Tag Archives: genetics

Noah, the Tower of Babel…and Science

A lot of efforts have been made to appraise the Bible in terms of science and vice versa. For example, I’ve had fun showing (to a conference of transhumanists, no less!) that the book of Genesis clearly states we were meant to be scientists and co-creators and that “nothing is beyond us.”

Noah-Film-2014PosterIndeed, it can be illuminating to plumb the Bible — one of the keystone books of western civilization. Moreover, it gives you the ability to stun, surprise and gain a back-brain door into the minds of some of your deep-steeped neighbors. And so, in light of the recent Russell Crowe film, let’s pause and sample the story of Noah.

Now of course, it is somewhat like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. Past scholars, uncharitable toward literalist believers in “biblical inerrancy,” have calculated the needed size of the Ark, for example. Were even just all known mammal species shoved aboard, shoulder to shoulder — you’d need a hundred modern aircraft carriers.

In fact, this argument has had results! Creationist “scientist” Ken Ham conceded — in his recent debate with Bill Nye — that evolution (yes “evolution”!) must have radiated all the species we now see, from a seed population that rode upon the Ark! I cannot believe this major concession got so little play in the media or among devotees of either religion or science. It is a real shift in ground.

Noahs_ArkSo, all right, following Ham’s clever dip-n-dodge… Noah only carried two of every GENUS and not species. I’m not sure even that will suffice… but however you may groan over this bit of back-pedaling, you also have to be impressed with the agile footwork! Okay, so evolution is real. But it only happened after the flood. Jumping Jehosephat.

Take a look at this article: Creationists Need Faster Evolution than Evolution on Skeptic Ink, who claims that creationists are “using evolutionary theory to support Noah’s Ark. Sad.”

(For you science-y types, here’s the capsule from Skeptic Ink: “There are 2,798 HLA-B alleles in the human population. If these originated from the 8 individuals on the ark (assuming all were heterozygous), the mutation rate for the gene must have been one every 2 years (from the day Noah stepped off the Ark until the present). But this mutation rate for the HLA gene wasn’t matched by mutation rates for other genes. We don’t have 2000 alleles for eye color or blood type or other genes in the human body.” In other words, no possible set pif genetic mutation rates can match this story against what we now see going on, in the cells and chromosomes of living creatures today.)

Kaspar_Memberger_(I)_-_Noah's_Ark_Cycle_-_3._The_Flood_-_WGA14802Okay.  Then something else occurred to me. Let’s say the entire human population, including guiltless babies, were drowned in a fit of angry pique by a questionably-balanced deity who was not setting a very good parental example, that’s for sure. And let’s further posit that the wives of Noah’s three sons must replenish the Earth with humans. Less than ten generations later, you have cities and Babel-towers being built. What’s the math on that?

Well, if each woman is very very fertile — and extremely lucky — let’s generously figure ten surviving offspring. (Extremely generous, for that era, but let’s go with it.) Five of those ten are daughters who can make human beings. (For our purposes, only females matter.) If each generation can multiply the number of fecund females by five, then ten generations of continuously lucky folks, who breed like rabbits and lose almost no babies at all, will give you close to ten million people! Wow.

Tower-of-babel-bible-languageOf course, that calculation is at the extreme high end. See this analysis, where other scholars suggest there were 900,000 people around to start building the Tower of Babel and perhaps as few as 36,000. In which case you get a completely different set of math quandaries…

…like how much physical volume of stone or rammed earth could be stacked upon a tower, in just the century alloted, by such a small population that also had to grow food and live “by the sweat of their brow”? By the time you get to 20,000 feet, the sheer amount of stuff… neglecting compressional and other engineering forces… could not have been hauled by 100x that population — equipped with trucks! No wonder Talmudic scholars decided (in the 7th century) that the word “tower” must have stood for some kind of machine or high technology that had been lost to time, one that enabled human wizards to fly tp heaven’s gateway. Okay, that’s kinda sci-fi cool, I admit, especially for the 7th Century! But a topic for another time. Let’s get back to Noah.

the-dove-sent-forth-from-the-ark-1866One suggestion by the talmudists that’s very interesting is that the human species that was wiped out by the Flood was different than ours. That the flood-reset wasn’t just moral but genetic, with Noah’s family being fundamentally different than his water-doomed neighbors, not just morally but as a matter of speciation. (One sage suggested that people before that point “had no thumbs” until Noah’s new sub-species introduced that novelty. Can anyone find a reference?)

Hmmm. well, the mind roams at this point, picturing a humanity 1.0 that might have been really unpleasant by nature… (what? worse than us?)… in which case, is the questionable morality of the Flood eased, at all?

Alas, that raises a counter question about the fallibility of a deity who had to revise His design. (Not a problem, by modern reckoning! All ambitious projects undergo revision. It is only a quandary – ironically – to the obsequiously devout, who insist on zero-fallibility, a completely unnecessary trait of a creator and, well, a hard piece of flattery to live up to!)

imagesOf course, all this calculating misses the point… that the literalist inerrancy folks are wrong, on a truly manic scale. Standing upon a tower of evidence, we know the ages of the Rocks of Ages. We know the universe is vastly greater, older and more beautiful than their cramped, cover-the-eyes-and-ears frenzy permits them to see. But even if you take the stories at face value, problems abound.

For example, if the Babel dispersal happened around 1800 BCE (about the time of the Thera explosion of Santorini, a thought provoking coincidence!) then a seed population of maybe 100,000 would have had to bear successful babies at a prodigious rate… while walking very quickly… in order to spread to the corners of the globe and diversify into the countless tribes who we know to have dwelled in countless far-flung locales. Most of which we know to have been occupied already, long before 1800 BCE. Indeed, by that date, Egypt had already been operating for quite some time… and their language did not change as a result of any tower.

But it’s that successful birth rate that has me confused. At what point did the accelerated replenishment cut off, with the world’s women losing that reproductive lucky streak, tumbling into the long era of filth and pain and childbed-fever and still-births and miscarriages and infertility and death, death, death that we know to have been their lot, both from written records and from mummies and bones?

It must have been an abrupt transition — a terrifying and dismaying one… from a blithe expectation of long lives and ten healthy children, into a maelstrom of horror and bleeding and mourning. Yet no records or even stories tell of such a devastating shift. Nor do I know of any any theological musings to explain why the rebuild of population since the flood was so rapid, then abruptly limited by pain and death after death. Was this another punishment? If so, it seems nastier than any flood.

GalileoQuoteOne group inconvenienced by these points of math is the Mormon community. If (as calculated) there were about 340 years between the flood and Babel… and if the Babel crisis precipitated the barrel-migration of a Hebrew tribe (Jaredites) to America… then the building of populations in the Americas becomes almost impossible to contemplate, especially with no Ice Age Bering land bridge to make things seem plausible. But of course, the same quandaries afflict any other faith that insists on interpreting the legends of illiterate shepherds as physically precise accounts…

…instead of allegories that still convey powerful lessons, to this day.

And so, that is where I will leave things. First, because there can be no resolution, because biblical literalism is simply wrong and also because it insults any chance of a God worth our time and attention, portraying Him (her?) as too vicious for words to describe…

Maxwell-equations-light… instead of as the vastly subtle Creator worshipped by Einstein, who concocts a vast cosmos of stunning complexity, diversity and extant — a universe truly worthy of respect. A God who — Albert would tell us, if he were here today — must have gotten things started fourteen billion years ago by uttering the stunning beauty of Maxwell’s Equations, in order to command…

“let there be light.”



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Your cell phone becomes a Tricorder!

See the heat. FLIR ONE, the first consumer-oriented thermal imaging system for a smartphone, displays a live thermal image on the phone’s screen, letting you see in complete darkness. A family can detect intruders in total darkness, find a lost pet, or see through smoke in an emergency.

seeing-detectingThis is just one element of the huge renaissance in detection and seeing which is about to proliferate into citizen hands. In this case though… it will also (let me predict here) let you see through skimpy clothing to the “warm” nudity beneath. (We went through all this 20 years ago with the SONY Handycam.)

A new laser rangefinding and volume and location analysis device attaches to the back of your smartphone. It contains patented laser, compass, and bluetooth technology that integrates with your phone’s camera and GPS.   Laser measurements are accurate to within +20 cm and correlates with GPS location within +1 meter.  Survey and map everything in front of you, outdoors, with a tool that fits in your pocket.

Next? You can expect localization features like iBeacon to tell stores that ping your device where you are, letting you have local, indoor mapping with varied degrees of info like store projections of what you might want or need.  Creepy factor aside – whether we finally reach a balance between Push and Pull – this will bring us augmented reality the way it must come.  Not with goggle-glasses (at first) but on carried screens.

Also, this year, Siri-style personal assistants will surge back.  Also on the horizon, tech-seer Mark Anderson predicts the under $100 smart phone and under $250 tablet. Low prices will be propelled by something very good… the arrival of two BILLION more consumers in the (lower) middle class, across Asia and the south.

That is, it will be good news if we can manage to provide them with that life style very very very efficiently. No tech will be more important than efficiency and sustainability tech. And those who obstruct such things are the purest villains ever produced.

Open-worm Oh but then there’s this! A major breakthrough! Creating a virtual C. elegans nematode in a computer by reverse-engineering its biology—  has now developed software — Open Worm — that replicates the worm’s muscle movement. The failure to model C elegans – with just 302 neurons – has long been a glaring rebuke to neuroscience. If they truly have a model now, then mazel tov! Now… on to ants!

==Colonizing the Galaxy==

In “Virulence as a model for interplanetary and interstellar colonization – parasitism or mutualism?”  Jonathan Starling and Duncan H. Forgan  model the relationship between an intelligent civilization and its host planet as symbiotic, where the relationship between the symbiont and the host species (the civilization and the planet’s ecology, respectively) determines the fitness and ultimate survival of both organisms. They perform a series of Monte Carlo Realization simulations, where civilizations pursue a variety of different relationships/strategies with their host planet, from mutualism to parasitism, and can consequently ‘infect’ other planets/hosts…..  As the colonization velocity is increased, the strategy of parasitism becomes more successful, until they dominate the ‘population’. This is in accordance with predictions based on island biogeography and r/K selection theory.

Of course this scientific model appears to coincide remarkably with the more speculative and dramatic version that I present in my recent novel Existence. Their conclusion suggests that the galaxy might pass through very difficult times – waves of virulence – that eventually settle down to a pattern that rewards symbiosis and health.

Want a cool synergy? This is exactly the perspective that China’s stunning new science fiction talent Liu Cixin developed for his amazing novel The Three Body Problem.  The galaxy may pass through very difficult phases, before growing up.

==A Rise in Infectious Disease?==

infectious-disease-riseBack in 1980 I was a graduate student in physics with medical school housemates.  One of them asked me my view on what specialty to choose.  Without pause I said “Infectious disease.”  He looked at me, puzzled and asked: “Isn’t that kind of… well… over?”

“Mark my words, I answered.  We are living in a fool’s paradise, a narrow window of time when infection only seems to have been conquered. Any time now, we’ll learn how flexible parasites are, as they come roaring back.”

My friend took my advice, and was at the Centers of Disease Control, in Atlanta, when AIDS struck society like a hammer blow. Since then, we’ve seen inanities like the addle-brained anti-vax movement, hospital generated diseases and countless other signs of resurgence by old and new enemies.  Read more about it here: Major Gaps in Country’s Ability to Counter Infectious Diseases. A majority of states reach half or fewer key indicators.

Interesting, if true.  Fungi found growing on the walls of the highly radioactive Chernobyl reactor core might — and let’s keep that contingent “might” — actually flourish on gamma radiation. Hmmmm

==Genetic Markers and Identity==

Male-female brain differences? This new result suggests that men have more connections forward and back… between sensing and action parts of the brain… and women have more lateral connections between left and right … logical and intuitive… portions.  This is consistent with known differences in spatial vs communication skills.

break-stereotypesBut… always remember that any such differences between classes of people only apply to averages.  The study found many exceptions.  And protecting an individual’s right to BE an exception to any class/gender/race generalization was one of the great breakthroughs of our civilization.

A truly excellent (long) article about a new theory of autism — that is is largely a problem of over-sensitivity and over-stimulation by an “intense world.” (Not at all inconsistent with my depiction in Existence.)

Scientists were stunned to discover that genomes use the genetic code to write two separate languages. One describes how proteins are made, and the other instructs the cell on how genes are controlled. One language is written on top of the other, which is why the second language remained hidden for so long.  This is getting complicated!  Nature had a long time to work this stuff out.

==The intersection of Bio and Tech==

Researchers have built a small vehicle whose flying motion resembles the movements of a jellyfish or moth — a new method of flight that could enable miniaturized future robots for surveillance, search-and-rescue.

biology-technologyWhile algae has long been considered a potential source of biofuel, and several companies have produced algae-based fuels on a research scale, the fuel has been projected to be expensive. Only now, Department of Energy researchers have found a new technology that harnesses algae’s energy potential efficiently and incorporates a number of methods to reduce the cost of producing algae fuel.  Add this to breakthroughs in continuously growing algae from CO2 from cement plants and agricultural runoff wastes, and you can see some of the promise that I describe (in passing) in Existence. The possibility of creating multi-path synergies .  This could be a large scale game-changer.

But this is the year for one medium scale game changer.  The year to start (if you haven’t already) swapping out the light bulbs in your home (starting with high traffic areas) for super-efficient LEDs. Prices have dropped and the economics are so good, it isn’t even “virtuous” anymore. Just practical.

IBM’s predictions for five years from now seem a bit better and more on target, this time.  Some will make you go huh!  These are all plausible near-future developments.  They only require one thing.  That we go back to being people who believe in a can-do, pragmatic approach to progress and making things better,

Digital communication via — aromas? Or pheromones or trace molecules?  In this research,  binary signals are “programmed” into pulses of evaporated alcohol molecules to demonstrate the potential of molecular communications. The first demonstration signal, performed in Canada, was “O Canada,” from the Canadian national anthem. It was sent several meters across open space before it was decoded by a receiver.

Message Passing Inference with Chemical Reaction Networks: In a related development, researchers showed that an important class of artificial intelligence algorithms could be implemented using chemical reactions. This kind of chemical-based AI will be necessary for constructing therapies that sense and adapt to their environment. The hope is to eventually have drugs that can specialize themselves to your personal chemistry. It also opens some sci-fi-ish possibilities for Chemical AI.

==Tech Run-down==

TechnologyNewsThree-D printing, using hot metals and other sophisticated techniques, has taken another step forward, making a complete, working loudspeaker.

Fascinating Infographic on temperature: a billion degrees of separation: from absolute zero to ‘absolute hot.’

And now a tech run-down from Brian Wang – starting with:

A SANDIA roadmap for making 10 MW supercritical turbines commercially ready by 2020, using highly compressed CO2 as the working fluid. Combine this with molten salt cooling systems and fission power systems might shrink by a factor of 100 in volume and mass.

A real-life Turing Machine that does the whole thing mechanicallyusing LEGO pieces. “A group of students at the computer science department at Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon built a working replica of a Turing Machine out of Lego bricks, with 20,000 elements used including 32 pneumatic cylinders, 50 meters of pneumatic tubing, and over a thousand gears!” Maker culture does great things. (Remember this from Infinity’s Shore?)

The new “bushite” federal government of Canada appears to be bent on outdoing any US administration in its hatred of science. The latest example is egregious.  Seven of the nine world-famous Department of Fisheries and Oceans [DFO] libraries were closed by autumn 2013, with spectacular haste and almost no effort to either digitize or find new homes for materials going back to 1803. “…precious collections were consigned to dumpsters, were burned or went to landfills.”

An astronomical object called SBW2007 – sometimes nicknamed SBW1 – is a nebula with a giant star at center twenty times more massive than our Sun. Within its late-evolution nebula, SBW1 shows similarities with a star that went supernova 26 years ago, the famous SN 1987A. Early Hubble images of SN 1987A show eerie similarities to SBW1. Both stars had identical rings of the same size and age, located in similar HII regions… This blogger says that … “At a distance of more than 20 000 light-years it will be safe to watch when the supernova goes off. If we are very lucky it may happen in our own lifetimes…”  Hm…. I agree it would be spectacular.  And maybe that distance truly is “just right.” Still. Let’s do more calculations before wishing…

This YouTube video describes fascinating work done recently on how the brain distributes work on visual objects according to their type: e.g. “mammal-> living” or mobile objects or immobile objects. The layout, on an unfolded surface of the cortex, is fascinating! In other words…

Some version of mind-reading will be here in ten years.


We need a decent, open accountable, calm and truly worthwhile civilization, by then!

It’s the one vital thing.

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Existence, Uplift, and Science News

Amid the election, I’ll alternate political posts with others about science, fiction and the future.  And so, for relief, let’s have a miscellany of cool techie stuff!

 First: After an incredible decade, in which the number of planets known beyond our solar system increased from zero to several thousand, astronomers have detected an Earth-sized world orbiting between the two major stars nearest to our system, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. Much too hot to sustain life, it nevertheless will help in narrowing down the search space for others. (“News from Alpha Centauri.” Cool to say that!)

In a related matter – I’ve posted an essay, Are we alone in the universe? about the the Fermi Paradox, the Drake Equation and all that where-are-the-aliens jazz on the web site of Orbit Books, in conjunction with the upcoming release (in the U.K.) of the trade paperback version of Existence

…soon to be followed by Orbit’s special new omnibus collections of my Uplift Series of novels. A gorgeous-big volume entitled UPLIFT will contain Sundiver, Startide Rising and The Uplift War.  Another omnibus compendium  —EXILES combines Brightness Reef, Infinity’s Shore and Heaven’s Reach.  Soon to follow… beautiful reprints of Earth and The Postman.

== A Potpourri of Cool Science!!! == 

Researchers discover a beluga whale whose vocalisations were remarkably close to human speech.  

To amplify the comparatively low-frequency parts of the vocalisations, a beluga named NOC over-inflates what is known at the vestibular sac in his blowhole – which normally acts to stop water entering the lungs. In short, the mimicry was no easy task.   So they ARE trying to meet us halfway, after all!

A recent study published in Trends in Genetics suggests that a person’s genes may affect their later political thinking and views of the world almost as much as his circumstances or upbringing do, and far more than many social scientists have been willing, until recently, to admit. It seems that the degree to which you are politically knowledgeable is largely genetically determined, while your party affiliation is acquired from upbringing… though this then later diverges after adults leave the nest. And yes, researchers found a further 11 genes, different varieties of which might be responsible for inclining people – in general personality ways, not doctrine, of course – towards liberalism or conservatism.

Interesting to compare to other recent science showing differences in which parts of the brain are used to think about political matters.  And what this has to say about the fact that American scientists have voted with their feet, abandoning one of the parties en masse.

Want to see the reason distilled? Click to see the original of this little poem, which is sooooo redolent in this political season.


If you don’t make mistakes, you’re doing it wrong.
If you don’t correct those mistakes, you’re doing it really wrong.
If you can’t accept that you might be mistaken, you’re not doing it at all.”

== Ocean Acidification: deadly and undeniable ==

More than half of the six billion-plus metric tons of carbon released annually into the atmosphere is absorbed by the Ocean. Phytoplankton alone process an estimated 22 million tons of CO2 each day. This carbon sink does not come without consequence. In the last 100 years, our seas have become 30% more acidic, and that pace is accelerating. This increased acidity is impacting soft-shelled organisms such as crabs, shrimp, and oysters, many of which are unable to maintain their shells in this new, man-made acidic Ocean.

Now the crux. The ocean acidification trend lines come from entirely different sciences than those that study the greenhouse effect — research establishments in twenty countries that have nothing to do with atmospheric studies.  And no Koch-supported “institute” has found anything wrong with them.

Unlike atmospheric studies, here’s an area where your denialist uncle could take the samples and measure them, himself.  Two-thirds of our oxygen comes from the Ocean. But if rising acidity collapses the oceanic food chain, including phytoplankton, suffocation might be just one of many things we’ll sue the denialists for.  And tell your uncle that includes him.  The refugees will need homes.  The denialists will share or lose theirs, by simple tort law. Time to adapt, out of simple self-interest.

== Open Source and hope ==

In a recent blog I described a vast array of ways that folks are empowered (or not) to engage in citizen science or open source development.  Now comes another aspect to that movement. Can the open source science movement extended lessons derived from its central core — programming?  Software engineer and Linux pioneer Linus Torvalds saw a solution to this problem—“git,” a system that allows for collaborative development. He created GitHub.com, a hosting site that allows multiple programmers to work on the same source code at the same time, with changes getting unique signatures.

I’ll be keynoting a Qualcomm conference on Open Source on November first. Here’s a site that explains some aspects , and that will link you to Clay Shirky’s fascinating TED talk about the great hope … how open source software might lead to “a new way to argue.” (I portray this happening in EXISTENCE and also in a scholarly paper.)

== Space! ==

Don’t get your hopes up just yet for a comet extravaganza. But do make plans to keep an eye on the sky in late 2013! Comet ISON will pass very close to the sun and may become the brightest in all our life-times.  Well, perhaps. Learn all about these cosmic visitors (the topic of my PhD thesis) in HEART OF THE COMET!

The Japanese IKAROS spacecraft is (at last) a full scale solar sail test mission, something NASA for some reason avoided doing for half a century. The test probe has already passed Venus. And now it’s time to start using this naturally attractive (if slow) means of travel a lot more often in space.

Spiders from (on) Mars? With apologies to David Bowie… Are the mysterious black “spider” discolorations in some dune area of Mars from CO2 geysers?  Or some  even weirder explanation?

And speaking of the Red Planet: Craig Venter and Jonathan Rothberg are competing to put a DNA sequencing machine on Mars, each claiming that it is the best way to search for and confirm Marian life. “This will work only if the DNA on Mars is exactly the same in its fundamental structure as on Earth,” says Steven Benner, president of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Florida. He says he’s skeptical that will be the case: “It is very unlikely that Terran DNA is the only structure able to support Darwinian evolution.”  Though I lean slightly toward Venter.  Some of the chemistry of DNA life has been shown to imply have the best combinations of stability and just the right breakability and attachment probabilities in the bonds.

== And more Sci Potpourri ==

A very nifty innovation called MosquitoDMZ offers a new kind of trap that lures females to lay their eggs in  a place where they cannot thrive.  A clever technique. Though I still like the laser zappers I predicted in EARTH!

Imagine a clock that will keep perfect time forever, even after the heat-death of the universe … a “space-time crystal,” a four-dimensional crystal that has periodic structure in time as well as space.   The concept of a crystal that has discrete order in time was proposed earlier this year by Frank Wilczek, the Nobel-prize winning physicist at MIT. … And now other scientists claim they know how to made one.

How cool is this?  A singularity laser? “The idea is to create a black hole next to a white hole so that their event horizons are separated by just a few hundred micrometres and create a small cavity. Then they show that when light is fired into this cavity, it is reflected off the white hole horizon onto the black hole horizon, back to the white again and so on. Researchers show (theoretically, for the foreseeable future) that during each reflection, stimulated emission of Hawking radiation (from the stressed vacuum itself) effectively adds to the beam, thereby amplifying it.  They say this additive process is logarithmic so a small seed of light ends up producing an intense beam of radiation.

“Their real triumph, however, is in showing how such a device could be made in the lab. They point out that the refractive index of certain materials depends on the intensity of light inside them. So the light itself changes the refractive index. That means a very intense beam can create a huge gradient in the refractive index. This gradient can be so steep that it behaves like an event horizon. In fact, a single pulse can create black hole horizon at its leading edge and a white hole horizon at its trailing edge. They go on to say that it ought to be possible to do this in optical waveguides made of diamond.”

Schades of Schadenfreude! This new game lets you play a virus or nanoplague and acquire new characteristics in search of the way to slay all life on Earth!

iO9 offers a pretty cool and logical and interesting appraisal of time travel fiction.  Very smart… if nowhere near complete.  I can think of five other scenarios…

Professor Sandy Pentland of MIT discusses Big Data and how the tsunami of information about you and me may be used by corporations and elites… and possibly in a way that’s fair to common folk.  Or else become a tool for Big Brother.

Methods for performing encrypted communications using quantum-entangled “teleportation” are moving forward rapidly.  Recent experiments have achieved results over several kilometers.  Chinese teams are even planning soon to launch a satellite to test quantum-entangled communications back and forth to orbit and EUropean and Japanese groups are also in the race.  But not (apparently) the United States… for some strange bureaucratic reasons.

Meanwhile, there are advances in the field of quantum computing, with the latest endeavor featuring an alliance with Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos and the CIA’s research group In-Q-Tel, to support the D-Wave company’s latest quantum computer — 512 super-chilled , superconduction niobium loops are arrayed in a layout of qubits that conforms to an algorithm that solves a particular kind of optimization problem at the core of many tasks difficult to solve on a conventional processor. It’s like a specialized machine in a factory able to do one thing really well — the range of “optimization” problems.

== Reproduction without any(!) sex at all? == 

Want baby mice? Grab a petri dish. After producing normal mouse pups last year using sperm derived from stem cells, a Kyoto University team of researchers has now accomplished the same feat using eggs created the same way.  In other words, stem cells can be turned into sperm and ova and viable offspring result.

I admit surprise. I truly thought that mammalian meiosis — the division of (say) our human diploid 46 chromosome cells into subtly shuffled sets of haploid gametes (reproductive sperm or ova) with 23 choromosomes each) would turn out to be a complex process, requiring not only pluripotent stem cells and a triggering set of environmental cues, but the ongoing participation of a surrounding, complex organ, like the ovaries or testes, to take the cells through a multi-stage process.  In retrospect, I am not sure why I felt that to be likely.  Perhaps because the shuffling and separation and creation of the surrounding active cells seems fraught with potential for so many errors… by comparison, fertilization and creation of a blastocyst zygote and embryo seems simple!  Just a matter of cellular automata sorting themselves out through neighbor interactions.  But clearly, I was wrong. (I’ve been known to be! Remember that poem about science?) This just keeps getting stranger.

Questions? Are the offspring fully re-methylized… completely young?  Or do they inherit the donor’s aged chromosomes, the way the cloned Dolly the Sheep did?  And does this mean the only remaining miracle is the womb?  That women can now well and truly do without males, by creating their own sperm?  Do NOT anger that woman researcher at the next lab bench, fellows.

== The latest from “are we in a simulation?” ==

I recall when “are we all living in a simulation?” was a really cool and surprising question!  Yes, I’m that old.  So old that my novelette “Stones of Significance” explores a few aspects of this topic for the first time, before they became cliches.  But time… or its simulated effects… moves on, and now there’s serious thought to how physics itself might test whether this “existence” of ours is in the original universe or one of the mazillion simulated ones being run in super advanced computers in that “real realm.”

(Or is it turtles (simulations) all the way down?)

Some first order reasons to imagine it is so?  Well, the simulators would have to save money or computational power somehow, by limiting the burdens of the simulation.  One way to limit the size of the space the inhabitants can experience directly (rather than just observe with telescopes) is to have an upper speed limit. Also a bottomost temperature.  And a limit to the degree that you can parse position and momentum… or energy and time… so that you cannot dive into the small to an infinite — or fractal — degree.

Now see a paper that suggests experiments that might actually observe the mathematical latticework within which we are being simulated.  Assuming that lattice of time and position is cubic, as are all our current cellular automata models, then that spacing should show up in high energy physics experiments. (Of course, the uber-modellers might use a different stacking of cells, to mess us up! Better check for hexagonal and other crystal structures, as well!)

== And finally… ==

Science is not immune to controversy, especially around the edges. (Indeed, scientists are among the most competitive humans that our species has ever produced.) With science itself under concerted and deliberate attack by one entire wing of U.S. political life – (and sneered at by a few far-extremists of the other wing) – it would be surprising not to see the issues fester and broil even at sites like discovermagazine.com. See this essay, in particular, discussing why author Robert Wright has taken a sudden veer, inviting “prominent creationists” to inveigh upon his “bloggingheads” show without proper counter-weight foils or challenge. While I have long recommended Wright’s book NONZERO as a good way to introduce folks to the concept underlying our enlightenment — the positive sum game – I have grown increasingly worried by Wright’s foray’s down avenues of thought that veer away from science, modernity or even history.  Well well. It’s too soon to judge. But maybe time to get wary. Your reportage on this is welcome.

And yes, there will be more social-political commentary soon.   So far, I have covered two major topic areas that ought to be significant (and overwhelming) for any U.S. citizen who claims to truly care about the future of America, the Western Enlightenment Experiment, and our species.  The Eight Reasons for Our Budget Deficit and the stark Difference Between the Ways that Democrats and Republicans Wage War. I don’t expect to have much influence — those who are persuadable by facts and evidence have long  ago taken sides, favoring the candidate who most often mentions the word “science.”  Still, it’s important.  And we all have uncles and aunts who just might listen.  Or read with a willingness to learn.

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