Science marches on…

First, a useful announcement: The Next National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day is scheduled for October 26, 2013.  One or more of your local pharmacies will likely accept your old pharmaceuticals free, no questions.  It disposes of them safely and keeps them out of landfills or sewers where they apparently are having ever-worsening effects on water supplies — for example putting female hormones from birth control pills into what you drink from the tap.  Go through your cabinet!

== Science marches on, despite attempts to shut it down —

SpaceNewsCongratulations Elon and the SpaceX team for a vital and successful Falcon 9 launch from Vandenburg of the Cassiope research satellite into polar orbit. A secondary experiment — to re-fire the first stage after cargo separation and test a possible rocket-based recovery process — was only partly successful. But much was learned toward what might be a breakthrough cost-saving measure. Again congratulations on this vital milestone.

Will the year of the comets wreck Martian science?  ‘Three operational spacecraft currently circle Mars: NASA’s Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), as well as Europe’s Mars Express. NASA also has two functioning rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, on the ground on Mars. All of these spacecraft will have ringside seats as Comet ISON cruises by Mars this year, followed by Comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) swooping within 76,000 km of Mars in November of 2014. The comet poses risks to orbiters circling Mars — a prospect that may lead to re-orienting and maneuvering of the craft to protect them from comet particle strikes.’  Which will be – believe me – rather difficult.  I am worried about those orbiters.

NASA’s Plutonium problem – could it end deep space exploration?  Plutonium 238 is special.  Can’t be made into bombs, so there was little effort to create an industry producing it.  The isotope happens to be uniquely suited for long range missions beyond the realm where solar power works. I know some of the guys trying to come up with new methods.  Meanwhile, here’s a fascinating article on the subject. 

Read a summary of a way-cool conference in Washington DC, hosted by David Grinspoon and the Library of Congress, that featured author Kim Stanley Robinson, NASA historian Steve Dick and other luminous minds, talking about the human future. Should humanity build “lifeboat” colonies in space? Or concentrate on Earth?  Or give up?

Can giant-galactic black holes grow by eating quantum foam? Marco Spaans at the University of Groningen says that black holes can grow by feeding on the quantum black holes that leap in and out of existence at the smallest scale. These quantum black holes are part of the so-called quantum foam that physicists believe makes up the fabric of the Universe.

Back in 1982, while I was a post-doctoral fellow at the California Space Institute, I created a report urging NASA to explore ways to do 3D parts fabrication in orbit, allowing space station personnel to create many of their spare parts, needing only to have the software patterns “beamed up” by radio from Earth. Several potential methods were described, including today’s layer-by-layer build-up method… plus a few that to this day have gone under-explored.  Many unfortunate factors — most of them non-technical – delayed this coming to pass.  Only, now see how NASA is preparing to launch a 3-D printer into space next year, a toaster-sized game changer that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool, spare part or supply they might ever need.

== Browsing — for just 20 years? Really? ==

Can you believe the web browser is 20 years old? Or that MOSAIC took the world by storm ONLY 20 years ago? Either way, it makes you blink, just to imagine the world of back-then. Have a look back via Frank Catalano’s brilliant essay about the things we used to take for granted.

When did you first go online?  My first extensive use was while we lived in FRANCE, using their competitive Minitel system, which was better than Compuserve and in nearly every home in France. They were trying hard to get ahead of us with a unified, centrally planned approach and it worked well, if incrementally. Everyone could check the weather, get news and order tickets…

Internet-Deregulation…Then Al Gore (yes, he did not lie) pushed a bill that unleashed the Internet on the world, taking government hands almost completely off. The opposite approach than the French — and the greatest act of deregulation in the history of history… for which he get no credit, only mockery. From ungrateful fools.

== Tis all in the mind ==

How and where does imagination occur in human brains? The answer, Dartmouth researchers conclude in a new study, lies in a widespread neural network — the brain’s “mental workspace” — that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas.   Real grist for new explorations at UCSD’s new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination.

Especially provocative: “Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines.”

An essay in Scientific American, by SKEPTIC editor Michael Shermer, discusses motivational bias — our tendency to warp our perceptions and inputs to fit the beliefs and narratives we already hold dear.  Liberals do this, leftists and rightists do it. Mass media cater to it. Science tries to combat it – teaching students to recite “I might be wrong” – but scientists (being human) do it too. In Shermer’s case, the belief structure that he had to wrestle with is a strong libertarian bent — a leaning that I well-understand because I share many aspects, including a deep respect for competitive endeavors like science and markets, that brought us all our great success.  Shermer discusses how his strong libertarian leanings made it hard for him to begin taking in enough facts to re-evaluate simplistic positions on climate change and gun control.

But the core lesson is bigger than that.  It underlies how we can be marshaled into “belief armies” that follow idea-banners instead of rationally compared evidence.  It is why we like to hear what we believe reinforced, instead of eagerly seeking the argument, contrary evidence and criticism that is the only known antidote to error. Scientists are trained to (often grudgingly) overcome motivational bias.  That may be why strong interests in society are financing the War on Science.

SmarterThanYouThinkAh but is Google wrecking our memory?  In his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, Clive Thompson argues that our brains have always been bad at remembering details. But now we’ve begun to fit machines into a technique we evolved thousands of years ago —“transactive memory.” That’s the art of storing information in the people around us.

== Cool sci-miscellany ==

Mike Halleck – “The Engineer Guy” – disassembles and explains a wide variety of cool, everyday devices like a liquid crystal display.  Very well-done mini-documentaries.  Great diversion time that beats cat videos by a long way.

Okay, Boston Dynamics is damned scary.  Their latest  robotic”cheetah” can outrun any but the three fastest humans.

Two million years ago, a supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy erupted in an explosion so immensely powerful that it lit up a cloud 200,000 light years away, a team of researchers led by the University of Sydney has revealed.

Future spacecraft may be 3-D printed — in space, by robots

Kinda gruesomely-cynically funny.  Scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have discovered yet another dead and lifeless planet drifting around a silent, pulsing sun-like star over 100 light-years away, feeding their growing sense of nihilistic despair. Okay… it’s for laughs.  But still.

Transparency will abound. And possibly save us. UCLA engineers have created a 1/2-pound, portable smartphone attachment that can be used to perform sophisticated field testing to detect viruses and bacteria without the need for bulky and expensive microscopes and lab equipment.

I discussed starships and asteroid mining and what it might take to bring boldness back to our civilization, on David Livingston’s syndicated radio SPACE SHOW, in September 2013.

ScienceSnippetsIn appraising the tradeoffs between competition and cooperation in an organism, these scientists are discussing in the real world what was also covered in my novel Earth.

Fly maggots, the wonder recyclers, will save the seas by replacing the wasteful way meal for fish farms is made by scooping everything living out of the oceans… and many other cool uses. This – plus algae farming and many other looming breakthroughs could just help us to squeak by.

A fascinating chart of the relative amounts of damage – to users and to society – done by abuse of various drugs, both legal and illegal.  Marijuana (canabis) is NOT harmless! While legalizing it, I would retain a presumptive right of families to meddle if a beloved zonker is on a death-to-ambition spiral. Still, recent trends toward sanity are signs that a new generation is ready, at last, to bring a sense of proportionality to an insanely destructive Prohibition.

A golden eagle attacks and kills an adult deer.  Yipe!

Earth may have had free oxygen in its atmosphere in appreciable amounts much earlier than we had thought… about 3 billion years ago rather than the more recent “Great Oxygenization” event of 2.3 billion years ago.

What did our distant ancestors sound like? Listen to the linguists’ latest reconstruction of 6000 year old Indo-European.  Kinda fascinating.

Why are our bees dying?  This matters a lot!  Become educated about this threat to our food supply.  These are the “canaries” in our environment… and their loss may cost us a lot of money.  The chief counter-measures… to get farmers to plant varicultures, hedges and flowers just along the borders of theit fields and for us to plant…(icky)… flowers!  Watch this TED Talk by Marla Spivak.

Weizmann Institute scientists show that removing one protein from adult cells enables them to efficiently turn back the clock to a stem-cell-like state.  They revealed the “brake” that holds back the production of stem cells, and found that releasing this brake can both synchronize the process and increase its efficiency from around 1% or less today to 100%.  The researchers showed that removing MBD3 protein from the adult cells can improve efficiency and speed the process by several orders of magnitude. Such on-off switches are amazing and rare.

== Finally, how to fight anti-science politics ==

Neutralize-GerrymanderingThe biggest victim of the recent US government shut down may have been science, as crucial experiments were cut off – including the entire research season in Antarctica. To many of those who instigated this disaster, the harm to science was not a Flaw of their plan but a Feature.

This will be a long struggle though there are possible innovations.  For example Salon Magazine has featured my proposal for a unique and potentially effective way for individual voters – one at a time – to rebel effectively against the political crime called gerrymandering. It requires no changes in law, no court decisions or ballot initiatives. We could all start this rebellion tomorrow, without any cooperation from a corrupt political caste. It would benefit BOTH Democrats and Republics as well as third parties. Above all, it would reduce the radicalization of American politics that is tearing the country apart.

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