least partly genetic. So unsurprisingly the answer is that genetic and environmental factors are likely working together to influence political ideology.

Another layer to consider is how we define political ideology? For studies based in the US, a typical liberal vs conservative scale is used. But we have to ask – is American liberal vs conservative politics fundamental to human psychology, or is it a particular cultural manifestation that may only indirectly relate to basic cognitive function? Perhaps, in other words, we’re looking in the wrong place, where the lighting is good but not necessarily where the phenomenon is really located. All research that looks for neuroanatomic correlates suffers from this fundamental question. If we look for the neuroanatomical correlates of depression, for example, we have to ask what depression is, and if it is a foundational phenomenon or an epiphenomenon. Is it a fundamental property of neurological functioning, or just a manifestation of a deeper neurological functioning?

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Aug 01 2022

Lunar Pits Warm and Comfy

Published by under Astronomy

Building a base on the Moon in certainly going to be challenging. In fact, living anywhere other than the surface of the Earth is extremely challenging – the rest of our solar system is an unlivable hellscape. The thin biosphere clinging to the surface of Earth is the only place that humans can comfortably live (and even not everywhere there). But we will be returning to the Moon again with the upcoming Artemis mission, and this time NASA plans on staying, not just leaving behind “flags and footprints”. There are no current plans for a permanent moon base or settlement, but the work of Artemis will continue to lay the groundwork for eventually future bases.

The surface of the Moon is hostile to life in several respects. First, there is almost no atmosphere. Humans can survive in a hard vacuum for about 90 seconds, falling unconscious after 15-20. Second, the surface of the Moon is exposed to radiation (solar wind and cosmic rays) and micrometeors. There are filtered out on Earth by its thick atmosphere and magnetic field, neither of which protect the Moon. Finally, the temperature on the surface of the Moon varies from one extreme to the other – during the day surface temperatures reach 260 degrees Fahrenheit (126° Celsius), while nighttime temps can drop to -280 F (-173 C).

But these harsh conditions do not necessarily exist everywhere on the Moon. The hard vacuum, yes, there is simply no air on the Moon, which has too little gravity to hold onto a significant atmosphere. But there may be protection from the second two features: exposure to radiation and variable temperatures – in lunar pits, caves, and lava tubes.

Lava tubes exist on every rocky world in the solar system. They are channels through which molten lava flowed and eventually solidified, leaving behind solid tubes in the rock. You can explore lava tubes on Earth, such as in Hawaii. The size of lava tubes tends to correlate with the gravity of the world on which they occur, and the Moon’s light gravity (16.6% Earth’s gravity, or 0.166 g) allows for giant lava tubes. Recent evidence suggests they can be  1,600 to 3,000 feet (500 to 900 m) in diameter. This is large enough to contain a city. The big advantage of building a permanent base or settlement inside a lava tube is that the rocky covering will protect it from radiation and micrometeors.

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